Marblehead hikes property taxes and avoids a sticky trash situation

MARBLEHEAD–Mayors and managers in cash-strapped communities may eye Marblehead with a certain amount of envy this summer, and not just because of the North Shore town’s rocky beaches. Last month, Marblehead voters passed a Proposition 2 1/2 override by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, providing $1.4 million in new revenue for the town and scotching talk of deep cuts in municipal services. Specifically, the override disposed of two sanitation scenarios that seemed equally offensive to residents: a “pay as you throw” program requiring stickers–costing $1.50 each–on each bag or barrel of trash set out on curbs, or the complete elimination of curbside trash pickup.

Marblehead Quick Facts

Founded: 1649
Population: 19,971
Town Meeting: Open

Facts:

  • Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, north, and east, Marblehead covers 19.63 square miles of Essex County. It is located 18 miles northeast of Boston.
  • The average value of a single-family home is $401,500, according to the town board of assessors.
  • In its early years, Marblehead’s main sources of income were the fishing and shoe industries. Once known as the “birthplace of the American Navy,” Marblehead has become one of the yachting capitals of the world. Today, the picturesque seacoast town is mainly a residential community sprinkled with retail shops and restaurants.
The property-tax increase was approved June 16 by a vote of 4,174 to 2,094, making it one of the most lopsided victories for a Prop. 2 1/2 override anywhere in the state this year. On the day of the Marblehead vote, Lancaster residents narrowly approved (1,066 to 996) an override to prevent far more drastic cuts than those threatened in Marblehead, including the extinguishing of street lights and the reduction of the town police force from 17 to two. But residents in Millis voted down an override at the same time, and two days earlier a $4 million override was rejected in Arlington, despite the town manager’s warnings that teachers, police officers, and firefighters would be laid off as a result. If the outcome in Marblehead is any indication, override supporters in those towns might have been better off putting trash collection on the line.

“The government has spent too much, and we need to learn from that,” says town resident Peggy Blass, who voted for the override despite being laid off from work last fall. “But we also need to be realistic…. Do you know what government is supposed to do? It provides services for people that they couldn’t afford on their own.”

Of course, it just may be that Marblehead voters are better able to absorb the cost of a property-tax increase. The town is relatively affluent (with a median income in 1999 of $74,000, compared to $51,000 in the state as a whole) and well-educated (62 percent of the residents here have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 33 percent of the population statewide). That makes Marblehead demographically similar to the few other towns that have passed Prop. 2 1/2 overrides by overwhelming margins this year, such as Reading. The override here will increase the property tax by 34 cents per $1,000 in assessed value, meaning that it will cost the owner of a home valued at $401,500 (close to the town’s average) another $137 per year. That works out to less than $3 a week to avoid a regular trip to the town dump.

Only a few months ago, Marblehead was bracing for a change to its trash-disposal routine. The board of health had just proposed a “pay as you throw” program, which would require residents to put stickers sold by the town on each bag or barrel of trash to be hauled away by the town. PAYT programs are already in effect in more than 100 communities in the Bay State, including nearby Gloucester, and Marblehead town officials estimated they could raise $700,000 per year charging by the bag.

“The pay-as-you-throw system very simply [means] that you pay for what you throw out,” says Carl Goodman, chairman of the town’s board of health. “It’s very similar to your utility bill. If you turn the water off, you don’t pay. If you leave it running, you pay more.”

Besides the board of health, pay-as-you-throw had fans on the town’s finance and recycling committees. Currently, Marblehead pays $90 per ton to have its trash hauled away, recouping only $10 per ton by selling materials for recycling. Charles Gessner, a member of the finance committee, notes that trash pick-up costs have increased by 59 percent over the past six years; PAYT would be one way to keep this service from eating up more and more of the town’s operating budget. Gessner also says that a usage-based pick-up system encourages people to recycle more, thereby minimizing the number of trash stickers they have to buy.

But pay-as-you-throw prompted angry comments from residents at public meetings held by the board of selectmen and the board of health in April. “I don’t want to be hassled 52 times a year,” said resident Laurie Barham, according to The Marblehead Reporter. “I just think that this makes Marblehead a meaner place.”

“Many of those opposed to the plan were just knee-jerk anti-tax types who had willfully misled the public about the process and the proposal,” says Goodman. “But the loudest is not necessarily the majority.” Recycling committee member Don Morgan says “doomsday” predictions made by some PAYT opponents–such as an increase in littering and illegal dumping by residents trying to avoid the user fees–were “simply untrue.”

Nevertheless, PAYT opponents won, at least in the short run, but in a way that put everyone’s trash collection at risk. After the contentious public meetings, the board of selectmen rejected the board of health proposal, instead tying the fate of curbside pickup to the Prop. 2 1/2 override vote.

Just $400,000 of the $1.4 million override was earmarked for trash removal, with $740,000 going toward the school department and the remaining funds spread over several town departments. But the garbage stakes were particularly high. If the override failed, residents would have more to worry about than buying trash stickers at Town Hall.

Town officials insist they were not playing chicken with the trash pickup. But the opposition made them nervous. Gessner says that selectmen and finance committee members worried that even if the proposal passed at the annual town meeting in May, opponents would get enough signatures to put a repeal on the ballot in a June special election. If the town balanced the budget with pay-as-you-throw but had the program tossed out by voters, the town would be faced with a $700,000 deficit in the middle of the summer. The selectmen decided they had a better chance of winning voter approval for a tax increase than for trash stickers.

“I think the anti-PAYT sentiment could have been turned around if we had had more time to explain the program,” Gessner says. “But we only had a few weeks, and a lot of misinformation had been put out by the anti-PAYT side, which made our task more difficult.”

Goodman agrees, adding, “PAYT was branded a regressive tax early on, and that only added to the difficulty of public re-education.”

Indeed, voters on both sides of the override express reservations, personal as well as general, about PAYT. “It sounds really inconvenient,” says Jonah Hulbert, who supported the override primarily because it increased spending on schools. “I can understand why people would not want to raise taxes, but if people [paid] more, we could avoid these sorts of programs.”

And a woman who voted against the override (and didn’t want to be identified) has her own doubts that the trash plan would be complied with. “I really don’t support that idea,” she says. “People are just going to leave their trash on the sidewalk [without stickers] anyway. It sounds far-fetched.”

Nevertheless, Goodman thinks that the town government should have put the proposal to a direct vote. “I think we failed to give the people the choice,” he says.

But the Marblehead trash-payment saga may not be over. “The epilogue is that PAYT is likely to be considered again in Marblehead within the next one to two years,” says Goodman, “not [just] as a revenue producer, but rather as an environmentally sound and fiscally responsible way of reducing municipal solid waste and encouraging recycling.”

Meet the Author
Marblehead resident Mary LeBlanc, a PAYT supporter who also voted for the override last month, sounds a similar theme. “Do I think we need increased revenue? Yes, I do,” she says. “But we need to make long-term changes, not just annual ones.”

Melanie Nayer is a reporter for Banker & Tradesman. Jan Wolfe provided additional reporting for this article.