Town Meeting voters reject meals tax, approve room tax

Westborough Despite a current budget deficit of about $350,000 and predictions from several town officials that the fiscal year 2011 deficit could be in the $2.5 million range, residents voted at the Oct. 26 Special Town Meeting against one warrant article that would have brought tax revenue to the town, but for another warrant article that will increase a tax that brings revenue into the town.

    Article 16, the local option meals excise tax increase, if approved, would have imposed a 0.75 percent tax (75 cents on a $100 check) on sales of restaurant meals in Westborough. After about 30 minutes of debate and several passionate pleas from proponents on both sides of the issue, the article was defeated, 137-132.

    Article 17, the local option room occupancy tax amendment, which would raise the room occupancy rate charged on hotel rooms from 4 to 6 percent was also hotly debated for about 30 minutes, after which it passed, 133-102.

    For the members of the Town Meeting audience that voted no on Article 16, two prevailing themes arose when they took to the Town Meeting floor to speak.

    First of all, many were troubled by the fact that this article seemed to essentially be another tax on the residents of Westborough.

    Selectman George Thompson, who along with Selectmen Rod Jané and Tim Dodd voted against recommending this article be approved at a recent Board of Selectmen meeting, explained some of his reasoning to his vote against the article this way:

    “When you go to Home Depot there’s not a special tax for your home fix-up materials. When you go to Bernie and Phyl’s there’s not an additional tax for your furniture,” Thompson said. “So why is there an additional tax that’s going to affect primarily the people of this town that enjoy eating at one of our many fine restaurants?”

    Another issue to many town residents was the wording of Town Manager Jim Malloy’s description of the article, in which he said that “the Mass. Department of Revenue has set the allowable estimated revenue at $369,831 per year.”

    “I’m very worried about the word ‘allowable’ being included in this article,” said town resident Stephen Doret, a longtime member of the Westborough School Committee. “I don’t know that we should approve this until it is clearly explained to us what the word ‘allowable’ means in this article.”

    Malloy, who became Westborough town manager July 1, was not in attendance at Town Meeting and therefore unable to explain his reasoning for his description being worded as it was and including the word “allowable.”

    Board of Selectmen Chair Leigh Emery explained to the audience at the start of Town Meeting that Malloy’s father had passed away Sunday night and that Malloy had traveled to South Carolina to be with his family.

    Leah Talbot, Westborough’s town accountant, stepped in for Malloy and explained that the term “allowable” was used by the Department of Revenue as a way of helping the towns protect against themselves.

    “Having never had this tax in place before, we don’t know how much revenue to estimate coming into the town from this tax,” Talbot said. “So, instead of us over estimating the revenue and putting ourselves deeper in the very hole we were trying to get out of, the Department of Revenue gave us a maximum that we could expect to receive from this tax. It was done as an estimate, not a cap.”

    Article 17 passed in large part, according to many who spoke on Town Meeting floor, because it was a tax that would largely affect non-Westborough residents.

    That was a point that did not sit well with town resident John Arnold, who voted against the article.

    “We are nickel and diming people who don’t live here for our benefit,” Arnold said. “There’s something not right about that.”

    Arnold is a member of the Westborough Advisory Finance Committee, but he distanced himself from the committee when taking at Town Meeting, and explained that he was speaking as a town resident, not a member of the Advisory Finance Committee.


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