Williamstown. Elevation: 740’. Area: 46.86 square miles.
Population: 8,310. Williams College Student Body: 2,000.
Voters: 4,884. A place where most of us will spend four years of our lives.
As I look back on the last three years I’ve spent here, I realize how much I’ve come to feel at home in Williamstown. I know a fair number of town residents; I have a couple jobs in town; I volunteer for the local fire department. I go to town meetings. I vote. But I won’t be voting on May 12.
Why not? Well, let me give you some facts. As many of you know, there will be a vote to override Proposition 2 1/2 on May 12. Proposition 2 1/2 is a Massachusetts law which restricts the amount by which a town may increase property taxes to 2.5 percent per year. Due, in part, to the fact that inflation is above this figure, the Town of Williamstown is requesting slightly over $500,000 to fill this year’s budget shortfall.
Money from the override, if it is passed, will be used to maintain a variety of town services, including the elementary school. If the override is not passed, certain town services, including the elementary school, will face cutbacks in salaries, employees and budgets.
Fearing for the quality of education at the elementary school, and knowing that the Williams student body is entirely capable of swinging a vote in any direction it sees fit (the student body makes up a third of the eligible voting population in town, but rarely makes it to the polls in any sizable number), several Williams professors have encouraged students to begin a voting drive to register students to vote for the override on May 12. They have put forward most of the above information.
This represents, however, only half the story, a half carefully presented so as to play upon the sympathies of the Williams student body. I trust the individuals involved will take my reprimand to heart.
The other half of the story is this: property tax rates in Williamstown are extremely high. So high, in fact, they drive people out of town, people who have lived in Williamstown for years and can no longer afford to do so. Other families are constrained to overly small houses or apartments because they can’t afford anything larger. This is not a problem that affects the college faculty or administration; it is a problem that affects the working-class and the poor of Williamstown. These are socio-economic groups we, as students, rarely see in town – yet they are present, and in larger numbers than many would choose to believe. A walk down Mill Street or Arnold Street (both located behind the Spirit Shop), or through the Spruces, will provide ample proof of this statement.
Property tax rates in Williamstown are high for a reason: the College owns a large portion of the best land in town, and as a non-profit, doesn’t have to pay. Therefore, the burden of paying for town services, including the elementary school, falls unduly on property-owning town residents who have to pay higher rates since there is less taxable land in Williamstown than most other townships.
It is useful to note that the College endowment is over 40 times the entire 1996 budget of the Town of Williamstown. The College, therefore, is part of the problem of high tax rates, yet could easily become part of the solution to elementary school cutbacks. College involvement in covering a couple teacher salaries aside, it quickly becomes evident that the May 12 vote represents an exceptionally complicated issue.
Let us say, for example, that the override fails; the elementary school, which is already tight for funding, will suffer, as will the education of children in town â€” children who deserve the same chances we received at their age. Yet, on the other hand, suppose the override passes. Now, little Joey or little Sally will have a decent education; but since their family was already living on the poverty line, and the money to pay property taxes has to come from somewhere, Joey and Sally are showing up at school with empty stomachs. Or what about the 100-year-old widow who lives on John Street or Manning Street, and already uses up every penny of her social security check? What happens to her?
Obviously, simply throwing a half-million dollars at the problem is not an ideal solution. Volunteerism and a banding together of the community would work wonders in this instance. A simple vote, or a simple yearly tax cheque, should not alleviate one’s conscience on this issue. Volunteerism is something in which we, as students in the community, can and should participate. Yet, as much as I urge students to take an interest in town politics, to attend town meetings and to vote, the override issue on May 12 is something in which I feel we should NOT participate.
Rob Alcala ’98 was quoted on page 5 of the April 14, 1998 Record as saying “Weâ€”students, faculty and staffâ€”are the college community. As part of a community that forms a substantial part of the tax base of the town, it is very appropriate that we have a say in this election.”
This is blatantly false. We, as students, form no part of the tax base of the town. Neither does, for the most part, the College. We play a minimal role in this issue. We will not have to pay still more in taxes next year. We will not have to decide that this is the year we can’t afford to live in town any more. We will not have to send our children to school hungry. We will not have to send our children to a low caliber school either. We have virtually nothing at stake in the May 12 override vote.
Let me say that again: we have virtually nothing at stake in the May 12 override vote. The 1996 Annual Report of the Town of Williamstown reads as follows: “Williamstown is over 220 years old and still operates on the principles of the old New England Town Meeting.
Every voter has a right to attend, to have his or her say, and to vote according to his or her conviction.” I have had my say, and I trust it has provided you with more information than you had before. Your conviction is indeed your own; but I, for one, am going to leave this decision to the town residents.