NORTH ATTLEBORO — What will it take to convince residents the town needs an override?
And, how much money does the town really need to save itself from its financial woes?
Those are the questions that came to light as Representative Town Meeting member Bob Nerz petitioned the board of selectmen to take up a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote this week.
An override, if approved by voters at a town election, would allow the town to raise taxes higher than the 2 1/2 percent tax levy increase allowed under the state property tax limiting law.
Nerz, Precinct 7, applauded the board members’ commitment to long-term economic development as they laid out their goals and objectives last week, but said Thursday he also hopes selectmen will consider the near impacts of the town’s financial woes.
“I think there are urgencies coming about and I don’t think business development is going to solve them,” Nerz said.
The RTM member said he sees about a $2 million hole in the town’s budget. With a $13.23 per thousand tax rate, Nerz said it would take about $151 million in new buildings in town to fill the gap.
“That equates to 1 2/3 Emerald Square malls. That’s 17 Walmarts,” Nerz said. “Do you think in one to two years we’re going to find 1 2/3 Emerald Square malls or 17 Walmarts? I don’t think so.
“The word I don’t hear you talking about is the ‘O-word’ — an override.”
Town officials have been working to settle a budget nearly $200,000 below level funded that will call for cuts to several departments, including about a $900,000 deficit for the schools.
Town Administrator Michael Gallagher and school Superintendent Scott Holcomb have both hinted that an override vote is needed soon, but no action has been taken since.
But, though a final budget is just around the corner, it may not be too late to get an override vote in this year, Nerz said.
According to the state, if the town passes two contingent budgets — one on current estimates and one with a successful override —at the June town meeting, they could vote in an override up until Sept. 15.
In his own precinct, a successful vote is likely.
Precincts 7 and 8 were heavy “yes” pockets during the 2015 override vote, which lost to a 54-46 percent vote.
“To say there’s no appeal, that’s not true,” Nerz said. “There’s at least two precincts who do.”
But Nerz said a successful vote will require a smaller increase.
He believes the vote failed last time around because officials were asking for a $400 commitment on top of regular tax increases each year. For parents of school-age children, Nerz said, that increase amounts to sporting and activity fees they are already paying and are too steep for those looking ahead and saving for college.
“That’s an affordability issue,” Nerz said.
But, as the state of the schools continue to decline, Nerz said he believes more parents might be willing to pitch in — as long as the hike comes at a smaller number.
Several selectmen, however, said the issue warrants more discussion.
“Long and short-term planning has to go together,” Selectman Keith Lapointe said. “Picking a number just because we think it will pass is setting us up for long-term failure.”
Lapointe said residents need to feel like they can trust that town officials have a long-term plan in place. Providing a short-term solution would only discredit that trust.
“We don’t want to do this every other year,” he said.
Chairman Michael Lennox agreed.
“Michael Gallagher, John Adams and the rest of the department heads worked their tail off to put together this budget,” Lennox said. “That does not mean an override is not in our future — I think we can see the writing on the wall. But I’m not going to say, ‘Yes, we’re going for an override’ just yet. I think this needs further discussion.”