Archive 2008 - 2019

Resident, Town, and Country Finances: Seeing both the Trees and the Forest

by David A. Nolan

Upon receiving a bill that I owed an additional seven hundred dollars to my mortgage company was my notification that taxes had increased in Holliston. Through posts in the wonderful Facebook group “Holliston Happy”, I also learned that properties within the town had been reassessed to varying degrees. 

This came as somewhat of a shock to me, but pointed to my need to be more informed about the proceedings of the town, the town budget itself, and the need for participation on my part with respect to attendance at town meetings, selectman and board of assessors meetings and probably more. 

Truth be told, this is the first house that we have owned and it has been and continues to be a long-term learning process. 

Additionally, while astounded by the bill from my mortgage company and dismayed that I did not have any input into the decisions made by the town that effected the increase in the tax rate and increase in property value (Yes, my fault.), I think it should be made clear that all due consideration and appreciation should be given to those who work for town government. I understand and respect the fact that they do their level best to make sure that town services and departments keep on running and that new or needed projects are managed effectively and to completion. 

Notwithstanding, there are multiple concerns that are going on in this situation and I am very unsure as to whether these are being considered and brought into decisions made around what the residents owe to the town in terms of taxes and other expenses. 

With this, what I am getting at here is context, that there is the microcosm of Holliston Town Hall and the town itself, but there is as well the macrocosm of the wider economy and the things that are transpiring in our country that directly affect residents of the town. 

With respect to the wider economy, the details are all around us and in abundance: multinational corporations alone have offshored 2.9 million jobs, abandoned store front after abandoned store front, large numbers of “For Lease” signs on both small downtown buildings as well as large office complex buildings, the almost entire extraction of our country’s manufacturing base, the unemployment numbers being cooked at best with real unemployment running at 14% or much, much worse (see Forbes or the Shadow Stats site). Only a few conversations with retailers will dispel any notion that we are trotting off into some sort of recovery and those of us who still have salaries have not seen raises in either a long, long while or we are talking about a mere percentage of a cost of living raise. 

And while no single person beyond our “friends” at the Federal Reserve are responsible for the de facto devaluation of the dollar it is very real, the damage that flooding the world with billions upon billions of brand new dollars has done (i.e. “Quantitative Easing”). That is to say in spite of protestations to the contrary, dramatic inflation is indeed perceptible and is evident – at the grocery store, at retails stores, in the prices that are charged for services, and in many, many other circumstances. 

In a phrase, the recession never ended and has only gotten worse. Accounts to the contrary are utter nonsense and the middle and lower classes are facing the brunt of it. 

Being forthright about this, it does not take an economics degree to learn about and understand these policies and conditions. It simply doesn’t. All it takes is a willingness to either look at the stories that might give one pause or go a tiny bit beyond the narratives and ideology as espoused by the mainstream media. I guess what I am intimating here is our need to be truly informed – a hallmark of a responsible citizen as deemed by our founding fathers. 

But like the proverbial frogs in boiling water, so many of us have become inured to what are unmistakably exorbitant prices and costs. It’s almost as if the tacit expectation is that families should have a standard of living similar to that of a Weston or a Wellesley. I use the word tacit, as there is virtually no substantive discussion of this in the public commons. 

So my question is and it’s a question that has probably been asked many times before, that being “What do we want for our town?” Do we want it to go the way of say a Needham or a Westwood, towns that in the past two decades have undergone a quasi-gentrification, transforming themselves into exclusive communities when prior to this they were robustly middle class. 

In fact, on a secretary’s salary and supporting three children and her mother, my mother bought a home in Needham in the late 1970’s. We managed to live in that house for 18 years. Would any of that be possible now? Was it possible even 10-15 years ago? Of course not. 

What happened in these towns was just not happenstance either. Decisions were made, either absent-mindedly or with aforethought. That is to say the transformations of these towns didn’t bring themselves about, there was town leader and resident participation in this. 

So participate we must. Ask questions concerning intra-Holliston matters as well as those that fall without its borders, but still affect us. Face the reality that the middle and lower classes are getting squeezed left, right, and center. Be respectful of town employees, but do not get drawn into false dichotomies that are not really helpful at all. I will spend a moment on this as I close, because I think it is highly important, important that discussion and debate actually occur. 

When we are told that we are either supportive of the town and accept without comment tax increases or we are somehow being disloyal to the town and disrespectful to the town employees and their hard work; this is a false dichotomy. It exists to shut down discussion and debate. Let’s have the courage enough to call these out when we encounter them, so the necessary conversations and learning about the future of our town and our country can occur, as they most assuredly must.

Comments (8)

Dianna, our so called leaders have been voting progressive for the past decade, democrat and republican. Plus the fed has pumped in trillions of Monopoly money into the system. We witnessed progressive policies effects in 2008 and are on the verge of another melt down. This one will be much worse. Vote progressive, it does not matter at this point anyways. The system is do for major recalibration. I would rather Capitalism then socialism or worse. We are going to find out just how it will play out. Maybe we'll get lucky and get communism...can't wait

Sean | 2014-02-10 16:30:44

We suffer from national/global "neo-liberalism" or hypercapitalism, where taxation becomes increasingly regressive (hurts the poorest the most) and unjust. Austerity for regular taxpayers, tax breaks and havens for the ultra rich and their corporations. When states are starved for revenue because of tax dodging (21 trillion is hoarded in tax havens worldwide) and job losses, our property taxes go up. Offshoring and a deregulation-induced financial collapse leads to flatlined wages, too, while rising costs like healthcare gouge us, leading to extreme and increasing wealth inequality and political power inequality. Vote progressive, and get money out of politics.

