Acton tax policy based on cheapness theory

Part 2.

In the last article, I tried to show how the desire to help others by using public funds is a form of being cheap. Instead of stepping up to raise money for a cause privately, some believe it is better to have the public pay for it.

On the one hand, this results in a much (much) lower cost-per-donor. But on the other, it forces people to support a charity perhaps against their will.

If the society as a whole is almost universally behind a charitable-giving program, then it makes sense to have society pay for it. But when there is widespread disagreement, such a decision should not be made by a bare majority, which forces a large plurality to go along against their will. If there is that much disagreement, then the bare majority should raise the funds privately.

By not doing so, they could be called cheap. They are able to fund their desired charitable giving by spending a lot less themselves.

This example has a parallel in local tax policy in the town of Acton.

There are a few towns in Massachusetts where parents have effectively taken over the town for the benefit of their children in school. Acton is one such town.

Our local property taxes are completely out of whack compared to the services we receive, unless a taxpayer has children in the school system. Then it is a good deal because Acton public schools are cheaper than sending one's children to private school, and the quality of Acton's schools make this tradeoff valuable for most parents.

But once one's kids graduate from school, that benefit is gone and the taxes are no longer such a good deal. And then many residents decide to leave (many of whom perhaps would have preferred to stay) so there is a problem. And the other issue is that the town loses something when long-term residents are always leaving. The character of the town changes.

There are several ways that local Acton politicians could control taxes and spending, but our leaders have repeatedly declined to do so. Controlling spending increases has just not been a priority in Acton. Our political system is in fact setup to enable higher and higher taxes, based on an ineffective Finance Committee which acts in collusion with the major boards. It has repeatedly refused to perform its role as a town "watchdog." Instead, the three major boards "secretly" agree to support the budget consensus at Town Meeting which means the budget gets approved with very little chance of change or dissent.

I put "secretly" in quotes because it is an open secret. If you attend any meetings of the Acton Leadership Group (ALG), it is plainly said that seeking a group consensus is the goal. Therefore citizens who object to the spending levels or priorities really have no chance of changing these decisions which have been created after months of "hard work" refining the town and school budgets.

(I did a Google search and this "secret" is right on the town's website ALG page!

I have heard many Town Meeting members use just such an argument to shoot down proposed amendments to town spending. The very first thing that is said to question the background and motivations of anyone speaking against higher levels of town spending is "Where were you over the last six months when we were deciding on these budget decisions?" This assumes that only voters who participated at every budgetary step along the way have a right to propose lower spending levels at Town Meeting.

There is more internal stuff that goes on. If you are on a town board and you disagree with the higher spending levels that your board has voted, you are expected to publicly support your board's vote. So minority dissent is effectively crushed. Unfortunately, these dissenters are pretty much the only way the public would even hear about behind-closed-door disagreements. Those who disagree are removed from the boards if they open their mouth publicly, and many local volunteers would rather stay silent and try to "work from within" than face any public rebuke.

So our system is designed to increase spending and taxes and it has worked marvelously in that regard. We are in the top 15 in the state by average single-family tax bill, and in the top 15 by tax rate. These are two widely different measures, and when combined, place us third or fourth out of 351 cities and towns.

Acton Forum has done lots of articles on this subject. Here's a recent one:

What this has led to in Acton is a migration of long-time residents once their kids graduate from high school. Not every empty-nester leaves, but enough do that the population has been skewed, which then makes it easier and easier to spend more on the schools. This creates a cycle from which we cannot and will not recover.

In fact, the solution of most town and school leaders is to spend more on local services in order to try to "bribe" empty-nesters into staying in town. Of course, that raises everyone's taxes, and people who are sensitive to high taxes aren't going to remain just because we've increased an amenity or two if it is unaffordable for them to do so, or if they'd rather take those extra tax dollars and enjoy their retirement.

The best example is the proposal for a new Senior or Senior/Community Center. The thought here is to bribe seniors into staying in Acton for the social and recreational programs offered by the Senior Center, despite an average $10,000 a year property tax bill that mostly goes to fund the school system. Will this strategy work long-term? I doubt it, but some seem willing to take the gamble.

Many of the seniors still in town would love a new senior center. After all, they have an enormous tax bill and they don't get much out of it anymore. And they have already made the decision to stay, despite the high tax rates. But this selfish reasoning will actually mean more long-time residents will leave town once taxes are raised again to fund the building and staffing increases that a new center will require.

"Empty nesters" who decide to stay in Acton and continue to pay high taxes may feel that their vote in support of higher taxes at Town Meeting is morally justified. I have heard them argue that someone else paid for their kids, and now they are willing to pay for someone else's kids. But they are in the exact same category as President Obama in the last article's example. They have a pet "charity" which is funding for the schools, and they are forcing "everyone" to pay towards their cause, rather than raising the funds privately or just making a private contribution. Nothing prevents them from donating whatever they wish personally to the Acton school budget, but forcing "everyone" to pay more is wrong.

Meanwhile, services that are normal parts of other towns are absent in Acton, like curbside pickup; or are not widely available, like a town sewer system.

Some seem to believe that if we can remake our town into a Lexington or a Concord, we will somehow encourage people to stay because of the great shopping, boutiques, or restaurants. Frankly, if you are living in Acton and you are looking for a different type of town like a Newton or a Lexington, then you are better off moving there. Kelley's Corner is never going to be a Newton Centre or a Lexington Center. No way, no how.

But parents with kids in local schools have a different concern. They want the best education that taxpayers can afford for their children, so they support higher spending and higher taxes. This strategy works great until their children graduate from high school, at which time they have a painful decision to make. Do they stay in town and pay for someone else's children ad infinitum or do they save $3,000 or $5,000 a year and move elsewhere with more reasonable and balanced property taxes? Many of course choose to go.

Just like in the last article's example where President Obama chooses to have the public pay for his charitable programs, here in Acton we have taxpayers in general paying for the educational cost for parents who vote to require higher and higher taxes from everyone, rather than insisting on finding ways to save money and keep taxes lower, or shouldering more of the financial burden themselves.

In my view, this makes Acton parents with kids in school who support higher spending and taxes for their personal benefit cheap and selfish. Parents should be asked to contribute more to support the schools and empty-nesters should not be burdened with these additional expenses that are well beyond what they should be expected to pay.

Part 1 is available here:

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AllenN, you howl constantly at the moon of property taxes in Acton. People ELECTED by the populace sit on the boards through which the town is run. That those in various groups do not function in a manner you believe they should does not mean their actions are unacceptable to the majority of the voters or wrong in any other way. (The actions of most of these groups annoy me greatly not necessarily because they are in opposition to me beliefs but because in too many cases the actions are in support of "friends" and deals.)

On another subject, I believe all cities and town should have curbside pick-up of trash and mandatory public sewage. But, if (when?) Acton installs public sewage I believe it will be so expensive most of the town voters will be appalled.

Howling at the moon

Hi Doug,

I prefer to think of it as "tilting at windmills," but that's just my personal preference.

We agree that voters in Acton seem to approve not only of how the town is run, but also of higher spending and taxes.

Does that mean that critics should just shut up and accept the status quo? Maybe you are right.

I do agree that banging one's head against the wall without results eventually leads to a concussion, and right now I have quite the migraine.

Thanks for your comments.


Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and is an Associate Publisher of Acton Forum.