With the Covid-19 directives from the state and the resulting requirement for social distancing and a ban on large gatherings, Groton town officials were faced with a significant challenge to get the town’s operating budget approved by voters before July 1, 2020.
Based on the recommendation of Selectman Josh Degen, officials investigated a number of potential outside venues, and ultimately settled on conducting this important meeting on the track area behind the Florence Roche Elementary School.
The Saturday morning June 13 meeting was a huge success with close to 300 masked voters turning out in beautiful weather to cast their votes. The 10 a.m. opening was delayed for a short time as a long line of voters waiting to check in were seated. Seating was appropriately distanced to comply with the state directives.
It was a very different Town Meeting than what Groton voters are accustomed to. Town Moderator Jason Kauppi opened the meeting advising voters of the process to be used: No voice votes; votes only by showing voter cards; no screens or projector for the articles. Wireless microphones were used and sanitized between uses by department-head volunteers. Non-voters were welcome, but were to have no cards and were to remain silent. Kauppi asked that anyone wishing to speak give their name.
In order to expedite the meeting, Kauppi advised that some of the 23 articles schedule for action on the Town Meeting warrant would be combined into two “Consent Agendas”. He stressed that if a voter wished to discuss any item in the Consent Agenda, they could ask for it to be be set aside. Any discussion was limited to three minutes by agreement of the voters at the beginning of the meeting.
Following the Town Meeting, Town Manager Mark Haddad praised the “phenomenal planning work done by Town Moderator Jason Kauppi, Town Clerk Michael Bouchard, Town Manager’s Executive Assistant Dawn Dunbar, along with the Board of Health, the Select Board, the Police Department and others.” He stressed, “Town Department Heads stepped up to assist in the coordination of voter sign-ins and managing the microphones that made the meeting go without a hitch.”
The total town budget for FY 2021 was approved by unanimous vote at $38,262,671 representing an increase of 2.67 percent. Of that number, $22,847,766 is for Nashoba Valley Regional Technical High School and the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District Schools and school debt, an increase of 3.61 percent. The final tax rate is $17.80 per thousand of valuation and the tax bill on an average home is calculated to increase by $207, or a 2.42 percent increase.
The Consent Agenda consisted of reading through 13 articles, and unless a voter asked for one to be set aside, they were voted as one article. These included the following categories – all of which were passed unanimously and included: General Government; Land Use Departments; Protection of Persons and Property; Schools including Nashoba Valley Regional Technical High School and Groton-Dunstable Regional School District; Department of Public Works; Library and Citizens Services; Debt Service; Employee Benefits; Water Enterprise; Sewer Enterprise; Local Access Cable Enterprise; Four Corners Sewer Enterprise and income for sales of electricity to private customers be appropriated for Groton Electric Light Department.
Other articles that were approved included funding of the OPEB Trust for retiree pension liability, a $450,100 capital budget for an ambulance replacement, dump truck, IT infrastructure, tractor-trailer unit and a triplex mower. Voters also accepted Amelia Way as a public way, and approved zoning re-codification.
Prescott School Phase 3
The only article that brought out opponents and proponents was one of the two expenditures items that were proposed for funding by the Community Preservation Committee. The request for the Prescott School Sprinkler was for $119,000 to be appropriated from the Community Preservation Fund Historic Reserve Fund and $6,000 from the CPC Unallocated Reserve for a total of $125,000. This would be added to the existing funds already approved from CPC accounts at a previous Town Meeting.
• Proponent for Article
Steve Lane, proponent of the CPC article and a member of the Board of Directors of the Friends of Prescott said Article 8(b) will would help the town “to be good stewards of this important and historic town asset.” Adding, “Approval of $125,000 from a CPA grant to the $215,000 remaining from the CPA grant previously approved at Town Meeting in 2018 to fully fund installation of a sprinkler and fire alarm system throughout Prescott School” and would complete Phase 1 of "The Strategic Blueprint for Prescott" already accepted by the Select Board and presented at the 2016 Town Meeting.
Lane said, “The project will not only protect, but enhance the value of the Prescott School which is currently valued at $1.8M. Holding this building as a town asset provides the town temporary or permanent expansion space without the need to build another new building.”
He said if the sprinkler system were not funded, the result would be, “Prescott School will remain at risk of fire damage. Nobody wants another Groton Inn disaster! “
Lane went on to say, “In 2019 the Select Board approved the Friends of Prescott three-year business plan and established the Prescott Oversight Committee. The existing lease is entering its final year and calls for a $20,000 payment to the Town for property maintenance, plus 50 percent of FOP net operating profits.”
Finance Committee Chairman Bud Robertson, Town Manager Mark Haddad and Selectman Josh Degen are members of the Prescott School Oversight Committee. Robertson advised that the three-year lease business plans presented by the Friends of Prescott “look good. We lost money in the first year. The second-year revenue looks good. In the third year, if we get the sprinkler, we will get money (from the rental of the second floor space).” He added that this still does not pay for plowing and insurance. “We need to protect our building and the people in the building. Our view is to go with what is promised.”
Selectman Josh Degen said, “What is at stake is a building valued at $1.8M. It is a wonderful asset. There is no way the Friends of Prescott can meet their projections if there is no sprinkler.”
• Opponent to the article
Anna Eliot, an opponent of the CPC Prescott School funding and member of the Community Preservation Committee said the CPC had ranked the Prescott Sprinkler system at the bottom of the list of applicants, all the rest of which were postponed to fall town meeting for consideration.
She said the Sprinkler Project did not meet the goals and objectives in the Master Plan and Open Space/Recreation Plan and that the Committee did not consider it an urgent request. She added that Friends of Prescott had not made any “monetary contributions towards multiple CPA funded projects despite maintaining retained earnings. Town municipal funds already cover contractually obligated expenses including maintenance, snow removal and insurance.”
Eliot reminded the meeting that in 2014 Spring Town Meeting voted by a 61 percent majority to sell this building. However, the vote fell short of the required two-thirds majority in order to pass and out of that meeting the community interest in preserving the building was born.
Following further discussion and questions by some officials and residents, funding for the CPC article for the sprinklers for Prescott School passed by majority vote.