GROTON -- Addressing a budget shortfall in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, selectmen voted to set April 1 for a special town election in which residents may decide to switch the method of payment for the new Center Fire Station to a debt exclusion.
The cost of the $9.5 million fire station is being met with unexpended elements of the town's tax levy, the maximum amount of taxes the town can collect. Switching to a debt exclusion would raise money separate from the tax levy borrowing, which would end when the fire station is paid off.
The move, at the recommendation of Town Manager Mark Haddad, was made to free up more of the unexpended tax levy for use in helping the schools meet a $2.7 million shortfall in its fiscal 2015 budget.
The crisis began late last year, when the approved school-operating budget for fiscal 2013 stood at $35,200,000. A review then revealed that total obligations by the district came to $36,204,212, a difference of $1,004,000.
Initial cuts eliminated the shortfall for that year while further efforts, including more cuts and new sources of revenue, reduced the shortfall for 2014 to $464,485.
But since the initial problem with the budget had a rollover effect in subsequent years, a major problem remained for 2015.
In the district's proposed budget for fiscal 2015, Groton would need to be assessed at $1.9 million over the estimated $15 million it paid in 2014 if the books were to be balanced.
Since the news was released, the town has declared its solidarity with the schools, with Haddad searching for ways the money could be raised.
Those efforts came to a head Feb. 22, when Haddad, the Finance Committee, selectmen and school officials met to discuss the issue.
On Monday, Haddad listed a number of proposed cuts to the town's budget for 2015, including a mosquito-control program, town-counsel expenses, public officials' stipends, the Highway Department, Police and Fire Departments, minor capital improvements to public buildings, money to have been used to reopen Sargisson Beach for public use, and elimination of a proposed communications officer.
The proposed cuts would total $300,000 and with more than $700,000 from the unexpended levy limit, the total would be $1.1 million.
Add to that $440,000 if fire-station payments were shifted to a debt exclusion, and Groton would very nearly meet the $1.9 million needed by the school district.
If all were approved, the tax rate would rise to $18.45 per $1,000 valuation, or about $400 per homeowner.
Haddad and selectmen said the choices to be made would be painful but they were necessary to save deep cuts in school programs.
Also Monday, selectmen accepted the findings of the Town Meeting Review Committee, charged with reviewing the viability of Town Meeting.
The committee's job was to examine the institution's legal framework, cost to the taxpayer, the times meetings are held, and any other subject it deemed proper and to make recommendations for improvements to the board.
Robert Collins, committee chairman, listed the issues identified by the group as needing further study and/or implementation necessary to boost attendance and participation at Town Meeting.
Recommendations included greater accessibility and transportation for the elderly and handicapped, day care for parents with children, the availability of food, and on-site electronic voting to help speed up the process and provide for secret voting.
In addition, the committee suggested the employment of more up-to-date technology that would allow for remote voting and public education about Town Meeting.
"If Town Meeting is to have relevance in the future," concluded Collins, "people must be engaged, especially young people."
Collins, however, did say that Groton compared favorably to most other communities in the way it conducts its Town Meetings as well as in attendance.
Board Chairman Peter Cunningham noted that some of the recommendations could be addressed quickly, but others were more long-term, such as efforts to persuade the state Legislature to change the law regarding remote voting.
* Voted to ratify a memorandum of understanding with the Groton Electric Light Department for a land swap that would allow the department to move ahead with its plans to construct a new office/garage facility on Station Avenue. Previously approved at Town Meeting, the swap involves 1 acre of land behind the current GELD property owned by the town and a similarly sized property adjacent to the rail trail owned by GELD. With the exchange, GELD could begin work on its new facility, which Director Kevin Kelly said would take place sometime in the spring.
* Voted to accept changes in the right of way for Ridgewood Avenue and Cow Pond Brook Road previously approved at Town Meeting. The changes were needed to correct conflicting records for properties along Cow Pond Brook Road. There, a narrow strip of land along the edge of the road was owned by the town, allowing no frontage for homeowners with property along the strip. The lack of frontage forced homeowners to trespass on town-owned property in order to access the street. A survey found that on paper, Ridgewood Road ran across 61 Ridgewood Road and through an existing home. To remedy the situation, owner Thomas Doyle will trade land between himself and the town, shifting the road over and off his property.
* Voted to ratify the appointments of Warren Gibson as a member of the Insurance Advisory Committee, and Nadine Bishop, Carole Clark and Gail Chalmers as elections workers.