By Chris Lisinski
GROTON — The Board of Selectmen debate had trudged on for the better part of half an hour, full of attendees from different groups and even more full of warm, stuffy air, when Finance Committee member Art Prest single-handedly ended it.
“Okay, I’m going to make everybody’s life easy,” Prest said, taking the microphone. “Tomorrow, I’m going to bring in a check for $14,000 and give it to you for this project. And anybody in town who wants to contribute to that, I’ll accept the checks.”
Prest offered to pay $14,000 from his own pocket to ensure a feasibility study, which will clean up weeds in Baddacook Pond using a new suction-based technique, can proceed. That move takes the town off the hook for footing the bill — and it allowed Monday’s Board of Selectmen meeting to move forward after a debate on the merits of spending that money had bogged down the room.
But the generosity did not end with the former selectman candidate: numerous people, some of whom are involved in town government and some of whom are residents near the pond, wrote to Prest pledging their own donations to ensure the pilot cleanup can begin.
By Tuesday afternoon, Prest said five different people had committed a total of $5,500 toward the project. Once a notice of intent is filed — ensuring the program can officially begin — he will donate that money to the town via the Groton Lakes Association and pay the remainder of the necessary $14,000 himself.
“I finally just reached the end of my rope on this thing and said, ‘We’re going to do this anyway,'” Prest said Tuesday. “I was planning on covering the whole thing and I was just amazed that I got up this morning and looked at my computer and had all these emails.”
After several years without a consensus, the Great Ponds Advisory Committee and the Groton Water Commission finally agreed on a preliminary strategy to remove some of the weeds infesting the bottom of the pond: suck them out.
The proposed plan uses a hose to scoop the invasive plants up from the water, sometimes with a diver guiding it. As a pilot program, it would clean between 10 and 15 of the 35 affected acres to determine if such a technique could work on a larger scale.
Officials estimated the cost to treat the entire pond at $80,000. The initial stage would cost about $20,000. Prest will contribute $14,000 while the Water Commission will pay $4,000 and the GPAC will pay $2,000.
But before Prest decided make his donation, that $14,000 would have been the town’s to pay in the form of a line-item transfer from money saved by communications grants for the police department.
That prompted some disagreement among the selectmen. Chairman Jack Petropoulos said while he understood the importance of the project, he was only informed last week that the selectmen were to vote Monday night on approving the amount.
Part of his problem, he said, was that the town is tightening its belt in other areas to help fund a large increase in the school district’s budget, so paying for the pond would be “out of cycle.”
“I am extraordinarily disappointed by the fact that this is in front of us tonight,” he said before the audience. “We scratched and clawed to get a couple hundred dollars out of different line items to dedicate to the schools, and now, last-minute, we want to do this … I’m flabbergasted.”
Town Manager Mark Haddad countered that the money was already in the fiscal year 2016 budget and that the selectmen merely needed to move it from police communication costs — where the town had received a grant — to paying for the pond.
“It’s money in the operating budget that would have been spent if we had not gotten a grant,” he said during the meeting. “It made sense to bring it forward (for the pond) now.”
However, disagreement did not extend to the previously at-odds GPAC and Water Commission. The two had sparred in the past, particularly over the proposed use of herbicides to handle the pond’s weeds, but arrived Monday night with a joint plan to explore diver-assisted suction harvester, sometimes referred to as DASH, techniques.
“It’s great that we’ve got the two sides of this equation on the same page,” said Selectman Stuart Schulman. “It makes me very, very optimistic.”
A public hearing on the project will likely be held on April 26, according to Conservation Administrator Takashi Tada. In the best-case scenario — which means the town gets approval and that no major opposition arises at the public hearing as it did with past attempts to clear the weeds using herbicides — work could commence in roughly six weeks, Tada said.
Fitting into the theme of local environmental issues, the board also considered whether to fund a one-year, $14,000 program to monitor mosquitoes around the area, but ultimately decided not to put that program forward.
Heads butted again roughly two hours into the meeting while the board was discussing other proposed swaps of funds in the budget.
Petropoulos voiced complaints with several of those transfers due to what he perceived as fiscal irresponsibility, and when the chairman asked Haddad to ensure the expenses were being managed properly, Schulman took issue with the latest opposition.
“To turn every single expenditure of any number of dollars into a federal case at this board is insane,” he said, his voice raised. “It’s completely insane.”
The line-item transfers in question will appear as an item on the upcoming Town Meeting warrant.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.