PEPPERELL -- Selectmen voted unanimously Monday night to support a Proposition 2 1/2 override of at least $1 million to counter a growing budget deficit, start a capital plan and avoid a cut of more than 5 percent to the town's operating budget.
"It's a general override that will compensate for about a half-million dollar operational deficit this year, plus allow us to work on some of the capital needs of our buildings and our equipment," Town Administrator John Moak said.
"I think there's a consensus that there's a real need for this," he added.
Selectmen Chairman Stephen Themelis said that the town is facing a crossroads for its financial future.
"We're looking at a strong financial plan for the next five years to help ourselves to get to a point where town residents can feel better about where we're headed and we can take care of things we need to take care of and keep services where they are or improve them," Themelis said.
The override would close the town's deficit, which is projected to grow to $4 million over the next five years, a number that Themelis said is simply unsustainable.
"It's time for voters to make some tough financial decisions to decide what they want the quality of life to be for their friends, family and the town that they live in," he said.
Selectman Michael Green said with this year's budget lower than that of 2007, the need for the override is clear.
"In 2007 and 2008 we made significant cuts. We had hoped that the cuts along with growth would help to stabilize our budget. We've come close, but we've never been able to balance it, we've always had to go into reserves," Green said.
"There are significant things missing in our budget -- there's no capital expenditure, which is evident with the mold problem," he said of the mold in the public-safety complex that will cost $200,000 to remove. "That's an issue that basic maintenance should be able to handle, but we haven't had money for basic maintenance."
Green said that options for smaller overrides of $600,000 or $800,000 would have been merely Band-Aids that would have forced the town to ask for overrides again in a year or two.
In their vote, selectmen left the door open for an override to be slightly higher than $1 million, based on what the Finance Committee determines is necessary.
"There has to be a balance of what we truly think residents can pay for, which almost makes $1 million itself scary," Green said. "I don't think that it will be much more than $1 million, maybe $1.2 million is as much as we should be looking at. Quite honestly, knowing what I know, the $1 million or $1.2 million are still probably low, but we still have to live within our means."
A balanced budget, featuring 5 percent cuts to many departments, as well as a budget that would reflect a 1.5 percent increase if the override is passed, will be presented at Town Meeting on May 5.
"Now we have to make a choice as a town: Do we want to cut services significantly, or raise the budget so we can maintain our services?" Green said.
Selectman Michelle Gallagher and Finance Committee Chairwoman Melissa Tzanoudakis had not yet been reached for comment.
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