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Reading on $20 a Day

Barry Berman considers Reading's costs and benefits.

Editor's note: This article was originally intended to run Monday morning. As you might have noticed, our Monday morning plans got sidetracked by a Sunday night announcement. So, we have brought you Mr. Berman's first column today.

Strewn across the kitchen table this pleasant Sunday morning are my copy of the proposed Town of Reading FY 2012 budget, and my 4th quarter real estate tax bill.

Coincidentally, both need to be taken care of tomorrow. As I ponder both, a quick calculation reveals I pay roughly $20 a day for services rendered. Like any value-conscious consumer, I weigh what my family receives for the money. As the roster grows, my trepidation about writing the check wanes. I share with you my personal list.

  • In June my son will graduate from a beautifully renovated elementary school that once housed leaky, portable classrooms. He will move on to a beautiful middle school and then a jewel of a high school, the envy of any town.
  • Every Tuesday morning someone arrives and picks up my trash. While we may take this for granted, other towns charge extra for this service or don’t provide it at all.
  • Paramedics armed with advanced life support equipment, administered early critical life saving care to my mother-in-law when she had a stroke while living with us. I shudder to think what may have happened if we didn’t invest in the equipment or the training.
  • Books, CD’s, museum passes, concerts, lap sits, school projects, author visits and other cultural events we have partaken in hundreds of visits to the library. You will be further impressed when you seen the plans for the exciting library expansion.
  • While I do not qualify as yet, one day I hope to share in a meal and a conversation at the Senior Center, as many of my neighbors do currently. 
  • We have enjoyed tennis lessons, hikes, strolls, picnics, evening concerts, tee ball, basketball, soccer, and winter skates, in the parks, fields and trails run by the Recreation Department.

A smile crosses my face when I realize we get all this for the cost of a couple of lattes, a scratch ticket or two, and the unused portion of my gym membership. But, before I get too giddy, I think of the many families in town struggling to make ends meet during these hard times. To them (and all us), we owe the responsibility of ensuring every dollar raised is spent prudently, that every effort is made to stay within our means, and a process that is transparent and open.

Like all of us, the town has had to make do on less these last few years. I remain confident that as a community we will get through these challenging times because the hard decisions will be made not by faceless, nameless bureaucrats, but by the people I see in synagogue, at the baseball field, and in the coffee shops. I trust my neighbors to make the right choices about the level of services we want to maintain in Reading. No one wants to pay more than we have to, but pay we must for the things we hold dear. As Town Meeting convenes Monday night to deliberate the budget, I am hopeful each member will recall their own list,  remember what drew them originally to Reading, and what keeps them participating in the active fabric of our town.

 My check is in the mail.

Emily M May 03, 2011 at 01:47 PM
My property taxes went up 15% this year, while my neighbors all went down. I agree that we have it good in Reading (the reasons you list are some of the ones that drew me to this town in the first place), but all the talk of Prop 2.5 overrides and such gets me angry. I think I'm already paying more than my fair share.
Roxanne May 04, 2011 at 05:36 AM
I believe this town has the highest real estate taxes and I wonder what they do with all the millions besides the things listed. There is no sidewalk on my side of High Street and the town only plowed out the opposite side of High St and left a major intersection: Middlesex Ave and High St piled high with snow. Yes, they wasted money with those cement blocks on Main St and brick roads. Please tell me they will change their mismanagement of funds and projects.
Roxanne May 04, 2011 at 05:47 AM
I am grateful for the schools and library expansion. Those are good things! Thanks.
Emily M May 05, 2011 at 02:43 PM
I am pretty sure our tax rate is even higher than towns like Winchester. Is this because the commercial and residential are the same rate and we're not being offset by businesses? I wasn't living here when the whole Jordan's complex came into town.
Barry Berman May 05, 2011 at 04:07 PM
Emily, I don't know how our tax rate compares to Winchester. One the item to note is that 97% of the taxable properties in Reading are residential. What this means is that the lion share of the burden falls on homeowners as a class. The Selectmen have consistenly voted to have one tax rate in Reading. Their justification (probably correct), is that if we split the tax rate the savings achieved for the average home owner will be small, while the increase to the commercial property will be large. The real issue confronting us as a Town is what level of services do we want, and how much are we willing to pay. We cannot manage ourselves out of this problem. The real pain will probably be felt in next year's budget
Karl Weld May 05, 2011 at 04:54 PM
Winchester spends less per resident and on total school spending than we do. http://www.boston.com/yourtown/specials/snapshot/snapshot_school_spending_per_resident_09_massachusetts/ even though they have almost double the average income per resident. http://www.boston.com/yourtown/specials/snapshot/snapshot_income_per_capita_2008_massachusetts/ Average Reading home value: $433,000 Average Winchester home value: $762,067 Average Reading property tax: $5,953 Average Winchester property tax: $8,771 http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/graphics/08_22_10_property_tax/ I'd rephrase a bit. It comes down to what level of services we can afford to pay for. Given the property values we'd need a significant increase in the per 1,000 rate, which given the average income levels I'm not sure people can afford. Something to keep in mind when thinking override.
Barry Berman May 06, 2011 at 03:29 AM
...so I guess you are saying we invest more of what we have in education than they do in Winchester? A quick tour of the two towns might suggest just that. Compare the Vinson Owen School in Winchester and Barrows in Reading. They were both built the same year. V.O is crumbling, and Barrows is a gem. Then compare RMHS with Winchester High. When it's not flooded, WHS is a shell of what we have here. I know good learning goes on in both communities, but please give Reading credit for making the conscious choice to invest in its schools, and its facilities. The point of my article is that as a Town we have choices to make about the kind of community we want to have. What can we afford to do, and what can't we afford not to do.
Karl Weld May 06, 2011 at 04:22 AM
What I'm saying is Winchester scores MUCH better on MCAS tests than Reading (using 10th grade as an example) and is spending less on per resident on their schools. Money doesn't equal results. And that Winchester has a much larger capacity for raising revenue due to their property values and average income. I do recognize that Reading invests in its schools and facilities. It's a large part of why we moved here. What we, as a community need to realize is that we are not Winchester or other such towns in terms of assets, so some folks need to adjust their expectations of what services this town and these residents can afford.
Barry Berman May 07, 2011 at 04:23 AM
I guess I am not satisfied only beating Winchester and Lexington on the gridiron or on the rink. I want to beat them at the Science Olympiad, the geography bee, drama and band competion, and National History Day too. I actually agree with you. Money doesn't equal results. We are achieving more with less. For the first time in years we are slipping in relation to other towns on our per pupil spending, yet our kids are more than holding their own. If you set lower expectations, you will surely meet them.
Karl Weld May 07, 2011 at 05:32 PM
Barry, I think we're closer in agreement than these posts may indicate. I'm not quite at the override point yet. I'd like to see what types of revenue we can expect from the projects moving through the process first. That means cost containment for the near term. What we haven't discussed yet is the state foundation budget. The state has under-funded their obligations by about $300 million I believe. (At least that's the number I've seen bandied about.) But they haven't lowered the foundation budget number at the same time. They've just shifted more of the costs to the municipalities. We need Real, Meaningful Reform at the state level so there's enough money to properly fund state obligations under existing law. Increasing tax revenue at the state level without reform just feeds the hackarama, eating into much-needed resources.

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