Special Town Meeting Issue: Should $6.9 Mil Fire Station Bond Be Decided by Town-Wide Ballot or at Town Meeting?
Special Town Meeting slated for Saturday, Jan. 26 starting at 9 a.m. at the Middle School Auditorium features only four articles for voter consideration. The major reason for this meeting is to take action on a request for bond authorization of $6,934,589 for constructing, equipping and furnishing a proposed new Center Fire Station to be located on 2.79 acres on Farmer's Row.
Total cost for the Center Fire Station project is $7.7M and will be paid by a 22-year bond at $490K per year. Town Manager Mark Haddad stressed that the money for the payments is within the levy limit and will not result in any increases in taxes to residents.
In a second article, voters will be presented with two decisions - the first one is to only demolish the historic but deteriorating Fitch Bridge that spans Nashua River, connecting the Groton side to the West Groton side of the river - OR, - a second choice is to demolish and construct a new non-vehicular bridge for use by equestrians, bicyclists and pedestrians. Cost for demolition only - including shoring up abutments is estimated at $250K, while cost of demolition and replacement with a new bridge is estimated at $600K. Actual bids for both scenarios are due Thursday, Jan. 10.
If both the new Center Fire Station and demolition and replacement for Fitch's Bridge are approved, they will be bonded together. If this occurs, the larger bond will cost the town an estimated $526K per year for 22 years. Haddad said that if necessary - the bond duration could be extended to 25 years. He added that if the vote is for demolition only, this cost cannot be bonded. He said his plan is to debate the total article, and then vote on demolish and replace first, and if that fails, then vote to demolish only.
Selectman Josh Degen raised his concern that adding "additional monies for the Fire Station and Fitch's Bridge may cause the town to tap into unexpended tax capacity. What happened if the schools need money?"
Finance Committee member Bob Hargraves said he felt that the town was "squeezing this to excess. This is debt that is not excluded" He suggested that the Board could find out in January that it doesn't have any cushion." He cautioned, "You have not asked for a debt exclusion. If we have to have an override, it will be with us as part of the operating budget for life. If 1989, we did not have a debt exclusion and one year later it resulted in layoffs. It would be much more prudent to have a debt exclusion now."
Haddad said, "At any point, the Board could put it out for a debt exclusion," noting that it would be on a ballot vote, not a Town Meeting vote, and would be contingent on ballot approval. "If in two years, the schools need $1M in debt, then we can put it on the ballot," he said.
Hargraves responded that Selectmen could put on an article for debt exclusion now - and add it to the warrant before it is printed. Resident Rule Loving said he felt that the question of the new Fire Station should be voted on by ballot. Finance Committee Chairman Jay Prager said he "agreed 100 percent that it should be on a ballot."
The third article requests the sum of $95K - to be taken from free cash - for application of the herbicide Sonar - to treat major weed infestation that is choking large portions of Lost Lake and Knops Pond. This herbicide is approved for this use by the EPA and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1986 for use in potable water sources.
Following some discussion, the Selectmen agreed that they would place the Sonar Herbicide article first on the warrant, followed by the Fitch's Bridge decisions, then the Center Fire Station article and ending with the Citizen's Petition. A Special Town Meeting requires that 155 voters be present to act on all of the articles. Any voter can call for a quorum count at any time, and if the result is less than the 155 voters, no further action can be taken.
The last article, a Citizen's Petition containing the required 100 signatures, brings back an effort to create a Lost Lake Sewer System District that was postponed at Fall Town Meeting. At that meeting an article for $15M for the construction of a municipal sewer for the Lost Lake area was overwhelmingly defeated.
Selectman Jack Petropoulos undertook the Citizen's Petition approach in order to keep open the opportunity to secure federal grants for up to $1M if and when a sewer system is again under consideration. This action does not cost residents anything nor does it commit the town to developing a sewer system for the Lost Lake area.
Selectman Degen said he heard the voters and they didn't want a sewer system and he is against this article. FinCom member Hargraves said he counted only four signatures on the petition from lake residents. He also asked about the ongoing use of Lost Lake Fire Station and said he went by the building and missed it in the dark. Haddad responded that it is a substation, and its use will not change as a substation.
Petropoulos has scheduled two information sessions to review the proposal and its implications prior to Town Meeting. These sessions will be held at the Lost Lake Fire Station Saturday, Jan. 19 at 9 a.m. and Tuesday, Jan. 22 at 7 p.m.