Proposition 2 1/2 Overrides: 1999 to 2011- How Does Belmont Compare?

House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said that “all politics are local.” When it comes to the thorny question of property tax overrides, you could sharpen that and say that “all politics are hyperlocal.” Each town, after all, has a different mix of commercial and property tax revenues that make overrides more or less necessary. Beyond that, each town has its own political leanings and battle lines – some more pronounced than others – that can make passing overrides relatively easier or harder.

What’s clear, when you look at the data, is that there are two kinds of towns, roughly speaking: those that need to pass Proposition 2 1/2 overrides to keep their finances in order and those that don’t. Further: within the group of towns that need to raise property tax revenues above the 2 1/2 percent annual net increase that Prop 2 1/2 law allows, there are those towns that have a track record of passing overrides, and those that don’t.

That distinction has become increasingly important in the last 10 years, as governors, starting with Mitt Romney, began cutting back on local aid and the Massachusetts and then the national economy faltered. With cuts in both State and Federal aid, towns of all sizes were presented with stark choices: raise extra tax revenue by voting an override of Proposition 2 1/2, find other sources of revenue, or do more with less (i.e. reduce town and school services).

The question, as always, is “which kind of town do I live in? One that passes overrides or one that doesn’t?” While its easy enough to go on line and figure it out, its harder to compare your town to other “peer” towns to see how you stack up. In Belmont, April 2, 2012 will mark 10 years since the passage of the last non debt-exclusion Proposition 2 1/2 override. That’s a long time, but its useful here to compare our drought with those of our peer communities. That’s what I’ve tried to do here: using some simple data visualization tools, I’ve created a graphic that shows which of the top towns – Belmont’s peers — have passed Proposition 2 1/2 Overrides, when and for how much. (Note: debt exclusions for capital projects – like our own vote for the Wellington – are not included here). I chose these towns by looking at the top performing districts, state wide, on the SAT tests. And I’ve thrown in close neighbors (like Arlington) for good measure.

One thing that’s clear in looking at this graphic is that Belmont is at the low end of the scale in terms of the number and size of its overrides. Clearly towns like Lexington, Concord, Carlisle, Sudbury and Wellesley have passed more Proposition 2 1/2 overrides. Just as interesting: no other town among this peer group has gone longer than Belmont without passing an override. Newton, also, passed its latest override in 2002 – though Newton is a city, not a town, and that override was a mammoth $10 million + nut.

Top Massachusetts Communities - Proposition 2 1/2 Overrides - 1999 to 2011

Proposition 2 1/2 Overrides - 1999 to 2011 (Source: DESE)

Of course there are always criticisms about the “peer group.” When Tony Schinella was editor of the Citizen Herald, he argued long and hard that our peer districts weren’t towns like Weston, Wellesley and Concord. He felt that, demographically and in terms of the town’s finances, it wasn’t fair to make those comparisons. To that, I always said “phooey.” Most families moving to Belmont consider it an exclusive suburb with excellent schools – just like Wellesley, Lexington, Concord and Weston. And they’re willing to pay a premium to get into it. Telling those folks that we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to such districts is kind of a non-starter, as far as I and most newer home owners are concerned. There are, indeed, many and important differences between all these towns and its silly to just gloss over them. The fact remains, however, that these are the top performing school districts in the state, and some of its most desirable places to buy a house, live and raise a family. Ask a realtor in town and they’ll tell you that Belmontonians would do well to make sure that their town’s name continues to mentioned in the same breath as the towns on this list.

Interested in your thoughts. I hope you enjoy it.

  • dr2chase

    It would make sense to adjust your measurement of override size for population. Newton may have had a mammoth override, but they also have a large population.

    And some towns also have very healthy commercial tax bases, and others do not. I think having a large non-residential tax share makes overrides both less necessary, and easier to pass. (I need to check the math on this; obviously it lowers the residential tax rate for the same revenue, so overrides would be less painful. Not sure about the cost growth rate.)

  • http://www.bloggingbelmont.com bloggingbelmont

    True enough. I think I allowed for the differences between towns in my long winded intro, though, right? -Paul.

  • Mark

    I think, while there are substantial differences between overrides and debt exclusions, that for most voters the emotional reaction is similar. ‘We just upped taxes for the Wellington, and now you want to up them again?’ is a common refrain, and one that you can’t ignore simply by excluding them. For most voters (rightly or wrongly) they lump them together, and thus many would not agree with the set up of the comparison to begin with.

