Peter Cunningham

Jul 172015
 

Dear Editor,

In last week’s editorial, the Editor of The Groton Herald once again advances his narrative of an omnipotent town manager who runs amok with no guidance or oversight from the Board of Selectmen. He also displays his confusion by referencing a citation, “Section 3-2-3 of the Groton Charter” which in fact is not from the Groton Charter. However despite his play on the semantics of a definition, the fact remains that the TM takes policy direction from the BoS. All of the major initiatives undertaken by the TM that the Editor finds fault with were the result of policy direction by the BoS and not the independent actions of one individual. The continued editorialized ‘news coverage’ by The Herald along with the Editor’s editorials does a disservice to readers by not providing an accurate picture of how our town government works. And this is further exacerbated by sloppy journalism that references citations to unknown documents.

A good resource for townspeople who are interested in forms of town governance in general or the charter process which Groton underwent can be found on the Massachusetts Municipal Associations website. By going to www.mma.org and clicking on the ‘Resources’ tab, one should go to ‘Municipal Government’ and then ‘Forms of Municipal Government/Charters’. Within this section are numerous resources on the charter process as well as a research paper that was prepared by Phoebe Walker for the MMA on the charter process here in Groton. This file also contains the Financial Management Review of Groton that was conducted by the Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services in March, 2014. The process and final product which resulted in our present charter has been frequently referred to as an example of how to undertake adopting a charter and other communities have sought out Groton’s advice. Concord, Norwell and Pepperell have all reached out to Groton to get input in to how to proceed with charter change.

It is important that whatever changes are contemplated for our Charter are based solely in the functional aspects of the document and not undertaken based on the likes or dislikes of a particular individual. The Editor’s strong negative view of the current TM should not be the basis for structural changes to the Charter much in the same way we do not rewrite our Constitution simply because we do not like the President. This will be an important guiding principal for the Charter Review Committee to integrate as they pursue their task.

Sincerely,

Peter Cunningham


May 192014
 

As voters go to the polls this Tuesday, it is important to consider the big picture in selecting who will serve on the Board of Selectmen for the next three years. As compelling as endorsements by single issue advocacy groups may be, the role of Selectman is one that must consider the needs of the whole community, young and old alike. Applying a litmus test of whether a candidate has children in the school system (one which all candidates currently fail) or committing to a given percentage of the town’s budget to a specific issue is absent of the holistic approach to the many legitimate needs that face our town and its citizens. The needs of our schools, senior citizens (the largest and fastest growing segment of our population), public safety, and public works infrastructure deserve equal consideration in the process that takes place in arriving at a fair and equitable budget each fiscal year. And that was exactly the process that occurred this year when the town was confronted with an unprecedented budget crisis and the Selectmen, Finance Committee and Town Manager proposed a solution that met the Groton/Dunstable Regional School District’s assessment. Discussions at the working group level with the school district resulted in an outcome that was supported by an overwhelming majority of townspeople, endorsed by APEX and has laid the groundwork for a collaborative process going forward that incorporates the strategic planning the School Committee has committed to. It was also recognized by Superintendent Tony Bent as one of the most positive budget deliberations, in the face of a fiscal crisis, that he had been involved in during his career in that position in numerous other school systems.

It is important for voters to consider the undisputed fact that a quality school system is important not just to parents of students, but to the grandparents of those students and the rest of us who understand the direct correlation between property values and good schools. Suggesting that just because a candidate does not have school age children means they are disinterested in the quality of our schools is simply not accurate and this year’s budget outcome is a prime example of that fact. The school system that many townspeople reference as a major consideration when deciding to move to Groton is the result of the hard work and supportive commitment made by the whole community, young and old alike. And it deserves an equal seat at the budget table along with the other legitimate budget needs of the town. This not only represents good public policy, but is my commitment if re-elected as your Selectman. Take care and please vote on Tuesday, May 20th.

