By Jennifer Solis Correspondent
Newburyport Daily News
---- — NEWBURY — Supporters and opponents of a proposed $293,000 tax hike are rallying the troops to get out the vote as an override question hits the ballot box for a third time tomorrow.
The question aims to raise the tax levy in order to address what town leaders say are deficiencies in the operating budget. If approved, the override would increase taxes by $82 annually on the average home valued at $400,000.
After two unsuccessful override attempts in Newbury in as many years, Myfanwy Collins, organizer of the social media campaign Newbury Override Yes, said her “non-partisan group of concerned citizens” got involved in more actively promoting the tax hike because its members believe the measure is “what is best for the safety, well-being and happiness of our town as a whole.”
“We are mobilized. More and more people are coming on board,” said Collins, whose effort is using both traditional campaign tools as well as tapping social media like Facebook and Twitter to get the word out.
Collins said the override isn’t about politics or money, but rather is a way to “restore critical town services such as police coverage and fire wages” and keep Newbury “a safe and beautiful place to live.”
She said the support her movement is receiving from “older, fixed-income folks wanting the override to pass” has been the biggest surprise. “Everyone is feeling very positive about it,” Collins said.
But Max Boucher of the anti-override group Newbury Austerity said he is banking on voters to once again “keep their wits about them” as they head to the polls tomorrow. He believes selectmen are “panicking” about the state of the town’s operating budget — and is convinced voters know better.
Boucher has proposed maintaining the $959,003 in the town’s free cash account “as a contingency reserve” that would be available to the plow teams and police and fire departments for overtime and for key repairs, fuel and supplies. He believes with the close to $1 million reserves and the allowable increase under Proposition 2 1/2 in the next fiscal year, the town has enough funds “to see us through.”
And fellow override opponent Kathryn O’Brien called the proposed override “a forever tax increase” and suggested town leaders “continue along their path of conservative spending and make more use of ready volunteers.”
“Bigger budget ultimately means a bigger payroll and more government control,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien added repeated calls for tax hikes that don’t pass make town administrators sound like “the boy who cried wolf.”
“Every household in Newbury has had to say ‘no’ to items that they can’t afford. The town should do the same,” she said.
As part of his opposition campaign, Boucher has been distributing informational fliers, erecting signs on lawns and near polling places and “researching public records, Indiana Jones-like, for priceless relics” — like statistics he says prove “Newbury has been kinder than the wider economy when it comes to total employee compensation.” Boucher said his research indicates that since 2005, pension spending is up 72 percent in town and health care spending is up 79 percent.
Town Administrator Tracy Blais, however, is strongly opposed to using one-time free cash funds to pay for the ongoing needs of the town. She and other town officials have disputed some of Boucher’s statistics and his overall interpretation of what they imply about the budget, noting that rising health care costs are hardly unique to Newbury.
And Bob Connors, chairman of the town’s Capital Needs Committee, said “not everyone has the ability or wherewithal to help the town” through volunteerism.”
“The economy is still weak and many are struggling, but the rest of us can support our town by simply looking at the override request and the reasoning behind the need and deciding if this is how we can help our town ride out this financial storm,” Connors said.
Newbury Override Yes has posted interviews with Blais, police Chief Michael Reilly and Public Works Director Tim Leonard on the group’s website, www.newburyoverrideyes.wordpress.com, where voters have been encouraged to pose questions. Collins’ team researches answers and posts daily updates.
“Mostly, we are trying to spread the word, answer questions and address misconceptions and rumors,” she said.
Finance Committee Chairman Frank Remley urged voters to keep in mind that scheduled reductions in the town’s overall debt will somewhat mitigate the impact of the tax hike if it is approved by voters.
“We committed to reducing debt several years ago when we realized that Newbury’s debt was considerably higher than surrounding towns,” Remley said.
This year, the town’s debt is decreasing by $91,550, and will drop by $146,114 and $618,254 respectively in the next two fiscal years. The latter amount represents the payoff to the state for the Newbury Elementary School project.
“Since this debt is paid through annual tax levy — and can only be used to pay the specific obligations — the override requested for operating funds this year will soon be diminished by disappearing debt exclusions,” Remley said.
Polls tomorrow are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Precinct 1 votes at the Newbury Fire Station, 3 Morgan Ave., and Precinct 2 votes at the Newbury Town Library, 0 Lunt St., Byfield.
Town Clerk Leslie Haley is warning that the ballot is long and recommends voters research the candidates and questions prior to entering the polling place. To access a specimen ballot, visit www.townofnewbury.org or the clerk’s office during regular business hours.
Voters may request an absentee ballot from Haley until noon today. All ballots must be returned by 8 p.m. tomorrow.