PEPPERELL -- Six votes was the difference Monday in sinking a proposed $1.1 million Proposition 2 1/2 override to fund the town's operational budget. The override would have helped the town counter a growing structural deficit, provide funding for a capital plan and maintenance of town buildings and avoid cuts of about 5 percent to town departments.
The override was rejected with 507 no votes to 501 yes votes.
Now the town is faced with the loss of two police officers and one position at the Highway Department, reduced hours and services at the library, Senior Center and Town Hall and elimination of funding for Summer Playground and the town's Memorial Day celebration in fiscal 2015.
The town's total budget, including a $13.25 million allocation for education, will be $25.07 million.
"I'm very disappointed in the results tonight," said Selectman Stephen Themelis, who had supported the override along with the rest of the Board of Selectmen. "I was hoping Pepperell would get a shot in the arm to fix its financial woes, but it wasn't to be. We'll do the best we can with what we've got and work with the department heads and the selectmen to see what other alternatives we can come up with to keep the town functioning."
Selectmen Chairman Michael Green said that the road ahead would be difficult.
"I'm disappointed but we will do our best to go forward and continue to do the best we can with what we have, but people should know that what we have, when compared to rising expenses, what we have just keeps decreasing," Green said.
Another override may be put before voters for Fiscal 2016 or earlier, according to Finance Committee Chairwoman Melissa Tzanoudakis. She said that she did not know if the town could continue to function without the override.
"I'm saddened. I don't think people truly understood the ramifications on the town," Tzanoudakis said.
Town Administrator John Moak claimed that state restrictions preventing the town from spending money on mailings to inform voters of why the override was necessary made getting the message across to the public difficult, and led many voters to claim that the town hadn't communicated well enough with constituents.
"Municipalities are so challenged by state laws to allow us to inform the public. I think we had a very good story to tell, but all the rules about not being able to spend money on certain things makes it difficult for voters to be informed," Moak said.
At the polls Monday afternoon, voters expressed strong opinions on both sides of the issue.
Voter Leanne Grace said she supported the override because it was necessary to save the town services that so many residents depend on. She said that whether she used a particular service or not, all were necessary to run the town.
"It's a natural thing for any member of any town to completely support any service, whether you use it regularly or not. That's what it means to be American to me -- to be part of a community," Grace said.
"People forget that when your kids were in school you needed the Rec Center or Summer Playground to be there for you. We all have to tighten our belts, but we all have to do what's in the best interest of the town," she added.
Some residents said they supported the override due in part to Tzanoudakis' argument that funding town services would help the town continue to grow, therefore bringing in more revenue from a wider tax base.
"I think it's important to have the town services funded. It's beneficial to the residents of Pepperell. If we want people to come and move here and the town to grow, we have to offer these," said resident Jennifer Rakiey.
Others were unconvinced by that argument.
"I just want my town to stay where it is," said resident Daisy Tierney, who voted against the override.
Resident Rich Castellano also voted no, stating that the town was unclear with what exactly the money would go toward.
"These are tough times. Combined with the schools, it's a tough year to be looking for money," Castellano said, in reference to a debt exclusion vote passed in April to fund construction of a new North Middlesex Regional High School.
As voters slowly trickled into Varnum Brook Elementary School, election worker Tom McGrath lamented the low turnout. The total turnout was 1,008 votes cast out of 8,029 registered voters, or about 12.5 percent.
"It's very important that everyone turn out to vote. It's part of the American way of life," McGrath said. "We were taught you never missed an election."
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