By John Toole
---- — The Pelham tax rate shot up nearly 14 percent this year.
That was the highest percentage increase in Southern New Hampshire and upset a lot of people.
Traffic on the town’s electronic message board reflected residents’ concern as soon as the tax bills went out.
As of last week, a “Tax Bill” category had generated 86 replies and 5,861 views since November.
Pelham wasn’t the only town with a year-over-year double digit increase.
Derry saw one, too, while Kingston’s rate soared more than 4 percent. But taxpayers in other towns saw rates fall or at least stay level.
Danville had a more than 2 percent reduction, while Atkinson held the line.
Granite State Taxpayers chairman Jim Adams said, throughout the state, taxpayer organizations are reporting mixed results.
“There have been some areas where they are getting a tax break,” Adams said. “Other places are saying with the continued cutting of the state budget that is beginning to squeeze local budgets, the old trickledown.”
Adams estimates that split among towns is about 50-50.
Blame Pelham voters for their big bill, a nearly $3 increase in the tax rate. At Town Meeting in March, they approved school and town budgets, a new $3.9 million fire station and $1 million in school improvements.
Their sweeping approvals of spending, a rarity for Pelham, stunned town officials last March.
“It’s like we won the World Series,” School Board member Andy Ducharme said at the time.
Anxious selectmen, convening days later, expressed their appreciation to the community, while stressing the need for the town to be prudent with finances going forward and to take care planning future spending to avoid alienating taxpayers.
Bill Scanzani has lived in Pelham since 1976 and is a familiar figure around Town Hall. Over the years, he has participated on planning, economic development and capital improvement boards.
“The tax bill increase Pelham just had is the highest percentage since I’ve been in town,” Scanzani said.
He acknowledges the fire station and school improvements are a big part of the tax increase, but says that’s not the full story. There are also increases in operating budgets, plus what he calls the “pass down” from the state that includes demands for more public employee retirement funding.
“The vast majority of taxpayers have no idea what makes up their tax bill,” Scanzani said.
Taxpayers also are fooled into believing they have a lot of control at Town Meeting.
“Quite frankly, that’s not always true,” Scanzani said.
He points out local budgets don’t start at zero in New Hampshire; there are requirements under state law for municipalities and school districts to make adjustments based on prior years.
“Budgets are always going to go up,” Scanzani said.
He said he sounds like a heretic, but he believes the tax rate should be raised another $3.
“We’re heading toward a $30 tax rate,” he said. “The question is, ‘What do you want to get for your $30?’”
Scanzani said the goal should be to stabilize the tax rate higher than it is today and make investments that will bring the town and taxpayers value, such as roads and facilities that will last.
“You’re fixing everything you need to get done in town,” he said.
Borrowing costs will never be this low again, and inflation is low, so taxpayers ultimately will benefit, he said.
“You’re also building a more supportive tax base,” Scanzani said. “Intelligent people, the last thing they look at is the tax rate. They are looking at infrastructure and what doesn’t need to be replaced right away.”
The tax bill didn’t surprise Tom Gellar, a database producer and six-year Pelham resident.
“Fairly high, but not unexpected,” he said.
Gellar admits to mixed feelings as he watches the town invest in needed projects.
“People realized the need to get things done,” Gellar said. “But, obviously, people are hurting, so it’s difficult to have taxes go up.”
Gellar believes in staying informed about what is going on at Town Hall and is convinced others should, too.
“It’s helpful if people are keeping track of what is going on in town so they can prepare,” he said. “You should be paying attention, especially with taxes.”
Scanzani thinks it’s sad when he goes to a town or school deliberative session and more people are down the corridor watching their sons playing basketball.
“Those of us in the hall are going to make the decisions,” Scanzani said.
Pelham wasn’t the only town sparking taxpayer unrest with tax billings.
There was plenty of grumbling in Derry, which saw the second highest tax rate hike in the region, nearly 12 percent.
