PEPPERELL — When voters defeated a $1.3 million override, were they voting for a smaller government or did they object to a five-year plan that in the long-term would mean lower taxes?
That is the question that Melissa Tzanoudakis, chair of the Finance Committee, asked at a joint meeting with the Board of Selectmen last Thursday.
The town has a structural deficit that will become rather extreme in five years, she said.
“It’s time for us to have a dialogue about where Pepperell stands from a fiscal perspective,” she said.
Her original question was not answered during the meeting, but board members, the superintendents of the regional schools and department heads discussed the probable results of funding cuts and looked for creative ways to deal with the town’s fiscal situation.
Traditionally, when Pepperell budgets, the schools are funded first and the town departments are funded with whatever remains, she said.
“There needs to be a core budget for the town,” she said. “If there is a shortfall then we have to figure out who’s going to be responsible for an override.”
The schools have a better automatic lobby and a good infrastructure in place, she said. “If we were to work in tandem, then the schools might have a better ability to get the shortfall than we do as a town.”
An insufficient budget affects both the infrastructure and services of the town, said Town Administrator John Moak.
He held up the Police Department as an example. The town just spent over $200,000 on mold remediation at police headquarters, a former school.
If $10,000 per year had been spent on maintenance each of the previous seven years, the remediation would not have been needed, he said.
The town had two drug overdoses in the past week. “We need prevention and we need enforcement,” Police Chief David Scott said.
With two officers recently laid off, the department no longer has a school educational program.
Pepperell could lose its paramedic service. One paramedic is paid through a grant that expires in March, said Fire Chief Toby Tyler. If the department does not have that person, it cannot have a full-time paramedic service.
Losing the paramedic service would mean an annual loss of $280,000 in revenue, Tzanoudakis said.
Further cuts could mean shutting down the library or senior center, she said.
The services that people want to use are likely to be the first services to go,” she said.
The library sees between 1,500 and 1,700 patrons each week, said Library Director Deb Spratt. If the library’s budget is cut further and it does not get a waiver from the Massachusetts State Board of Library Commissioners, it could lose certification.
Then, Pepperell residents would not be able to use libraries in other towns or get inter-library loans.
If the town zero-funds the library, there would still be costs involved, she said. The town would still need to pay unemployment costs and maintain the building.
Pepperell has faced cuts to the library and senior center before. In 2010, voters passed a $640,000 override to support the library, senior center and community center when these services were not included in the budget passed at town meeting.
The next year, that money was included in the general government fund, Moak said.
Keeping voters aware of town issues, such as why a budget increase was asked for, is difficult, Tzanoudakis said. Voters expect to be able to learn everything at town meeting, but there’s not time.
The town administrator needs to send communications to the voters at least quarterly to keep people informed, said Finance Committee member Elliot Cohen. “There’s no sense of community here.”
Nashoba Valley Technical High School could help with designing those communications, said Superintendent Judith Klimkiewicz. Students can also help with managing and performing building maintenance.
The schools depend on town services to remain open, said North Middlesex Regional School District Superintendent Joan Landers.
She suggested looking at the services at the schools and the three towns, Ashby, Townsend and Pepperell. During the school building process it was “great to get three boards and finance committees together to really talk,” she said.
A resident attending the meeting asked if the town could apply for grants to cover some of expenses. As a whole, Pepperell can afford to pay more taxes, and so would not be a good candidate for the aid, said Finance Committee member Holly Seiferth. She did a trend analysis of income.
Pepperell has not grown financially, she said, the budget has decreased.
In 2008, the general government budget was $7,764,130. The fiscal year 2015 budget is $7,546,314, according to Moak.