GROTON -- The ongoing budget crisis at the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District continues to have a ripple effect on the municipal side with Town Manager Mark Haddad suggesting ways in which money can be raised to help the schools.
Speaking with members of the Board of Selectmen Feb. 3, Haddad listed places in his municipal budget for fiscal 2015 where proposed spending could be dropped.
If residents at town meeting agree to rescind the spending measures, the money would remain in the unspent tax levy Haddad did not need to dip into to formulate his budget for fiscal 2015.
Should taxing to the levy limit prove sufficient, it could end the need for an override, being discussed as an option.
Among the spending items that the town manager said could be rescinded are half of the $103,000 appropriated by town meeting to pay for a study for a new fire protection system at Lost Lake and $76,000 appropriated to reopen Sargisson Beach for public use.
Together, the savings would mean the availability of more than $400,000 in available tax levy funds.
Haddad led into the school deficit issue following a report of a meeting held Feb. 1 at which the Finance Committee, after discussing individual budgets with department heads, expressed approval for the proposed fiscal 2015 town budget.
From there, the town manager segued into the problem posed by the district's finances.
"That changes the game," said Haddad of an issue that threatens a $2.5 million shortfall for the district in 2015.
Late last year, the approved school operating budget for fiscal 2013 stood at $35,200,000 but a review revealed that total obligations by the district came to $36,204,212, a difference of over $1M.
Initial cuts were able to eliminate the shortfall for that year while further efforts including more cuts and new sources of revenue were able to reduce the shortfall for 2014 to $464,485.
But since the initial problem with the budget has a rollover effect in subsequent years, a major problem remains for 2015.
The root cause of the problem, suggested Haddad, was that in past years when the district's administration managed to level fund the budget, they were told that money was available if needed. It was not requested and through an oversight, administrators failed to take into account some spending levels that threw their budgets out of balance, a mistake that was not discovered until too late when the rollover gained momentum and began to take effect.
Haddad, however, stressed that there is no animosity between the town and the district and vowed to work with the administration to help solve the problem.
"It's not the town-versus-the-schools," assured Haddad.
The town manager told selectmen that he plans to meet with the Finance Committee next week to go over the available data and see what can be done.
Also at their meeting, selectmen were presented with a draft for changes recommended in the town's wetlands bylaw.
A Wetlands Bylaw Review Committee was created earlier in the year following concerns raised during a protracted review process concerning approval of GELD's (Groton Electric Light Department) plan to build a new office and garage complex off Station Avenue.
GELD's first application was turned down by the Conservation Commission, which refused to bend on the issue of a partial intrusion by the proposed building into a 100-foot buffer zone surrounding nearby wetlands.
After reapplying, GELD's plan was approved, and the strictness of regulations by which the ConsCom conducted its review was criticized. The Wetlands Bylaw Review Committee was established by selectmen to see if anything could be done to make the process easier.
Committee chairman David Black, making the Feb. 3 presentation, while noting general changes in language to make the existing bylaw more precise and to correct inaccuracies, focused on the main reason for revisiting the bylaw: Giving the Conservation Commission more leeway when reviewing applications that violate established 50- and 100-foot buffer zones around wetlands.
In particular, the new language would allow the ConsCom to consider disturbance of land that had been previously altered. Such wording would have likely eased the earlier conflict between GELD and the commission.
Following the presentation to selectmen, the draft is to be reviewed by legal counsel ahead of a public hearing. After that, the matter is to be taken up by residents at town meeting for final approval.
Board members also:
* Learned that a proposal by the Great Ponds Advisory Committee to use chemicals to clear Baddacook Pond of weeds that threaten to take it over was nixed by the Water Department for fear of harm coming to its nearby well site. "There's a lot of angst dealing with this situation," acknowledged Haddad, who told the board that he intends to meet with those concerned on Feb. 10 to discuss the issue further.
* Were told that parking is the sticking point in an attempt to seek buyers for the old Center Fire Station, due to be abandoned when its replacement is completed in the spring. An RFP (Request For Proposal) had been issued for prospective bidders but only one bid of $1,000 was received, from local businessman Steven Webber who also owns an adjacent lot currently being leased by the town for municipal parking. That parking, however, would not necessarily be available for whoever bought the fire station. "So parking is a problem for that site," concluded Haddad. For next steps, the town manager recommended a meeting with Webber to discuss his bid as well as to consider other parking options in the neighborhood.