Whittier Could Have Allowed City-Town Voting

Tuesday January 09, 2024

REGIONAL – Whittier Regional Vocational High School could have allowed each of its 11 cities and towns under state law to decide individually how to fund its share of the $264 million price tag for a new building.
Rowley SelectBoard chair Cliff Pierce and other town leaders lobbied to follow this community by community vote for incurring the debt by taking the issue to their own Town Meeting, asking residents to agree to raise their property taxes.
A vote to raise taxes would also have to be presented to the voters in an election.
But the Whittier school committee and administration opted not to follow section N of the law, but rather to hold a district-wide vote on Jan. 23 where a majority of voters, not individual towns and cities, would decide if the financing plan for the new building is approved.
To allow the towns to access their Town Meetings, Whittier would have had to hold its vote in the fall or spring, not in January, experts on the law said.
The Town Meeting approach is outlined in Section 16 (d) of Title 12 in Chapter 71 and is followed by most regional school districts. An example is Triton Regional School District, which educates students from Newbury, Rowley and Salisbury and works with its towns each year to secure a budget.
The reason the Whittier School Committee opted for the district-wide vote, according to local officials, is that if would take only one city or town voting no to scuttle the financing plan.
The Whittier School Committee would have to start over and probably lose the state School Building Fund financing.
The chances that all 11 (Amesbury, Georgetown, Groveland, Haverhill, Ipswich, Merrimac, Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, Salisbury, West Newbury) would agree to incur such debt was believed to be extremely unlikely.
By following Section 16 (n), which provides for a district-wide vote, it takes only a majority of all voters to approve the debt for the building.
In recent weeks, the Whittier School Committee has told each city and town clerk to set the district-wide vote.
Because each community has a different property tax rate, the approval of the funding plan for the new high school would have different impacts on homeowners for the next 30 years.
Georgetown residents would be hit the hardest. On a median valued home of $686,000, taxes would increase almost $400 a year.
Salisbury property owners would be hit the least with taxes rising $149 on a median valued house of $552,000.
According to a tax bill calculator provided by Whittier on its web site, residents of Amesbury would see an increase of $255 a year on a median valued home of $555,000. Residents of Groveland would be assessed an increase of $275 a year on a median valued home of $599,000.
Haverhill, which has the largest population and sends the most students of any of the 11 communities, would have an increase of $282.39 a year on a median valued property of $477,579. Ipswich taxpayers would see an tax increase of $227.07 on a median valued home of $749,393.
Merrimac property owners would have an increase of $317.50 on a median valued property of $620,000. Newbury taxpayers would have a $186.16 increase on a median valued property of $817,910.
Newburyport, where Mayor Sean Reardon has been leading the opposition to the Whittier funding, would have to increase taxes by $234.80 on a median valued property of $820,392.
Rowley taxpayers would see an increase of almost $400 on a median valued property of $686,110. And West Newbury, which has a median value of its homes of $841,214, would have to ask its taxpayers to pay an additional $282.65.
The median values of homes were provided by the real estate web site Zillow.
If a community can absorb the additional costs in its annual budget, there would be no property tax increase. But officials of most communities have said they were not expecting the Whittier debt and would have to ask for an override of the 2.5 percent tax increase that is allowed under state law.
On Jan. 23, the polling places will be open between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. There is no mail-in or early voting.

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