By Bill Kirk
---- — The town needs to stop hiring people, stop spending money on projects it doesn’t need and start maintaining the buildings and facilities it has or face even larger bills in the future.
Oh yeah, and cut taxes, too.
That, in a nutshell, is what Mary O’Donoghue, 57, of 69 Salem St., a candidate for a seat on the Board of Selectmen, wants voters to know about her as she goes around campaigning ahead of the election.
“The biggest issue is the tax burden,” O’Donoghue said in an interview with The Townsman last week. “Overall, the situation is this: Fiscal year 2014 delivered taxpayers a 4.5 percent increase in taxes. The FY 2015 budget, if it goes through, will add an additional 4.7 percent. In one year, that adds up to almost a 10-percent increase in taxes.”
A 12-year member of the Finance Committee, O’Donoghue, a Realtor with William Raveis Real Estate, formerly Doherty & Howe, said she’s hearing about taxes from homeowners, business owners and everybody else.
“It’s not just seniors,” she said. “It’s everyone.”
If elected, she said the first question she’ll ask Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski is: “Why are we taxing almost all the way to the levy limit?”
She said that if the town taxed below the levy limit, homeowners would see an immediate savings in their property tax bills, which could average more than $10,000 in a year or two.
The second thing she would say is: “Stop adding people. Over 70 percent of the budget is personnel, health and retirement benefits. That’s the nut to crack. This budget proposes adding 14 full-time equivalents.” About five them would be added by the town, with the rest going to the School Department.
O’Donoghue said while she doesn’t want to single out the School Department as the main driver of ballooning budgets, she said that in fiscal 2012, the school budget was $63.5 million. For 2015, it’s proposed at $72.25 million, nearly a $10 million hike.
“That’s a 15-percent increase,” she said. “Is it sustainable? Any reasonable person would say, ‘Probably not.’”
As an experienced member of the Finance Committee, including a couple stints as vice chairwoman, O’Donoghue said she has the right kind of background to see where the budget can be changed to provide savings to taxpayers.
“The word C-U-T I’m not going to use,” she said. “It misconstrues what’s really happening. People get the sound bite and the conversation goes on another track. We have to stay on the highway.”
She said the correct word to use is negotiation, because it more accurately describes the process that is needed.
“You go through all the budgets by the penny,” she said. “The School Department has X amount of dollars and they can move money around; they need flexibility. I understand why. But there needs to be more accountability and transparency. We do it in all the other departments.”
A former high school teacher herself, O’Donoghue said she understands the importance of education. But as a former Finance Committee member (she resigned when she announced she was running for School Committee), she also understands dollars and cents.
For example, she said, the way to reduce costs among personnel, other than not hiring them, is by reducing the number of people in town who get health insurance.
“We have people in town getting health insurance who work 20 hours a week or less,” she said. “We’ve got to look at who’s getting benefits and what our policy is for part-timers.”
She said she thinks the town manager is doing a good job and sees the role of selectman as “policy makers. If they do not agree with the direction he’s going, they can ask him to redirect.”
When pressed for an example, she cited the fact that at one time there were four task forces in town working on major projects which, together, would have cost taxpayers millions of dollars if approved. They included the Bancroft School, Town Yard, Ballardvale Fire Station and Youth Center task forces.
A member of the first Town Yard Task Force, O’Donoghue said that not only do these task forces take time for volunteers and town staff, they also create huge potential liabilities for taxpayers.
“Why did we have all four at the same time when we know we can’t afford them?” she asked. “All four can’t move forward at the same time.”
She said the town needs to look at the buildings it already has — noting that Town Hall looks “shabby” — before building new ones it has to take care of.
The mother of two grown children, O’Donoghue moved to the U.S. from Ireland in 1988 with her husband, Geoff, an engineer. They both became American citizens in 1998.
O’Donoghue said the rigors of Finance Committee budget meetings have trained her well for the many meetings she would be expected to attend as a selectman.
“I want to shine the light on what we’re not doing,” she said. “We need to take a critical look at where we’re spending the money. We have to maintain what we have. If not, it will cost more in the long run.”