Neil Senior doesn’t have any political experience. He hasn’t been to Town Meeting in years. While he’s lived in Andover for seven years, he’s spent much of his time traveling out of state, including a 10-month stint in California.
But Senior, who recently took a new job that allows him to be in town a lot more these days, said the time is ripe for new leadership in Andover, and he wants to use his business acumen to be part of it.
“There seems to be an appetite for change,” said Senior, 49, of 14 Alderbrook Road.
A new town manager will be hired by the Board of Selectmen by the end of June, residents are clamoring about skyrocketing tax bills, and neighborhood groups are forming across the community to challenge decisions being made by leadership.
“It seemed like a good time to say, ‘Let me be part of this,’” said Senior, who is a vice president at Avid Technologies, a software company that specializes in the entertainment industry.
It’s a job that doesn’t require as much out-of-town travel as his old position with EMC, a computer data storage company, where he managed big budgets and big staffs. He said that experience can be applied to town affairs.
“The residents of this town are like the shareholders,” he said. “The folks who run the town are like executives. It’s incumbent on leadership that people get value for that. If my taxes go up, will my services get better?”
Blue collar upbringing
The son of a union steelworker who was so active in Boston politics he was known unofficially as the “Mayor of Hyde Park,” Senior spent his formative years listening to big-city politicians talking about how to solve a myriad of municipal problems.
When his father died 10 years ago, the line to get into the funeral Mass went around the block and included such luminaries as good friend Mayor Thomas Menino.
Senior said his father “fought for what unions deserved. He had to fight; he was up against big corporations.”
Ironically, the younger Senior has never been in a union. In fact, when Senior, one of the only children in his big family to graduate from college, got his first job as a manager for an IT company, his father thought he was the enemy, even admonishing him: “Don’t ever forget where you came from.”
If elected, those are words Senior likely won’t forget, as he has “incredible respect” for the hard, often thankless work done by town employees, particularly police and firefighters.
“They do a job the majority of people don’t want to do,” he said.
At the same time, he said, he recognizes that unions need to be partners with town leaders in solving some of the financial problems facing communities like Andover.
“The benefits we sign up for now we will pay for later,” he said. “Unions need to be willing to negotiate. They have to be willing to meet in the middle.”
Flawed budget process
Senior said he sees problems in the way the annual town budget is developed.
“There are increases in every department,” he said. “Why is that? Every year there shouldn’t be an increase. What type of process do they go through? Why aren’t some budgets staying the same or being reduced? And what is the plan to pay for this? It seems they (town officials) feel like they have a captive audience and just go up 2 1/2 percent every year because they can. That’s not the process we should follow.”
He said budget writers should start from a baseline of zero-percent increases “and build around that.”
He said one answer is to increase economic development, which would increase property tax revenues. He said the town of Franklin has an even tax classification rate for industrial/commercial and residential property owners. That way, more businesses are willing to settle in Franklin because they pay less in property taxes.
In Andover, meanwhile, business taxes are high and town employees seem to make it harder for businesses to locate here, which he said is like shooting themselves in the foot.
“If you polled business owners in town, you’d find that the permitting process here is brutal,” he said. “People are working for the town and making it harder for businesses to come here.”
The result, he said, is fewer property tax dollars that are needed to pay town workers.
Senior said the town needs to take a fresh approach to business development, as well as other aspects of town life.
“It’s disjointed,” he said, adding the business community, residents and leadership don’t all seem to work together. “Businesses are looking for help from the town.”
As selectman, he would “propose the town have a liaison with the business community. We aren’t trying to rebuild a ghost town here. With a little TLC, it (downtown and the business community) can be great.”
Another way of raising revenue would be to tap nonprofit organizations, like local private schools, which currently pay nothing in property taxes.
The so-called “PILOT” program, which stands for payments in lieu of taxes, would charge fees to institutions like Phillips Academy, which already pays an annual PILOT fee; Pike School and Merrimack College. The charges wouldn’t be as high as what for-profit corporations pay, he noted, but any money raised would help defray costs incurred by the town.
“This is an opportunity,” he said. “We could work with the institutions. The town does provide services.”
Phillips is the only nonprofit in town that currently makes annual PILOT payments. The town is in negotiations now with the school over a new, long-term contract for payments through that program. Selectmen and the town manager are also negotiating with other schools regarding new PILOTs.
Senior said he and his family moved to Andover seven years ago because of the “quality schools and the quality of life.” He said while people feel good about the elementary and middle schools in town, “you get mixed reviews at the high school.”
While MCAS scores have been good at the elementary and middle school levels, “high school results have been declining over the last few years. And we had a principal who left abruptly. I want to understand what’s going on at the high school. Is it funding or leadership?”
He added there are several “multi-unit development projects” that could add more children to the school district, increasing costs even further.
“I’m not saying they are bad, but they have an impact on the town,” he said. “While we may approve something today, how does that impact schools, public safety and overall infrastructure problems?”
He said that as a selectman, he would want to ensure adequate funding for the schools, but would also work to make sure money is being spent wisely.
“The selectmen, town manager and School Committee have to be in this together,” he said. “There’s only so much money to go around. I’d prioritize toward the schools to improve the schools.”
Address: 14 Alderbrook Road
Family: Wife, Alison; daughter, Isabelle, 10; two older children from previous marriage
Years in Andover: Seven; originally from Boston
Education: Engineering and business degrees, Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston and Lesley College in Cambridge; pursuing Master of Business Administration at Northeastern University, Boston
Professional experience: Vice president of customer service for Avid Technologies; formerly with EMC
Political experience: None