Sincerely,

Peter Cunningham
Selectman


Apr 282014
 

Last week’s editorial in The Groton Herald left many folks scratching their heads. While I’m reluctant to get sucked into a flame-throwing contest with the editor of The Groton Herald, the tone and misrepresentation of the facts necessitates a response. The matter in question revolved around an idea I had to explore a building permit fee waiver for the Blood Farm reconstruction.  This was solely my idea and in no way related to any request or suggestion from Blood Farm and was in fact initiated without their knowledge.  My rationale in considering this idea was that the Blood Farm fire was a significant loss for the community as evidenced by the outpouring of support and words of encouragement to the family to reconstruct the business.  As we all know, this is a business which has been in Groton for five generations dating back to the early 1800’s and that legacy, in my view, differentiates it from other enterprises in town.  Immediately after the fire the decision to rebuild was somewhat up in the air, but the family was sincerely moved by this outpouring of support.  It is also true that each and every Selectmen had expressed at one point doing whatever the town could do to help the family in rebuilding and the thought occurred to me that a building fee waiver would be a tangible example of support. The only extent to which this idea evolved was my checking with the individual Selectmen regarding their view.  Both Selectmen Degen and Petropoulos indicated they did not think this was a good idea and it was completely dropped.  No request for a waiver was ever made to the Town Manager or building department.  All Selectmen knew the issue never advanced behind the idea phase, yet a member saw an opportunity to create some political mischief and mentioned it to a business owner in West Groton who then complained to the editor of The Groton Herald. I am sincerely embarrassed about any negative attention this idea may have brought to Blood Farm and will reiterate that they are in no way associated with it.  The editor of The Groton Herald knows his characterization of this idea as smacking of favoritism, cronyism and political shenanigans is inaccurate since I personally spoke with him and conveyed the background for the idea.  If it had even gotten beyond the idea phase, it is now evident that Blood Farm would have rejected the offer.  It is also true that there is no history of waiving building permit fees for private enterprises in town, yet one reading the editorial would think it is a common occurrence requiring an immediate policy response.  And finally, per Groton’s charter, the decision to waive fees is not under the purview of the Selectmen. This may come as a surprise to the editor of The Groton Herald, but Selectmen do indeed speak with one another from time to time on a host of issues before the town; many much more juicy than this one!  Decisions are ultimately discussed in open session, but if it is a crime to float ideas in this manner, then we are all guilty as charged.  If the editor of The Groton Herald would rather see town government totally hamstrung by exposing the flow if ideas to his flamethrower, then we are probably all in the wrong business.    Sincerely, Peter Cunningham Selectman


Mar 252014
 

Dear Editor,

This Tuesday’s April 1st special election is critical for the immediate future of our schools as well as for the town in general.  By excluding the outstanding fire station debt from the provisions of Proposition 2 ½ additional capacity is made available within the levy limit to meet the assessment of the regional school district for FY ’15.  A great primer on what this all means has been prepared by Selectman Jack Petropoulos and can be found on the town’s website by clicking on the ‘budget central’ link.

The request to exclude this debt is the result of a comprehensive approach to meeting this need that was crafted by the Town Manager, Selectmen, and the Finance Committee.  Many hours were spent looking at ways to trim the municipal budget that retained essential services and considered budget implications going forward.  It is also recognized by your municipal leaders, as well as the School Committee and administration, that we need to continue working on projecting what budget requirements will be in future years. We need a model of sustainability that does not require frequent trips to the ballot box seeking additional resources above and beyond what is allowed under Proposition 2 ½.

The Selectmen and Finance Committee unanimously support a ‘yes’ vote at the April 1st special election and encourage townspeople to do likewise and support our schools.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Peter Cunningham

Selectman


Mar 152014
 

Dear Editor,

Mr. Pease’s recent letter to regarding the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) issue is timely given the recent financial management review update that was completed by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue’s, Division of Local Services. The report, which is available on the town’s website, recommends pursuing with the tax exempt entities in town a formula that address the expense incurred in the provision of municipal services and would be a predictable source of revenue (Item 8 on page 11. — Ed.). This recommendation was also made in the DLS report that was conducted in 2004 and laid the basis for the work of the Blue Ribbon Governance Committee which led to the town adopting the charter in 2008.

