By Bill Kirk
---- — Sky-high property taxes dominated Monday night’s candidates forum at Memorial Hall Library, with the two candidates for an open seat on the Board of Selectmen sparring over how to treat seniors on fixed incomes.
“Property taxes are incredible,” said Jodi Oberto, 46, a sales rep with a manufacturing firm. She recounted a conversation she had last weekend with an elderly couple who told her that after living in town for years, they had to sell their home because they couldn’t afford the $20,000 property tax bill.
She favored giving seniors a break so they can stay in town.
“They (senior citizens) don’t have children in schools,” she said. “They’ve done their part. They’ve paid their fair share. Maybe a percentage of what they pay can be reduced. We should do anything we can do to reduce their burden to make their lives easier.”
But Mary O’Donoghue, 57, a local Realtor, disagreed.
“I don’t like a proposal that singles out a group for a tax break or special attention,” she said. “It’s not addressing the issue. We need to look at the big picture. We’re all in this together. We have to do what’s best for everybody.”
The two candidates are vying to replace Selectman Mary Lyman, who has opted against seeking another term. The election is March 25.
The forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Andover/North Andover and televised by Andover-TV, was attended by about 30 people, who wrote questions on index cards that were then handed to moderator Heather McNeil.
In addition to the candidates for selectman, unopposed candidates were also allowed to speak and answer a few questions. They included School Committee candidate Joel Blumstein, Town Moderator incumbent Sheila Doherty, and Housing Authority candidate Jack O’Donohue.
The selectman’s candidates, however, created the most interesting exchanges in what was an otherwise fairly sedate event.
While the debate over tax breaks for senior citizens offered the sharpest point of disagreement, the two candidates also took opposing stances on several other matters.
They disagreed — for different reasons — with Selectman Dan Kowalski’s idea to use $1 million in free cash to reduce the tax burden on residents.
Oberto said the tax break should be bigger, adding that the elderly couple she spoke with over the weekend needed more relief than just $70.
“We can do something better,” she said, adding that some people are calling Kowalski a “saint” for his proposal.
O’Donoghue, meanwhile, said Kowalski’s proposal “raises an important point,” except that his solution would be a one-time fix when a long-term one is needed.
“The problem is next year when the money is no longer there,” she said. “Then you’ve got a problem. These ideas need to be carefully thought out. I don’t think this is the best proposal.”
The candidates agreed that rezoning of the Town Yard is unnecessary, but they disagreed on what the next step should be.
O’Donoghue said the town manager was working on a study that will be presented in June on how to proceed.
Oberto countered that the time for studies is over.
“If we stopped studying it and spent that money to fix it, it would be done by now,” she said. “We don’t have to go through all the extra work. We can make the space work.”
O’Donoghue countered: “We need a plan on the table.”
They both seemed to agree that the cost of personnel — in salaries and benefits for town employees — is what’s causing the biggest problem in the town budget.
“Personnel is 70 percent of the budget,” O’Donoghue said. “You can nip and tuck in other areas, but that will have no effect unless you do something about personnel.”
Oberto added, “People out there are losing their jobs and houses while people in Town Hall are getting pay raises.”
When asked about the rising cost of health insurance for town employees and retirees, Oberto said she went to a meeting last week of retired teachers to hear the town’s presentation on switching that group out of the state-backed GIC insurance program and into the town-funded program.
“Everybody is a little upset with this,” she said. “You don’t want to hurt anybody, but you need to get the best price for everybody.”
Someone in the audience asked about communication between the various boards and commissions and the town manager.
O’Donoghue seemed to think communication has improved, while Oberto said it could get better.
“Communication has improved in the recent past,” O’Donoghue said. “There is more collaboration than in years past. You have to listen carefully to colleagues and make a decision. In tough financial times, you have to give a little to get a lot.”
Oberto agreed that communication is “the key,” but added that it has to be based on “what’s best for Andover. It has to be a grown-up conversation. It can’t be kids in the school yard.”
Throughout the forum, both candidates stressed that the power in town lies with residents at Town Meeting.
O’Donoghue touted her experience on the Finance Committee, saying that the “power is with you, the residents ... the Board of Selectmen vote on the budget, but the people at Town Meeting rely on the Board of Selectmen and town officials for good information. They rely on the advice they get from the town.”
Oberto agreed, saying “the most important thing is to get involved in town government.”
The forum was televised live on Andover TV and will be re-broadcast on Channel 22 for Comcast customers or Channel 45 for Verizon customers. Check local listings for times.