The Groton Board of Selectmen gave the go-ahead to hold a special town election on April 1 during their Monday night meeting, to ask voters to approve a change in the method financing the town’s new Central Fire Station that could help the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District resolve a budget deficit.
The $9M fire station on Farmers Row is currently being paid for with regular tax revenues and is scheduled to open this spring. The change in financing to a debt exclusion would let the town pay for the station using a different financial mechanism. If the debt exclusion is approved April 1, the change would exclude the $448,000 annual payment from the town’s tax levy limit. Those funds could then be used as part of a solution to a projected budget deficit in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District’s Fiscal Year 2015 proposed budget.
Town Manager Mark Haddad recommended the special election. “The reason that I’m proposing that we do the debt exclusion before town meeting is so that we can go to town meeting and know what you have; it’s not a contingent vote because that, I think is very confusing. I think having all that together before you go to town meeting makes a lot of sense,” he told selectmen.
There was some discussion among the selectmen that voters may be confused by the somewhat complicated nature of the ballot question. Technically, the debt exclusion is a Proposition 2 1/2 override under state law.
Chairman Peter Cunningham noted that the debt exclusion conversation had come up before, so that voters may be somewhat familiar with the difference in the financing methods. “Way back when we presented the fire station at town meeting, there were concerns expressed that it was not a debt exclusion. It was certainly mentioned that it was something that could be brought forward at a future date if we needed to do it. I certainly think there are enough people paying real close attention to what’s going on and the town’s ability to meet an assessment from the school district to maintain the level of services that they would make an effort to turn out at the polls,” he said.
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Selectman Stuart Schulman thought the key question was actually pretty simple, “There may be confusion in a lot of people’s minds about these (financing) issues, but a lot of people who are parents don’t feel that confusion over issues is relevant because they’re going to vote for it. And a lot of people who are seniors, and other people who are on fixed incomes, don’t feel that they need to understand it because they’re going to vote against it. A lot of it is based on finances, on dollars, I think people are going to make a decision on this based on their children, their pocketbooks, or both.”
The election was approved on a unanimous vote from the four selectmen in attendance, Peter Cunningham, Anna Eliot, Jack Petropoulos, and Stuart Schulman. Josh Degen was out of town.
Jim Frey, the chair of the school committee’s budget and finance committee, was appreciative of the special election, and said, “It certainly is an important part of the conversation. I appreciate that they’re taking this action to free up more options. It’s consistent with the decisions they’ve made, and it’s better for the schools than not.”
Without modification, the first proposed school budget currently under review would produce a deficit approaching $2.7M. School committee members and administrators are looking for ways to reduce spending, but final decisions on are unlikely to be made before March 5, the deadline for budget certification. The budget would still need town meeting approval by both Groton and Dunstable before it would take effect.
If the debt exclusion is approved, it would add $. 29 to each $1,000 of property tax levied on real estate in Groton. That would add about $116 to the average tax bill, according to Dawn Dunbar, spokesperson for the Town Manager’s office.
In addition to the special election, Haddad also told selectmen that he was proposing an additional $300,000 in cuts in the town budget, to create more room for the school budget under the levy limit.
According to Town Clerk Mike Bouchard, the voter registration deadline for new voters for this special election is Wednesday, March 12 at 8 p.m. In an email, he wrote: “Voters may register by mail, use a Mail-in Voter Registration form, or register in person at the Office of the Town Clerk. For more information, or to check voter status, please contact the town clerk at 978-448-1100 or email@example.com.”