A jaundiced emEye on Winthropem

WINTHROP — It’s a mid-winter evening, Eye on Winthrop is on the air — or, more accurately, cable — and Dick Bangs is perturbed. That in itself is not so unusual. But right now, it’s not the “disservices,” as he calls them, that state and especially municipal officials rain down on his fellow Winthrop citizens that have him wound up. It’s wardrobe.

“I have to take you to issue,” Bangs tells his co-host, Carol DeMio. “You put together those highlights of our shows from last year and most of the time you showed me wearing the same jacket all the time. People don’t think I change. So I wore a different jacket so they wouldn’t get confused.”

How much confusion the new blazer will clear up is questionable, since the gray wool tweed nearly matches the other jackets he’s worn behind the show’s gray newsdesk. Indeed, gray is pretty much the standard-operating color of the local cable news show. The wall behind the hosts is gray, brightened only by pictures of an American flag and a tall ship. But Bangs and DeMio don’t do the show to look good. They see it as a civic duty. And their always-colorful commentary more than makes up for the monochromatic backdrop.

Most cities and towns have their gadflies, but these two former town officials are not your average cranks. They are, in their smallest-of-all-markets way, media celebrities. Their opinions carry more weight with Winthrop’s longtime residents than editorials in the local newspaper. And their drumbeat of opposition clearly helped send a set of Proposition 2 1/2 override proposals put before voters in a special election Jan. 24 to a crashing defeat.

Bangs doesn’t apologize for asking tough questions about the tax-hike proposal. “Personally, I am not against an override,” he says, in an interview. “What most of us want is some specific details.”

The half-hour Eye On Winthrop began three years ago. It’s cablecast Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on the local access channel, WCAT, and repeated four times each week. As the opening credits roll, the Pink Panther theme skulks in the background. A plane takes off on a perfect summer day, passing behind two sailboats with colorful jibs as it ascends. The scene captures the mixed blessing of Winthrop’s harbor-side location — scenic, yet overwhelmed by the presence nearby of Logan International Airport and the Deer Island sewage treatment plant, to which Winthrop provides the only land access. Bangs and DeMio banter back and forth, filling Eye On Winthrop viewers in on local happenings — everything from liquor licenses awarded by selectmen to the naming of “Teacher of the Year.”

“We tell people everything that goes on in the town,” Bangs explains, off camera.Like traditional television newscasts, the show covers fires and other emergencies, with Bangs and DeMio scrambling to get footage for their viewers. But the Eye On Winthrop anchors don’t simply describe what happened. They sprinkle editorial comments everywhere, giving the show — and the news they report — their own highly personalized spin. Bangs says that’s the secret of their success. “Several weeks after [DeMio] started the show it was kind of foundering, so she asked me to come on,” says Bangs. “Now we are the Chet and Natalie of local issues.”

While many citizens have become blas e about local affairs, DeMio and Bangs feel every municipal move must be monitored carefully. Even construction of a new post office is cause for alarm. “This is something that could cause a tremendous disservice, not that we don’t have enough disservices already, but trucks in town causing emission problems could be a tremendous disservice,” DeMio told viewers on the Dec. 28 show.

When DeMio and Bangs came out against the Proposition 2 1/2 override it doomed what is typically a tough bargain to begin with — convincing residents to pay more for local services. But the Jan. 24 vote was not even close. Despite town officials predicting layoffs and cutbacks in school and municipal programs to the tune of $2.5 million, out of a $30 million budget, several separate override questions were all soundly defeated.

Town officials proposed a menu of three options that each would have permanently raised the property-tax levy. The $5 million proposal was defeated 80 percent to 20 percent, the $3.5 million option was rejected 74 percent to 26 percent, and a $2 million alternative went down 71 percent to 29 percent. Some 33 percent of the town’s electorate went to the polls, which is slightly below average for a town election in Winthrop, according to Town Clerk Paul Dawson.

Bangs says the override went down to defeat for one simple reason: trust, or, rather, the lack thereof. “The bottom line is trust and it is sorely lacking from the past,” he says.

On Eye On Winthrop, Bangs and DeMio hammered away, charging that citizens have never received a detailed accounting of how a $1.5 million 1989 debt exclusion to fund school-building maintenance was spent.And Bangs says another debt exclusion vote, in 1998, left a bad taste in citizens’ mouths. Voters rejected that $31 million proposal to build a new elementary school only to have selectmen send the question back to the polls two months later. In that balloting, the measure was approved by just 245 votes.

