By Julie Huss
---- — DERRY — There’s some serious sticker shock in Derry as residents open their tax bills at the start of the holiday season.
“Our bill jumped $1,400, which is a lot right before Christmas,” Amy Velez said.
She and husband Jeff have lived in their Old Auburn Home for eight years.
The Velezes paid $3,338 in taxes in July. They now owe another $4,706 by Dec. 11.
They’re not alone.
Town Administrator John Anderson and some town councilors said they have received calls from unhappy property owners, asking why their tax bills are so high.
Derry’s current tax rate is $30.48 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, up $1.40 from last year’s rate of $29.08. That’s significantly higher than other Southern New Hampshire towns.
Just ask former town councilor Kevin Coyle.
He said many factors drive a tax rate, but said the town and school district have done little to make it better.
“Both have consistently refused to cut back on services, despite a declining enrollment in the schools and stagnant population growth,” Coyle said. “Lower taxes are a result of lower spending and until our town leaders recognize this, Derry’s taxes will continue to go up.”
Coyle, recently elected as a county commissioner, heads the Derry Alliance of Taxpayers, a group formed to promote lower taxes in town.
Other towns and their rates are $20.50 in Londonderry, $18.80 in Atkinson, $20.58 in Salem and $23.05 in Windham.
In March, the Town Council approved a $45 million budget, up 2.3 percent over last year. That’s below the charter-mandated tax cap, as Town Administrator John Anderson pointed out.
The town charter requires spending increases be kept under a 3.2 percent increase.
But, the reality is, tax bills are higher this year.
Town and school district leaders have several reasons for that increase.
One is a townwide valuation, which cost the town $167 million in property values.
“You are now raising more money off a smaller amount of money,” Anderson said.
The 2012 tax rate breaks down this way: $10.39 for the town; $16.35 for the school; $2.59 for state education; $1.15 for the county. Together, the local school and statewide education tax increased 6.3 percent. That’s where town officials point when people complain about higher bills.
Voters approved a $79 million school budget in March.
“And that 62 percent of the taxes, the school side, is not capped at all,” Anderson said.
The number of children in town helps drive how much taxpayers pay for schools, he said.
“If you really want to fix the problem, put a tax cap on the school side,” he said.
The school district will have to pick up more in state retirement costs, a problem reverberating around the state.
Those costs aren’t controlled at the local level, so local officials have to cut and save what is within their control.
“We then have to pick up the ball, it will come on the back of the taxpayers,” Anderson said. “That’s the hardest part to get across to people, it’s not the town side.”
But school officials say a lot of their costs are out of their control, too.
Next year, the district faces a potential $1 million or more loss in state adequacy aid.
School Superintendent Laura Nelson said the district is looking at everything in an effort to save money.
“We are looking at all the places where we can scale down,” she said. “Our idea is to budget what we need, but are there places we can budget less?”
Nelson maintains the district is doing everything it can to keep costs down and still provide students with a good education.
She assured taxpayers their money is well spent.
“Our goal is to bring in a responsible budget,” Nelson said. “I would tell them the money they are giving is the most needed and necessary to provide an education in town.”
The school district has a volunteer fiscal advisory committee. Members work on the budget with the School Board and district officials.
Walter Deyo is a member of that committee — and a Derry taxpayer.
The bill for his Hampstead Road home is a little more than $5,000. But the amount didn’t surprise him.
“I don’t like it, nobody does,” Deyo said, “but it’s just the way it is.”
He’s involved in the budget process and urges more people to do the same.
Amy Velez has two children in the Derry School District. While she may understand the reasons for the tax hike, it’s still a big bill to pay.
“Last year, our taxes were the lowest they have been,” she said. “And this year, they are the highest. We’re being slammed right before the holidays.”