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Dracut voters give emphatic no to two overrides

Dracut officials will have to address the town’s fiscal shortcomings without a boost in local revenues after voters on Monday rejected overrides for schools and for the police, fire, and public works departments.

Residents who cast ballots in the special election defeated both questions by a ratio of greater than 2 to 1. In all, 43 percent — or 8,837 of the town’s 20,467 registered voters — went to the polls, a record number for a nonpresidential election.

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“People vote with their wallets,” said Dracut businessman Ted Kosiavelon, who led the Vote No on Override committee. “People simply could not afford another tax increase.”

The first question called for a $2.9 million override of Proposition 2½, the state law that caps the annual increase in local property taxes at 2.5 percent. The proposal to supplement the school budget was defeated with 6,367 voting against the measure and 2,452 in favor, according to election results from the town clerk’s office.

The second question sought a $200,000 override for town services and was defeated by a similar margin, with 6,319 voting against the proposal and 2,626 in favor.

‘I think we’re just coming out of four years of one of the worst economic downturns in our history.’

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“At the end of the day, we’re in the same situation as we were when we woke up this morning: Dracut still has a revenue generation problem,” said School Committee member Daniel O’Connell.

O’Connell, together with fellow School Committee member Joseph Wilkie, had proposed the $2.9 million override in an effort to move the town’s educational agenda forward.

“There is not enough money to provide enough [Department of Public Works] workers, firemen, policemen, or teachers,” O’Connell said. “We have to figure out how to solve that problem.”

The $2.9 million tax hike would have increased the annual property tax bill by $1.04 per $1,000 in assessed value, according to town officials. Had it passed, the bill for the owner of the average single-family home in Dracut, assessed at $268,199 last fiscal year, would have jumped by about $279. The $200,000 override would have added roughly $19.

The average tax bill in Dracut was $3,698 in the fiscal year that ended June 30, the last year for which state Department of Revenue data is available.

The school override question has been a divisive issue for months, with committees on both sides expressing their opinions with YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and hundreds of yellow “Vote No” and blue “Yes for Dracut” lawn signs. Local officials were inundated with phone calls and e-mails from residents; the outpouring was, according to Selectman Joseph DiRocco Jr., the greatest public response to an issue in 20 years.

Proponents of Question 1 argued that the $2.9 million tax hike was critical to adequately fund the town’s public schools, while opponents said Dracut residents simply could not afford to shoulder higher tax bills.

Property owners already are facing sewer and water rate hikes and temporary tax increases to pay for the town’s share of a $65 million upgrade of Greater Lowell Technical High School and a $59.96 million renovation of Dracut High School.

Selectman John Zimini, a vocal critic of the school override proposal, said the defeat sends local officials a clear signal about voters’ expectations moving forward and reaffirms the town’s long history of fiscal conservatism.

“I think we’re just coming out of four years of one of the worst economic downturns in our history,” said Zimini. “We have to move forward, try to heal the wounds from this battle, and rebuild the schools, but we need to do it in a responsible way. We’re spending taxpayer dollars. There’s going to have to be compromise.”

In the 31 years that Proposition 2½ has been in effect, Dracut has not approved any permanent tax increase. In the early 1990s, voters trounced proposals to increase their taxes to prevent police layoffs, rehire firefighters who had received pink slips, or provide additional money for the School Department.

“The voters sent a clear and loud message to the School Committee,” Kosiavelon said. “We absolutely support education and our children but we need to be responsible and live within our means.”

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

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