Why this vote was different

Friday, May 22, 2009
By Cary Shuman

By Joseph Domelowicz Jr.

In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Winthrop voters headed to the polls last Tuesday and approved an increase in their property taxes to avoid massive reductions in local services.

To put this into context, we must remember that Winthrop voters have turned down three of four previous override attempts in years when the economy – and, by extension, voters’ personal financial situations – were much healthier.

There is still an overriding belief that local government has been mismanaged the past several years, and there is lingering resentment about the two debt-exclusion votes to build new elementary schools here in the 1990s. Unemployment is higher than it has been in more than a decade. Foreclosures are up, and requests at the local food pantry are likewise rising.

Local businesses are feeling it, and there may be more vacant storefronts here than ever before. And despite all of that bad news, the majority of voters who headed to the polls on Tuesday felt it was important enough to support local police, fire, public works and educational services, so they approved eight of 10 questions.

Why?

There are a number of reasons, but probably no one answer would explain why the questions passed. Still, it might be instructive for people to think a minute about some of the reasons that may have convinced voters to say yes. Here is a quick list of five factors that I think influenced the outcome.

Leadership

There are several factors to consider about leadership.

There is the state of leadership in town government, there was the leadership of the Winthrop Cares Committee that supported the override, and there was a lack of leadership in organizing a committee against the questions.

As regards the leadership in the town, both Interim Town Manager Larry Holmes and the entire Town Council share credit here for, at least partially restoring confidence in town government.

Just a few months ago, the former town manager, who was apparently not wanted back by some on the council, left to take another job in another town. Shortly thereafter, the police chief was dismissed in a cost-cutting move, the library director was also initially let go, and other cuts were being made.

Yet, the council and Holmes stayed the course. Working together, they focused on developing a plan to balance the budget and then put the rest of the tough decisions to the voters in the form of an override question.

Meanwhile, well-respected, hardworking citizens who have long been involved in town life, but not in town politics, emerged to lead the charge in favor of the override. Richard Honan is a local successful businessman and family man. He has worked tirelessly and selflessly on behalf of Winthrop veterans and soldiers and he has donated countless hours and donated to dozens of local causes, but he had never before entered the political arena. He and the rest of the Winthrop Cares Committee focused on the positives, identified their supporters and then made sure they got the message out, and it worked.

As for opposing leadership to the override, clearly, there wasn’t as much organized discontent as that which existed during previous override battles.

Certainly, there is still a large contingent of voters who weren’t in favor of the tax increases, but they never really united to fight against the 10 question ballot.

People really believed there was a need

Ironically, I think the bad economic news – the rising unemployment and inflationary numbers, the news about decreasing state revenues and state budget cuts – coupled with what local voters could see for themselves convinced many that the problems cited by town officials were real this time.

In past overrides, many voters seemed to think the town would find a way to handle the economic hurdles it faced and were largely disinclined to reach deeper into their own pockets, even though they were probably in relatively better shape to do so in previous years.

Requests were tied directly to services

The format of the question, offering voters the choice to vote for or against specific positions and department provided a layer of transparency that isn’t always seen in town government and is rarely believed during debates about property tax increases.

It also helped that several departments were able to specify the number of positions or types of services that would be eliminated if the questions didn’t pass.

Personal responsibility

In past years, when the economy was in better shape and people had more disposable income, voters seemed less inclined to spend that disposable income on taxes for local government services.

However, when times are tight, we focus on paying for the things we know we need. We don’t cut out the mortgage or car payments when the economy goes bad – we cut out the incidentals. We play less golf or eat out less often. We decide to tough it out with our old iPod instead of buying a new one with more memory. We make sure to buy food and pay the utility bills.

When the economy is strong and we feel more confident about our own situation, it is kind of hard to get worked up about the state of town government. But largely, I think a majority of voters felt they were taking care of the essentials this time when they headed to the polls. They realized on some level that it was time to pay the bills.

Lastly, hope and

optimism

I may be an optimist, but I believe people are starting to feel a little better about the state of the economy. Those who have been able to hang onto their jobs are probably feeling like they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I think our national vote in November, to elect President Barack Obama, is reflected just a little bit in the vote that was taken here on Tuesday.

People want to believe that we are on the path toward recovering as a country from war and recession, and the vote on Tuesday was a vote affirming that belief, and a vote to protect what they have until the recovery is in full swing.

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