PEPPERELL -- The town's financial troubles are expected to be at the forefront of discussions in 2014.
When asked what will be important to voters this year, Pepperell officials identified the town's finances and the building of a high school as some of the biggest issues on the horizon.
"The financial picture for Pepperell is quite obviously a little bleak at this time," said Board of Selectmen Chairman Stephen Themelis, in reference to the town's structural deficit, which is at $400,000 and expected to grow over the next several years. "We've been looking at it for long-term solutions rather than idiot fixes, which in my opinion don't really work."
Those fixes could include a Proposition 2 1/2 override of either $600,000, $800,000 or $1 million, all of which are being considered by the Finance Committee. The three plans would address the town's financial needs for different amounts of time, ranging from three to five years. The two larger plans would allow for the development of a capital plan to address large or unexpected needs.
If no override is passed at Town Meeting in May, the alternative is a 5 percent cut to the town's operational budget.
"If an override fails, we're looking at up to 5 percent in cuts in 2015, which could make it very difficult to keep our current staffing levels or could create issues with public health and safety," Themelis said.
Themelis said that while he is awaiting more information from the Finance Committee before making a final decision, at this time he is considering supporting the $800,000 override, which would address the town's financial needs for four years and allow some money to be put into a capital plan.
"At this time I'm looking at the $800,000 override that gets us four years out," Themelis said. "The $600,000 does not give any capital planning money to work with, but I think $1 million is too much to ask for from the town at this point. So right now I'm trying to be in the middle of that, but we still need to see the impact that the five percent cuts would have on budgets and how we can keep services in place where they should be."
Themelis also mentioned other possibilities for raising revenue other than a Proposition 2 1/2 override, including instating a meals tax, which could raise about $40,000 a year, installing a solar energy array to bring in about $35,000 per year and selling some town properties, including the Peter Fitzpatrick School.
No matter what the town chooses to do, something needs to change, Themelis said.
"We just can't be Band Aid-ing everything that we come across year after year," he said.
"We need a plan in place for the next five years to pull us out of this. And hopefully the economy comes back, but in the meantime, we can't go in the direction we've been going in. We can find a way out of this situation by working proactively together and working on a plan that helps us look forward for the next five years so we don't have to keep going back to the taxpayers for more," Themelis said.
Another major issue, the proposed construction of a new district high school, would also result in a tax increase, this one in the form of a debt exclusion.
Themelis, who sits on the building committee for the North Middlesex Regional High School construction project, said he hopes voters pass the project, which is expected to cost $89.5 million.
"We're at that point where we need to find out the final approval and reimbursement rate before we know what all the numbers are in terms of a debt exclusion for Town Meeting. The taxpayers would be footing the bill for this. Hopefully they do move in the right direction," he said.
For Town Administrator John Moak, the choices facing the town are bigger than simple yes or no votes.
"The concern is not just votes but what does it mean for them as individuals and the community as a whole. There is going to be some sacrifice on their own personal end, but how will that help shape the community as a whole is an answer people are going to have to get to themselves before they can vote," Moak said.
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