With tax rate set to rise 4%, financiers rip RTM cut
The Board of Finance on Wednesday night set a tax rate of 23.37 mills based on the $272 million budget approved a day earlier by the Representative Town Meeting, but not before expressing bipartisan disappointment and disapproval over the legislative body's decision to slash $850,000 from the 2012-13 budget's contingency account.
Vice Chairman Robert Bellitto Jr., saying that although he has respect for many of the RTM members, added, "The action taken last night was not reasonable and not intelligent." He said the deep cut in the contingency fund puts the town's top AAA credit rating at risk, particularly because union contracts with five groups of municipal employees are unresolved.
The decision to impose the cut in the budget's contingency account, proposed and approved on Tuesday by the RTM's Republican majority, was denounced as "financial suicide" by town Fiscal Officer Paul Hiller at the time.
The new tax rate, effective July 1, reflects a 4 percent tax increase over the current 22.47 mills. Had the budget passed by the Board of Finance been approved -- which was $1.1 million higher -- the mill rate would have been 23.50.
The Boards of Finance and Selectmen had beefed up the contingency account to slightly over $1 million to cover any extra costs associated with contract settlements. But the $850,000 cut approved by the RTM leaves about $238,000 in the account, which could force officials to find money to cover unanticipated expenses by making cuts elsewhere in the budget or to take funds from the surplus.
The Moody's credit-rating agency removed its negative outlook from the town's AAA bonds only last week, in part, because officials had been building up the town's reserve accounts.
"This board did a lot of work to address red flags" raised by Moody's, Bellitto said. "The RTM action last night basically took that work and torpedoed it."
Finance board member Robert Stone said the finance panel spent many weeks reviewing the proposed budget, going over it line by line, and few people came to their hearings to comment or complain. He said many budget accounts have minimal increases, and those increases are attributable mainly to contracted salaries and benefits.
"Those are contracts the RTM ratifies," Stone said. "We don't." He called the RTM action irresponsible, and noted that when RTM Republicans initially proposed a 2 percent across-the-board cut, "they should have said where those cuts were. If the RTM, in their wisdom, can find more cuts, let's discuss them."
Stone said he was embarrassed by the RTM decision, adding that it plays Russian roulette with the town's credit rating.
When the finance meeting was open to public comment, RTM member Michael Herley, R-1, asked whether the Board of Finance was inclined to look into assessments levied in his district during the 2010 property revaluation. The District 1 representatives and their constituents have been vocal during the budget process over what they feel are flawed assessments for their properties and tax bills.
His question didn't sit well with financier Christopher DeWitt. "Why are we talking about assessments?" DeWitt said. "This is about the budget ... It's a big smoke screen, it's a political move. What does this have to do with the budget before us."
Herley responded that he felt DeWitt was attacking him, which DeWitt denied.
Town officials explained that the job of re-assessing properties is put out to public bid. Once the firm chosen to conduct the townwide revaluation of properties and notifies owners, those who feel their assessment is in error can file an appeal with the Board of Assessment Appeals. If still not satisfied, they can challenge the value in court.
RTM member Ann Stamler, D-5, said she witnessed the "very careful work of this board over many, many months." She said the RTM vote can't be undone, but an opinion can be expressed." The RTM vote on the GOP proposal to cut $850,000 from contingency was split along party lines, with Democrats and one lone Republican, Thomas Conley, R-3, opposed.
Under the new 23.37-mill tax rate, according to Hiller, for the average home assessed at $435,000 taxes will rise from $9,774 to $10,165. Had the budget remained unchanged, the 23.50-mill rate would have meant a tax bill of $10,222.
"So the RTM saved the taxpayer $57," DeWitt said.
RTM Majority Leader David Becker's house on Catherine Street is assessed at $325,710, and currently has a tax bill of $7,318. The bill will increase to $7,611, compared to $7,654 had the budget not been cut by $1.1 million.
Hal Schwartz, D-7, the RTM minority leader, lives on Eastfield Drive. His house is assessed at $448,560 and the current tax bill is $10,079. With the new 23.37-mill rate, the bill is $10,482. Had the mill rate been set at 23.50, his tax bill would have been $10,541.
And Board of Education Chairwoman Pamela Iacono's tax bill for her Phyfe Road home, which is assessed at $466,130, will rise from $10,473 to $10,893. At a 23.50-mill rate, the tax bill would have been $10,954.
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