The Good Idea That Faded Quietly Away
It started off as many things do with a phone call. Nobody remembers who called whom, but the upshot of it all was a meeting of seven Sudbury residents in Teddy Doyle’s living room early in March of 1974. The seven had one thing in common. They were sick of paying high real estate taxes when few of their children were still in school to benefit from them.
Doyle was an executive at the Raytheon Corporation; Joe Buscemi, the owner of Colonial Barber Shop, was a small businessman; Don Bishop was a retired Air Force officer; Raymond Clark was an advertising executive and officer in the Sudbury Companies of Militia and Minute; Norman Peskin, Ira Potell and Leonard Sanders were ordinary citizens and taxpayers.
The Seven were concerned about the financial future of Sudbury as well as their own. The oil crisis and a deepening recession was shrinking the value of their paychecks. To complicate matters, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had withheld $50 million in local aid to cities and towns to balance the state budget. And to add insult to injury, Town Meeting was considering a budget and several capital projects that would raise the tax rate to $65.55 if passed.
Sudbury had held the line without an increase in the tax rate, but the Selectmen were asking all town departments to level-fund their budgets and had joined with the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Association to sponsor a bill that would provide some control over skyrocketing school expenses. Another group in town was drumming up support for a by-law change that would establish a five percent cap on tax increases each year.
The meeting in Teddy Doyle’s living room was followed by an announcement in the Sudbury Citizen of the formation of the Sudbury Taxpayers’ Association or STA. “We’re asking for a dollar, no more, no less,” said Potell, of Nobscot Road, who volunteered to be treasurer of the group. Interested townspeople were asked to send their dollars and their names and addresses to him. Nearly 100 did within a week of the announcement.
“Their purpose is simple and single-minded,” said the Citizen. “To draw the line firmly on taxes. ‘No more,’ they say. ‘Less even.’
“And their strength, they realize, will be in numbers, and they are asking all townspeople, regardless of political persuasion, to join them.
“One of the members of STA put it this way: ‘There’s a time you have to say “no” no matter how worthy the project or how badly it’s needed. You simply have to realize that the budget says no. Too many people are being squeezed out of Sudbury by taxes. Too many more are seriously considering whether the rewards are worth the cost.”
Doyle explained that STA had taken no positions on any warrant article. The organization planned no formal floor presentation, but vowed to study money articles closely and to advise and inform members and the general public of their findings. One thing the STA would do was to encourage attendance at Town Meeting.
“How strong STA will eventually become is, of course, anybody’s guess,” trumpeted the Citizen. “But the voice of the taxpayer is beginning to be heard throughout the land.”
By the time the Association held a Sunday evening fact-finding and strategy session at the Town Hall, membership had risen to several hundred. The meeting decided to seek budget reductions in overall totals, instead of specific items, although there was opposition to a walkway snowplow, septic system at Feeley Park, intra-town bus service, walkways, drainage, Featherland ski area, a recreation area on the Haskell Land off Fairbank Road, a new police/fire headquarters, Town Hall renovations, and Lincoln-Sudbury athletic field drainage.(Twenty-five years later, the Town would have all of these and more).
“The Association is expected to commit the School Committee budgets, both Elementary and L-S to committee and return to the Town Meeting with a lower total,” The Citizen reported.
“Other towns have cut school budgets and lived to tell about it,” said one member. “If the school committee accepts the town’s mandate to cut the budget, there is no ground for ten taxpayers to sue their fellow taxpayers to restore the higher budget submitted originally by a School Committee.”
The April 4, 1974, Annual Town Meeting opened amidst confusion as representatives of the Taxpayers Association attempted to pass wholesale cuts in the protection and highway accounts, only to be chided by Moderator Frank Sherman and Selectman John Taft.
“Nobody questions Town Meeting’s right to set the budget,” said Taft. “But it should behave in a responsible manner. Changes in the budget cause repercussions elsewhere and we are beginning to see that. Four years ago we found we couldn’t do collective bargaining on the town meeting floor.”
Finance Committee and STA member Don Bishop remarked that his quarrel wasn’t with the fire department or the Fincom, but with his wallet. He suggested that town departments tighten up their budgets before the end of the fiscal year.
As the meeting wore on it became apparent that the STA would be a force to be reckoned with. The Elementary School budget was committed back to the School Committee for further cuts before squeaking by 359-337 later in the proceedings. Potell, speaking for the Taxpayers Association, revealed that the town of Groton, on two occasions, avoided taxpayers’ suits by removing administrative funds from the school budget, cutting them, and voting them as a separate item. Potell added that Groton had cut administrative costs on two occasions without repercussions from the courts.
