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Voters Approve Funding $7+ Million Central Fire Station

Shortly after 9:10 a.m. Saturday, Jan 26, with 277 voters present, Moderator Jason Kauppi called Special Town Meeting to order and with only four warrant articles for voter consideration, it took close to four hours to conclude the meeting.

The biggest expenditure voters faced was to approve funding of more than $7M for construction, permitting and furnishing of a new Center Fire Station that would be sited on a working hayfield on historic Farmers Row. The issue was not a question of the need for a new Fire Station, but which method to use to pay for it: Should it be done through funds saved under the levy limit which would not raise taxes as proposed by Selectmen, or by debt exclusion which would require a ballot vote, with all taxpayers in the town able to participate, and not solely decided by only those who attended the Special Town Meeting.

In the past, a townwide ballot vote for the debt exclusion was used for funding the addition to the library, the $1.5M Lost Lake Fire Station, and major renovations to Town Hall.

Long-time Groton resident and banker Rule Loving presented an amendment to the Fire Station Funding article urging that the decision be brought to all voters by townwide ballot and be funded by a debt exclusion that has a declining balance each year.

Loving told voters that he studied the proposals very carefully, especially following what he felt was a lack of discussion on the funding of $15M Lost Lake sewer proposal which went down to defeat at Annual Town Meeting. He said he was looking for officials to provide a 'fiscal master plan' that would show voters how each time they vote for an article, just how it would affect the budget.

He stressed that all along in this process he has made sure that the Town Manager, Selectmen and other relevant boards were aware of his plan for the amendment and assured voters that his motion to amend was in no way "a political step to stop the fire station." He said that he felt that all voters in town should take ownership for the debt, "Because the proposal is to fund the fire station under the levy limit, voters approve the article without going to the ballot." He cautioned that "when the going gets tough, they can come back to fund through the ballot. There is no required mechanism to reduce the tax rate when the fire station is paid off." The other issue raised by Loving was the town's unfunded liability for $7M to cover retiree healthcare costs.

Town Manager Mark Haddad commended Loving for an 'excellent presentation.' He stressed that monies are already in the 2013 budget and that he is not using recurring monies. He said he had planned for several years to use payments under the levy limit to fund the new fire station.

Finance Committee member Bob Hargraves told voters that the majority of the Finance Committee members voted to support Loving's amendment. He cited a decision in the past where the town did not use excluded debt for the purchase of the country club, and that subsequently there were layoffs in the library and the Highway Department, adding, "What happened here is that we have $500K in a cushion but for the last two years the school [requests] was flat."

Selectman Peter Cunningham suggested that there is now a different form of town governance, and stressed that he thinks that only a small number of residents would vote in a townwide ballot.

Hargraves replied, "This amendment is all about people going to the polls for an expense as large as this. There is a potential for 7200 votes as opposed to maybe 300 votes."

Resident Mike Manugian asked how much the town has set aside for the unfunded retiree's healthcare liability. Haddad said the town did have a $7M liability and new accounting regulations require that a trust be set up to cover this amount in the event that a town goes bankrupt. Manugian followed up with a question on what impact this unfunded liability could have on the town's borrowing.

Jenifer Evans pointed out that a "debt exclusion is not an override. Prop 2 ½ overrides last forever," adding that debt exclusion "is a different way of accounting, - spending under the levy limit or by debt exclusion is still spending $8M either way." She asked why we believe that some non-recurring debt would not push us to the levy limit, commenting, "We are going to need other monies for schools."

Becky Pine, in favor of the Loving amendment, stated that all large municipal projects presented to voters passed. "They were presented to voters, debated at length at Town Meeting and then presented to voters on the ballot...There could be a little bit of a cloud because we never had the opportunity for all to endorse this...It is an unfortunate precedent, such a large amount of money without a townwide vote."

Alison Manugian shared Pine's concerns and said, "We have a half a million (dollars) under the levy limit and we could be halfway through the fire station and the levy limit could go down to nothing. If you have to come back to ask for a debt exclusion later, why don't we do it now."

Brooks Lyman suggested that a "debt exclusion opens a Pandora's box and it will cost us no matter what we do and it comes out of taxes."

Jon Soberg said he did not support the amendment, and said he had confidence in the town manager form of government, believing it has done well adding, "I don't believe that we need to go to a ballot vote."

Following lengthy discussion, voters defeated the Loving amendment by a hand count vote with 92 in favor and 200 opposed.

Voters then approved the new Center Fire Station with 227 voting in favor and 58 opposed, and the Moderator declared a 2/3 majority by hand count.

Groton Herald

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