GROTON -- With the amount of a shortfall in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District's budget for fiscal 2015 seemingly growing by the week, Town Manager Mark Haddad briefed selectmen on a scenario for raising the funds needed by the schools to balance the books.
Meeting with selectmen Feb. 10, Haddad told them that with a deadline for approving a new fiscal 2015 school budget March 12, Groton and Dunstable are under the gun to find a solution for the shortfall or the district will likely face cuts in personnel and services, and possible building closures.
According to Haddad, what had been reported as a $2.5 million shortfall expected by the schools for fiscal 2015 has increased to $2.7 million.
As a result, the School District has asked the towns for help, with Haddad assuring selectmen and the public that the shortfall has not caused a rift between town and school officials but on the contrary, has only galvanized each to find a solution to the crisis.
Late last year, the approved school operating budget for fiscal 2013 stood at $35,200,000 but a review revealed that total obligations by the district came to $36,204,212, a difference of $1,004,000.
Initial cuts were able to eliminate the shortfall for that year while further efforts, including more cuts and new sources of revenue, reduced the shortfall for 2014 to $464,485.
But since the initial problem with the budget has a rollover effect in subsequent years, a major problem remains for 2015.
The bottom line, said Haddad, was that in the district's proposed budget for fiscal 2015, Groton would be assessed $1.9 million over the estimated $15 million it paid in 2014.
Haddad approached the board earlier in the month suggesting taking back a vote by Town Meeting that appropriated $103,000 to pay for a study for a new fire-protection system at Lost Lake and a mosquito-control program, as well as $76,000 appropriated to reopen Sargisson Beach for public use.
Haddad also suggested the town not fill new positions previously approved and make cuts in library services, and the police and fire departments.
Haddad also suggested dipping into the town's unexpended tax levy, about $400,000.
"I am not in favor of these cuts," Haddad said, adding that if everything he had proposed was accepted, the property tax rate in town would rise from $17.38 per $1,000 valuation to $18.45.
Haddad was opposed to cutting more than $185,000 out of the town's operating budget and recommended seeking the rest from unexpended sources and possibly a debt-exclusion which he said could be held for a vote in a special election before spring Town Meeting.
Board Chairman Peter Cunningham was in favor of letting the issue "percolate" before the board made a decision.
Member Joshua Degen asked if Haddad could prepare a "contingency budget" should a ballot question fail or Dunstable decide not to raise its share of the money.
Haddad said he planned to meet with the Finance Committee on Feb. 11.
A meeting Feb. 18 would also be scheduled to include selectmen, the Finance Committee and School Committee to take the discussion to the next level.
Also Monday, selectmen met with the Water Commission and the Great Ponds Advisory Committee to clear the air over a decision by the department to nix the committee's plan to use weed-killing chemicals in Baddacook Pond.
The Water Commission voted against the plan. Selectmen decided to meet with both parties to listen to new information given by committee Chairman James Leuning.
The hope by the board and committee members was that the new information would be sufficient for the Water Commission to reconsider its vote.
According to Leuning, information acquired from the state's Department of Environmental Protection indicated that use of the chemicals was allowed on the pond and that the study of similar use of chemicals in Natick found no harm had come to its groundwater.
Leuning said salt and aspirins were more toxic than chemicals, such as Sonar, used to control aquatic weeds.
Luening said alternate forms of weed control were either too expensive or ineffective.
Board of Health member Susan Horowitz told selectmen the use of Sonar in Lost Lake has not showed up in the nearby Whitney well site and that to make a proper decision, the latest scientific information must be examined.
The hearing ended with no decision.
Water Superintendent and Water Commission member Thomas Orcutt could not say whether the question would be taken up again by the commission.
In other business, selectmen voted to reject a bid by local businessman Steven Webber to buy the Station Avenue fire station for $1,000.
Webber told selectmen he had not given up on the idea of developing Station Avenue as a mixed-use commercial and residential area and intended to "mothball" the fire-station building until he could get something going.
Webber's was the only bid following a process that yielded no other buyers, with lack of parking at the site being the main cause of disinterest.
However, Haddad said others began to express interest after the bidding process had closed and suggested to the board that it be tried again.
"I don't see how it could hurt," said member Stuart Schulman.
Selectmen rejected Webber's bid "without prejudice" and instructed Haddad to put the project back out to bid.
Members also voted to appoint Gregory Troughton to the Economic Development Committee.