Dianna Vosburg | 2014-02-08 06:10:05

May I suggest a different way of participating. One that does not require attending town meeting to get your voice or opinion out there. I for one can't stand going to town meeting and half the time couldn't get there if I could. Nor do I care for the judgemental attitudes or the whispering. It is caddy and my temperament does not mix well with that kind of crowd. Am I afraid to voice my opinion? No. I just choose to make sure it does not escalate into a negative matter. You all know how politics can get your blood boiling. How about a questionnaire sent out to every tax paying resident 6-4 months before town meeting. Listing the basic problems that we face and some of the items that may be coming up to vote. These items should be listed short and to the point. Give the participant an option to hand in the paperwork or go to a new website to jot down their frustrations and possible IDEAS TO NEW SOLUTIONS. Come up with pre-voting issues to vote on. Take a simple pre-vote of the issue. List the voting outcome. Then have discussions via the interactive website for the next 4 months. The last month LIST all the pro's and cons of the issue. Then have Town meeting. People will be informed more on the issue, educated more on the issue and more likely to show up at town meeting. More importantly they will be more likely to show up at the voting booth. Not all people enjoy the hands on participation of town politics. I would say judging from the Apathy...a good majority can't stand it. The fact is, They pay taxes and deserve a right to help or do something about it. Mark my words...You set something like this up, there will be a lot more participation.

Sean | 2014-02-06 07:33:33

You hit the nail on the head Ken. Residents have the opportunity to attend committee meetings,town meetings, and of course seek positions on town committees, but they prefer to sit back, judge and complain rather than actively participate. We all hope this attitude will change.

Bill Tobin | 2014-02-05 18:51:05

To quote Ed: "How can the cost of services along with taxes continue to increase without any input from residents?" The problem is, quite frankly, apathy. Speaking for costs that the town controls, none of the increases occur without the opportunity for input from residents. Water rates are subject to a mandatory public hearing process. The town's budget requires approval at Town Meeting. There are public hearings related to property taxes and the rate setting process. I could go on. The (sad) fact of the matter is that most people don't care, or care so little that they don't make any effort at all to become informed or to participate in the process. Every May at Town Meeting I see pretty much the same 100 or so people showing up and often if the meeting goes two nights we struggle to get a quorum on day 2. For the past two years the Fincom has had "Q&A" meetings ahead of May TM so that residents could come ask questions about the budget in order to be better prepared for TM. To date not a single person has shown up at the sessions. Several years ago, again in advance of TM, I taped a TV show for HCAT that went through the key details of the budget. The show was repeated many times in advance of TM--but I'll bet that less than 50 people ever saw it (I'm probably being generous). During my years on the Fincom I have tried many ways to get the information out there to make it easier for people, but what I see is that no matter what we try the efforts are largely unsuccessful. You see the pattern here. The information (and the opportunity for comment) is out there. This is not a local problem. To put it bluntly, the unfortunate reality is that many people in our society/town/country have become good at complaining but bad at getting off our butts to do something. The Fincom is meeting basically every Tuesday from now until TM hearing budget requests for the next fiscal year. Tuesdays at 6:30pm in Town Hall room 105. Televised on HCAT. The Board of Selectmen will be considering budgets under their purview as well--they meet Wednesdays, usually at 6:30pm. They are also televised on HCAT. The School Committee will be discussing their budget request (about half of Holliston's total omnibus budget) at their meetings--they meet alternating Thursdays at 7pm in the high school library. They too are televised on HCAT. The report of the Fincom, which contains detailed financial data on the budget, will be available at least a week in advance of Town Meeting. Town Meeting this year begins Monday, May 5, at 7:30pm at the high school. And if you look to your town officials to relieve you of the burden of participating, then come out and vote at the town election (I believe it is May 20 this year)--or better yet, run for office and participate directly in the process (nomination papers are available right now). These are your opportunities for input. Take advantage of them!

Ken Szajda | 2014-02-05 14:36:30

Good article David The property taxes and the issue should have been addressed 10 years ago or more. The system is a self growing out of control mess. The problem is now too late to deal with and will have to take its course. I believe personally that it will be something many of us have never dealt with in our lifetimes. We are going to find out just how much character this town, state and country has. Our Normalcy Bias is set to be exposed.

Sean | 2014-02-05 10:38:24

I think what David is getting at is.... How can the cost of services along with taxes continue to increase without any input from residents? I too asked myself the same questions when I receive a bill from the Town. Water has gone up but quality has gone down. Property taxes have gone up but assessed values down. I agree that if this continues then the middle class will be pushed out and the upper class moves in and knocks down the modest, middle class American homes to build monstrosities. I guess in summary it would be nice to know when decisions are made to raise taxes and services.

Ed | 2014-02-05 10:28:06

David, a very erudite article indeed. Are you writing to the elite or the middle class? What is your point?

RPW | 2014-02-05 06:46:56