GROTON — In a joint meeting between the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee, Town Manager Mark Haddad presented a trio of budget scenarios asked of him by members of the two groups in an effort to address what officials have called unsustainable spending projections covering the next few years.
Behind the request, however, was a school-spending question that had Groton-Dunstable Regional School District officials seeking $4,025,509 in new spending for fiscal 2017.
A situation where the 2.5 percent per year maximum increase in taxation allowed by the state will not be enough to cover the school’s proposed budget.
For the excess, school officials have said they would like to pursue either a single override to cover the remaining amount, or several to occur over a number of years.
In part, it is that request for more school spending that drove selectmen’s request of Haddad to come up with different municipal budget proposals for fiscal 2017 including:
* A carryover budget covering all fixed costs incurred by the town as they currently stand, including contractual obligations, insurance, benefits, and utilities.
* Taking the “big three” budget drivers of salaries, wages, and other expenses and finding a way to keep new spending down to 2.2 percent.
* Taking the “big three” budget drivers and finding a way to keep spending at zero while maintaining police, fire, and road maintenance, at levels that did not threaten public safety.
The other factor prompting selectmen’s concern over the budget was sustainability: how could the town continue to pay for spending that was increasing at a faster rate than revenue?
In reply, Haddad presented his solutions to each of the three scenarios at the board’s meeting Monday with a total savings of $129,884 by way of the “carryover” budget which premised a 2.7 percent increase in spending with cuts in police and fire overtime, cuts in overall library expenses, and cuts in hours for employees in the offices of the Board of Assessors, treasurer, and Council on Aging.
“This meets all normal contingencies,” summed up Haddad before warning that it did not cover any unforeseen expenses.
The carryover budget was the preferred recommendation of the town manager.
The 2.2 percent budget included cuts in the town manager’s salary, ending stipends for selectmen and assessors, and layoffs of a part-time building inspector and website developer. Together with the carryover savings, the 2.2 budget would save $208,439.
Finally, a zero percent budget included deeper cuts in salaries and wages with layoffs of a part-time position in the Town Clerk’s Office, reduction in hours of assistants in the treasurer’s office and the ZBA, a part-time custodian in the maintenance department, activity coordinator for the Council on Aging, a police resource officer, lifeguards at Sargisson Beach, summer workers for the DPW, and elimination of all Sunday hours at the library.
Savings in this proposal, coupled with savings from the first two scenarios, would total $424,340.
But here, the town manager drew a line.
“I am adamantly opposed to these cuts,” Haddad told selectmen of the third scenario.
Unfortunately for taxpayers, there would be no savings for them under any of the three scenarios with whatever money saved expected to be plowed into the district’s 2017 budget request with the remaining unpaid total to be raised via override, itself a permanent increase in the schools’ overall budget.
For the override, Haddad suggested that it might be best approached as a “joint” request with money raised in a single measure for both the schools and municipal government.
That way, he said, “there would be skin in the game for both sides.”
For taxpayers, the cost of each of the three scenarios plus a school override would mean an average tax rate of $8,272 under the first; $8,252 for the second; and $8,196 for the third.
Although not unopposed to the notion of an override, selectmen were yet wary of an unsustainable level of spending as the years went on with Selectman Stuart Schulman saying that he would prefer to see more on future spending trends before committing to an override.
Monday’s meeting ended with no firm decisions made on the various scenarios but with Chairman Jack Petropoulos expressing the difficulties facing the town in general and the town manager in particular.
“(Putting the scenarios together) represents a lot of hard work not just in dealing with the numbers but with people as well,” Petropoulos said.