By Bill Kirk
---- — ANDOVER — In a grand gesture to cash-strapped taxpayers, Selectman Dan Kowalski Monday night threw down a challenge to his fellow board members and the town’s leadership, calling for a $1 million tax cut that could trim up to $70 from the average property tax bill.
It was a proposal that seemed to echo the sentiment of the night, as one speaker after another called for spending restraint and taxpayer relief.
“Let’s give the taxpayers a break,” said Kowalski, who made his proposal at the start of the regular Selectmen’s meeting. He proposed using $1 million in so-called ‘free cash’ that has been earmarked by Town Manager Reginald ‘Buzz’ Stapczynski to offset the high cost of retirement benefits.
“Free cash is made up of taxes we have charged our residents but haven’t spent,” he said. “Instead of taxing up to the levy, let’s consider taking that $1 million and using it to offset the tax levy and give taxpayers a one-year break.”
Kowalski said he’s been hearing from residents in town that their taxes are too high. One reason is that the initial payments on the Bancroft Elementary School override just hit the latest round of tax bills. People are seeing their taxes go up by $300 or more, he said.
The tax levy is the amount of money the town raises each year in property taxes. By law, it can only go up 2.5 percent a year. However, if the residents of a city or town vote to approve paying for a project like the $50 million Bancroft School, taxes can go up beyond 2.5 percent, as they did this year in Andover.
“This should be a priority,” said Kowalski.
The town manager replied that free cash is made up of a myriad of sources, not just tax dollars, and that it is funded primarily by town departments, leaving the school department out of the equation.
“The school department has to be a player in this,” he said. “They have to generate free cash.”
Local resident Bob Pokress, of 3 Cherrywood Circle, asked Stapczynski why the town taxes up to the levy limit almost every year.
He said since the advent of Proposition 2-1/2, the town and other municipal managers across the state develop their revenue budgets first — maximizing revenues to pay for requested or needed town services.
“That’s an approach I’ve always taken,” he said. “We maximize revenues, like hotel/motel taxes, permits, fees and property taxes. And that’s been OK’d by Selectmen and the Finance Committee. If they want me to take a different approach, I will.”
He repeated, however, “the school department and the school committee have to be part of the process.”
Pokress pressed, however, saying that property taxes are “breaking the backs of residents. It’s going to drive the middle class out. Somebody has to draw the line. The average tax bill is almost $10,000 a year. That’s scary.”
Mike Poli of 2 College Circle said the over-60 residents of town, which make up about 40 percent of the population, “can’t handle” the tax hikes any longer. He asked why North Andover only increased its budget by 1.7 percent while Andover’s is going up 4.7 percent.
“Proposition 2-1/2 doesn’t exist in this town,” he said.
Selectman Mary Lyman noted during her remarks at the start of the meeting that there are some items in the town manager’s proposed budget that should be set aside because they are just heaping more costs on taxpayers.
In particular, she noted that Fire Chief Mike Mansfield has proposed bringing Advanced Lifesaving Services, or ALS, to the department’s ambulance service, at a cost of about $100,000. A similar plan was rejected by Town Meeting last year.
“If it’s been voted on and there’s nothing new to support it, why are we bringing it up again?” she asked. “I am concerned about the budget. We vote on certain things, and they get put back in the budget.”
She noted that there were other problems in the budget that need to be addressed, such as the town manager’s proposal to use town money to pay for the lease of 160 computers for the school department. Some town officials are calling for the four-year lease to be paid out of the school-side of the budget.
Selectman Brian Major questioned whether the town should pay to hire a custodian for the youth center, which is set to be built behind the Doherty School later this year. Some officials are saying that maintenance of the new building was supposed to be paid for by the Andover Youth Foundation, not the town.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Lyman said, referring to the expenditures.
Major proposed making a list of items that need additional review and setting them aside so they don’t gum up the budget process.
Kowalski said he was prompted to act because he has heard from many people recently suffering from sticker shock with higher tax bills this year.
“I can’t tell you how many people have approached me,” he said after the meeting. “I think people need a break. I brought this up so we can have a discussion about it.”
He noted that the same debate should happen next year, when huge spending proposals may come online, including a multi-million dollar high school expansion, a proposed new town yard that could cost upwards of $20 million, a multi-million dollar early childhood education center and a new Ballardvale Fire station.
“I can tell you, you’ll get pushback from me on Ballardvale,” he said. “I haven’t seen a structural report saying we need a new building.”
He said whenever the town can save money, it ought to put those savings toward the tax levy, which benefits taxpayers and lowers their annual bills.
“If you save $300,000 on the trash contract, for example, what do you do with that savings?” he asked. “You can either not tax it or spend it somewhere else. I’d propose not taxing it.”