The Lincoln-Sudbury budget was approved after some strong words from Ray C. Ellis of Goodman Hill Road who termed it “the fattest in the state” with per-pupil costs of $1,714 in the ’73-’74 school year.
After ten stormy sessions, it was over. Whether it was the badgering of the STA or a windfall from the State Cherry Sheet depended upon whom you talked to, but the bottom line was the tax rate held its ground at $49.50 despite runaway inflation and recession. Now both taxpayers and town officials began to wonder just what the Association would do next.
They didn’t have long to wait. At the end of the summer, the Association presented the Selectmen with a petition containing more than 600 signatures requesting that the Board NOT call a Special Town Meeting to approve funds for a Police/Fire headquarters in Sudbury Center. The Selectmen promptly rejected the petition, claiming that the signatures hadn’t been certified as required by law.
Undeterred, and charging harassment, the Association proceeded to certify 592 of the signatures and came marching back to the Board where a great debate ensued. “Selectmen are taxpayers too,” huffed Chairman John Powers, noting that he was a former member of SAVE, a taxpayers group that had preceded the STA.
He felt the Selectmen were duty-bound to call a Special Town Meeting to allow the electorate to vote on the fire-police headquarters. He pointed out that considerable money could be saved by not waiting until the 1975 Annual Town Meeting due to rising building costs.
“The Board is in sympathy with the goal of lower taxes,” he said. “And we have been busily engaged on the state and local scene striving to effect that result.” He pointed out the Board’s support of the class action suit requiring all towns in Massachusetts to base their tax rates on full and fair assessments, and cited efforts in progress to develop a strong capital improvement program, “which, with standardized accounting and reporting systems, and with a search for consensus on budget guidelines, should yield effective results in strengthening the management of our town business.”
The Taxpayers Association had the final word on October 22 when, despite the support of the Finance Committee, the joint police-fire headquarters was defeated 352-265. The Association pointed out that both departments needed new equipment more than the town needed a capital project.
In 1975, something strange began to happen. As suddenly as it appeared, the Sudbury Taxpayers Association began to fade away. Aside from one argument with the Finance Committee on an $18,000 proposal for the purchase of the Whitcomb land near the Wayside Inn grist mill for conservation purposes, the Association was heard from very little at Town Meeting. Some later attributed its demise to the fact that growth in town had temporarily peaked and personal financial problems were going away.
The tax rate dropped by $2.50 per thousand in 1976. While some gave the Association and the Fincom the credit, the real reasons were increased valuation, increased state aid and cuts in state assessments.
“For the first time in 14 years the property rate dropped,” the Selectmen noted in the 1975 Town Report. “And at a substantial five percent at a time when inflation was pushing other costs of living to new heights. This $2.50 drop in the rate was no accident: once again the voters called the shots on Town spending and the successful Sudbury Equalized Valuation suit of 1974 restored over $400,000 in school aid to Sudbury.”
And then came 1976, the year that Moderator Frank Sherman called “The year that nothing happened all at once.” There were no controversial articles, and so few voters that Sherman proposed a by-law change that would establish the quorum at 200. “In order to be able to govern ourselves, is it necessary to have controversial articles on the warrant to attract voters?” he wondered.
Sherman didn’t have the opportunity to work with a 200-voter quorum. His nine-year tenure was ended by J. Owen Todd in 1977, as were the terms of several other financial “liberals.” “The election showed a definite cost-conscious mood,” commented Town Crier columnist Arthur MacDonnell.
And perhaps that was part of the answer. Members of the Taxpayers Association moved from the outside to the inside of town government, bringing their fiscal conservatism with them; but other factors were at work as well. In the next six years, Sudbury’s school population would drop from 3,059 to less than 2,000.
Perhaps the Finance Committee said it best: “The Finance Committee represents the citizens of this town in reviewing proposed expenditures,” it wrote in the 1976 Town Report. “We recognize that our frustration is citizens’ frustration. However, we believe that, while we lack certain statutory controls over school budget decisions, we can exert citizen pressure to be fiscally responsible.
“Specific steps are needed to make next year’s cost burden smaller. Pressure on salary negotiation teams, evaluation of new or expanded programs and year-round budget reviews prior to the formulation of actual budgets are all steps leading towards achievement of fiscal responsibility.”
Four years later, the voters of the Commonwealth gave that “fiscal responsibility” a boost. They overwhelmingly approved a tax-cap proposal called “Proposition 2 1/2” that limited tax increases to two and one half percent of the previous year’s levy. The Sudbury Taxpayers Association was no more, but the legacy it left would remain with Sudbury and the Commonwealth for a long time to come.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.