Nahant’s got a big question to answer

Summer is a ways off, but April 27 brings town residents together for a day of democracy that also serves as a farewell to winter and a chance to talk about the summer months looming on the horizon.

Voters will choose between candidates Joshua A. Antrim and Carl J. Maccario to fill the Board of Selectmen vacancy created by Chesley Taylor’s February announcement that he will not seek re-election.

Seats on the School Committee, Planning Board, and Public Library Board need filling and voters will also be able to cast ballots for town moderator, clerk and constable, even though the current occupants of those offices are the only names on the ballot.

But there is one other matter for voters to weigh in on when they go to Town Hall on the last Saturday in April. They will be asked to answer “yes” or “no” to this question: Shall the Town of Nahant be allowed to assess an additional $600,000 in real estate and personal property taxes for the purposes of the general operation of the town?

A “yes” vote means the average Nahant home’s property tax bill increases by $433. A “no” vote opens the door for potentially more dire financial consequences outlined at a town breakfast a month ago by Town Administrator Tony Barletta.

On the job now for eight months, Barletta did not mince words in March when he said the town was warned by state financial experts four years ago that local free cash balances were being misused.

In short, state Division of Local Services officials said using free cash to balance the town budget is akin, in Barletta’s words, to balancing a household budget with a Christmas bonus “that you don’t know if you are going to get or not.”

Finding a more solid way to balance the town budget makes sense and it should be a priority for the town administrator. But asking town residents to pay more taxes is a question that has met defeat in the past, most recently in 2011 when voters rejected raising $260,000 for the Johnson School.

Town Meeting members overwhelmingly approved the Johnson proposal but voters rejected it. Override supporters got the school money placed before the voters again and the second vote saw the proposal squashed like a bug.

Towns and cities were given a mechanism for generating additional property taxes within the restrictions of Proposition 2½, the state property tax limitation measure, because legislators realized communities needed to surmount financial obstacles.

Barletta in March took a strong first step in outlining Nahant’s spending challenges, and he has followed up that presentation with others. His interest in stabilizing town finances should be matched on April 27 by informed residents intent on assuring the town’s fiscal future.

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