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Article 8, on this year’s annual town meeting warrant, proposes an “enterprise account” to fund new federal and state mandates related to storm water management. Proponents say the fund will support needed infrastructure improvements, that if ignored could invoke the wrath of some formidable federal and state agencies. However, things appear to have been satisfactory to date. No specific actions against the town are pending or anticipated. Efforts are also being made on Beacon Hill to obtain funding for cities and towns to meet these costs through state tax revenues.
More significantly, Article 8 raises questions about taxation without representation. The measure would delegate, to the Board of Selectmen, the right to determine one of two methods for sustaining the fund. One method would levy a fee on all property owners, charging them for the total square footage of any roofs or hardtop on their property. A minimum unit value has been developed, along with a three tiered fee system, to be allocated based upon the amount of impervious surface at a particular property. The other method would be a property tax override, which would levy the amount needed through a broad based property tax increase. What’s the difference ?
This is a classic example of a distinction without a difference. Do not be fooled by the term “fee.” The fee is compulsory, hence it is a tax. Everyone needs a roof. Because this involves property, the town should follow the law. Town meeting and the voters should approve tax policy, not the Board of Selectmen. Article 8 would change this. By approving the enterprise fund, the Board of Selectmen would be authorized to decide whether funding should come through a fee, or an override. If they were to adopt the fee, they would have sole authority to set the rates. This would give them administrative tax authority, a significant deviation from the principle that such authority rests solely with the people.
Money taken in by fees, could also free revenue encumbered by the town’s current commitment to storm-water upgrades and maintenance for allocation to other budget accounts. This would be, in effect, a backdoor override. Vote no on Article 8. Let the proponents come back with a front door override proposal, and let the voters make the decision. — Dennis Galvin, Westford, Massachusetts