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Westford Seniors Seek Property Tax Relief

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“There’s no money growing on trees in this town,” said senior Henry McDowell to town officials.

He was one of about 30 people who attended an afternoon meeting on the impact of rising property taxes on seniors.

A pending article on the annual Town Meeting warrant will seek to raise property taxes to fund a $1.6 million increase to cover a 6 percent gap in teachers salaries as compared to comparable communities.

The article is supported by the School Committee.

But the seniors are registering their worries over fixed incomes and increasing tax burdens.

Resident Chris Kuntz mapped out a scenario of pending capital projects that she said concerns her.

Among them are proposals for a $7 million renovation of the Roudenbush Community Center and an addition to the J.V. Fletcher Library. A new Center Fire Station is currently under construction at Blake’s Hill and Boston Roads.

“Some of us are frightened about what the taxes are going to be,” she said. “Social Security is not increasing…Our expenses are not declining…People in our age bracket are being squeezed.”

Kuntz said she doesn’t think the teachers should be deprived of an increase, but “I’m looking at the total impact to seniors,” she added.

Town Manager Jodi Ross noted that if voters deny a Proposition 2 1/2 override, the increase in property taxes for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is projected to be 2.4 percent. With an override taxes would increase for the next fiscal year by 3.09 percent.

Proposition 2 ½ is a state law that limits property tax increases to 2.5 percent plus new growth. An override would permanently raise taxes.

But not all the proposed projects will have an impact on property taxes, said Ross.

“The Roudenbush is within the levy limit. The article that’s on the warrant will pay for most of it with CPA funds which you’ve already paid through your tax bill and the balance the town would fund is within the limit,” Ross said.

At Town Meeting on March 25, voters will also be asked to decide whether to apply $6.3 million in Community Preservation Act funds toward the renovation of the Roudenbush building at 65 Main St.

The Community Preservation Act of 2000 allowed communities to add a property tax surcharge in order to get state matching funds. The money collected could go toward historic and land preservation, recreation, and the creation of affordable housing. The 3 percent surcharge is included in the annual property tax bill.

The fire station was funded by a debt exclusion – a temporary tax increase — approved by voters at a prior Town Meeting and will cause an increase in the tax rate, Ross said. Homeowners have not yet begun paying on the tax increase for the building, she added.

But the library project is still a few years away and not yet having an effect on property taxes, said Ross

Override questions

Resident Harry Gillogly wanted to know more about salary negotiations with the teachers.

“What’s the normal process for getting salaries adjusted and did you follow that process?” he said.

“The normal process for establishing salaries is the School Committed and the teachers union get together for about a year usually to negotiate a contract. The contracts are about three years in length…many, many topics are being covered,” said School Committee member Tom Clay.

The School Committee stays within the guidelines of the Town Manager’s recommended budget, Clay said. If there isn’t enough money in the budget to meet the teachers salary needs, a property tax hike is the only option, he added.

Superintendent Bill Olsen noted that he is sometimes asked why the School Department didn’t keep pace with the teachers salaries over the years.

“This was one of the most rapidly growing towns in Massachusetts for a number of years,” Olsen said.

Over the past 30 years, he said, the student population jumped from 2,700 to 5,300.

“We couldn’t build schools fast enough,” Olsen said. “There were so many priorities that needed to be funded…that there weren’t any funds left over to address the growing gap in salaries.”

McDowell was unmoved.

“I’ve paid school tax for 65 years,” he said. “I don’t mind paying a share of it, but 51 percent is ridiculous.”

McDowell said there are states that do not require seniors over age 65 to pay taxes on the schools.

Cameron Senior Center Staff Elder Outreach Coordinator Annette Cerullo reminded town officials of the financial challenges some seniors are facing.

“There’s a lot of seniors who are living on $30,000 and paying $5,000 a year on their property taxes. The percentage of their income going to taxes is large,” she said.

But Olsen pointed to the town’s crowning glory: the School Department’s record. Westford schools are within the top 5 percent in the state in terms of achievement and among the lowest in the state in terms of per pupil cost, he said.

“We hope you’ll consider making that reinvestment in the town,” he said.