The Town of Westport is in a fiscal crisis that is going to get much worse if we don’t take strong measures to confront it and climb out of the hole we are in. The hole has been made deeper …
The Town of Westport is in a fiscal crisis that is going to get much worse if we don’t take strong measures to confront it and climb out of the hole we are in. The hole has been made deeper this past year by the world-wide inflation that has impacted us all and will probably continue at least into the coming year. We need to start the process of climbing out of this hole by approving a major override to increase property taxes in the upcoming Town-wide election in April.
The Master Plan for Westport approved in 2016 and the Plan Update issued in 2021 both warned of the emerging fiscal crisis. The Finance Committee report to the 2022 Town Meeting stated that Westport was facing a structural deficit and they, along with other Town government bodies, have been working for the past six months to find solutions. These efforts have been discussed at recent Finance Committee and Select Board meetings but have not attracted much attention. The discussions have mainly dealt with the serious problems without offering clear solutions or plans of action for the coming year and beyond. There is an urgent need to begin public presentations and discussions of possible solutions.
Who am I to sound these alarms and suggest possible solutions? I wrote my doctoral dissertation on public finance many years ago and then went on to teach that subject at two leading universities. I played an important role in designing stabilization policies in South Korea and Indonesia in the 1960s that helped to bring their annual inflation rates down from 40 percent and 500 percent respectively to very low levels. More recently, I have been researching and writing about these issues in Westport beginning with the 2016 Master Plan and then the 2021 Plan Update, both of which I co-edited.
The heart of the problem in Westport has been failure to pass any regular property tax overrides over the past 25 years. We have tried 15 times and they all failed. The total amount of those proposed overrides was nearly $10 million. If we had passed even half that amount, we would not be facing our current problems.
We did recently pass three large debt-exclusion overrides to fund the new fire and police stations and the middle/senior high school but have then failed to pass the regular overrides needed to fund the personnel and equipment that would make the best possible use of those great facilities. The recent and ongoing inflation will make all these problems that much worse in the coming year.
Right now we need to be contemplating a series of overrides over the next few years to address three major issues:
• Raising our overall budget in real terms to levels comparable to those in the rest of the State. Our current average family property tax bill, even with the three debt-exclusion overrides, is still $2,300 and 36 percent below the state average of $6,525, which means our town government spending on services and schools is similarly that much lower than the state average.
• Adjusting to the rate of inflation over the next year or two to increase the budget in real terms.
• Providing additional funding as needed to support part of the costs of planning and implementing major new infrastructure projects along the Route 6 corridor that will then attract outside financing and support future, mainly residential, development as well as generate more local tax revenue.
To lessen the impact of these overrides on the many elderly and low-income residential households in Westport, we should also increase all property tax exemptions for such households to the maximum levels authorized by the state. They are currently well below those levels and can be easily increased by a vote at Town Meeting.
We already provide the maximum state-authorized property tax exemptions under Chapter 61 for agricultural properties, woodlots and open space that greatly reduce the tax burden on those properties. We should keep those exemptions to help preserve the highly valued agrarian rural character of our community. In addition, the Westport Community Land Trust, combining taxpayer-supported Community Preservation Funds and private donations, has led the way in preserving many farms and much open space throughout the community and should continue to be strongly supported.
What we desperately need now is to pass a series of overrides that will deliver the additional revenues required to bring our town services and schools up to an adequate level. These revenues will derive, to a significant degree, from the owners of higher-value year-round and seasonal residences of persons like me who have moved into Westport to enjoy this beautiful rural seaside town but for many years have not been contributing enough to support its operating costs.
David C. Cole