A key factor was a valuation update, which resulted in a nearly $170 million loss in the tax base, or about 6.9 percent. That reflects current property sales and real estate market conditions.
Derry officials, in announcing the tax rate, didn’t match up this year’s number with the $27.27 on file with the state Department of Revenue Administration for last year.
Due to the valuation update, they did an analysis to provide taxpayers a “comparable” rate of $29.08 for 2011. That results in just a 4.8 percent rate increase.
“You have to recalculate the tax rate to have an apples to apples comparison,” said Frank Childs, the town’s chief financial officer.
The average Derry home valued at $249,900 last year would have paid $6,815 in taxes. The same home with the value updated for 2012 to $232,700, would pay $7,093. That’s a $278 or 4.1 percent increase in the homeowner’s tax bill.
Salem’s tax rate was in the middle of the pack, about a 2.2 percent increase.
“Part of that comes through the planning of the selectmen and the School Board,” Budget Committee member Paul Huard said. “They have been giving us a budget that is reasonable, with a minimal increase.”
Burdens for the school district and the town include increased pension demands from the state and rising health insurance expenses.
“That is not helpful to Salem,” Huard said.
The town has tried to maintain services and help residents who are struggling, he said.
“I think Salem is doing a good job managing its money,” he said.
Huard credits a good working relationship among the School Board, Budget Committee and selectmen.
Danville Selectmen’s Chairman Shawn O’Neil admits his town keeps a close eye on spending.
“We’re very good hawks on the budget,” he said. “We scrutinize every expenditure. But we’re not pennywise and pound foolish.”
Everyone helps in Danville, he said, whether it’s the tax collector working to collect delinquent taxes or assist taxpayers with payment options, or firefighters helping with maintenance projects when they aren’t putting out fires.
“It’s not just one entity or one thing,” O’Neil said. “It’s a series of things and it really does pan out.”
There were reasons why Atkinson came in with a level tax rate, $18.80.
“We have a pretty good Budget Committee, No. 1,” said Fred Childs, Atkinson selectmen’s chairman.
But he also praised the work of department heads and the town administrator.
“They’ve done a good job,” he said. “We’ve asked them not to spend foolishly and they haven’t.”
A frugal approach doesn’t seem to hold back progress in Atkinson.
The selectman said the town has a new fire station, library, town garage and a newer police station.
The town has always made good use of capital reserves, planning for purchases, he said.
“We’ve kind of spent wisely,” he said.
Adams sees that as a common factor among towns where tax rates remain reasonable.
“The places that are frugal, spending wisely and cutting their budgets are not seeing high taxes,” Adams said.
Others communities that pursue spending without regard to consequences, are finding a different result.
“Now is the time to pay up,” Adams said.
Adams acknowledges state budget decisions do affect local communities but he said they aren’t the only reason local taxes rise. “Everybody needs to cut spending and make certain they are getting the best value for their tax dollar,” he said.
Voters in Pelham, Adams said, may have concluded it was OK this one time to spend for a new fire station and make repairs to schools. But he added a cautionary reminder for taxpayers everywhere.
“When things go up, they very seldom come down,” Adams said.
Tax rates in Southern New Hampshire Town 2012 2011 Percentage of change Atkinson $18.80 $18.80 0.0 Danville $27.18 $27.84 - 2.38 Derry $30.48 $27.27 + 11.78 Hampstead $21.94 $22.28 - 1.52 Kingston $21.64 $20.72 + 4.45 Londonderry $20.50 $20.34 + 0.8 Newton $23.91 $24.12 - 0.85 Pelham $24.40 $21.41 + 13.95 Plaistow $24.71 $24.71 0.0 Salem $20.58 $20.14 + 2.2 Sandown $20.78 $20.75 + 0.15 Windham $23.05 $23.08 - 0.15 Source: New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration Note: Tax rates are per $1,000 of property value.