By Bill Kirk
---- — The town manager’s Capital Improvement Program got a harsh reception Monday night from members of the Finance Committee and the public, who lashed out at Andover’s profligate spending habits and accompanying skyrocketing property taxes.
“I’m concerned about how we’re spending money,” Finance Committee member Gregory Serrao said during a meeting with members of the School Committee, Board of Selectmen and other town officials. “The debt model shows we are getting to unsustainable spending levels.”
He wasn’t the only one concerned about Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski’s plan for future projects, known as the Capital Improvement Program, or CIP.
Finance Committee member Margaret Kruse said she was worried about the impact on taxpayers.
“We have the Bancroft School tax increase coming online,” she said. “The rest of these projects might come in the next year or two or three.”
Kruse said if selectmen put forth the projects as tax overrides, “they probably won’t all pass. If you throw them all out there at once, they’ll all fail.”
Several residents agreed.
“It’s staggering the amount of tax increases we are getting,” Mike Roli of 2 College Circle said. “People can’t afford this. Maybe some people can, but a lot of us, a lot of seniors, are having difficulty.”
Greg Rigby of 131 Rattlesnake Road said the average tax bill in town has gone up 46 percent over the last 10 years.
“It’s not just seniors who are affected,” he said. “Everybody in town is affected. You have to get control of taxes.”
The Bancroft School project, which cost about $50 million, was paid for partly through a voter-approved debt service override, which adds about $100 to the average tax bill starting in 2015. But that’s on top of about an additional $238 a year taxpayers are shelling out now for big-ticket items approved in the past, such as the Public Safety Center.
Stapczynski’s CIP would ask voters to approve spending on six more multi-million dollar projects, including a new Ballardvale fire station, a new town yard, renovations to Andover High School, purchase of land along the Merrimack River from Phillips Academy, and purchase of land from Reichhold Chemical for ballfields.
Spending would be phased in over the next few years. The actual cost for the projects hasn’t been set, but even broad estimates show funding for the town manager’s list would exceed $35 million.
Finance Committee Chairman Jon Stumpf said Monday night’s discussion was the first chance his members had to question the town manager’s proposed figures.
“This is the first dialogue we’ve had about the fiscal 2015 budget,” he said. “The Finance Committee is saying, ‘Wait a minute guys, we need to prioritize these exempt-debt borrowing items to be fair to the taxpayers.’”
Stumpf said the biggest concern he has is that taxpayers will be doling out more for debt in 2015 — about $324 on average — than they have in decades. In fact, the debt requirement will be the highest it’s been since 1997, when it was just $190. Last year, debt on big projects was costing taxpayers about $166. Next year, it will almost double, bringing the average taxpayer’s bill to nearly $9,000.
Stapczynski said the CIP is a work in progress, with nothing set in stone until projects are approved by selectmen, Town Meeting and voters at large.
“That list is my vision of what big projects lay ahead,” he said. “When they mature to the point of having real construction numbers, we will take that to Town Meeting and a debt-exemption vote. It could be a year from now or five years from now.”
The town manager said that while debt may seem high, in the past it’s been a higher percentage of the overall budget than it is now.
He added that while people may have seen their property taxes go up 46 percent in 10 years, that’s because their property values have also gone up.
“That’s a tricky argument,” he said, referring to Rigby’s comment. “Taxes are based on the value of your house, among other things.”
That doesn’t make it any easier for people living on fixed incomes, Roli said. He noted that for many people, Social Security cost-of-living increases aren’t keeping up with local property tax increases.
“We are going backward,” he said. “You’re killing us. It isn’t affordable. I don’t know how you can buy conservation land and put in playing fields when we are struggling to pay for other projects.”