  • http://www.bloggingbelmont.com bloggingbelmont

    Thanks for writing. It’s hard to argue with you, Mark. The debt exclusions should be there, too, because they’re all tax increases, although the debt exclusions have an expiration date (eventually you pay off the Wellington bond holders and the tax increase comes off your books), whereas the operational overrides don’t.

    I just used data from DESE (Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education) and they track operational overrides and debt exclusions separately. I’ll try to consolidate the data and provide another heat map. But, to be honest, my guess is that it will only exacerbate the differences we see above. In other words, if you look at our peer towns, they’ve put to vote and passed many more overrides of all kinds in the last decade than Belmont.

  • Jocelyn

    Nice to see you blogging again, Paul. I had almost given up on you and deleted you from my reader!

    • http://www.bloggingbelmont.com bloggingbelmont

      Thanks, Jocelyn!

  • Mark

    Hi Paul, well that would be a very interesting and useful comparison to make. I think in some ways some citizens hide behind the sort of argument that I put forth, in their minds thinking that we really are doing ‘enough’ and that the ‘taxers just want to raise more taxes on us’. Showing that over all types of tax increases Belmont has still lagged would be quite important. The fact that Belmont still ranks so highly as a place to live despite this is amazing, but it simply can’t continue. Eventually the lack of funding will come back to bite us.

  • Tim

    Out of curiosity, how would your sample selection change if you did selected it more objectively. For example, median incomes within +/-X% of Belmont’s median income + within X miles from Boston. Other factors you could add in are average age of residents.

    Just a thought.

  • http://www.bloggingbelmont.com bloggingbelmont

    Tim – really good suggestion. The question of what are Belmont’s “peer” districts is an important one. I like the idea of doing median incomes – though I can see problems with that. For one: Belmont is a town with a significant population of multi families and renters, who may be younger workers/families with lower incomes, but also extremely wealthy families (i.e. Mitt and Anne Romney). Looking at median vs. mean income should account for that, but not sure how those extremes could throw off the number that ends up coming out.

    An important question, though: do people pay a premium to buy in Belmont based on the median income of the residents or based 1) location and 2) reputation of the public schools? I’d say that – if the question is: how do we keep Belmont great, you need to start with “what makes Belmont good” to begin with – why do people want to choose to live here. That’s probably going to mean looking at a slightly different cohort of peer towns than merely looking at median household income + location. You know??

  • Tim

    Paul,

    I don’t mean to suggest that people move to Belmont because of median income. My point is that when comparing Belmont to peers and analyzing which of those peers pass Prop 2.5′s, median income will be a strong factor. As you suggest, Belmont is a different beast than Concord due to the socio-economic factors, and those factors play a role in override votes. Newton, though a city, is similar to Belmont in that people pay a premium to live there for the schools and its proximity to Boston, and it has a good amount of 2 family homes. I lived there when they were trying to pass the override for Newton North, and that took a lot of work. Brookline is also similar to Belmont with the same distance/economic mix.

  • Tim

    To explain myself better, I looked up the median household incomes of the peer group you selected. Of those communities, only three are within 15% +/- of Belmont. Newton and Acton have median household incomes that are 7% and 14% higher than that of Belmont, respectively, and Lincoln’s is 98% of Belmont’s. Weston, Dover and Carlisle’s median household incomes are 92,77 and 62% higher than Belmont’s. In and of itself this is meaningless. However, these are towns where people pay a premium for the education but also have more means of paying for it. A next step would be to apply commute time as that is also a reason many people live in Belmont/Newton/Brookline and there is the possibility that some of these people are in town more for the location than the school system.

    I am on your side of this issue, but like to look at data to help find answers.

    FYI, Arlington’s median is 80% of Belmont’s.

    • http://www.bloggingbelmont.com bloggingbelmont

      Hey – these are good points. I think the truth is that there are any number of ways to look at what your “cohort” is. I think one surefire way is to get a room full of Belmont homeowners who are planning to stay and invest in the town – raise their kids here, etc. and ask them: “If you couldn’t live in Belmont, which towns would you look to live in?” Their answers are our peers and our cohort. Some might preface location and choose Arlington, Lexington, Cambridge, Winchester, Watertown – maybe Bedford. Others might focus on the school district and look further out to Concord/Carlisle, Acton, Lincoln/Sudbury. My feeling is: those are our peers. They’re demographically different, but they’re who we compete against to draw new families into town and keep our community what it is.