Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

February 6, 2014

Time to get serious on town spending

The Andover Townsman

---- — One thing is becoming quite clear in Andover these days. It appears taxpayers have reached their tipping point.

The town’s older residents have not hid the fact that escalating tax bills are making it harder for them to be able to live out their lives in Andover in the comforts of their own homes.

But a Town Meeting article really calls attention to how severe the problem has become, at least for some. The article, submitted by citizen petition, seeks to freeze property taxes for qualifying residents 70 and older until their property is transferred or sold.

Among its provisions, the article says the town “... shall not, during any fiscal year, increase the rate of taxation on any real property at a percentage greater than the percentage of any Social Security cost-of-living adjustment for that fiscal year.”

The state already offers tax exemptions for income-eligible seniors with financial needs as well as disabled veterans, the blind and others facing hardships.

However, we’re not entirely sure a tax freeze for the elderly is the right answer. Such a measure would open the door for other groups to argue for similar treatment, and it would be difficult for any community to support extending relief to whole segments of the population.

But what we hope the request does do is send a message to the town’s leaders that spending must be brought back under control. Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski has said in recent weeks he is pulling back on major projects in the coming fiscal year to reduce the impact on taxes. We hope townspeople hold him to that.

That won’t, however, stop the countless projects already in progress. It also does not put an end to existing and future needs.

What may be more realistic is for the town to take a hard look at priorities and get serious about expenses it can control. Expectations must also be adjusted to come in line with reality.

The Ballardvale Fire Station may be a perfect example. After five years of work, a building study committee charged with finding a site for a new station has recently delivered its recommendation. While opposition to the proposed site exists, the real issue may be whether a brand new station — at an estimated construction cost of $6 million — is thoroughly needed.

Sure, a new station would be wonderful if money was no object. But residents have put forth three articles for this spring’s Town Meeting that seek to renovate and potentially expand the existing station — at considerably less cost.

One resident supporting a request for $500,000 to renovate the existing station pointed to the rising tax rate as a reason to repair over building new.

“To be honest with you, I don’t feel it’s necessary to have a brand new station,” Deborah Lucci said. “We can use what we have.”

That sentiment is one that should be considered more in town. Officials must continue to look at the way the town currently does business and consider areas where savings can be made and costs can be kept from spiraling.

It’s unrealistic to think needs will go away. Eventually, work will have to happen, projects will have to get done. But creativity and alternative funding mechanisms are not only prudent today, but necessary.

As for the town’s older residents, another Town Meeting article seeks to increase the number of hours they can volunteer to the town in exchange for earning a break on their property taxes. The request, submitted by the Council on Aging board and the town’s director of elder services, would allow eligible seniors to volunteer up to 125 hours in a given tax year for a maximum abatement of $1,000. Currently, the program is capped at 100 hours for a maximum abatement of $675.

Unlike the property tax freeze, the expansion of the senior tax work-off program would be a valuable benefit for the town to extend to its seniors. The older residents of Andover deserve a fighting chance to remain a part of the community. They should not have to feel they are being driven from town because they can no longer afford to live here.