January 22, 2013
Last week I sent out a message with the latest information showing tax rates in Chelmsford are very high compared with other communities. Rather than respond substantively with information about what’s to be done about the problem, selectman Jon Kurland responded with personal attacks embedded in an all-too-familiar disinformation campaign.
First Kurland claims that I “don’t understand municipal finance,” because, you see, “the tax rate is based upon the budget that was approved at Town Meeting.” So it’s Town Meeting’s fault, not the budget and corresponding tax increase that’s drawn up for us by the “superstar” Town Manager!
This is news to me. I quite understand municipal finance, especially in Chelmsford. You spend and overspend and hike taxes to pay for it. If that’s still not enough, then you borrow.
Here’s how it works; let’s feature an actual example from the last budget vote. I submitted an amendment to remove $300,000 for two DPW vehicles that were average age (yes, I looked it up), low mileage and low hours of use. The Town Manager argued that the amount was “insignificant.” That’s because the Town did not have $300,000 available for those vehicles, so the budget included borrowing the funds. Therefore, with interest, the amount was “only” some $17,000 per year.
For twenty years.
Do you see how this works? If something’s discretionary and expensive and the Town can’t afford it, you don’t chop it from the budget. You just chop the cost into small pieces by borrowing to pay for it and focus only on the annual cost number.
And, voila! You can purchase those two brand spanking new vehicles for just $17,000. (Per year. For twenty years. Read the fine print.)
Kurland goes on to claim that over the past several years, of the over 350 towns and cities in Massachusetts, Chelmsford has fallen all of 4 places in tax rate. So, “compared with other cities and towns, our taxes have gone down.”
So when you pay your taxes that are 32% higher than Wilmington, just be grateful that they’re not even higher! In fact, remember that Kurland’s statistics show that your taxes have actually “gone down!”
There, feel better now?
Kurland goes on to spuriously blame tax hikes on Chapter 70 funding, “which has been below that of our neighboring communities.”
Well, Chapter 70 funding has always been lower for Chelmsford, so it has nothing to do with our excessive tax hikes.
That’s because Chapter 70 funding has always been based on a simple social contract: all kids in Massachusetts should have the opportunity for a decent education. (I used to wonder whether it was a good idea to tax the childless to pay for educating other peoples’ children, until a woman mentioned to me that “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” I don’t wonder any more.)
So communities that are “family friendly” and have a higher percentage of kids in their schools, and which therefore have less money per student that communities like Chelmsford (which has a higher percentage of senior housing, for instance) get enough funding from the state to guarantee that there is a baseline amount of money per pupil in the school budget for that community.
In other words, Chapter 70 is purposely structured so that it keeps taxes from skyrocketing in communities with more kids per average homeowner.
Chelmsford has a higher average of households per child in school than neighboring communities, so it should have lower tax rates per household and therefore need less Chapter 70 funding. But Chelmsford doesn’t have a lower tax rate before Chapter 70 funding is taken into account! It has a higher tax rate. That’s just bad management and it has nothing to do with Chapter 70. But Chapter 70 is a convenient scapegoat for folks in Town Hall who don’t want to address the tough chore of curbing the cavalier attitude of certain town officials toward expenditure of your tax dollars.
In other words, they don’t want accountability. In fact, in Kurland’s case, the very word makes him visibly furious.
So Jon Kurland is hopping mad, but not about the waste and fraud that will continue to escalate homeowner tax rates if not addressed. Rather, he’s hopping mad that there’s public dialog about the problems and how they might be addressed. Note that he resorts to false logic and personal attacks, rather than addressing the B.S. (Bad Sociology) in Town Hall.
If you’re happy with excuses and rationalizations while taxes skyrocket, then vote for incumbents in April. If instead you’d like to see steps toward proper oversight and better public policy, then vote for challengers on Tuesday, April 2.
Roland Van Liew
* P.S. Below are Jon Kurland’s public messages in full for you to examine.