, Newburyport, MA


November 29, 2012

The cure for overrides

On Nov. 6, Newbury voters rejected a third override attempt in 18 months. Odds are, we’ll face another override question in May.

Plenty of decent people will want it to pass. Dale Williams and Myfanwy Collins have written persuasively in favor of an override. They have genuine concerns about public safety. They point out that our fire company medics, junior police officers, plow teams and back office staff could use a cost-of-living raise, and that’s reasonable.

The cold fact, though, is that any override funds will be ruthlessly diverted within a year or two. State aid shortfalls, Blue Cross Blue Shield prices and pension costs will devour the money. We’ll be back in the same situation.

Beacon Hill continues to underfund schools. In 2001, state aid covered 40 percent of Triton’s foundation budget. Today it covers only 30 percent, while cities like Springfield and Lawrence enjoy upwards of 85 percent. When Newbury, Salisbury and Rowley regionalized, it was in part because state law mandated 100 percent coverage of regional transport costs. But Beacon Hill tiptoes around that law and today covers only about 50 percent. We’re left grappling with $4 gasoline.

The next drain is health care. Triton’s 2005 health spending, anchored on a Blue Cross Blue Shield plan, cost $3.5 million. In 2013, it’s $6 million. That 71 percent increase was double the rate of medical care inflation over the same period in the Boston-Brockton-Nashua corridor. Newbury’s health care costs rose by a comparable 78 percent. The overall trend is still upward.

So is the retirement spending trend. Since 2005, state-mandated pension spending has risen 72 percent in Newbury and 94 percent at Triton. “All items” inflation in the Boston-Brockton-Nashua corridor was under 15 percent for the same period. Private 401k plans and cash savings have lagged behind even that.

Selectmen complain that all such “fixed costs” are beyond their control. They encourage us to accept that Beacon Hill runs the tables for the benefit of stronger constituencies and they advise us to raise our own taxes for lack of any other play. That’s hostage-thinking, not leadership.

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