GROTON -- Taxes for local property owners will rise slightly next year following a decision by town officials to raise rates for fiscal 2014.
The increase from $16.85 per thousand valuation to $17.38 will be reflected in tax bills issued to property owners on Jan. 1.
The change in rate was made by vote of the Board of Selectmen at the request of town manager Mark Haddad who pointed out that tax rates are driven by the size of the town's municipal budget, which was approved by residents at last spring's town meeting.
The budget for 2014 came in at $30,994,975, a 2.68 percent increase over 2013.
With the board's vote Dec. 11, selectmen also chose to retain the town's single tax rate system so that owners of commercial property will pay the same rate as residential property owners.
With only 4 percent of the town's taxable real estate defined as commercial, town assessor Rena Swezey told selectmen that the portion is too low to make a dual tax rate feasible.
Swezey said that the state's recommendation for dual rates is for a town to have at least 25 percent of its property commercial.
In the meantime, the budget formulation process for fiscal 2015 moved ahead with town manager Mark Haddad reporting that his meetings with department heads have been concluded.
"Every year, the departments never cease to amaze me with their budgets and hard work," said Haddad. "I'm really happy with the budget to be proposed.
Haddad said he had carefully gone over every aspect of spending to make sure that the most services could be delivered to residents in the most cost effective manner with special scrutiny placed on all part-time positions.
The emphasis on part-time posts came as a result of controversy earlier in the year over increased hours for part-timers in the Town Clerk's Office and Library that cost the town more spending in terms of benefits to the employees concerned.
The changes sparked debate on the future of other part-time employees and how long it would take before they, too, would be upgraded to 20 hours, costing the town money.
Haddad said he is on track to submit a proposed fiscal 2015 town budget to selectmen by Dec. 31.
"The budget is in really, really good shape," said Haddad. "Everybody did a great job."
Also at the board's Dec. 11 meeting, Town Clerk Michael Bouchard asked for support in an effort to find a permanent solution to voting in the town center.
Citing security concerns following the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. last year, Bouchard had advised moving election activity from the Middle School to another site in town.
After various locations were considered, it was decided that the gymnasium at the disused Prescott Elementary School is the most suitable location. Though things went smoothly there during the last election, Bouchard said there had been some issues to contend with, among them parking and access to and from Main Street.
What made it work despite the drawbacks was low voter turnout. But with a number of important elections coming up in 2014, including those for governor and state and local offices, Bouchard expects a heavier turnout that would exacerbate the problems that were merely inconveniences before.
For that reason, he asked that selectmen support the creation of a group to revisit the issue of alternate polling places that would be more suitable in the long run.
"It's important to find a permanent location," agreed Haddad, pointing out that a constant change in venue would confuse voters and effect turnout.
"I am not in favor of moving the elections back to the Middle School," said board member Joshua Degen right off.
Degen cited security reasons for not holding elections at the school but suggested it could be done if students were given the day off when elections are held.
In any case, selectmen agreed that something has to be done and suggested the creation of a "Polling Location Committee" made up of representatives from interested parties such as the Police Department and the school district, among others.
Bouchard was instructed to look into potential members for the committee with the issue to be revisited, and possibly a committee appointed, at the board's meeting of Dec. 23.