It would be inaccurate to assume this issue has not been pursued, but absent the underlying legislative support for PILOT formulas the best we are left with are ‘gentlemen’s agreements.” Our former State Representative, Bob Hargraves, can tell some interesting stories about the time he filed legislation to compel private schools to continue paying the property tax on residences they purchased for faculty housing or noneducational purposes. The bill was actually gaining some traction until the larger colleges in the Boston area became aware of it and killed it through intense lobbying (an informal agreement was reached with the Groton School who continue to pay amounts equal to the assessed property tax on residences they acquire). It would be nice if current legislation was more productive, but it is more than likely the same interests will view any such legislation as being akin to the ‘camels nose getting under the tent’ and will oppose it vociferously.

This does not mean the PILOT issue is a lost cause however, and the Selectmen are following up on the DLS recommendation and approaching the private institutions in town that benefit from municipal services. School services for the dependents of faculty staff are a major component of town services provided to some private institutions and it must be addressed, particularly in light of the financial crisis our school district is in. Current PILOT payments by those institutions do not cover this expense. There are also ways to approach this issue with some of the other tax exempt entities and some good examples exist where municipal light departments agree to pay a percentage of their revenues to their towns. Of course those revenues can be impacted by the current volatility of the energy market, but it is a good starting point for a conversation.

The PILOT issue is indeed a timely one and one that is being pursued currently. At its core it is a matter of fairness and good public policy given the fiscal dynamics which face Groton.

Sincerely,

Peter S. Cunningham
Selectman


Feb 212014
 

Groton has indeed lost a good one with the passing, all too soon, of Fran Dillon this past Saturday.

Fran was an active member of our community and most recently a three-term member of the Board of Selectmen from June 2003 through June 2012. As a member of the Board, Fran was the stabilizing influence which saw Groton’s transition under the charter to our current form of governance. He conducted himself as an experienced statesman (he frowned on being referred to as ‘elder’!) in his dealings and approach to the many issues which came before the Board and impacted the town. And when on the rare occasion he was not on the prevailing side of an issue, he had the grace to move on and accept the consensus of his fellow Board members. He led by example and even after leaving the Board in 2012, individual selectman would touch base with him from time to time to get his view on various issues.

While fiscally conservative, Fran in his political life was not someone who could be cast in any given political mold. He was supportive of open space acquisition projects, most notably Surrenden Farm, as well as our school system. He believed strongly that local government’s primary responsibility was providing the best service to townspeople at a cost that was reasonable and sustainable. So it was appropriate then that when he left this world this past Saturday, the Selectmen and Finance Committee were scrutinizing the municipal budget and making cuts to address the current budget challenges. I have no doubt that Fran was smiling down on us.

His presence will be sorely missed and we as a town have indeed lost a good one.

Peter Cunningham, Chairman
Board of Selectmen


Jan 292013
 

Voting for fire station construction funds at STM

Voting for fire station construction funds at STM

Much of the recent commentary and editorials on the funding authorization for the new center fire station seemed to center on the need for a broader plebiscite.

This then seemed to break down into those who thought the debt expense should be incurred outside the levy limit and those who agreed with the plan to fund the station within the levy limit, but felt a decision of this magnitude should be put to the voters. Both schools of thought have a great deal of merit, however the conversation that needs to take place is on our form of governance and Groton”s charter. When the town adopted the charter at the annual town election on May 22, 2008 (BTW, 16% voter turnout) it decided to adopt a professional management structure led by a Town Manager. The fundamental reason for this is that the complexity of municipal finances, budget oversight and the day to day administration of town government had become too complex for various volunteer committees and boards. This point was affirmed by the Dept. of Revenue”s Division of Local Services who had performed an audit of the town”s administration.

Since adopting the charter, Groton has realized significant benefits in terms of budget management, administration and services provided to townspeople. It is for this very reason that we were even able to have a discussion about funding the new center fire station within the levy limit. The term ‘override” has a negative connotation in municipal finance and by definition means a community is living somewhat beyond its means and needs to seek more than it can raise within the tax levy. Prior to our change in governance, Groton would typically tax much closer to the levy limit each year making it necessary to seek overrides for either capital or in some cases operational needs. Not needing to seek an override should be seen as a positive.

