Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

March 20, 2014

Officials move to quell taxpayer unrest

Underride, budget caps among proposals to trim spending

By Bill Kirk
bkirk@andovertownsman.com

---- — Taxpayers may see less of an increase in their property taxes next year thanks to a vote last week by the Board of Selectmen.

But some town officials, and at least one resident, warned that if the School Department doesn’t go along with the plan, taxpayers won’t see any savings at all.

School officials, meanwhile, say the problem isn’t the school budget, but low revenue estimates by the town manager and the shifting sands of a fluid budget process.

“It’s Groundhog Day,” said outgoing School Committee Chairman Dennis Forgue, noting that the budget debate going on this year is no different than years past. “I call it the dance. This is an annual discussion.”

Forgue said the problem is that final revenue numbers aren’t in and Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski typically underestimates the amount of money the town is going to get from such sources as state aid.

“This has been going on a long time,” he said. “But it puts the schools in a tough spot. It’s unfortunate. We have to advocate for funds, and people think we are asking for more than we should be getting. We’ll budget to whatever the number really is, but we have to come to a consensus on what the number really is.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Mike Roli of 2 College Circle, a senior citizen and frequent critic of town spending, told selectmen and Finance Committee members at a joint meeting last week that residents are tired of tax increases and officials need to rein in the schools.

“It’s time for you to stand up to them,” he said. “You need to tell the town residents they (the School Department) are the reason you can’t reduce the budget.”

He added, “Maybe you should tell taxpayers just how much it costs to take care of schools ... that they have increased the number of teachers in two years — by 108 teachers. Now, in this budget, they want to add another eight. They are a runaway School Committee with a runaway superintendent. There is no control in this town over those people.”

In response to a recent outcry over rising tax bills, Selectman Dan Kowalski earlier this month proposed taking $1 million from the town’s free-cash account and putting it toward the tax levy, thus lowering taxes by about $70 on the average $550,000 home.

Instead, selectmen last week voted 4-1 to cut taxes by reducing the town side of the ledger by about $200,000 and the schools by $400,000. The $600,000 spending cut would trim tax bills next year by about $43.

Taxes are scheduled to climb again by several hundred dollars next year as the second payment on the $50 million Bancroft School, along with other projects and spending initiatives, hits tax bills.

Selectmen and Finance Committee members say they are hearing more than ever from constituents that they can’t handle the constant rise in taxes as the town pays more and more for generous employee salary and benefit packages, skyrocketing retirement costs, enormous capital projects and ongoing infrastructure maintenance.

“The overarching issue is that the whole board recognizes the tax burden is a challenge for residents to consume,” Kowalski said late last week. “My proposal, what I was looking for, was an acknowledgement that there is a problem. Now we need to find a solution. There are a lot of possible solutions.”

One possibility suggested by Selectman Brian Major is for the town to pass what is known as an “underride.” While overrides can permanently increase taxes to pay for projects or operating expenses, an underride would permanently lower taxes, giving taxpayers a permanent break on their property tax bills by reducing the overall levy that is charged to them.

“Let’s say we reduce the levy from $100 million to $99 million,” he said. “So you’d start next year with a lower number. You could still increase taxes next year by 2 1/2 percent, it would just be 2 1/2 percent of a lower number.”

Selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli said another approach could be to set a policy that no town or school budget could increase by more than 1 or 2 percent a year.

“The Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee could establish a rate of increase before the budget gets developed, whether it’s 1 or 2 percent,” he said. “That would keep our financial policies in place and provide relief to the taxpayers. Departments would still get more money, it would just be reducing the increase of the budget.”

Selectmen and Finance Committee members said that any type of change needs to be made in such a way that the School Department can’t stack Town Meeting and have its revenues restored by a popular vote of school supporters, something that has occurred previously.

Roli urged town officials not to back down in the face of such a threat.

But it’s not just the School Committee that is putting fear into the hearts of town officials.

There is talk that some residents may be gearing to propose their own budget reductions at Town Meeting, something Finance Committee member Joanne Marden said officials should be prepared for.

“I’d like for us to do it (make cuts) and not have someone take the microphone at Town Meeting and do it,” Vispoli said. “That would be a nightmare.”

To which Marden replied: “There are a lot of people out there ... it’s different this year.”