I was listening to WUML this morning and caught Mike LaFleur from the Lowell Sun giving his impressions of the budget hearing. Mike’s been reporting on the city budget since 2003 and made some very perceptive comments about the budget process in Lowell. He also gave the clearest explanation of the politics of taxation that I’ve heard. The council’s position seems to be that taxes should never be raised, despite the fact that Lowell has what is called “excess capacity” which means that we (unlike surrounding towns) have not been taxing up to our levy. (I’m not sure how the levy is determined, but the excess amount is calculated by the state.) Lowell’s excess capacity is currently $5 million, which means the city could raise taxes by that amount without having to do a 2 1/2% override. He pointed out that only about 12,000 people vote in Lowell’s local elections and of those, the overwhelming majority are over 55—senior citizens on fixed incomes are fearful of tax hikes, and rightly so.
What stood out for me was Mike’s comment that “the schools have been getting whacked for five years and so far there’s been no consequences at the ballot box.” When the schools make layoffs, the council typically feels no pain—not like the proposed 11 layoffs from city hall. He said that maybe an advocacy group like “U-25″ of Tewksbury may be needed in Lowell to draw the correlation between what happens in the city council chambers and what goes on in classrooms. Well, now Lowell has Stand for Children and their presence made a big difference at the budget hearings; whether that can translate to the ballot box remains to be seen. In the meantime, Stand members will be lobbying at the state level for support for the governor’s Municipal Partnership Act and the telecommunications tax in particular, which could provide relief to taxpayers and added revenue to cash-strapped cities and towns.