The Selectmen recently appointed a committee to look at Town Meeting and make recommendations on ways to make it more accessible. Follow this link to the committee charge on the Town”s website for more information.

However, during the work that was done by the Blue Ribbon Governance Committee during its two years of review and public hearings that led to our present charter, it was abundantly clear that people wanted to retain our open town meeting form of government. While there may be a greater turnout at a town election, the evidence in examining the past 10 years is not that compelling. It has tended to be in the 3% – 22% range for elections with just local issues and not held in concert with broader state or national contests. Open town meeting is truly the purest form or representative democracy and is not found in other areas of the country. It would be a shame to lose that and move on to a process where town meeting becomes ‘advisory” and final decisions are made at the ballot where voter turnout is only marginally better.

Either way, this is a very important issue that deserves a broad base of input and I would encourage townspeople to participate in the Town Meeting Review Committee process to insure their views are heard.

Sincerely,

Peter Cunningham


Oct 172011
 

Dear Editor,

The Groton Herald”s editorial last week underscores how profoundly misinformed the editors are regarding Article 26; the purchase of 279 Main Street. For starters, this will mark the third time the proposal has been before Town Meeting, not the forth. And when it was initially proposed last February, the article was not voted on but postponed indefinitely to allow a site selection committee time to review sites and report back to Town Meeting. That occurred and at the June Town Meeting the site selection committee reported their findings which recommended 279 Main Street, Station Avenue in that order and Prescott as a distant third. The article to purchase 279 Main Street was defeated due to concerns over the use of taxpayer money to convey the former Sacred Heart building to a religious institution, but more significantly, the case advanced by GELD that there would be savings to both the GELD ratepayers and taxpayers if the Station Ave. site were pursued further. An independent site engineering evaluation has since been conducted and it appears those savings do not exist and that there are some significant setback issues visa vie wetlands that create further barriers.

The site selection committee did examine numerous sites within the tier 1 district defined by the adequate response time measure. Numerous sites were explored and this included the property next to the current public safety building which was simply not available and the Prescott School which was assessed contrary to the editor”s assertion. The committee, which was comprised of a diverse cross section of our community, held numerous meetings which were open and attended by the public (including your reporter) with minutes recorded and posted on the Town”s website. And eminent domain was indeed taken off the table given Groton”s past experience with the Casella family and the land taking for the high school. Do the editors believe that the Town should repeat that unfortunate experience? The editors do a great disservice to those who volunteered their time to imply that somehow they were manipulated and the outcome preordained. Maybe they should reflect on a previous editorial they wrote the week before (10/7/11) where they observed: “By the end of this process, volunteer members of these boards will discover why the job is thankless.” Last weeks editorial certainly contributes to that feeling of those who volunteer their time on behalf of the Town.

I also take strong exception to the editorials allegation that the Selectmen have “used disservice tactics suggesting that any criticism of this site (279 Main St.) is criticism of the fire dept. and firefighters”. This is patently untrue and by alleging this, the editors are further demeaning the dialogue over what everyone seems to agree on, i.e. the need for a new center fire and ambulance facility. Phrases such as “mean-spirited assault” are baseless and certainly not productive. Our firefighters and emergency responders are certainly not pawns of the Selectmen and agree that 279 Main Street is the best choice for a new center station. There are numerous examples of where fire stations have been sited within residential neighborhoods and have proven to be good neighbors. The lot at 279 Main Street is sufficient to meet the needs of a center station now and into the future and the architectural considerations applied during the design process can insure that it will fit within the neighborhood.

While it appears obvious that the editors (of The Groton Herald) are preoccupied with implying ulterior motives and conspiracy in the 279 Main Street proposal, I would ask them to take a moment and reflect on the possibility that it may indeed be the best site available. Of course we could muddle along with the compromised emergency response model we currently have and spend thousands of dollars on independent engineering of every possibility that comes along. We would in all likelihood find ourselves another 8 years down the road, with a lot of money having been spent and with less attractive options.

