Letter: My Support for (and Sensitivity Around) This Year’s Override

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This past January 30th, Reading’s Board of Selectmen painstakingly discussed what amount to present to voters in a Proposition 2 ½ ballot question, and how to format the question to make it successful. The Board voted unanimously to place a single-number $4.15 million override question on the town’s April 3rd election ballot for the voters to decide.

I support this year’s $4.15 million ballot question and I hope on April 3rd the majority of voters will, too.

Responding to citizen feedback received in summer 2017 that called for much greater clarity on the individual elements within any proposed override, I (as Chair) insisted that the Town’s priorities in override discussions contain full detail including context and associated costs. The School Committee also provided details on its priorities as well.

The $4.15 million ballot question is divided 36% Town/64% Schools, in keeping with the Town’s existing budget division.

The Town’s portion of the proposed override would fund:

  • 9 Uniformed Public Safety officers—5 Police, 4 Fire
  • 1 Assistant Accountant; 1 Software Technology Coordinator; 1 DPW Clerk
  • Additional hours for Building Inspector, Elder/ Human Services, Human Resources training, and Highway department
  • Technology Equipment purchases
  • Additional Library Staff, Sunday hours, and required materials

The School Department’s share of the proposed override would fund:

  • Retain 7 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) Middle School Teachers; 1 Regular Ed tutor;3 FTE Elementary School Teachers
  • Restore 5 FTE HS Teachers
  • Provide Curriculum updates and Teacher Training for Science, English Language Arts (ELA), and Math
  • Restore 1 Computer Technician and Classroom computer replacement;
  • Add 1 FTE K-6 Math/Science Curriculum Coordinator; Add 1 FTE K-6 ELA/Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator; Add 0.5 FTE SPED Team Chair
  • Restructure 0.5 FTE RISE Preschool Director/Assistant Director
  • Restore proposed cuts to athletic program

Some question whether the town needs the money at all. The answer is: it’s sorely needed. See here for a series covering “why” in greater detail. The short answer is: certain mandated costs associated with running the town and schools have outpaced revenue for multiple years.

Some question whether the Town of Reading has exhausted all avenues to cut costs and raise revenues before resorting to an override. I believe financial planning in any organization must be a constant focus, looking for ways to improve value and/or moderate spending. Since the last override in 2003, the Town of Reading has implemented significant steps to moderate spending/grow revenues, including:

  • Reduced Town and School energy consumption and costs with performance contracting
  • Shared (“regionalizing”) common functions with other towns to avoid permanent headcount
  • Shared headcount between town and schools where practical
  • Deferred new hiring as long as practical
  • Requested salaried staff to cover nighttime meeting hours
  • Maintained our AAA bond rating, lowering our borrowing cost when issuing debt
  • Reducing operating hours at Senior Center and Library
  • Increased fees for ambulance transport, building permits, and depot parking

Despite all of the above, the forecasted gap between next year’s revenues and spending is at an unsupportable level. Either revenues must increase, or municipal and school service levels must fall.

I understand and am very sensitive that for some Reading residents, a tax increase of any amount brings true hardship. We must all be mindful that for some (particularly those on fixed incomes), affording additional taxes requires them to not pay for another essential need—like heat, clothes, food, or medicine.

As an elected official, I have an obligation to consider input from all residents and information sources. It would be irresponsible of me to disregard legitimate public safety and education needs that impact all of Reading’s residents and schoolchildren. To balance these competing interests, I have worked earnestly to improve the affordability of the proposed override while also preserving essential support for community needs like safety and education.

Simultaneously, I have worked to alleviate the tax burden on residents in other ways:

  • I helped lead the initiative to lower residential property taxes for eligible seniors with the passage of Senior Tax Relief in 2017. Reading is now one of only three Massachusetts towns offering such tax relief for its most vulnerable residents, helping them to remain in the community they love and call home.
  • I am actively working with the Municipal Light Board to increase RMLD’s dividend payment to the town of Reading, providing immediate relief to our budget and improving the sustainability of any override.
  • I am involved in planning to relocate Reading’s Department of Public Works to create additional commercial development on Walker’s Brook Drive, in order to decrease our present heavy reliance on residential property taxes.

I hope that on April 3rd the majority will support the override’s passage. The question is now in your hands—please make sure you get to the polls on April 3rd and vote!

As a reminder, my candidacy for re-election to the Board of Selectmen is also on the ballot, and on April 3rd you will have the opportunity to cast votes on both questions. Serving on the board requires substantial time and commitment. I love this town, I love what it’s done for me and for my children, and I have been gratified by the opportunity to serve in my capacity on the Board over the past six years. With your support on April 3rd, I would be honored to continue my service to you and the Town of Reading.

John Arena
Francis Drive

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