EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 4, 2012

Officials at odds over capital spending

Putting projects to ballot vote a possibility

By Dustin Luca

---- — ANDOVER — Around $17 million in capital improvement projects are on tap for the next five years, but how they’ll be paid for is up in the air.

Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski presented his five-year capital improvement plan to the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee and School Committee on Monday.

The plan, spread out over five years, represents nearly $17 million in spending on town projects, land purchases and more.

Seven funding sources among the full list of 38 categories exceed $1 million. The largest among them is $3.2 million requested to fund the town’s “School Site Improvement Plan,” which will replace paved areas around Doherty Middle School in the coming year.

Other projects in the plan include: $2 million in conservation land purchases, $600,000 for a school facility space needs study, $400,000 for replacing the Andover High School tennis courts, $1.3 million for major annual road maintenance and just over $1 million for school capital projects.

As the presentation moved forward, however, how the town will pay for the projects dominated the meeting. Central to the discussion was paying for the projects with non-exempt debt — borrowing money within current taxation levels and with existing revenue — or exempt debt — borrowing money by raising taxes above Proposition 2 1/2 taxation limits.

Among the funding sources outlined in the plan, $1.5 million would be borrowed using exempt debt. $9.7 million would be paid for using existing revenue sources.

Part of the issue for Jon Stumpf, Finance Committee chairman, was how the five-year plan seemingly doubled the town’s existing non-exempt debt by 2018.

“We have to make sure we take into account the taxpayers, how much they’re going to spend,” Stumpf said.

Paying for projects using exempt debt would force an election, where residents would vote for each individual request by ballot in order to approve raising taxes above the 2.5 percent maximum annual tax increase allowed under Proposition 2 1/2.

Stapczynski said doing that would allow voting taxpayers to decide what projects they wanted to approve and pay for.

“Put it to the voters, and have an election for these kinds of things to see what their priorities are,” Stapczynski said. “We may get 1,000, 1,200 people at Town Meeting, and we’ll be happy about that. But it’s nothing like having an election to really bring the voters out for them to individually decide.”

Only two projects in the capital improvement plan were listed to be paid for by exempt debt: the Ballardvale Fire Station replacement project, at $1.5 million, and the replacement of Andover’s Town Yard, with a to-be-determined cost.

Selectman Brian Major cautioned against using exempt debt.

“If we take a large amount of money and just add it to the exempt debt because, legally, we can, we’re going to lose a lot of face and credibility with the taxpayer,” he said. “They’re going to say, ‘Gee, are we going to give you another blank check for the next project you want to exempt? And you can increase that one?’ We’ve got to be extremely careful. It may be legal, but it may not be moral.”

The boards will meet again on Monday, Dec. 17 to further consider how the individual projects impact the town’s debt and taxes. That meeting will be held at School Committee conference room, 36 Bartlet Street, at 7 p.m.