Quite some time ago, our town manager developed a plan to put the town in the position of being able to fund a new fire station while leaving sufficient budget capacity to fund our schools and all other important town services and functions without requiring an override of any kind. Last year, Town Meeting approved a fire station site and design and a plan to bring a request for the bonding of funds to a Special Town Meeting in January of 2013. Bids have come in within 2 percent of the projected cost, and on Saturday, Jan. 26, Town Meeting will be asked to give final approval to that project.
Recently in the Groton Herald, both an editorial and a letter to the editor suggested that the plan to fund the fire station debt would jeopardize other town priorities. The editorial, conveyed significant misinformation and was corrected by Selectman Cunningham. The letter was quite well researched and laid out a reasoned option that the author favored. All argued that the town manager’s plan for funding for the fire station would handicap our ability to fund such priorities as our schools.
These individuals and others have suggested that we should use a “debt exclusion” to fund the fire station. A debt exclusion is simply a provision that would allow the town to raise taxes by the amount required to pay the fire station debt and assures that taxes would be reduced when the debt is paid. It is essentially a temporary proposition 2 1/2 override. It is particularly useful if a town cannot afford to fund a debt without raising taxes beyond the levy limit. One or more of its proponents will ask Town Meeting to fund the station through a debt exclusion rather than by funding within the current tax capacity. This would require that we arrange a town election with the ballot item being a proposal to fund the fire station through debt exclusion rather than by 2/3 majority vote at Town Meeting. The delay in construction may or may not cause the town to have to put the fire station back out to bid, and will likely cause an increase in cost due to inflation.
Those who would argue against a debt exclusion point out that, once invoked, a debt exclusion cannot be revoked, causing taxes to remain elevated for the duration of the debt. They also note that, at any time in the future, if the town would like to move the debt into a debt exclusion it can vote to do so, providing a measure of flexibility in budget management.
The fact is that the town manager’s budget provides sufficient tax capacity to fund all anticipated expenses, with up to $500k available to fund surprises should they come forward. We are indeed in the enviable position of being able to fund the fire station while leaving a considerable surplus to fund unanticipated expenses without requiring a tax override.
I believe that it is unnecessary to incur a debt exclusion at this time. I ask voters to listen to the arguments for and against this proposal, and to consider whether it would be wise to incur this obligation now, or to wait to see if it is truly necessary at some point in the future.