By Pierre Comtois
GROTON — In a year marked by challenges and opportunities, town officials expressed both satisfaction with the reception given efforts to reshape municipal government in 2007 and wariness brought on by the continuing uncertainty over finances.
Also wave of resignations in the town clerk’s office added confusion to the end of the year.
New form of
“It’s been a very good year in terms of organizational setup for town government,” said Selectman Joshua Degen, who was re-elected to the group in 2007. “Our personnel manager is online now and making town government more accountable in terms of running more like a business, which is a good thing. I’m very happy about that.”
“I think, in part, the form of town government was big and certainly was a goal of mine and many of the selectmen,” added Selectman Stuart Schulman, who also was elected to the board in 2007. “We’re not there yet, obviously, but we made a big step toward that at town meeting.”
Town meeting voters approved the formation of a town charter, which will outline the new form of government. But the formation process is far from over.
“The town meeting vote to approve the charter, and subsequently authorizing the creation of a town manager position, is probably the largest step the town has ever taken to running its government as efficiently as it can,” said Degen. “It’s been very difficult to do that, as the Board of Selectmen is made up of individuals who have regular day jobs and cannot dedicate the amount of time required to properly oversee all aspects of town government.”
Degen urged voters to support the town manager form of government in the spring balloting.
“I think this past year was a hard year,” said Finance Committee Chairman Jay Prager of the town’s struggle to make ends meet. Included in those difficulties was an override vote to support the school budget, which was rejected.
“I think the message is that people are not looking kindly toward the use of overrides, whether it’s for the schools or the town,” observed Schulman. “When it’s time to do the budget for next year, we’re going to assume that the town would not like to see an override.”
“The financial situation is certainly not better than last year, when we’re looking at level or less-than-level funding from the state,” said Board of Selectmen Chairman Fran Dillon. “And on the school side, things are certainly not much better, with the district experiencing a cut in state aid based upon a new formula for distributing funds.” That change was significant as it meant no more than a 1.4 percent increase, which is less than the rate of inflation.
“It would appear that the electorate sent a message to the schools,” said Dillon of the override issue. “I think the electorate wanted the schools to take a really good look at their costs or have them look at different ways of running their programs. Either way, it’s going to be difficult in the coming year because funding for the schools has decreased rather than increased. You can only operate a system so long before lack of funding has an effect. A good look has to be taken at how the schools are operated to find out why they have a need for additional funding.”
Along with town finance and a new form of government, another issue affecting Groton is local growth and development, upon which the town depends for increased revenue. Revenues from property newly added to the tax rolls do not count against the limits of Proposition Two and a half.
“Whether growth is good or bad depends on what type of growth you have,” Dillon noted. “Additions on existing homes that enhances property values is good. An increase in the number of new homes at a reasonable rate is also good because the costs for the town and the school system can be absorbed. Obviously, if we’re able to expand business that’s good, too, because it takes some of the expense off the residential.
“Unfortunately, however, in Groton 95 percent of revenues are derived from residential assessment and less than 5 percent from commercial or industrial,” Dillon continued, “so growth by itself can be good and bad for the town. Gradual growth is good and I hope that new growth can continue at a limited upward level and that it would have as limited an effect on the town’s infrastructure as possible.”
“Because our tax base is over 95 percent residential, it’s extremely important to transfer the burden of taxes collected from residential to business,” explained Degen.
Only 5 percent
Although the real estate market has affected the town in a slowdown of commercial development that had begun with such promise in 2006, officials placed their faith in a project that could mean a revitalization of the downtown.
“This was a great year for Station Avenue,” said Schulman of the plan to build a mixed-used commercial/residential complex in the neighborhood. “The overlay district was approved and we’re in line to get 43D funds. This thing has been going on literally for years and this year marked for me a major turning point and the first time in my mind that I can visualize something going on there.”
“Station Avenue will certainly present an opportunity for some excellent businesses to come into the area,” Degen added.
Part of the Station Avenue project will involve the creation of some affordable housing units, part of an ongoing effort by the town to meet its obligations as mandated by the state. To that effect, 2007 also saw positive movement to place the town itself in the driver’s seat of affordability.
“I think that the effort in affordable housing also moved forward this year,” said Dillon. “The Community Preservation Act funding is a very positive contribution for our program to look at the town and see what it can do to increase its stock of affordable housing and also from the point of view of Nashua Road. Finally, although it has not been accepted yet, progress on the Jenkins Road project seems to be moving very well with the possibility that between 40 and 45 percent of the space there is to be affordable.”
By state law, the stock of housing in town must include 10 percent affordable units.
“This year we received a grant for someone to literally comb through town and find suitable locations for future affordable housing,” said Schulman. “This consultant would also help to develop a plan for how to go about utilizing that land for affordable housing purposes. In my mind, affordable housing is a need and certainly a need in Groton but at least the pressure of 40B definitely seems to be lighter now because of slow growth in this part of the country.”
“We’re working at new and innovative ways to create affordable housing on our own terms and not be subjected to the irrational policies of the Department of Housing and Community Development and their 40B process,” Dillon said. “Hiring a consultant to help us in implementing our affordable housing plan is a major step in the right direction. By June of 2008, we should have a concrete plan on affordable housing and one formed on our own terms.”
Finally, in the last weeks of the year, selectmen were faced with multiple resignations from the town clerk’s office, one of the most important and visible departments in town government. Moving quickly, board members launched both a reassessment of working hours in the office as well as a search for replacements including that of Town Clerk.
“Obviously, we had the two resignations — the assistant town clerk and the clerical assistant — which was then followed by the announcement by the town clerk that she was going to retire,” Dillon said. “So our objective was to try to get on the fast track to fill those positions and do our best to maintain the level of services in that office.”
“There was no period of time when the town clerk’s office was not staffed,” said Schulman of the situation. “In fact, we moved quickly and gave ourselves plenty of time to find new people.”
Dillon said that the situation surrounding the town clerk’s office was an example of how the board has decided to approach the need to continue providing residents with the services they expect under tight financial circumstances.
“We wanted to take a good look at those positions because we’re staring at a budget deficit in fiscal 2009 and it was more prudent to review a position when someone was leaving because if we chose to eliminate it, the action would have less impact than if an employee still occupied it. If next year continues to look as bad as it does, there will be a reduction in force and it’s better to do something with an open position because it has less impact on an individual.”