Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Curious Case of $700,000 and Town Meeting

I was on the Framingham Finance Committee from 2014-2016.  During our discussion of the budget in the spring of 2015 I became aware of a line item listed in the budget for "tax reserve" in the amount of $700,000.  I was told this would be used as a buffer to reduce the tax levy to stabilize the commercial/residential tax split when they were set in the fall of 2015.

When the budget presentation was made to Town Meeting in May of 2015, this line was briefly mentioned, but never voted on.  We were told it did not have to be since it was not be "raised".

When the tax rate discussion came up in the fall of 2015, I asked more questions about this item on behalf of the Finance Committee at the public hearing.  We were told the money was not needed this year to "stabilize" the tax rate due to the new valuations.  Great, that means it will be reduced from the levy, so all our tax bills will go down another $700,000 I thought.  Not quite I was told.  It would be carried over for possible use the following year!

How could this happen I asked, the money was never discussed with or appropriated by Town Meeting?   How could it go on the tax bill when it was intended to reduce the levy and stabilize the tax split?  Now it is not needed but is GOING ON the tax bill???  I was told in was to be included in a special line item when reported to the state.  The town was sending a letter explaining what we are doing.  I figured the state would likely not allow it so we would get the money back as planned.  We didn't.

Since I was surprised the state certified the tax rate with $700,000 that was never appropriated I asked at a Finance Committee meeting to see the letter explaining to the State the  the inclusion of this amount on the tax rate.  I was told it was decided not to send a letter but instead it was included in the overlay account.

The overlay account is in fact money that is raised without town meeting appropriation.  By law it is  set at the outset of the budget process by the Board of Assessors and it is used to pay for tax abatements.  However town meeting was told during the May 2015 budget presentation that the overlay assessment was $2,200,000.  The amount reported to the state and taxed to us was now $2,861,821.  More concerning was the additional amount was not voted to the overlay by the assessors as required by law.    This is likely because it was not needed for the statutory  purpose of the account.

This is the Readers Digest version of a very complex matter, namely how $700,000 got added to our tax bills with no one's vote.   I raise it now not to blame individuals, but to point out what I think a key difference would be between town meeting oversight and a council oversight.  I raise it to show why I think we need a change in government and why the change may actually save us money.

In this case no one on Town Meeting asked about this money.  No one in Town Meeting voted to appropriate this money.  Yet this $700,000 was added to all our tax bills in FY 2016 and thereafter.  When we complete the current tax year, the total cost to you is $1,400,000.   If this is the tax policy we want to follow as a town, then I can accept that.  But my acceptance comes only after it has been discussed, debated and voted upon in a public forum. In this instance it was truly taxation without representation.

The Charter Commission has been told by town meeting supporters that town meeting makes government transparent due to abundant participation.  Yet, no one asked questions about this large sum of money.  It was ultimately tucked away in the overlay account with no oversight. This is not close to what I think of as transparency. I believe a council form of government will allow complex issues to be discussed more expediently and in depth.  Maybe the outcome would have been the same, but it would have been after a discussion that was transparent and obvious to all.

As of now it is jus a bill of $1,400,000 with no vote or discussion.

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