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Loss of Rec. Department leaves future of child programs hanging in limbo

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GROTON — During a packed public hearing Monday, the Board of Selectmen (BOS) decided to let the town’s Recreation Department go after its operating budget runs out on June 30.

The Recreation Department has an annual budget of about $80,000. It offers programs in everything from dance and music to soccer and play time.

“I would not say that it was the department’s 2007 budget by itself that prompted Monday’s public hearing,” said Selectman Peter Cunningham. “We needed to look at the total town budget, our needs and priorities, and given the dynamics in the Recreation Department. We felt there was a need to make a decision.

Prompting the move to discontinue the Recreation Department was a chronic inability to find people willing to volunteer to serve on its three-member Commission. It had been shorthanded for months until the resignation of its last member, Peter DiFranco, on Jan. 26.

“I think that a lot of people were willing to serve on the commission because they were interested in a particular activity, but that their interest in the activity didn’t necessarily translate into overseeing the whole department,” said Cunningham, the BOS’ liaison to the Recreation Department. “Commissioners are responsible for other things, too. They have to hold meetings on an ongoing basis and deal with sometimes mundane issues.

“We tried to get people to join the commission even while Peter DiFranco was the sole commissioner,” said Cunningham. “But we were simply not able to find people who were willing to act as commissioners.”

Before DiFranco, commission member Jonathan Foster resigned in March 2005 and Medora King in September 2005 leaving the day-to-day operations of the department in the hands of Director Liza Judge.

With the discontinuation of the department, even Judge will have to go.

“Since running out of commissioners, the Recreation Department has been run pretty much by the director with all the budgets and all decisions regarding bills passed on to the selectmen,” said Cunningham.

Since DiFranco’s resignation, Cunningham has been signing the bills for the department in the name of the selectmen with efforts made to find other town organizations such as the Parks Commission or private groups to take over the programs that had been conducted by the department.

“I’m sympathetic to the selectmen’s position,” said one parent who thought getting rid of the Recreation Department altogether was “short-sighted” and “a mistake.”

“I agree that there need to be changes in the department, but closing it down is like throwing the baby out with the bath water,” she said. “It’s disturbing to me that this town can’t pull it together.”

“To see any of (the department’s programs) disappear is not good for the town or for the children,” said resident Roland Gingras. “I have a concern about that.”

Cunningham assured residents that the objective was not to eliminate programs.

“We have to look at what’s feasible, what can be done and what can go elsewhere,” Cunningham said. “I think we have to look at it as it uniquely (applies) to Groton.”

In the wake of the decision to get rid of the department, Cunningham expects selectmen to present a formal plan on how to move forward without it. He hoped to see time scheduled at a future meeting to sort out where each of the department’s programs will end up. Once a list is completed, the information can be posted on the town’s Web site for easy reference by residents.

“I would like to see this discussion about transition continue, and protocols (put) in place so that people interested in finding out about recreation options in town have a place to go,” said Cunningham.

“It’s a painful decision to make. I was involved in advocating very strongly (to continue) the Recreation Department after the fiasco of the budget,” he said. “We tried to let things go along for another year, but obviously it just was not going to be sustainable in its present condition, and we needed to find another way that still met the needs of those who were participating in the department’s programs.”