NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 29, 2012

The cure for overrides

Viewpoint
Max Boucher

---- — 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.

There’s another card in hand, and Merrimack Valley selectmen should band together to play it. Massachusetts has a ballot initiative process that allows voters to tackle issues the Legislature won’t touch. The root of Newbury’s financial difficulty is three-fold: spiraling health care costs; rigged allocation of state education aid; and an expensive, antiquated pension system. We need to make use of ballot initiatives to tackle each — starting with pensions, because they’re most vulnerable to corruption, mismanagement and cost-hiding.

Pension Reform 2014 is a ballot initiative committee formed to start squaring public retirement benefits with what taxpayers can afford. The committee is asking the Legislature to end the eligibility of all Massachusetts politicians for participation in pension and annuity plans. If the Legislature stonewalls us, the committee wants to put the issue on the 2014 ballot so voters can decide. We can’t expect politicians to reform a system they benefit from personally — the conflict of interest is too great.

Pension Reform 2014 is up and running. We have a startup fund, an action plan and we’re duly registered with the state speech commissars. Tapped-out taxpayers can find us at pensionreform2014.org and by Twitter handle @PensionReform14. Merrimack Valley selectmen and city councilors should have a look, too — they know how important it is to get public retirement spending into line.

The real solution to municipal budget trouble is reform. Let’s get started.

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Max Boucher lives in Newbury.