There’s been a lot of one-sided propaganda put out by the minority of sore losers in Town over the fact that the Wakefield Town budget was turned down by the voters in March 2023. This shame and blame game that is being promulgated on the struggling families and retirees in Town is a predictable attempt to divert, distract and deflect from reality. Small groups of the popular and privileged in Town have always had their way……until now….and they’re mad about being rejected. Every excuse imaginable is being floated as a reason for the majority “NO” budget vote, including the ballot was too long, people were uninformed, and voter fatigue! Yet the School budget, which is greater than the Town budget DID pass.
Sadly, the elected officials who created the debacle that divided the Town have not demonstrated the ability to own their significant influence in the outcome of the vote.
The year before in March of 2022, there were two proposals put forth for two different projects in Town. One was for a replacement of the public works building at a cost of about 2 million. The other was for a new Recreation center at an estimated cost of about 7 million. Both proposals would require a bond debt in order to fund each project. The public works building received enough votes to proceed but the Rec center only received 52 percent of the required 60 percent vote to fund it. This result was quickly spun as “the majority (52%) voted for it” and this false narrative was used to justify another bite at the apple.
Within a few months after the March 2022 vote, a new rebranded campaign for the Rec Center was instituted with the full go-ahead of the Selectmen even though the project funding had not received enough support to proceed. It would later get the recommendation of most Budget Committee members.
The name was changed to “Multi-Generational Community Center” and the price was reduced to 4.9 million. A number of the Town’s well connected and well to do, including local business leaders and several budget committee members became the smiley faces of this new proposal. Multiple dog and pony shows were held, recorded, and aired in an effort to educate the public on this new “need” for the community in an effort to enlist support.
All this was going on while working families and retirees were struggling to keep food on the table due to the significantly increased costs for their essential everyday needs. The pushback was quick. Voters were questioning why they were being asked to vote again on something that had already been decided. There was fear that the tax increase created would take food from cupboards that were already getting bare. Unfortunately, despite warnings from many, these concerns fell on the deaf ears of those we elected to represent us.
It didn’t take long for the majority to realize that the whole idea was a smoke and mirror show with significant property tax consequences at the worst possible time. There was no real architectural plan (just conceptual drawings) for the Rec center and public input was minimal. The timing was also way off. The proposed bond debt was amortized over 20 years to make it look like it didn’t cost much. They called it a “design and build” project. Translation: Give us the money and we will figure it all out later.
On top of all this , everyone (including the Town government) was struggling with how to cope with the skyrocketing costs of essential needs like food, electricity and fuel. Town department budgets automatically went up significantly and Wakefield also had new debt to pay for the formerly approved public works garage. The result of this was a whopping NINETEEN percent proposed increase in our budget from the year before. Instead of paring down the tax burden and focusing on the Town Budget, other expensive non-essential items were also added to the ballot in addition to the Rec center. These poor decisions amplified the fear. Why our Selectmen and many Budget Committee members steered us directly into this economic perfect storm is a mystery. It does however, demonstrate the disconnect between the local government officials and the people they are supposed to be representing.
And then the March 2023 vote happened. Those who have enjoyed minority rule for so long experienced shock and awe as the Rec center was turned down by a large margin. Other expensive warrant articles were also rejected including the Town budget. Economically struggling voters were faced with a troubling decision that the Town’s well to do have never experienced: Do I keep food on the table or agree to use my shrinking funds for higher property taxes?
It was a no-brainer to just say no to non-essential warrant articles that were basically wants instead of needs. If they had been removed and postponed for a few years, the budget itself might have passed.
It’s important to note that the voters did continue to support the school system, even during these difficult times. The vote of no confidence being sent by the voters to the Town Administration shows that there is a limit to their taxation tolerance and there will be accountability from now on.
Have our elected officials learned anything? So far, there isn’t much evidence of that. Their continued search for a reason to pin the blame on something other than their own decisions is very telling. This scenario could happen again. Continuing to play favorites while rubbing the public’s nose in the dirt by restricting access to the Town Hall and shortchanging Town employees will only destroy confidence further and add fuel to the fires of dissent. If elected leaders can’t admit they made mistakes, they can’t start the process of insuring that it won’t happen again. Healing the divide that still exists can only be remedied by those who created it. I hope they’re up to the task. If not, there will be consequences again at the ballot box next March.