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A Very Insincere David Flaherty Proposes a Proposition 2 1/2 Override Vote

And as you all know, the school department is handing out pink slips this year. We're having to lay off teachers and other personnel despite the fact that we are in the bottom half of per pupil spending (189 out of 329 Massachusetts school districts). And, by my calculations, the near-term future doesn't look great. I'm projecting a larger shortfall for next year's school budget. This is beginning to look like a crisis to me.
For years we relied on state and federal funding to relieve the pressure Prop. 2 1/2 has put on us to cut. But, as we all know, the faltering economy has caused tax revenues to shrivel, leaving us and other Massachusetts cities and towns left to shoulder the burden.
So, I think it's very important we try to head off this looming crisis and help lead the charge for a Proposition 2 1/2 override. It will be a very tough sell, especially in Westfield which leans conservative and has a fairly low median income. But I think if we, as civic leaders and politicians, do our best to explain how Proposition 2 1/2 has handcuffed us during these lean times, citizens might listen and vote to approve it.
And speaking of educating the public, I think it's important to point out that we are far below the levy ceiling by about $20 million. The levy ceiling is 2.5% of the assets in the community and the maximum dollar amount that can be raised under the Proposition 2 1/2 law. Our levy ceiling is around $79 million and we're collecting only around $59 million of that. Now, I'm not proposing we raise the levy limit up to the levy ceiling, but we should let citizens know we are taxing them at a far lower rate than 2.5% of the total assessed value of the property in Westfield. It could help make an override easier to swallow.
Now, when considering the language for the override, I think it's important to think long-term. It doesn't look like we are going to pull out of this recession any time soon and so state and federal funding will continue to be weak for the near future. So rather than a one shot increase that focuses narrowly on one department, I'm going to recommend we carefully craft the override language to manage a more long-term, structural deficit. The Town of Arlington passed an override in 2005 that was designed to solve its deficit problem for a period of five years. But we can debate the details and options of the override language later in committee. I just want to be sure what we *don't* do is single out one department because I think it's important to signal that we are not laying the blame on a particular department for the rock and a hard place Proposition 2 1/2 has put us between.
While I'm on the subject of blame, we need to let the citizens of Westfield know that profligate spending and outrageous salaries are clearly not what got us here. I used to blame step increases for teachers for our problems. But, in fact, our average teacher salary is on the very low side of the scale. Out of 329 school districts in the Commonwealth, we're ranked 309. It's all too easy to get angry and jump up and down about how this person or that department or some union has put us in this predicament. But we have to resist that temptation. We have to educate the public and make them realize that our budget shortfalls are not something we or anybody else in the city created. If this override is to pass, we will have to demonstrate and explain to taxpayers that the leaders and personnel entrusted with their money have been extraordinarily frugal.
I'll admit it took me a while, but I've finally come to realize that the truth is that Proposition 2 1/2—a law that might have been reasonable when property taxes were skyrocketing in 1980— is coming back to haunt us. Fortunately, the law gives us an opportunity for an override vote and that's what I'm proposing we move forward on tonight. I encourage my fellow Councilors to join me in this important fight. Thank you."
Now, that's what Councilor Flaherty would have said if he were truly sincere about the necessity for raising Westfield's tax levy. But is that what he actually said? If you know Councilor Flaherty at all, you know the answer is "of course not."
So here's how a very insincere David Flaherty decided to introduce his override motion:
  • He blamed the unions by saying "[the schools] have labor union costs that they are having trouble controlling."
  • He expressed doubt that the override vote could even pass but didn't seem to concerned about that prospect at all.
  • He played the school department against other departments by claiming they are eating up a disproportionate share of the budget without mentioning there may be extenuating reasons for it.
  • By waiting until the last possible minute to send the override vote to the L&O committee for consideration on November's ballot, Flaherty set the the override vote up for failure. By the time the override vote gets on the ballot, override proponents will have only two or three months to organize and try to overcome the heavy anti-tax, anti-government sentiment that exists especially in a conservative-leaning town like Westfield. Winning an override vote will require a *lot* of work, time, and money. This is especially true when the override vote is held on a general election day when far more people will vote.
  • He made it clear that he intends the override language to single-out the school department.
  • He tried to make the school department look irresponsible by making factually incorrect statements about what federal stimulus money could be used for. The fact is that it had to be used for hiring teachers.
So does this sound like a City Councilor who is sincere in his desire for a Proposition 2 1/2 override? Absolutely not. Instead, what Flaherty revealed on Thursday is that he intends to wait for the vote to fail so next year he can say, "The people have spoken! We must slash teacher pay!"  It's embarrassingly obvious from the way he introduced the motion and, we might add, quite despicable.
Flaherty learned his lesson two years ago when he attacked the teachers and was soundly beaten back. But a failed Proposition 2 1/2 override vote will give him a new line of attack and the opportunity to shift blame to the citizens of Westfield for cutting teachers' already low salaries. It could even open the door for him to anoint himself as the "People's Champion and the Bold Defender of the Taxpayer's Will." We can almost see him now riding around the streets of Westfield mounted on horseback in a suit of armor proclaiming his virtuousness and courage for daring to take on the greedy teachers.
Now the question is, are we going to let him get away with that?