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Brookline voters to decide on operating override, cannabis store cap

Photo by Sam Mintz
April 20, 2023  Updated May 8, 2023 at 1:14 p.m.

Brookline is asking voters to approve a 4.2% increase to their property taxes to pay for growing operating expenses.

State law caps property tax increases at 2.5% of the prior year’s collection, plus a dollar amount connected to new construction and growth, but allows communities to raise taxes above that limit if voters approve. Brookline voters last approved an operating override in 2018.

Officials say the override has high stakes for Brookline’s schools. Of the $11.98 million that would be raised with tax increases phased in gradually over three years, $6.99 million would go to the town’s school system.

“If the override fails, we just need to be clear there will be unprecedented cuts to the education that we’re delivering here in the Public Schools of Brookline,” School Superintendent Linus Guillory said at a recent School Committee meeting.

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The schools are projecting a $3.25 million budget reduction in fiscal year 2024 if the ballot question fails, which would result in the loss of 43 positions across a number of programs, Guillory said. Performing arts and world languages would be among the hardest hit. The budget reductions would get deeper in subsequent years, rising to $6.3 million in cuts by fiscal year 2026.

“This is a complete gutting of our public schools. This takes our entire public school system down to the bare bones,” said School Committee member Nancy Rhei Gorer.

In addition to reduced programming, class sizes would increase, Guillory said. K-8 classes would range from 17 to 30, with an average of 22.8 students. Currently, K-8 classes in Brookline range from 16 to 23 students.

For the town’s other municipal departments, $4.99 million in override funds would be used to close existing deficits and pay for things like roadway maintenance, vehicle replacement, facilities maintenance, employee recruitment and retention, rodent control and other initiatives.

Costs have gone up substantially since the 2018 operating override,said Jeff Rudolph, a Town Meeting member and campaign manager of Yes for Brookline, which is advocating for “yes” votes on both the override and the Pierce School debt exclusion. “The override gives us the opportunity to increase taxes to cover the services that we all know and love,” he said.

There is no organized campaign opposing the override, but there are voters who say the tax increases are too large and result from an out-of-control budget.

A.K. Nandakumar and Roger Blood wrote an argument for opposing the override that appears in the town’s election information mailer.

“Voting ‘no’ on Question 2A will tell our town and school officials that fixing Brookline’s structural budget deficit — including controlling costs — should be their highest priority,” they wrote. “Residents deserve accountable leadership. Brookline cannot be affordable when large overrides are scheduled every few years. To avoid facing yet another override 3-4 years down the road, we must say No to Question 2 now.”

The owners of a single-family home assessed at the median value of $2,013,950 would see their property taxes increase by $723.96 if voters approve the override. Owners of a condominium assessed at the median value of $772,450 would see a $196.56 increase in property taxes.

There’s a second override question, 2B, which includes the same base tax increase as question 2A but would also add $1.8 million to fund a municipal compost collection service.

If approved, the operating override plus the compost collection service would lead to a total levy increase of $13,833,367. The compost program would add $112.05 to the annual property tax bill for the median-value single family home.

The town has published a calculator where residents can plug in their addresses and find the impact on their property taxes from both the operating override and the Pierce School debt exclusion question covered in yesterday’s Brookline.News newsletter.

Marijuana store cap

The third and final question on the May 2 ballot is about whether to limit the number of licenses given out by the town for storefront marijuana retailers to four.

Currently, the cap is five, because it’s set at 20% of the number of liquor licenses given out for off-premises alcohol consumption in Brookline.

Town Meeting voted in November to cap the marijuana retailer licenses at four, but state law requires the question to be put to voters.

Susan Park, a Town Meeting member in Precinct 17, is leading the campaign in favor of the ballot initiative, Yes On Three.

“There are four retail cannabis stores in Brookline, and frankly the bottom line is many people think that is sufficient. Within five miles of Brookline, there are 35 cannabis stores. There’s plenty of access,” Park said in an interview.

The campaign has cited marijuana use by minors in town as an issue, and argued that capping the stores at four would help promote a “balanced and thoughtful approach to the cannabis industry.”

There’s no organized campaign opposing the question, but the advocacy group Brookline PAX has weighed in to advocate against Question 3.

“Question 3 is the latest effort of persistent, vocal, well-intentioned (but we believe misguided) anti-cannabis activists to limit legal cannabis sales in Brookline,” wrote several of the group’s leaders in the ballot information mailer sent to voters.

“Limiting licenses won’t reduce cannabis consumption, including by teens for whom it is risky,” they argued.

The two sides also debate the impact of capping licenses on tax revenue. PAX says the proposed new cap would deprive the town of additional funds from retail marijuana stores. But Park and the Yes on 3 campaign say that the town’s tax revenue from cannabis is minimal.

Brookline charges a 3% local tax on marijuana stores. In fiscal year 2021, those taxes brought in $1 million in revenue, less than one percent of the town’s annual budget.