Sincerely,

Peter Cunningham
Selectman


Oct 122011
 

October 10, 2011

Dear Editor,

Article 26 on the warrant for the October 17th Fall Town Meeting is asking voters to reconsider the purchase of the church site at 279 Main Street for a new center fire station. When last before Town Meeting in June, a strong message was sent by townspeople that they wanted further information about the suitability of the surplus land on Station Ave. that GELD was offering as a potential site for the station. It was hoped by many that a savings in costs would be realized by coordinating the construction of GELD”s new facility with the new center fire station. Together, the Town and GELD funded a site engineering study by Places Associates which confirmed some of this issues which had been raised by the site selection committee in their report to Town Meeting. The letter summarizing this report can be accessed on the Town”s website, but essentially concludes that the site development costs to address the site”s proximity to wetlands and the need for significant storm water management systems would drive the total project budget to an unacceptable level. It is also noted in the report that
(raising the site) with 3–3½ feet of fill would be required to accommodate drainage on the site. This would elevate the structure in a manner that would be problematic for large fire trucks. It also became apparent as a result of this study that project costs associated with GELD”s new facility would also increase if a common wall were to be used to narrow the footprint of both structures on the Station Avenue site.

In making their recommendation to Town Meeting last June, the site selection committee reviewed numerous sites based on criteria that considered many factors, but gave great weight to response time. This obviously narrowed the search to the town center and in fact one of the goals of the Selectmen, since the Groton Fire Department study by Ammondson Associates in 2002 and related Station Ave. master planning, has been to identify a suitable site in the town center for a new center fire station. The Prescott School site was ranked by the site selection committee a distant third due to numerous factors including site development costs to a site/structure located in the historic district, incompatibility with future projected uses for Prescott as advanced by the Prescott reuse committee and access issues due to the location of the station in the rear. With the additional engineering study of the GELD site and the shortcomings of using Prescott, it is clear why the site selection committee recommended the church site at 279 Main Street as the preferred location for the new center fire station.

A fundamental function of local government needs to be ensuring the public safety of its residents. Chief among these is the adequacy of the emergency services that are available to respond when called upon. It should be obvious to all by now that the present fire station on Station Ave., that was converted to use as a fire station in 1940, is woefully inadequate to meet that need. In addition the current response model of having fire equipment and ambulances dispatched from separate locations is a barrier to the prompt response times that townspeople have a right to expect. It is also a disservice to our firefighters and EMT”s, the majority of whom are volunteers, and are hampered in their ability to respond by that current configuration. The search for an adequate site for a new center fire station has gone on for some time, and it is unclear when another site may become available if Article 26 is defeated. Based on a conceptual site plan prepared by Ducharme & Dillis as well as site layouts prepared by Val Prest who was the civil engineer on the site selection committee, the church site at 279 Main Street will meet the need of our emergency responders both now and into the future and deserves support at Town Meeting.

Sincerely,

Peter Cunningham
Selectman


Feb 112011
 

Backstory: Several weeks ago, The Groton Herald published an editorial attacking Groton elected officials and administrative staff about the way confidential real estate negotiations concerning the proposed acquisition of the Sacred Heart church building and land on Main Street were handled. An electronic copy of the editorial is not available. This letter was submitted by Selectman Peter Cunningham in response. — Ed.

As one Selectman, I’ll try to describe my reaction to the Groton Herald editorial of January 21st as well as some of the comments that have been posted to the Groton e-mail list (Talk About Groton — Ed.) on the fire station issue.

The need to replace the center fire station has been well known and discussed in numerous public forums for at least the past decade. This includes the current and past master plans which many of the list posters on this issue have participated in. Back in ’97 – ’98, when I was chairing the fire department study group, this was a major point of discussion as the growth of the town was transitioning our fire department from an all volunteer department to a hybrid one where there is a mix of full time and call members. At the time, our existing fire stations had been built and designed around the volunteer model which had served the town well, but was under stress due to the residential growth that had occurred in town.

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