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Winchester says no to technology override

Winchester voters last Tuesday rejected a proposal to permanently increase property taxes to address the town’s many technological challenges.

Meanwhile, those who went to the polls in Marblehead and Manchester-by-the-Sea approved ballot measures that will temporarily raise taxes to fund improvement projects.

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Winchester Selectman James A. Johnson III had proposed that the town set aside money every year in a stabilization fund to improve technology at Town Hall and in the public schools. The proposal was defeated, with 3,415 residents voting against the measure and 2,885 in favor, according to preliminary election results from the town clerk’s office.

The question called for a $350,000 override of Proposition 2½, a state tax law that went into effect in 1982 and caps the annual increase in local property taxes.

“It’s a bit disappointing that the public decided this wasn’t a high enough priority to financially commit to,” Johnson said.

The vote continued Winchester’s long history of rejecting permanent tax increases. Over the past 15 years, voters have been asked to approve 15 overrides. Of those, only two passed, one of them the tax hike required to establish capital and building stabilization funds.

Those stabilization funds, created 11 years ago, help to maintain the town’s solid credit rating by setting aside money each year for capital improvements and building renovation and replacement. The technology stabilization fund would have worked in the same way, squirreling away money for pressing needs: a new firewall, modern desktop computers, and state-of-the-art networking equipment.

‘It’s a bit disap-pointing that the public decided this wasn’t a high enough priority to financially com-mit to.’

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“We will have to come up with a Plan B and develop an alternate source of funding,” Johnson said.

Winchester homeowners, who already pay among the highest property taxes in the region — $9,839 in fiscal 2013 on the average single-family property assessed at $770,456 — have apparently had enough. They will shoulder even larger tax bills to pay for the new Vinson-Owen Elementary School, which is scheduled to open this September; early next year, they will likely be asked to support a $127.2 million renovation and addition project at the town’s high school.

The Vinson-Owen project is expected to cost local taxpayers about $18 million over the next 25 years, with the Massachusetts School Building Authority covering about $10.1 million of the overall price for the new school. The high school project is still in the final design phase in the process to be approved for authority funding.

In Manchester, emergency repairs to a sewage pipe and heavy storm damage to the town’s beaches prompted local officials to seek approval of two separate debt exclusions, which are temporary tax increases for the length of time it takes to pay off the funds borrowed.

Manchester is one of only 13 communities in the state — and the only one outside of Boston’s western suburbs — with an average tax bill above $10,000, according to Department of Revenue records. Homeowners in the affluent seaside town paid $10,522 in fiscal 2013 on the average single-family property assessed at $1 million.

Still, residents on Tuesday approved the two tax increases. The first will cover the cost of underwater repairs to the sewer outfall pipe, which was found in March to be leaking into Manchester Harbor. It passed by a vote of 1,077 to 387. The second will fund work at four of the town’s beaches and passed by a vote of 1,053 to 411, according to preliminary election results released by Assistant Town Clerk Pamela B. Thorne.

The sewage pipe repairs, which already have been completed, will add 1.5 to 2 cents on the tax rate, or as much as $20 on the annual tax bill each year for the next five to 10 years, depending on the length of time it takes to pay off the debt, according to town accountant Charles Mansfield.

“The part was relatively cheap, but the engineering work and the barge required to do it ended up being $170,000,” Mansfield said of the pipe repairs.

Work on the beaches is expected to cost $510,000, and will add 5 cents on the tax rate, or roughly $50 to the annual tax bill for the years it takes to pay off the debt, Mansfield said, noting that the town may be able to recoup some of that money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The bulk of the money — $400,000 — will be earmarked for the seawall at Singing Beach, the town’s most popular beach. The remainder of the funds will be split among White Beach, Black Beach, and Tuck’s Point Park, and fund repairs to seawalls and sidewalks.

In all, 1,495 residents, or 38 percent of Manchester’s 3,930 registered voters, cast ballots on the local questions, with 31 ballots left blank. The temporary tax hikes approved Tuesday followed May’s townwide vote approving a $1.7 million debt exclusion for capping the former town dump on Pine Street, the final step in a remediation plan ordered by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Together, the three debt exclusions are expected to add about $300 to the average annual bill in Manchester.

Marblehead voters also approved temporary tax hikes on Tuesday. The funding will be earmarked for repairs to the town’s iconic Abbot Hall Clock Tower, a stone and brick structure that dates to 1876, and for remediation work to a Green Street property adjacent to the town landfill.

The $2.466 million debt exclusion for the clock tower passed by a ratio greater than 2 to 1, with 3,888 voting in favor of the tax hike and 1,617 against, preliminary election results show; 71 ballots were blank. The $1.165 million debt exclusion needed to remove contaminants from wetlands at 151 Green St. was a separate ballot question; it passed by a vote of 3,186 to 2,235, with 155 blank ballots.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote
@gmail.com
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