December 23, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer
During a lengthy, well-attended and informative remote presentation about Hingham's financial management plan and town finances by Selectmen Chair Mary Power last night, the subject of a potential override was a recurring theme.
"In a typical year, the first revenue forecast is issued in November," Power said. "Due to the pandemic, and the resulting uncertainty regarding Fiscal 2022 state and local revenue, this will not happen until at least January."
Public budget hearings involving the Selectmen, Advisory Committee, and School Committee will be held in January and February.
After talking about how Hingham's revenue growth is slowing down, steps the town has taken to grow revenue in the past (including adopting a meals tax that generated $762,000 in Fiscal 2020 alone), operating budget trends, increased service and resource demands, the financial impact of the pandemic on town revenue and household budgets, in-district per pupil spending as compared with benchmark communities, the process involved should the potential for an override be explored, the impact an override would have on property owners, and the fact that overrides become part of the permanent tax base, numerous citizens spoke up both for and against a potential override.
The annual property tax on the average assessed home value of $877,640 is $10,254. The allowed Proposition 2-1/2 annual increase adds an additional $256 a year, and a $1 million override would add an additional $111 property tax increase, as an example.
'Not a slam dunk'
Power noted that a number of citizens have advocated for an override for the schools for some time and that seeking one is a long and involved process. "An override requires a majority vote at Town Meeting and at the ballot box -- it's not a slam dunk," she explained.
Priya Howell said that while she's pleased "to hear people finally saying the word 'override,' discussing the issue isn't enough. We need to get an override [for the schools] done as quickly as possible," she said.
Suzanne Garland noted that there is "a lot of support for an override, and we're prepared to do the hard work and make it happen."
Susan O'Horo said that "as a parent who has seen the schools underfunded" she won't vote to further fund the proposed public safety facility and associated expanded senior center "until our kids get the resources they need."
Power said that Hingham "is not a community that does overrides all that often, and an override at any point in this community is a big deal, while in other communities you might expect one every couple of years."
That's not to say an override isn't possible, she continued, but "there are fundamental questions we would have to answer. We would need to prove that the money would be spent wisely."
Power noted that only about 25 percent of Hingham households have children in the Hingham Public Schools system, "which benefits us all, but some citizens will want to know if raising their taxes is the last resort."
Because of all the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, Power said, "I don't even know where this is going. We're not even in a place where we can say this [potential override] is a good idea."
'Excited about this conversation'
School Committee member Libby Lewiecki said she was excited to be even having this conversation, "because our schools are underfunded. We need more money, and that's also true for other town services."
Member Liza O'Reilly said "multiple" overrides may be necessary.
Former School Committee member Christine Smith said that Power has always been a strong supporter of the schools and that Hingham does a "phenomenal job of educating its students."
She further noted that families with children enrolled in HPS receive a lot for their tax dollars based on the per-pupil annual expenditure, especially when a family has more than one child.
She pointed out that gaining Town Meeting support tends to be easier than when citizens vote in the privacy of a polling place. "When people are unemployed, and an override involves an increase of $1,000 a year [the average increase for a $100 million borrowing, which was used as an example in the presentation], some people will have to move out of town [because they can't afford it]. It's important to understand everyone's needs as we try to balance everything."
Former Selectman Paul Healey shared his perspective. "I grew up in this town and all of my family attended public school here -- including my kids and grandchildren -- and got a good education."
As a former board member, Healey said he's "very sensitive" to the effects of the tax burden on the community. "The argument for an override needs to be compelling, and as a Selectman my fiduciary duty was to the Town of Hingham, including people who are hanging on by a thread so that any kind of property tax increase could compel them to move out of town."
Healey said he doesn't envy those who will be involved in future override conversations but that he has "full confidence that the Board of Selectmen will arrive at the right decision, and I hope the School Committee joins them in that as well."
Power said that in this community of 23,000 people, there are varying economic circumstances and priorities "and we need to balance it all and maintain economic diversity in our town."
School Committee member Michelle Ayer suggested that in this year especially -- considering the impact COVID-19 has had on all town departments and the schools -- "we make the budget process more collaborative -- to take another look [at everything] with fresh eyes."
After the meeting, Power told the Hingham Anchor: "The Board of Selectmen has not taken a position on an override because we don’t yet have enough information to do so. We understand there are members of the community who want the town to consider an override, so we began that conversation last night.
"Moving forward, we need to make sure that everyone in our community feels like there remains a place for them in Hingham. This includes seniors who live on a fixed income and working families, many of whom have called Hingham home for multiple generations. Our actions will speak louder than our words," Power said.
"Override discussions can become divisive. As we continue this conversation, the Board of Selectmen is committed to ensuring that all voices and different perspectives are both valued and respected," Power further stated in her comments to the Hingham Anchor.
The town financial policy was crafted by the Advisory Committee to:
- ensure the continuous delivery of town services at a level that is consistent with the needs and expectations of its citizens
- ensure residents of varied economic means remain a part of the community
- provide for the acquisition and maintenance of appropriate infrastructure
- stabilize tax rates
- preserve the town's AAA credit rating
"It's a balancing act that considers all our citizens," Power said.
The full 34-page presentation, including a history of Hingham's override history since 1990, will be posted on the town website at hingham-ma.gov.
Power ended the meeting on a high note, recalling that even during a pandemic, Hingham maintained its AAA bond rating, bought a water company and made a successful transition -- "and water is still coming out of our taps!" -- helped save the ferry, held two Town Meetings, interviewed 75 "of our fellow citizens and appointed 50 of them to serve on town boards and committees," secured major CARES Act reimbursement, and as a community "pivoted to running our town government and schools during circumstances we never could have imagined."
Power said she's proud to stand with her colleagues, town employees, and Hingham citizens.
"I regret the personal toll the pandemic has taken on all of us, and I hope that with the turning of the page to a new year we'll continue to move forward," Power said. "As Paul Healey likes to remind us, this town has been around for almost 400 years, and it's weathering through these very difficult times" thanks to the efforts of many.