NORTH ATTLEBORO — The board of selectmen will carry the torch toward a Proposition 2 1/2 budget override attempt come April. But just how much of a tax increase they will lobby for is yet to be seen.
Selectman Keith Lapointe asked the board Monday to support a four-point financial plan that focuses on long-term revenue expansion, cost reduction and investments into capital and infrastructure improvements and critical services.
But a major part of that plan, Lapointe said, is an operational override to first get the town’s finances on track. Lapointe said years of service and personnel cuts have stripped the town to bare bones without providing a long-term solution.
Several board members rooted today’s budgetary woes to the town’s conservative nature before the Proposition 2 1/2 law was put into effect in 1982. The law restricts towns to a 2 1/2 percent increase in tax revenue each year and was implemented to end the common practice of many Massachusetts towns of haphazardly increasing taxes. But prior to 1982, selectmen said, North Attleboro maintained low taxes compared to other area towns.
So when the freeze went into effect in 1982, it became a victim of its own conservative nature.
The 2 1/2 percent tax increase each year builds off of the last, resulting in exponential growth. Because North Attleboro started off low, selectmen said, the town is falling behind other area towns.
“The foresight wasn’t there years ago to say, ‘Where are we going to be in 10 years? 20 years? 30 years? How much of a negative impact is being conservative going to impact the people of the town of North Attleboro?’” Selectman Paul Belham said. “Well it’s impacting us big time now.
“The town of North Attleboro created the problem. We’ve got to fix it. That’s where we are now. That’s where we are today.”
A significant increase in taxes is needed to bring North Attleboro up to par, selectmen said.
“Little answers aren’t going to fix it,” Lapointe said.
He said economic development and cost reduction are key sustaining mechanisms for any budget, but they will not bring North Attleboro to financial stability on their own.
“We have a huge gap right now and they’re not going to bridge it,” he said. “They’re not going to get us there. They’re going to sustain us once we fix our current situation. So the override will create the immediate financial stability and resources to allow us to focus on the services, focus on the economic development, focus on the cost reduction.”
Budgets in recent years especially have been dire. This year, most departments received less funds than they did last year, even in the face of rising costs.
And Chairman Michael Lennox said previous budget forecasts have hit the nail on the head: “A lot of the things that were predicted several years ago, we’re living them now,” he said.
“Each year that we kick the can down the road and don’t do something about it, it’s going to become a bigger and bigger problem,” Selectman Patrick Reynolds added.
Town Administrator Michael Gallagher and Town Accountant John Adams presented selectmen last month with a preliminary look at next year’s budget, saying current numbers predict a $1 million deficit for what is needed to maintain services.
A secondary “needs-based” budget was also presented to highlight the costs to fill empty positions or provide services that have been cut in recent years. That number came to over $12 million, with a $9.5 million request from the school department.
But Lapointe cautioned he is “by no means” proposing a $10 million override. He called for meetings before the board with each of the town’s department heads to review the needs-based budgets and justify the increased costs.
The next three selectmen meetings will be dedicated to just that, starting with presentations from departments that fall under public safety on Thursday. From there, the board said it hopes to propose a number for the operational override increase by Jan. 25 and submit a ballot question by the end of February. The override would appear on the April 3 ballot.
It will be the third override attempt in five years.
In 2013, voters knocked down a $3.2 million tax increase that would have raised the average tax bill by $295 a year by a 2-1 margin. In 2015, a second attempt for a $4 million tax increase was defeated by just 54 percent of voters.
Lapointe recognized the failed attempts Monday, but said the town needs to consider how to build for the future.
“I think this conversation may have potentially gone south previous times because there’s always talk of this cliff,” he said. “We were going to fall off. We were all going to die and it was never going to recover. And then election happens, the override (fails) and we all wake up the next day and guess what? Life goes on.
“That’s not what this is about. This isn’t about a cliff. It’s not about it’s all going to end one day. We’re talking about what do we want this town to be over time and how do we want it to grow and thrive.”