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3 towns weigh possible tax hikes

As the municipal budget planning season kicks into gear, officials in Dracut, Westford, and Winchester are weighing potential ballot measures to raise taxes.

In Dracut, the School Committee is considering seeking a Proposition 2½ override to fund an anticipated gap between its proposed fiscal 2014 school budget — which calls for a $1.4 million increase — and what the town offers.

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In Westford, officials have discussed seeking an override — a permanent property tax increase — to avoid a projected fiscal 2014 deficit resulting largely from added school costs. A larger override to avoid shortfalls over a three-year period also is being considered.

And in Winchester, a $200,000 to $400,000 override to fund technology needs has been proposed, and selectmen also are considering seeking one or more debt exclusions – temporary tax increases – to fund $1 million to $2 million in capital projects.

Westford’s town manager, Jodi Ross, said that after she drafted a preliminary fiscal 2014 budget last fall, the school district asked for an additional $975,000 because of an unexpected rise in special education costs, and to fund several new positions. Later, that request was adjusted to $703,000. 

Ross said she has revised her budget — which already had provided for a $1.2 million increase in spending — to give the schools an additional $450,000, while the town’s Finance Committee has proposed raising that figure to $555,000.  

She said the town could meet the school system’s request and avoid an override for next year by tapping its capital account. But without an override this year, Ross projects the town will face a $2 million deficit next year that would need to be covered either by a tax increase or job cuts.

Ross said various override scenarios have been discussed, but the most recent one calls for a $3.6 million tax increase that would cover the anticipated deficit for the next three fiscal years.

Kelly Ross, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said no decision has been made, but he does not expect to ask voters to approve an override this year.

“I have not heard anyone expressing enthusiasm for an override this year on the Board of Selectmen or the Finance Committee,” said Ross, who is not related to the town manager.

“The School Committee has a request for more than the town manager has currently budgeted, but even they have not gone too deeply into how that should happen.”

He said officials are reluctant to seek a tax increase when the economic recovery is not complete and “there are still some people hurting and out of work.”

“If we were to decide this week to go for it, there would just be a month before Town Meeting” when the override-contingent budget would be discussed, he added. “That’s not a lot of time to try to explain it to people.”

Kelly Ross said that if an override is not taken up this year, the town next year will “have to make a decision about the merits of covering services versus an override” to preserve the jobs that would otherwise have to be cut.

Westford has achieved significant savings over the last few years, including through negotiating contracts in which unions agreed to no raises for two years and to changes in the design of the town’s health plan, Jodi Ross said.

“But you run out of places to do that after a while,” she said.

Kathy Auth, director of school finance, said that about $465,000 of the added spending requested by the school district was to fund an increase in tuition costs for special education students placed out of the district.

The remainder is to add 10.3 full-time positions to meet the educational needs of the existing school population.

The Dracut School Committee is weighing the idea of pairing an override request with a proposal to rescind the town’s adoption of the Community Preservation Act, which would eliminate the 2 percent property-tax surcharge residents pay to support local affordable housing, open space, historic preservation, and recreation projects.

“We laid off 54 employees last year and are in the process of closing one of our elementary schools,” committee vice chairman Matthew Sheehan said, referring to the Parker Avenue Elementary School. “We think everything needs to be on the table as we go into the next budget season.

“This increase is something we absolutely need,” Sheehan said, noting that the committee’s proposed budget would restore four of the positions cut last year but otherwise maintain services at existing levels.

Winchester selectmen are discussing several possible voter requests for tax increases, according to Town Manager Richard C. Howard.

Selectman James A. Johnson has proposed the $200,000 to $400,000 override to fund technology needs. Johnson’s plan involves creating a stabilization account for technology and funding it with the override revenues.

The town secured special legislation about a decade ago to create two special stabilization funds, one for building upgrades and one for equipment purchases, including technology, but Howard said both funds are currently depleted.

“I think it’s a pretty creative idea in terms of trying to carve out technology as its own entity,” he said, noting that when capital funding decisions are made, “technology often times gets bumped down the ladder.”

Winchester selectmen also are considering seeking one or more Proposition 2½ debt exclusions — temporary tax increases for the years it takes to pay off loans – to fund $1 million to $2 million in various small-scale capital projects.

John Laidler can be reached at Laidler@globe.com.
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