GROTON -- As part of a comprehensive effort to address a shortfall in the fiscal 2015 budget belonging to the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, a Special Town Election has been set for April 1.
The date was set by a vote of selectmen on Feb. 24, at the request of town manager Mark Haddad, as part of his overall strategy to provide funding needed to set the school district's budget right.
Currently, to balance the district's books for 2015, Groton must raise $1.9 million over its assessment of fiscal 2014 while Dunstable must come up with $674,579.
Overall, the school district must raise $2.7 million for 2015 or cut back on spending, talks for which have already begun with such measures as staff layoffs, school building closures and elimination of programs and services being considered.
The fiscal 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 $1,004,212.
Initial cuts were able to eliminate the shortfall for that year while further efforts including more cuts and new sources of revenue were able to reduce 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 weeks since the shortfall was discovered, town officials have declared their commitment to the schools with Haddad working with the Finance Committee and others to find the needed funds in the town's budget to make up Groton's share of the cost.
Among other things, the town manager has suggested a number of proposed cuts to the town's budget for 2015 including $73,000 slated for a mosquito control program, $15,000 earmarked for town counsel expenses, $5,285 for stipends of public officials, $13,000 from the Highway Department, $10,000 from the Police and Fire departments, $25,000 earmarked for minor capital improvements to public buildings, $76,000 to have been used to reopen Sargisson Beach for public use, and $44,098 from the elimination of a proposed communications officer.
The proposed cuts would total $300,000 in savings.
In addition, the town manager has proposed use of unexpended tax revenue from the town's levy limit, the legal amount that the town can tax its residents based on the total valuation of all property in Groton.
Historically, the town has not needed to tap this resources to the limit, which enabled it to fund a new $9.5 million Center Fire Station using that unexpended tax capacity to help pay for the loan.
But in order to meet the town's portion of the $2.7 million school shortfall, Haddad has proposed using the $700,000 remaining in the tax levy as well as the $440,000 for the fire station.
If all could be had, the total would come to $1.5 million of the $1.9 million needed to meet the shortfall requirement.
For the rest, it is hoped that the schools can cut spending.
To raise the extra $440,000, a town meeting vote to use unexpended tax levy funds to pay for the fire station would need to be rescinded and payment for the project be reallocated to a debt exclusion; a Proposition 2 and a half override that enables tax expenditure over and above the levy limit which would end when the 21-year loan is paid back.
Putting the question on the Special Town Election ballot and presumably seeing it passed, would clear the way for a later vote at town meeting approving the use of the freed-up tax levy funds for school spending.
If the spending scheme is passed at town meeting, residents would see their property tax rate rise to $18.45 per $1,000 valuation or about $400 per homeowner.
An increase, intended to pay for past unfunded obligations and new ones incurred going forward, that is liable to remain for good if school spending continues to rise.
Voter registration deadline for the special election is March 12 at 8 p.m.