GROTON -- At a joint meeting between the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee held Jan. 6, officials received their first glimpse of the fiscal 2015 municipal budget as presented by town manager Mark Haddad.
While only an initial draft of the budget prepared by Haddad and a finance team that also included town accountant Patricia Dufresne, the document sported a bottom line of $13,148,114 for an overall increase in spending from 2014 of 3.37 percent.
That number, however, only covered the municipal portion of the budget. The lion's share of the expense has yet to be calculated by the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District and the Nashoba Valley Technical School District and added to the total.
In the meanwhile, members of the Finance Committee plan to hold a series of meetings with Haddad as well as various department heads to review individual budgets and decide whether or not to recommend them to spring Town Meeting.
In his remarks before selectmen and FinCom members, Haddad explained that as in the previous two years, department heads were instructed to take a hard look at the services they provide and whether or not changes in the way services are delivered need to be adjusted.
The proposed budget for 2015, said the town manager, was classified as a needs budget that aimed to maintain the same level of services as the year before.
Haddad also prefaced his comments with some good news, noting that the proposed spending was well under the amount of taxes, called the levy limit, that the town was allowed by state law to collect and that growth in town was projected to continue with strong momentum gathered in 2014 when new growth alone had been valued at $22,324,715.
Other sources of revenue aside from property taxes will include state aid, motor vehicle taxes, and enterprise funds.
The not so good news was that the state aid money was expected to be reduced in the coming year by at least 10 percent or $81,909.
Due to the projected cut in state aid as well as other spending not accounted for in departmental budgets, the draft budget proposed to dip into the unexpended portion of the levy limit to the tune of $327,114, cutting savings down to $429,663.
Should the proposed budget be approved as is, property tax rates would increase from $17.38 per $1,000 of valuation to $17.88 for a 2.88 percent increase over fiscal 2013. That would translate into an average tax bill of $7,152 or about $200 more per owner.
Driving the upward trend in spending included the usual suspects: rising utility and insurance costs as well as agreed upon contractual obligations with labor unions. According to Haddad, the town's labor unions will all enter the third year of three-year contracts in 2015 with previously approved 2 percent wage increases.
In addition, the town manager reminded those attending the Jan. 6 meeting that the budget also included expanded hours for some part-time employees, at least one new hire for the Police Department, a new mosquito-control project, and expenses related to the reopening of Sargisson Beach for public use.
Capital costs, if all items are approved by Town Meeting, could include replacement of HVAC units on the library roof, improvements to the town's information technology infrastructure, andconstruction of a new fire protection system at Lost Lake.
If all capital items are approved, the cost would come to $1,830,290.
While Haddad's presentation at the Jan. 6 meeting came with little initial comment that night, questions were raised regarding a proposal to deposit an initial $100,000 from the remaining levy limit funds into a new stabilization fund earmarked specifically to offset the potential costs of employee retirement benefits, primarily health insurance.
Haddad explained his action as necessary due to new federal regulations mandating that all municipalities create such funds against possible bankruptcy if such burdens become too much to bear.
But not everyone at the meeting agreed that such a thing was needed in Groton.
Selectman Joshua Degen, noting that the town's finances have always been well managed, did not need to tie up so much money in such an account, particularly when doing so would automatically create an unbreakable trust requiring the town to deposit the same amount every year.
FinCom member Jay Prager called the whole concept unwieldy as it punished every town and city in the country for a few bad apples. Better to have everyone contribute a minimal amount to a single national fund to help out the handful of delinquent municipalities.
The discussion ended with a suggestion that the town seek advice from its legal counsel to find out if the federal mandate could be defied.
With the conclusion of Haddad's briefing, the proposed budget is next expected to be taken up for review in the coming months by the Finance Committee at its own regularly scheduled meetings.
Also at the Jan. 6 meeting, selectmen:
* Voted to ratify the appointment of Kathy Newell and Michael Ratte as special police officers with the town's Police Department. According to chief Donald Palma, the two will complete 400 hours of field training over the next several months to qualify for regular duties come spring.
* Voted to appoint town planner Michelle Collette, Housing Authority associate Brooks Lyman, selectman Stuart Schulman, former School Committee member Berta Erickson, Scott Harker, Carol Quinn, and Susan Slade as members of an Ad Hoc Polling Place Location Committee. The committee will look into finding a permanent location for voting in precincts 2 and 3 that is more convenient than the Prescott School building where voting was last held. Moving the polling place from its traditional location at the middle school was deemed advisable following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
* Expected to vote at their next meeting to set April 28 as the date for spring Town Meeting.