Mike Cahill: Hatfield resident pushes back on rising cost of government
HATFIELD — Within the past several weeks Hatfield issued its actual fiscal year 2013 property tax bills. Understandably most, if not all, recipients were shocked at what they saw … in a time when the regional rise in the cost of living averages 2 percent, they saw bills that showed huge increases. They were just about all double-digit, with some as high as 29 percent over last year.
The magnitude of this increase has not been seen since the town took on the cost of building a new elementary school almost 10 years ago.
Some saw this coming, at least in part. This is what our town leaders presented at last May’s annual Town Meeting: The fiscal 2013 financial summary page showed an 11.3 percent increase in the total dollar amount to be raised from taxpayers, exclusive of new debt exclusion projects on the agenda. The annual operating budget totaled $8.6 million and showed an 8 percent increase. Fourteen out of 107 budget line items showed increases exceeding 30 percent; five actually exceeded 50 percent. Salaries and wages (excluding schools) increased almost $90,000 (up 6.5 percent). Additionally, 30 financial articles totaling $4.5 million were presented.
Of this, $3.3 million would need to be borrowed, and most would be debt exclusion borrowing.
The questions “why so many, and so much of an increase?” were put to the Select Board and Finance Committee. Neither provided much, if any, meaningful explanation other than an intent to raise the tax levy to the Prop 2½ absolute maximum limit.
None of this money was to be put into our rainy day “savings” account. Rather, the numbers showed a plan that would tax residents to the limit, plan to spend it all and add years of future principal and interest payments associated with $3.3 million of new borrowing to our existing $500,000 annual debt service.
Further, an 11th-hour motion to amend the budget in order to moderate the tax increase to a more palatable single-digit increase was not supported by officials and was defeated.
All this begs some questions: What drove the double-digit increase, justifiable spending needs or the desire to max out the additional taxation capacity? How could this tack be taken when the principal and interest costs associated with a $2.4 million water main project will soon add to taxation? How will officials expect taxpayers to afford even more new taxes when, in a year or two, they will be asked to fund a second portion of the water main upgrade project?
And how about affording the list of other projects on the five-year capital improvement plan? Why are property taxes increasing so much when more and more of the town’s operating budget is being funded by rising water and sewer enterprise fund fees?
Why is it that leaders of our community think residents can afford these kinds of increases in their tax bills (and water and sewer fees), especially the elderly?
Our leaders are now in the throes of fiscal 2014 budgeting and planning. It might be wise for them to give serious consideration to the answers. If they don’t, it might be time for Hatfield’s taxpayers to rise to the occasion. Let yourselves be heard. Attend meetings. Ask questions.
Consider voting to establish our own limit on just how much taxes can be increased each year.
Then elect leaders that have the foresight to manage the town within the confines of such a limit.
Mike Cahill lives in Hatfield.