“Trust is sorely lacking from the past,” Bangs says again. “We have an older population that can’t afford huge tax increases. This is an old bedroom town, and as our children grew up many of them moved on to Swampscott and the North Shore.” That left an elderly population to shoulder the property-tax burden, he says.

But there were pressing reasons for the override attempt. Winthrop is in a property-tax squeeze. The town has virtually no undeveloped land and has not shared much in the Commonwealth’s recent economic boom. Winthrop has little capacity for developing a commercial-property tax base, which would provide revenue without putting a strain on municipal services, especially schools.

The town’s financial woes will be exacerbated next year by the end of mitigation payments from the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, which over the last several years have averaged $1.5 million annually. Those payments were compensation for the burden caused by construction of the new Deer Island sewage treatment plant — the key to the Boston Harbor cleanup — which is now complete. The town’s budgeted year-end cash surplus of $500,000, which town meeting could have used to offset the budget shortfall, is expected to dwindle, and all union contracts with municipal workers are up for renegotiation. All these developments will put a strain on next year’s budget, according to the town’s executive secretary, Virginia Wilder.

Getting out that message fell to a rival cable-access show, Winthrop’s Future and Proposition 2 1/2, cobbled together by an ad-hoc committee supporting the override. Winthrop’s Future,which aired each week for two months leading up to the vote, was a roundtable discussion with various town officials talking about their budget woes. Co-host Dennis Gaucher says his show didn’t start as a direct response to Eye On Winthrop, though he acknowledges that its aim was, in part, to correct “misrepresentations” on the competing program.

“We wanted to inform people to what the real issues are,” says Gaucher. “For years people have been operating under the misrepresentation that they pay a lot in [property] taxes when in fact they pay two-thirds the state average for a town our size.”

The opposing viewpoints gave the two shows something of a point-counterpoint character. On Eye, Bangs and DeMio called for Wilder and the selectmen to fully itemize how the override funds would be spent. Those details were not forthcoming, Bangs says. On Winthrop’s Future, Superintendent of Schools Joan Connelly explained that Winthrop’s schools had the lowest per-pupil spending of any district in the state and is at the minimum level allowed under the Education Reform Act.

But such explanations of the town’s fiscal woes were not good enough for Bangs. “Part of the problem is that the financial officials in town have undergone multiple changes in the recent past,” says Bangs. “As a result, the town’s true financial picture remains clouded. We may be in worse shape than we think we are. Conversely, we may be better off than we think we are.”

The dispute over taxes and spending also divided the community along seniority lines — not only age, but residency. George Rainville, Gaucher’s co-host — and, coincidentally, Bangs’s next-door neighbor — says people like him, a Winthrop resident for 10 years, are labeled outsiders.

Bangs, whose family goes back three generations in Winthrop, doesn’t dispute the charge. He criticizes Rainville for advocating more school spending without regard for Winthrop’s changing — that is, graying — demographics. To Bangs, even Gaucher, an elected town meeting member who has been a resident for more than 25 years, doesn’t have the experience to truly understand Winthrop. In contrast, Bangs was a selectman for two terms in the 1990s and served on the finance committee in the ’80s. DeMio, a second-generation Winthropite, served on the finance committee for 25 years.

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Of course, it hardly required dueling credentials — and DeMio points out that the referendum had its boosters even among Winthrop’s old-timers — to deep-six the tax override. General overrides of Proposition 2 1/2 usually fail. Between 1994 and 1998, only 36 percent of the 837 override attempts across the state were approved, according to the Department of Revenue. Debt exclusions fare somewhat better: About 58 percent of the 358 debt exclusions for specific expenditures passed, as did 66 percent of the 847 debt exclusions for building projects.

However, even the failing votes don’t oftengo down four to one. Exactly how much of the huge defeat is due to Eye On Winthrop‘s constant complaints about town finances can’t be determined. But Bangs and DeMio say that, after the vote, letters of approval poured into the station after the vote and they got positive feedback in the supermarket and local hangouts. Winthrop, it seems, has its eye on them.

Andrew Nelson is a freelance writer who lives in Hingham.