By Anne O’Connor
When asked what the most significant thing that could happen in 2017 for their towns would be, all of the answers from chairmen of the Boards of Selectmen included one topic: the budget.
The start of the new calendar year usually finds municipalities planning for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1.
Groton needs to find a solution for a very difficult budget situation, said Jack Petropoulos. Costs are rising faster than the tax levy and even taxpayers’ incomes.
Schools account for more than half of the town’s budget with less than half covered by state aid. Even with state aid factored in, if district expenses rise three percent, the local portion increases 4.7 percent.
Town revenues are projected to increase about 3.5 percent.
Groton will not see an increase in state aid for schools, Chapter 70. The state found that Groton received a higher level of aid in the past than like communities, Petropoulos said. The yearly amount will not decrease but it will not increase until Groton’s aid is at a level equal to municipalities with a similar income and property value level.
Other towns are more optimistic.
Pepperell has not had a structural deficit for the past three years. The best thing that could happen, said Stephen Themelis, is to once again keep a level budget and improve the capital expenditures budget without increasing the tax burden beyond 2.5 percent.
For years, the town struggled to balance the budget with overrides and cuts when overrides did not pass. Grants, increased collection of money owed to the town for taxes and fees, and cost-savings measures have been part of the picture over the past three years.
Town departments, selectmen and the town administrator have worked well together to put the town on a solid financial footing, Themelis said. “Hats go off to everybody.”
Ayer is in pretty good shape, said Gary Luca. “There’s really nothing pressing in town.”
“We’re going to concentrate on the budget,” he said. If any cuts are made in state aid the town wants to be able to absorb that while keeping taxes low without cutting services. The biggest challenge in reaching that goal is a predicted double-digit increase for health insurance.
“I think we’re doing a good job,” Luca said.
Shirley is looking forward to capital improvements.
“We’re in such really great shape now, it’s hard to think of a problem,” said Kendra Dumont. The fire station and old town hall will see new roofs. Thanks to a grant, the Main Street Bridge will be repaired.
Town finances were in really bad shape when she first took office, said Dumont who is in third term. “We’re in a great place finally.”
She praised the town administrator for going the extra mile to pursue grant opportunities the town never took advantage of in the past.
Townsend has new construction to look forward to and is keeping an eye on future budgets and planning.
Lots of prior planning means that several big projects should be finished in 2017, said Carolyn Smart. Among the most exciting are the North Middlesex Regional High School, a new fire station in West Townsend and sidewalks constructed by the Highway Department between downtown and the Sterilite Corporation.
“I think we’re pretty blessed. We have some outstanding buildings,” she said.
New budget policies will be developed with the help of the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management, Smart said. The policies will allow the town to plan into the future years so that it can remain stable.
A new think tank with members from Town Hall and the Townsend Business Association will better support local business, she said.
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