GROTON -- Now retired, 18-year veteran Selectman Peter Cunningham has not yet tired of the game and looks forward to every challenge as it comes along.
"I enjoy being on the Board of Selectmen," explained Cunningham. "I enjoy the dynamics of the position. There's so many different things you're dealing with. There's an issue one day, and then another issue comes along out of the blue and takes over. Right now, it's the school budget thing that's dominating. And I definitely have more time now that I'm retired."
And with an unexpected $2.7 million shortfall for fiscal 2015 to deal with, Cunningham has plenty to sink his teeth into when it comes to the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District's fiscal woes.
"I certainly support the effort to meet the schools' needs," said Cunningham. "We'll try our best to meet them but the schools need to look at the larger picture. When you look at enrollments, it's reasonable for people to anticipate a corresponding decline in the amount of money needed to operate the school system.
"That said," he continued, "the way the state determines how towns fund their schools in some ways makes it difficult for districts like Groton-Dunstable to make ends meet. There's a number of things that the state has mandated for which it hasn't provided funding to pay for."
"I think the School Committee has already taken responsibility for the shortfall," said Cunningham. "I do believe it when they say this wasn't malfeasance but more like incompetence, for lack of a better term. At the end of the day, however, they're the ones responsible for setting policy, hiring the superintendent and doing the budget. Obviously, a bit of oversight was needed there."
Vowing to help the district out of the hole it has dug for itself, Town Manager Mark Haddad came up with the idea to pay for the new Center Fire Station through a debt exclusion and free up some unexpended money from the town's tax levy to use for the schools. Residents will have the chance to decide that question at the ballot box.
The six-term candidate does feel that there is an opportunity for the district to re-examine how it delivers education to a shrinking student body.
"I think there's a fair chance to do that to the extent that it impacts the core curriculum," said Cunningham, a former member of the School Committee. "Those are the kinds of things that we need to protect the most. But first, we need to wait until we see what their budget is going to be."
As for spending on the municipal side, the candidate is satisfied with how it has been handled since the economic slowdown of a few years ago.
"I believe that the town finances have been run well," Cunningham said. "One question we keep coming back to though, is the Country Club or the Pool and Golf Center. How to make it a fully self-sustaining operation. We need to continue to try and work on that. I believe that if somebody walked off the street and offered to buy it, we'd sell it in a heartbeat, but no one is out there right now."
A key component of the town's fiscal health is commercial development, something that Cunningham has been concerned about throughout his tenure on the board.
"Whatever commercial development comes to town is going to be what the market can bear," said Cunningham. "There's been some recent movement, particularly on Main Street, and I definitely support that. The Planing Board is currently rewriting the zoning bylaw to make it clear where commercial activity can take place in neighborhood areas, so I think we're moving in the right direction. But at the end of the day, Groton is still primarily a residential community and I don't see that changing."
Other pieces to the puzzle include what to do with surplus town property like Squannacook Hall and the former Prescott School.
"I like the recommendation that the Reuse Committee came up with for Prescott," said Cunningham. "Some sort of mixed-use activity would go nicely in there, complementing other things that are going on along Main Street. I'd like to see it go in that direction while at the same time doing something that the market will bear."
As for Squannacook Hall, where developer Halsey Platt's plans to convert the historical building into residential units ran into some opposition at Town Meeting, Cunningham was optimistic that those plans would continue to unfold.
"We're still working with Halsey Platt on that," said Cunningham. "The Housing Trust is looking to put some money into the project to help buy one of the units as an affordable. So I think the plan is going to move forward if only because it's the best plan for that property."
Back downtown, the candidate said he has not given up on the idea of turning the Station Avenue neighborhood into a thriving adjunct to Main Street.
"I believe it's still possible," said Cunningham. "It's certainly possible to carry out some of the planning we had for the area. There's potential to do stuff down there. It may not be exactly what was originally visualized but it'll happen some day."
Away from the center of town, the most pressing issue has been bringing wastewater services to the environmentally sensitive neighborhood of Lost Lake, a plan that ran aground last year on the shoals of public opinion.
"If we were still back in the good old days when all sorts of federal money was available to fund these kinds of projects, it might be worth pursuing," said Cunningham. "But now it looks to be prohibitively expensive to do it, especially when it looks like a sewer system wouldn't solve 100 percent of the problem with phosphorous and weed growth and other sources of contamination. To spend all that money on a system that might address only 40 percent of the problem certainly doesn't seem worth it. So the town is not in a position to take on a project like that right now."
A member of the Blue Ribbon Form of Government Committee, Cunningham said that one of his goals if re-elected would be to follow up on how the town's charter has performed since it was adopted in 2007.
"One of the things we need to do is, in the charter, when we made out the charge, one of the provisions was that it should be reviewed again within 10 years," said Cunningham. "And it's about time to do that. We've had a good run of opportunities with the charter and it will be a good time to look at how it's served the town and whether or not changes need to be made to it.
"Another goal I have in mind is to try and stabilize the town's finances going forward," Cunningham said. "We need to make sure the town is not in a situation where whatever our expenditures are, they're sustainable on both the town and school side. It's different this year but we shouldn't be taxing to the levy limit every year. Fiscal management of the school and town budgets is a team effort."
In all the years Cunningham has served Groton in whatever capacity, he said it was his love for the town that has been his primary motivation.
"I certainly care a lot about the town and the direction it's going in," concluded Cunningham, who also cares deeply about open space and keeping the local trail system accessible to residents, he said.
"I really like the open Town Meeting process and the way that works and the form of government we have. I'm a strong supporter of the town charter and how we benefited from that. When I look at how other towns are struggling without a strong form of town government, I feel good about the way Groton operates. I also enjoy working on different issues in concert with other boards and committees as well as my fellow selectmen. I like the collective decision-making that goes on."
Groton's annual town election is scheduled for May 20.