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EDITORIAL: Groton’s New Financial Early Warning System

Expensive ‘mission critical’ spending initiatives suddenly appearing on the town ballot with little warning have been a source of growing frustration for voters. Despite our town government’s financial management expertise and the town’s superlative bond rating, many voters feel that such high-dollar, unanticipated spending initiatives are signs of poor financial planning at best, and intentional manipulation at worst.
     To protest this opaque process, Select Board Member Alison Manugian went so far as to publically criticize the process and cast protest votes against some of this spring’s Town Meeting capital spending initiatives rather than voting on the merits of these spending proposals.
     You know there is a systemic problem when a member of your Select Board finds a process that falls under their purview so opaque and frustrating that they must cast ‘no’ votes in protest rather than on the merits of the initiatives.
     We hope the Select Board’s new Major Initiative Planning Committee [See story Page One] will create a clear and orderly process for evaluating and understanding high-value spending needs, thus reestablishing voter confidence.
     Two recent events show how multi-million, high-priority spending items can suddenly muscle their way to the forefront of the budget process, taking up all the political ‘oxygen,’ pushing their way to the head of the line.
     In last week’s edition of this newspaper, we reported that high levels of manganese in our public drinking water – a health hazard - could cost as much as $7.5 million to remediate. Also there is a request to add two new dispatchers to town employment roles. These two new dispatch positions alone could cost the town millions when benefits, healthcare and pension obligations are factored in.
     Although these two expensive items seem to have ‘suddenly’ appeared, managers of these departments had to have been aware of these festering problems. Rather than go directly to the Select Board to declare the need to fund expensive initiatives, all department managers should be encouraged to register their spending needs, plans and concerns early, well BEFORE crisis time.
     Rather than appearing on the Select Board’s agenda when a problem reaches a crisis, all departments should register anticipated spending needs well before they become ‘critical’ – even if the spending need is somewhat hypothetical and seemingly far off in the future.
     Following this process would allow the spending proposals to be vetted and weighed in a more orderly and less political environment.
     We hope folding evaluation of all high-dollar spending initiatives into the regular budget process, by a committee working closely with the Select Board, on a longer time-line, the FinCom the Town Manager, and voters will all get an ‘early warning’ of coming spending plans. The Committee could host forums for asking questions, providing input and putting all spending projects into context of total town needs, desires, and ability to pay.
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