Why Isn’t ‘Economic Development’ Benefitting Dracut Taxpayers?

By: Brian Genest – Feb. 2019

Here we go in Dracut, again. Town Manager Jim Duggan is getting a pay raise, again. Homeowners are getting higher property taxes, again.

“Economic development” is what the politicians in town call it. It’s a very interesting formula: the money comes in and trickles up to Jim Duggan and the town government, instead of down to taxpayers.

Nice work, if you can get it.

Speaking of which, Jim Duggan now makes more money than a member of Congress. With the latest bump, his annual pay is $174,250. Plus, there’s the perks, including a car paid for by the town. (Why can’t he use a personal vehicle and get reimbursed for mileage like everyone else who uses their car for work?)

In case you missed it, Jim Duggan got these scores from the selectmen on his latest performance evaluation:

• Joe DiRocco – 2.67
• Tami Dristiliaris – 3.0
• Jesse Forcier – 4.0
• Tony Archinski – 4.45
• Alison Hughes – 4.58

Before the 4-to-1 vote raising Jim Duggan’s pay, some selectmen praised his focus on economic development. Only Selectman Tami Dristiliaris voted against the 2.5% increase, saying the town manager’s growing salary is becoming unsustainable and pointing out that other town employees are being held to 2-percent raises.

Jim Duggan appeared less than thrilled with the raise. According to The (Lowell) Sun: “In a terse comment immediately after the board meeting, Duggan said, ‘I appreciate the board’s investment in me.’ He declined to elaborate. Then, Wednesday morning, in an unsolicited email, Duggan said he is not worried about ‘lack of support’ from some selectmen ‘because I’m always focused on enhancing municipal services and the schools to benefit our residents and businesses through improvements in Dracut’s governance and economic vitality of the town.’ ’’

Based on all those words, he’s probably a little worried. What he should be is grateful. In case you’ve forgotten, Jim Duggan got a $24,000 raise in 2017. Selectman Alison Hughes said at that time that Duggan’s performance warranted a large raise based on the impact he’s having on the town financially.

Apparently, Jim Duggan’s economic impact hasn’t been substantial enough for Dracut to stop trying to chip away at Proposition 2 ½ and squeeze every last dime from town taxpayers. While he’s taking in his second raise in as many years, Dracut homeowners are shelling out even more property taxes.

Don’t get me wrong: Having The Arbors and Circle Health on Broadway Road is truly a good thing for the people in town. Believe me, I can’t wait for Top Donut to open on Lakeview Avenue, either. But real “economic development” should benefit the taxpayers — and that’s far from the case in Dracut right now.

Instead of stabilizing or even lowering property taxes, Jim Duggan and his economic development keep resulting in higher taxes for town residents. In fact, every two or three years lately, Dracut property owners have to go through this special-election-to-raise-taxes crap.

Last year, Jim Duggan pushed yet more debt exclusions: $4 million for a new fire station in Collinsville and $950,000 for security in Dracut Public Schools. It’s not like property taxes are low in town. Residents are already paying additional taxes above the limits set by Prop 2 1/2 as a result of debt exclusions that have been passed for the new library, police station and $60 million high school.

In case you’ve lost track, this was the third time in six years that Dracut property owners were asked to raise our own taxes. In 2013, a whopping 72% of voters said “no” to two Prop 2 ½ overrides — $2.9 million for schools and $200,000 for police, fire and public works. In 2016, voters again rejected two Proposition 2 ½ overrides — $560,000 for additional police officers and firefighters and $550,000 to install wireless technology in the elementary and middle schools.
Operating expenses and capital projects should be part of the budget, not contingent on continual tax hikes. It’s a bad way to do business. And it’s apparently becoming business as usual at town hall.

Here’s my economic development question: Why isn’t Dracut budgeting for capital projects? The fact that Dracut needs a new fire station in Collinsville shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with eyesight. What should be surprising and alarming is the lack of capital planning in recent years to ensure projects like fire stations happen within the budget, instead of through additional tax increases.

Hold onto your wallets, grab a shovel and put on your boots. When it looks like bull manure and stinks like bull manure, it’s economic development in Dracut.

Brian Genest is chairman of the Dracut Republican Town Committee. A marketing and communications expert with 20 years of success driving growth, maximizing ROI and boosting profits for consumer and high-tech brands, he has developed and executed strategic initiatives for a range of disruptive technologies, including robots, mobile commerce solutions and SaaS products. Earlier in his career, Genest worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for the Dracut Dispatch, Derry News and Billerica Minuteman. ◊