GROTON -- At the first session of Town Meeting Monday night, a clear majority of residents approved a municipal budget for fiscal 2015 of $33,240,844.
The budget represents a 6.5 percent increase from fiscal 2014 that will bring the average annual tax bill for homeowners to $7,360.
Driving the increase was $18,328,798 earmarked for school expenses, including those for the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District as well as the Nashoba Valley Regional Technical High School.
The Groton-Dunstable portion of school expenses came to $17,756,023, which included $1.4 million needed to make up the major part of a shortfall in district spending discovered several months ago.
The shortfall was uncovered late last year, when the approved school-operating budget for fiscal 2013 stood at $35,200,000, while total obligations by the district came to $36,204,212.
Initial cuts eliminated the shortfall for that year and soon for 2014; news that was confirmed by School Committee Chairman Allison Manugian at Town Meeting.
But since the initial problem with the budget had a rollover effect in subsequent years, a major problem remained for 2015, where $2.7 million was still needed to balance the books. That amount was reduced to $1.9 million, of which Groton was assessed $1.4 million as its share of the expense.
To help raise the money, Town Manager Mark Haddad managed to win public approval for removing payment of a new Center Fire Station from the tax levy to a debt exclusion.
But that effort ran into some opposition by proponents, such as Board of Selectmen candidate Shane Grant, who asked if the control program had been deemed necessary by the Board of Health, why were residents being asked not to join?
"It's a matter of priorities," said Selectman Stuart Schulman, saying the town had a number of priorities and the schools were one of them.
"Then golf carts and driving ranges are more important than the public health?" asked Grant, speaking of appropriations also being made for the town's Pool & Golf Center.
Resident Gary Roy asked why residents should give up the needed mosquito program just so another part of town government could "engorge" itself.
Opposition to the increase in school spending was light. A majority of the 392 residents who attended voted to rescind the mosquito funds, and decided in favor of school spending.
A similar vote by residents in Dunstable will also need to be made on that town's share of the assessment. If that fails, the question of financing would either need to be answered with more cuts in spending or a "Super Town Meeting" of both towns.
Voters also voted to:
* Appropriate $280,000 to replace one of the town's ambulances; $50,000 to purchase a forestry truck for the Fire Department; $35,000 to purchase a pick-up truck for the DPW; $40,000 for IT infrastructure; $30,000 for security technology in town buildings; $3,690 for HVAC equipment on the library roof; $120,000 to purchase three police cruisers; $10,000 for a rough mower, $20,000 for golf carts and $6,500 for a boom sprayer for the Pool & Golf Center.
* Transfer $249,000 in an insurance payment to an account reserved for paying bills incurred by construction of the new Center Fire Station.
* Appropriate $9,000 to pay for automatic doors at the library.
* Appropriate from $8,000 to $10,000 per year for 10 years as the town's share of the cost of roof repairs at Nashoba Valley Regional Technical School. The repairs will cost $2.8 million, of which 52 percent is to be covered by the state. The money appropriated at Town Meeting represents Groton's share of the remaining cost, based on the number of students it sends to the school.
* Agreed to appropriate from CPC funds (Community Preservation Committee) $23,000 to pay for repair and restoration of up to 17 historic mile markers around town and $100,000 for deposit into the Conservation Commission's Conservation fund for use in buying open land when parcels become available. Commission member Peter Morrison told voters the commission had its sights set on three available properties, with the CPC funding needed to eventually make the purchases.
Town Meeting was continued with a second session scheduled for Monday, May 5.