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Groton budget challenges emerge as talk turns to FY2016

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GROTON — Seeking direction from town officials ahead of formulating the budget for fiscal 2017, Town Manager Mark Haddad met in joint session with members of the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee Tuesday.

The purpose of the meeting was to review financial information he had gathered ahead of forming the new budget. He sought guidance about what direction officials wanted to take the town over the next year, Haddad said.

Haddad said that his preliminary budget numbers were based on certain basic assumptions, including contractual obligations, demands from the schools and fixed costs, such as those covering utilities and insurance.

Taking all of that into account, Haddad estimated a very preliminary budget for 2017 of $34,299,782.

Property taxes would be expected to rise from $18.77 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $19.31 per $1,000.

The total also represented a 3 percent increase from 2016, which had a bottom line of $33,298,830.

Haddad estimated that the Groton-Dunstable and Nashoba Tech Regional school systems would together ask for an increase in spending of $528,313 over their total town-provided expenditures for 2016 of $18,862,805, a 2.80 percent increase.

That number, however, was extremely tentative with Jeffrey Kubick, Groton’s representative on the Groton-Dunstable Regional School Committee, saying that the administration still had no idea what its final request would be.

Haddad warned town officials that the demands of the two school systems together could go as high as $2 million, triggering the need for an override.

Talk at the meeting of a possible school override was furthered after Haddad revealed that taking his preliminary budget numbers into account, only $1,035,103 would remain in the town’s levy limit, the total amount the town can collect in property taxes as set by the state.

That amount would present the town with an uncomfortably narrow cushion against an emergency should the schools end up requesting more than the 2.80 percent increase in spending that Haddad predicted.

Adding to the uncertainty was Nashoba Tech, which could add even more should additional students from Groton end up choosing to attend classes there than are currently expected. So concerned was Haddad with the slimness of the levy cushion that he more than once enjoined selectmen and FinCom members, “for purely financial reasons,” not to support a $75,000 mosquito-prevention program that was to appear on the warrant for the upcoming fall Town Meeting.

Such non-support, if it happened, would not go down well with members of the Board of Health, who voluntarily removed it from consideration last year as a favor to town officials worried over spending.

But when it came time to offer guidance to Haddad, town officials were vague.

Some suggested the need to set objectives and identify obstacles to balancing the budget and others expressed a desire to maintain current levels of services to the public while somehow reducing spending.

Although officials appeared to agree that some cutting would be necessary, the exact amount eluded them with only FinCom member Bud Robertson suggesting a 1 percent cut as a starting point.

However, unprepared to make concrete suggestions without further deliberation, selectmen chose to discuss the issues further at their regular meeting of Nov. 2, in time to supply Haddad with proper guidance for a Nov. 4 meeting he has scheduled to meet with department heads.

That meeting is intended to give department heads instructions in the preparation of their own individual budgets for 2017.

Haddad, charged by the town’s charter to prepare a balanced budget by the end of the year, is expected to submit a final draft for review by selectmen by Dec. 31.

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