We now know that the whole “growth means prosperity” mantra is precisely false; but Chelmsford’s population has been relatively stable for over a decade. So why aren’t we seeing a “stability dividend” in the form of reduced pressure on tax hikes? Instead, we saw a 3.67% increase last year on residential tax rates, and it’s been announced that we’ll see another increase this year of over 3% on residential tax rates. [Note: Proposition 2.5 doesn’t prohibit tax hikes over 2.5% for residential homeowners; it just prohibits tax hikes over 2.5% for the combination of all residential and commercial taxpayers combined.]
There are three main reasons for these continual high increases:
1. Commercial construction hasn’t slowed. This has created an egregiously high vacancy rate in commercial properties throughout the area, and especially in Chelmsford, depressing their valuation and reducing the total contribution to tax revenues for the town. Some property owners have to borrow to keep their properties afloat, or sell at reduced rates. Valuations are based on a number of factors including occupancy rates, debt-to-value ratio, property condition, etc. So although we have been in an economic expansion for a couple of years now, commercial property values continued to nosedive by approximately 5% last year – leaving homeowners to pick up the slack with higher tax rates. (This is because Chelmsford does not implement different classification of rates for commercial vs. residential properties, so when commercial values drop, their dollar contribution cannot be stabilized by hiking their tax rate more than homeowners).
“9 North Road” is a poster child for the canard that “additional tax revenues” justify the approval of any project, even one that unlawfully obliterates a centrally located public park. Virtually every office in that building was filled by vacating another office building. The chain reaction guarantees that additional office space became vacant, putting downward pressure on commercial property valuations – and upward pressure on homeowner tax rates. This vicious cycle has occurred over and over again with our top officials cheerleading the expansion.
2. The town has squandered millions on cronyism and graft. The BOS voted to pay over a million dollars more than appraised value to a colleague of Town Manager Paul Cohen for the new DPW site. Town Meeting then immediately approved over $800,000 to fix the roof – the amount that the appraisers had said should be deducted from the purchase price for that very reason, but which the BOS decided not to deduct.
By looking the other way as the 9 North Road scandal unfolded, top town officials eliminated the opportunity to rebuild center fire station at its current location. This is because the station would need to be moved back some 20 feet to allow for longer trucks to pull in or park in front, and have room descend into cellar bays from the rear. Besides failing to protect the public park, town officials granted special permitting for zero setback for the development, so there is no remaining space for the fire station to move back off Route 4. As a result, the new station is incurring costs of some $850,000 to shore up unsuitably soft substrate (sandy soil), as well as over a million dollars for a new traffic light system – neither of which would have been necessary at the current location.
I could go on, but you get the idea. If you’re connected in Chelmsford, you get wealth at the expense of the residential taxpayer.
3. No-bid contracts are dished out like candy, without documentation, without work orders, without contracts of any kind. Our officials work so hard to assure that there is no paper trail, that there is allegedly not a single contract for work performed in the past three years. It is therefore impossible to verify who has done work, and precisely how much they’ve been paid for each task. Mistakes are rectified by the Town rather than by offending contractors, at taxpayer expense, because there’s no way to assign fault when there are no written work orders. Examples include multiple paving activities that are not catalogued, the notorious clear cutting at Parker Middle School this past summer, line painting that has repeatedly gone awry and had to be rectified at great cost. Even when the BOS has so instructed, the Town Manager has not provided detailed information of the contractors performing rectification – never mind the original blunders.
The Town Manager has refused to provide information on how much is spent on no-bid contracts, citing that it “is not required by law.” Selectman Jon Kurland has stated that contracts for such work are “illegal” and, ostensibly, therefore no such work is being performed. So we can’t tell how much money is being wasted on such contracts, but it is likely hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, maybe more.
No wonder the Town Manager stated at Town Meeting that $300,000 for replacement of DPW vehicles that were low mileage and average age, was an “insignificant” expense.
A million here, a million there, pretty soon it adds up. Add in the zooming costs of health coverage for municipal employees and retirees, and the stability dividend is... gone.
This is not good and honest government. We need more good people to vote in April. Please mark the first Tuesday on your calendar to vote for challengers. We elected over a dozen great new Town Meeting reps last spring, but it wasn’t quite enough to defeat the rush to approve the hasty and incomplete plan for a new fire station. We also didn’t turn out enough voters to defeat incumbent selectmen. We have to have better turnout this time. Only 5500 people voted last April. Nearly three times that number voted in November’s Presidential election. If even half that number turn out in April, we will easily defeat the incumbents who rely on the votes of self-interested cronies, colleagues, and development interests to keep them in office.
Roland Van Liew