Friday, November 8, 2002
User fees — flatter than flat?
As the town explores new ways to generate revenue, each idea should be considered carefully, to make sure it is as fair as possible to all the town's residents.
Consensus may be difficult, since people differ on their definitions of what, exactly, are "fair" taxes and fees. Some favor graduated taxes, such as the federal income tax, that asks those with high incomes to shoulder more of the tax burden. Is this fair? In contrast, Massachusetts state income tax levies the same "flat" percentage of income, for all income levels. Carlisle's real estate tax is also a "flat" tax, since every homeowner pays the same tax rate on their real estate. Is this fair? Those who believe it is unfair to seniors have asked the town to provide tax relief for Carlisle's older residents.
Are user fees a good alternative? They can be. These fees ask those who use a particular service to pay for it, rather than having the entire town fund it through the real estate tax. This makes sense for optional services, such as the recreation commission's program fees, but doesn't make as much sense for services that everyone uses, like the transfer station. If services are not optional, then user fees are flatter than a flat tax, because everyone is charged the same price, no matter what their assets or income. That's assuming everyone has an income. According to the Massachusetts Division of Employment and Training, Carlisle's unemployment has risen from 0.8% in February of 2001 to 5.0% this September.
In recent years the Carlisle Public School has used fees to raise additional money over what taxes have provided. America has a long tradition of providing a free public education, and local communities have traditionally funded schools via real estate taxes. The majority of homeowners, at some point in their lives, have children who attend the schools, and all the residents benefit from having an educated populace. Carlisle challenges that tradition when it assigns user fees for aspects of school which are not truly optional, such as kindergarten, or school bus fees for 7
The Carlisle Board of Selectmen has recently created a revenue enhancement committee to find new sources of revenue for the town, including user fees. Committee meetings will be open to the public, and the selectmen are seeking interested townspeople to appoint to the committee. Help the revenue enhancement committee by sharing your ideas and viewpoints.
Many years ago, I lived in a big city and spearheaded an effort to build a public school playground. We envisioned the playground, which included community garden space and outdoor meeting areas, as a benefit to the neighbors as well as the schoolchildren, but our attempts at involving the locals in the planning process were largely fruitless. The neighbors, mostly poor and elderly, didn't much care for the presence of the school, which, as the city's only alternative school, drew by lottery on the city at large and did not give preference to the local neighborhood children. As the work weekends went by and the project took shape, however, the neighbors stirred. One morning I showed up and found a flat of geraniums near the new flagpole. An elderly man came up to me and offered a bag of mulch. A woman brought her shovel and moved dirt. We had made Stone Soup.
Stone Soup is my theory on community activism. The name comes from the children's story in which three hungry soldiers coax a reluctant town into sharing their food. The townspeople did not want to feed the strangers so they hid what little supplies they had. The clever soldiers asked for nothing more than a pot that they filled with water and three stones. As the water began to boil, the soldiers said the soup would be good, but would be even better with some potatoes. The curious townspeople fetched the potatoes. After the potatoes were added, the soldiers said the soup would be even better with onions, which the townspeople also found. With each addition, the soldiers raved about how much better the soup would be with one more ingredient until a bubbling pot of meat and vegetables sat over the fire, enough to feed the three soldiers and the whole town.
In Carlisle, people don't hide their potatoes and onions. The guarded resources are time and talent. Any regular reader of the Mosquito knows how much of town business, not to mention the services provided by room parents, Scout leaders, coaches and "lunch ladies," is conducted by volunteers. If you calculated the number of hours all town volunteers spend at public meetings alone, there would certainly be more than three stones in the pot.
There are plenty of opportunities to bring your resources out of hiding. The planning board is ramping up for a new community development plan, including an affordable housing strategy. MAGIC is meeting in Carlisle next week to discuss regional transportation issues. The school building committee is evaluating wastewater treatment plant proposals and plans for a new school. There is a comprehensive permit project proposed to use a novel septic system design. We are about to enter the dreaded budget season in the midst of a local and statewide fiscal situation probably worse than last year. It is a good time to toss in your potatoes.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito