Reading, MA — By a vote of 5-0, the Board of Selectmen voted to place a $4.15 million Proposition 2 1/2 override on the April 5 ballot. The proposal would allocate approximately $2.1 million for the School Department and approximately $1.2 million for the municipal government with approximately $600,000 for benefits and approximately $200,000 for capital projects. If adopted by the voters, the average house in Reading would see an additional $500 added to the typical two and a half percent increase in their property tax in Fiscal Year 2019 and it would be included when the two and a half percent increase is calculated in subsequent years. The School Committee will detail how it would allocate their portion at their February 5 meeting, with the Selectmen following suit at their February 13 meeting. The wording of the actual ballot question does not need to be determined until the end of February.
The meeting began with over an hour of public comment from thirty-six different residents. Many presented a point of view asking that the “full” amount of $4.7 million be supported by the Selectmen. Resident Erin Gaffin asked, “Do not vote a number out of fear that it will not pass.” Resident Gary Phillips, however, suggested a more moderate approach be taken. “The greater a proposed override, the more likely it will fail,” Phillips stated while suggesting an override of $2.5-$3 million. Several senior citizens spoke, imploring the board to be mindful them when making their choices.
Consensus came after a long discussion about two primary issues. The first being the amount to be placed on a ballot and the second what structure the ballot question would take. Selectman John Halsey proposed a six-item “menu” plan allowing voters to pick and choose which items they wished to pay for, including the full amount asked for by the School Committee. Halsey argued that this approach would give the voters the most say in the matter and would unite the town around what the real priorities of the voters actually are. “We are hired to serve the entire community,” Halsey commented. Selectman Barry Berman argued that this approach would do the opposite of what Halsey intended and unnecessarily divide the town. “This proposal will just confuse voters,” Berman stated.
Selectman Dan Ensminger offered a “tiered” approach that would ask two questions, one with a higher amount and one with a lower amount, again giving the voters the choice. Chair John Arena reminded the board, “There is nothing here that is a luxury.” Arena also expressed concern that in his opinion the risk of an override not passing had to be considered when determining an amount. Both Berman and Selectman Andrew Friedmann argued that most voters would naturally choose the smaller amount, even though it would not meet the needs of either the schools or the municipal government. “We want a strong Reading, not just educationally,” argued Freidmann. Halsey continued to argue passionately for his plan as the one that would best protect the schools and unite the community.
Berman proposed a plan for the board to support one override number with detail as to how the money would be spent. He suggested the $4.1 million from Halsey’s “menu.” “This amount is much less than the $7.5 million we asked for last year,” Berman commented. School Committee Chair Chuck Robinson confirmed that his committee while advocating for the full amount, would be able to work with the $2.1 million in the one number plan. He also agreed with Berman that any plan that did not propose one number would be divisive in town. Town Manager Robert LeLacheur also indicated that the proposal would meet needs in public safety that were “essential.”
After several hours of heated discussion, Halsey and Ensminger consented to the one number plan as a result of hearing the input from Robinson and from the leaders of the “Yes for Reading” override advocacy group who also indicated a strong preference for the one number approach.
After the vote, the meeting adjourned at 11:33pm.