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By Don Eriksson

Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — Pepperell voters said no to a $1 million override to Proposition two and a half this week, opting instead to deplete the town’s cash reserves to pay their share of the North Middlesex Regional School District budget and take their chances that money will be available in 2010.

With only a 13.2 percent voter turnout (1,026 out of 7,793 registered voters), the decision was firm — more than a 2-to-1 margin of voters (700 to 326) opposed the history-making override.

It was the first override question in the memory of most, a question previously averted by the pay-as-you-go mind-set of residents.

Actual movement of the cash from reserves to the general fund must be ratified by a two-thirds majority special town meeting vote, which must take place in within 60 days.

Shrinking state aid coupled with equally serious rises in utility, insurance, transportation and retirement costs in the school district bumped Pepperell’s share of the North Middlesex budget to nearly $1 million above the state-set minimum contribution.

Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed 2009 budget increased the “cherry sheet” money for schools, as promised during his electoral campaign. Municipal aid decreased, however, resulting in an almost $500,000 net deficit for Pepperell before the budget-setting cycle began. The cherry sheet aid figure is expected to decrease again for 2010.

The town enjoys having very little municipal bonded debt, due to its innate frugality, with well over $60 million in borrowing capability available. However, its low-interest A1 bond rating will doubtless be affected by the drop in available cash.

Having used all but about $800,000 of its cash reserves, should special town meeting ratify the transfer, the 2010 budget cycle is expected to be severely restrictive, hampered by a projected $1.9 million deficit.

The vote in each of the three precincts closely matched the 13.2 percent overall total. About 12.8 percent of precinct one voters registered 237 to 106 against the override. Precinct two (13.4 percent turnout) shot it down 218 to 123, and precinct three (13.3 percent turnout) voted 245 to 97.

The ballot question indicated the money will be used to pay the school budget. While that statement is accurate, there had been some confusion among residents who believed the school budget could be reduced in order to lessen the financial burden.

The 2009 school budget was set at Ashby, Pepperell and Townsend town meetings in May. The override question addressed the manner in which Pepperell would pay its share (by more taxation or use of available cash). Once a school budget total is set, the money can be used in any manner at the discretion of school officials.

Immediately prior to the override vote, selectmen held a sparsely attended public information forum. However, there apparently was enough of a television audience watching to help produce a reasonable turnout at the polls.

The board was criticized for not being more proactive in informing the public about the consequences of a no vote, despite numerous news reports to the contrary.

Only about 28.5 percent ($6 million) of the $22.5 million municipal budget is rationally targetable for cutbacks when money runs out. The largest department within that amount is the police budget at $1.71 million.