The Budget: Andover

From the Townsman:

This year’s average Andover property tax bill is about $6,800. Without a Proposition 2 1/2 override and substantially higher taxes, programs could be eliminated and public employees let go, say officials.

Andover’s budget is more than $124 million. When factored together, the total cost of Andover employee salaries and health insurance is expected to cost $83.6 million this fiscal year, an increase of $14.4 million compared to the $69.2 million spent in fiscal year 2004.

The cost of insuring both active and retired town and school employees has risen $4.5 million, or 55 percent from fiscal year 2004 levels.

In addition to health insurance increases, total employee salary expenses for both the town and schools have jumped $9.9 million, a 16 percent increase over fiscal ’04 levels.

The cost has climbed both to pay for raises and because of the addition of new employees.

Public employees can receive different types of raises each year. There are annual salary increases covering cost-of-living adjustments, and workers can receive pay bumps each year for accruing work experience in town. These are known as step and longevity increases. Andover teachers advancing their degrees — such as those earning a masters degree — can also receive raises known as track increases.

“The basic salaries — including steps and tracks — and the health insurance, those particular budget numbers in the picture, those are the cost-drivers,” said Finance Committee Chairwoman Joanne Marden. “Those are the big numbers in the equation.”

Over the last several years, Marden said the town and schools have been able to cover cost increases each year because of revenue from new growth and by increasing the property tax levy by the 21/2 percent normally allowed under state law. But the new construction has slowed.

“If you have money coming in, you can afford it,” said Marden. “It’s when you don’t have the money coming in…”

Next year Andover officials will raise the tax levy to its legal limit, but are budgeting for only $1 million in new growth associated with real estate development — or roughly half of what the town has collected during previous years.

If the school department’s current request is honored it will have added the equivalent of 103 new full-time employees over the past five years. In budget discussions, school officials have said the majority of these people are required under federal and state laws.

Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski said Andover’s other municipal departments have minimized salary cost increases over the last five years by not hiring additional staff. Also some veteran employees have retired — including long-time public safety workers and both the former town health and planning directors.

“What’s kept our numbers down is we haven’t had an increase in employees,” said Stapczynski. “We’ve had a number of senior people retire over the course of the last five years … There’s been some turnover in staff.”

But the addition of more school employees over the last five years isn’t the only cause for increasing salary costs, according to School Committee member Deb Silberstein. She pointed to numerous salary enhancements within municipal contracts. Each year, Town Meeting approves money to the Accumulated Benefit Account to pay retiring town workers for items such as unused sick time.

“We do not have any of those benefits on the school contracts,” said Silberstein, also a former Finance Committee member. “Some people get stipends, but we don’t have accumulated benefit, we don’t have sick-leave buy-back, we don’t have vacation leave, we don’t have overtime. These are big numbers on the municipal side and we don’t have those.”

Because officials work under significant restraints when it comes to balancing the annual operating budget with available revenues, Major said the salaries and benefits awarded to Andover employees must be considered a single package.

“There’s a finite amount of money that’s available each year,” said Major. “You’ve got to balance the health care with the pay raises for employees.”

Also from the Townsman:

After 33 years teaching English at Andover High School, town resident Kathy Zalla said she knows how important it is for a public school system to employ quality educators.

“You have to attract them with pay packages,” said Zalla, who will retire this spring. “You’ve got to have some kind of incentive, because the Lexingtons are scooping them up, and the Newtons.”

In total, Andover teachers will receive a 8.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment was awarded over the three years. All Andover teachers will receive 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment during this 2007-08 school year.

In addition, all school and town employees beginning one of their first 14 years in town receive a so-called step increase. Next fiscal year, approximately 57 percent of Andover’s teaching staff will move up a step, and receive between 2.3 and 6.8 percent more.

Also in fiscal year 2009, approximately 16 percent of Andover’s teaching staff will receive a salary-enhancing track increase, pay raises given to teachers furthering their education toward a higher-level degree.

School and town employees with 16 or more years of experience receive annual longevity salary enhancements. Teachers can receive between 1 and 3 percent extra.

No changes to teachers’ step and track benefit schedules were collectively bargained during the most recent round of negotiations, which began in January 2007 and concluded after 22 meetings between the Andover Education Association and School Committee.

The three-year pact retroactively covers from Sept. 1, 2007 up to Aug. 31, 2010.

“Virtually every (teacher) contract in the country has step and track provisions, or provisions tied to years of service,” said School Committee member Deb Silberstein, adding that the contract is “very well within statewide settlements.”

“Average settlements statewide have been nine and 10 percent,” said Silberstein.

“We know that looking ahead to 2010 that our deficit grows a lot,” said Marden. “There’s a piece of that: what’s needed for the teachers’ contract. It’s not the whole problem.”

The teacher article is worth reading in full.

Previously: Cuts loom across the state, Overrides.

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