PEPPERELL -- The Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen made their case June 4 for how a proposed $1.1 million Proposition 2 1/2 override would help the town grow.
Voters will decide whether to pass the override or default to a budget that cuts the town's general government budget by 5 percent in a special election June 16.
With construction of a new high school beginning soon and a tax rate said to be the lowest of the 10 surrounding towns even if the override passes, Finance Committee Chairman Melissa Tzanoudakis said the town is in a unique position to attract new residents and businesses -- but only if the town continues to be able to provide basic services.
"The reality is, we want to maintain our town, we want to maintain a basic level of services, we want to attract new residents, we want to attract new businesses, so we have more income coming in so we can spread the burden out," Tzanoudakis said.
The override would result in a tax increase of $147 per $100,000 valuation for households. The total budget, including the school assessments, would be $26.17 million if the override passes and $25.07 million if it does not.
If passed, the override would allow for a 1.5 percent increase in the budget, which Tzanoudakis said would be just enough to maintain level services for the next five years amid growing expenses.
It would also leave the town with funding for a capital plan, which would allow for consistent repair and maintenance to the town's buildings and equipment.
Selectmen Chairman Michael Green said the town has been in "firefighting mode," correcting problems as they come up rather than doing the maintenance necessary to avoid costly fixes later.
"We're working hard doing the things we shouldn't be doing, like fixing buildings because the maintenance hasn't been done, like fixing trucks. We're so busy doing those things that we can't concentrate on the things we could do to make operations better," Green said.
Consequences of the 5 percent cuts would include the loss of two police officers, one Highway Department employee and one communication employee; reduction of hours and services at the library, Senior Center and Town Hall; and the elimination of funding for Summer Playground and the Memorial Day parade.
Without an override, Tzanoudakis said, the town could be forced to shut down entire departments in the future. If it doesn't pass this year, the Finance Committee would come back next year with another override proposal that would be for a larger amount.
Tzanoudakis said the town's financial troubles are partially a result of blooming school budgets that have consistently taken almost the entire allowable increase in the town's tax levy each year under Proposition 2 1/2.
"We need to make sure that the nonschool components of the town can still function at a level that meets the needs of the taxpayers," she said.
Some residents questioned how thoroughly officials had communicated with residents and gotten information out on the budget, and whether a lack of communication resulted in the meeting's low turnout. About 30 people attended, many of them town employees.
Town Administrator John Moak responded that mailings had been sent out, posters hung around town and fliers given out at last month's Town Meeting.
According to Tzanoudakis, the town simply had limited funding and resources to get the word out, but tried to make the financial situation clear in Finance Committee meetings, Board of Selectmen meetings and Town Meetings.
"We tried with the resources that we had," Tzanoudakis said.
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