GROTON -- In the lead up to spring Town Meeting scheduled for May 22, members of the Finance Committee continued to review proposed spending items, concentrating on areas of special concern, including the troubled Groton Country Club or, as it has been renamed, the Pool & Golf Center.
Of particular concern to the Finance Committee was the club's continued struggle with finances that fall short of breaking even.
More specifically, at their meeting of March 26, it was the club's event component that concerned Finance Committee members in general and Chairman Jay Prager in particular.
"We're subsidizing people to get married," said Prager, noting the imbalance between expenses and revenues in relation to the club's hosting of wedding parties and other similar activities.
"I'd say that the event business is pretty much break-even," countered Pool & Golf Center manager Robert Whalen.
"Where's the whole thing going?" countered Prager, wanting to know where Whalen was taking the club.
"It's a tyranny of small numbers," Whalen replied, explaining that the key was club membership. If it did not increase, then there would be no change in revenues.
Going on, Whalen explained that increasing membership in the swim component, for example, could be done with no impact on expenses, but the same could not be said of events which entail hall and food preparation, cleanup and maintenance.
"So the solution is to get more members?" asked Prager of the swim and golf components of the club.
"It's possible," said Whalen, going on to explain that the club was in a transitory state, moving from traditional ways of advertising to using social media such as Facebook and Web page hosting to attract attention and build a database of potential members that can then be targeted in specific campaigns such as Father's Day specials.
"That's the only way to find new people," concluded Whalen.
When asked again by Prager about the apparent discrepancy in his department's budget between profit and loss regarding event hosting, Whalen insisted that "Every event makes money."
But when asked to show the numbers that proved it, Whalen was at a loss and promised to meet again with the committee when he had the figures in hand.
Later in the meeting, when Whalen had gone, the subject of the Country Club came up again as part of a review of capital spending requests in the warrant. At issue was a request from the club for a new boom sprayer.
"It's a subsidy for adult entertainment, that's what it is," said Prager of the disparity between profit and expenses at the Country Club.
Prager insisted that the $6,500 needed for the sprayer could be found within the club's operating budget.
Immediately following its interview with Whalen, the committee moved on to Parks Commissioner John Strauss, who met with the Finance Committee to explain the latest developments regarding an attempt by the commission in partnership with local sports groups to develop a 35-acre town-owned parcel adjacent to the transfer station into three new playing fields.
Strauss explained that a recent setback with the state regarding its matching funds for the Community Preservation Commission would mean that there might not be enough money in the group's unallocated reserve to cover the commission's request for $350,000 needed to help pay for the estimated $900,000 total cost of the project.
A possible solution to the problem, said Strauss, came from Town Manager Mark Haddad, who suggested that the request be divided into two warrant articles. One would seek only $309,000 from the CPC and the other would authorize the town to borrow the balance of $591,000.
The authorization to borrow the latter amount would be conditioned upon the Parks Commission winning a state grant of $400,000.
Generally accepting of the plan, Finance Committee members still had questions about alternatives to developing the town-owned land and wondered why field space behind the Florence Roche School could not be used or if privately owned land in the same area as the transfer station could not be purchased and developed for less money.
Prager even mentioned falling enrollment in the school district in wondering why the number of sports teams were exploding in town when it seemed as if the number of young people was going down.
In reply, Strauss said that the Florence Roche field was in use and would not satisfy demand in any case and other land near the transfer station would be too expensive to buy and then develop into fields.
After Strauss, the committee met with Haddad to review the warrant articles for Town Meeting, with Prager agreeing that the town manager's proposed budget for fiscal 2014 presented "no big issues" to him.
But that was before he noted a merit pay proposal for town employees that would award them a 2 percent raise for good work as part of an incentive program.
The only problem Prager had with it was that once awarded, the extra pay acted less like a one-time bonus than a permanent raise.
In reply, Haddad said there was nothing that could be done about it as he had negotiated the increase with the town's unions in exchange for their giving up the step system of salary increases.
"That's what happened," said fellow committee member Steve Webber of the deal. "We're never going to get out of that."
Similarly, Finance Committee members had a problem with a School Committee article seeking $562,055 over and above its proposed operating budget for upgrading the computer technology.
Prager suggested that it would seem better for the district to hire an information technology consultant out of their budget first and have him figure out what equipment was really needed.
There was concern that if the funds were granted before an expert could be consulted on the issue, politics would take over and the consultant would not dare tell the schools' administration that they had spent the money on the wrong equipment.
With questions about how the district arrived at the amount requested and the items on its shopping list, committee members arranged to meet with school officials on April 1.