EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 16, 2013

Capital Improvement plan brings call for restraint

Proposal raises concerns about Andover's spending habits

By Bill Kirk

---- — ANDOVER — A Capital Improvement Program that last week resulted in a call for Andover to stem its profligate spending habits and accompanying skyrocketing property taxes goes before the Board of Selectmen for discussion and a possible vote tonight.

Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski’s 2015 to 2019 plan for future projects, known as the Capital Improvement Program, or CIP, is raising concerns that Andover is reaching “unsustainable spending levels,” Finance Committee member Gregory Sarno said at a meeting last week.

Finance Committee member Margaret Kruse joined others in saying they were worried about the impact on taxpayers.

“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 tax increase for the Bancroft School project, which cost about $50 million and was paid for partly through a voter-approved debt service override, goes online this year. It will add 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 additional 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 his committee is calling on town officials 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, meanwhile, 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.”