GROTON -- The Finance Committee voted to recommend to residents at Jan. 26 special Town Meeting that they support an effort to move the question of whether to appropriate funding for a new Center Fire Station to a ballot. The question would allow more of the public to have a say in what is said to be one of the biggest spending measures in the town's history.
At issue is one of four warrant articles dealing with the appropriation of $6,934,000 for the construction of a new Center Fire Station on property off Farmers Row.
The building is expected to include a four-bay garage and two-story administration complex with offices on the first floor; fitness room, dormitory, kitchen, dining room, and day room planned for the second floor; and HVAC and other mechanical equipment to be placed in the third floor "attic" space.
Should residents approve the appropriation, the sum will be added to $800,000 previously approved to cover the cost of building designs and the total placed on a single bond application.
Some Farmers Row residents already have voiced their opposition to the location along one of the town's most scenic drives. Most recently, resident Rule Loving said he intends to offer an amendment to the fire-station article at Town Meeting seeking a townwide vote on the question before any affirmative vote at Town Meeting can be made binding.
According to Loving, the whole proposal lacks long-term planning because the town may soon find itself responsible for millions of dollars in unfunded liabilities dealing with employee benefits.
In addition, Loving said he was uncomfortable with the fact that such a costly purchase would be approved by only a handful of people attending Town Meeting.
On Tuesday, the issue came before the Finance Committee and found support with Chairman Jay Prager, who agreed that such a large expenditure should be decided in a ballot question.
"I think that when the town spends (6.9) million bucks, the people ought to have a say in it," said Prager.
"I disagree," said member Steve Webber. "I don't want any more excluded debt."
Others on the committee warned that if the question was remanded to a ballot question, it could throw off timing for the project as planned by Town Manager Mark Haddad. The building schedule for the new fire station, for instance, was predicated on a number of factors, including the rising cost of construction and materials.
That was too bad, said member Robert Hargraves, who said planners should have taken the delay into consideration.
"The professionals in town should have put this option on the table," said Hargraves. "The voters should have their bite at the apple."
Members voted to support the amendment with 3-1. Two abstained.
The vote did not settle the issue. Members decided to seek advice from the town's legal counsel on whether such an amendment was possible or if only a portion of the appropriation could be covered in a debt exclusion.
Currently, Haddad's plan to pay for the fire station would be made within the town's operating budget, with payments made over a number of years and with no discernible impact on taxes. A debt exclusion would require the collection of a special tax earmarked for the fire station, which would disappear once the project is paid for.
A follow-up meeting to discuss matters was scheduled for next week.
Also Tuesday, committee members reopened discussion of the proposed removal/replacement of Fitch's Bridge, the cost of which is also to be considered at Town Meeting.
In that case, committee members had previously voted not to support funding for replacement of the bridge, seeing it as too expensive and not necessary.
Plans laid out by consultants hired to do the work of replacing the bridge call for removal of the existing span and its replacement by a new, truss-style, 10-foot-wide span intended for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Recent news that bidding on the project resulted in an outcome much lower than was expected prompted the Finance Committee to reconsider its earlier vote, but it soon became apparent that some members remained unconvinced of the value of the project, characterizing it as "frivolous" and "a bridge to nowhere."
Webber again voiced opposition, saying the town's finances were already stretched, while other potential expenses such as the school district's rumored requests for funding to pay for technology buildout in its classrooms were unknown.
Members voted in support of removal but not replacement.