For the second time in three months, Pepperell residents have a chance to approve a property tax increase that would stave off major cuts in town services, officials say.
A month after Town Meeting approved the measure, residents taking part in the town election in June turned down a request for a $1.1 million Proposition 2½ override by six votes, leaving officials to enact a number of spending cuts for the fiscal year that started July 1. Citing the narrow margin and a small turnout at the election, the Board of Selectmen has put the issue on the warrant for Special Town Meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Nissitissit Middle School. The article details where the additional funds from an override would be spent; if it wins approval, the tax increase would go before voters at the state primary election on Sept. 9.
“It was brought to our attention that people didn’t know enough about the schedule of the election last time,’’ said Town Administrator John Moak. “People didn’t realize they had to go back for another vote after Town Meeting.’’
About 1,000 of the town’s 8,000 registered voters turned out in June, when the override lost, 501 to 508.
Moak said the town is not allowed to send out information about the ballot question, just dates and times. While it did not send out any information before the last vote, this time the town mailed a post card listing the Special Town Meeting and election.
“No matter what way they vote, they should be aware of it so we can get a better turnout,’’ Moak said. “We feel we need more than 1,000 people to vote on such an important issue.’’
The ballot question will ask residents to approve nearly $1.14 million for the town’s operating budget and capital expenses that would cover expected increases for the next five years, Moak said. He said the figure is a little higher than the spring vote because it more accurately reflects a five-year plan for the town.
‘No matter what way they vote, they should be aware of it so we can get a better turnout.’ — John Moak, Pepperell town administrator
Since 2008, the town has had to cut employees, reduce services, and use most of its reserve funds, Moak said. He said the general government budget is roughly 4 percent less than in 2008, but the school budget is up 32 percent.
“Our revenues are just not meeting costs,’’ he said. “What we’re finding is most of the new growth goes to the schools, so there is no additional money to cover the cost of trying to run general government.’’
To balance the budget, Moak said, the number of full-time town employees has gone from 70 to 60. Cash reserves have gone from $5.5 million in 2008 to less than $1 million this year. There have been reduced hours at Town Hall, the library and the senior center, the Police Department has lost two officers, a part-time clerk, a cruiser, and a detective’s position, and the highway department has lost one worker.
If the tax increase is not approved, officials say, there will be longer response times for police, fire, and ambulance calls, and snow removal will take longer, which could lead to an increase in school snow days. The library, senior center, and Town Hall will operate with reduced hours, town buildings will continue to deteriorate, and it will be difficult to attract and retain quality employees, they say.
And by 2019, officials say, the cuts could lead to town buildings being closed due to disrepair, the loss of equipment due to age and disrepair, the loss of library state accreditation and aid, and a lowered bond rating, which could raise costs for a new high school.
“It’s going to be a real challenge to maintain even basic services if we don’t get it this year,’’ Moak said.
Police Chief David Scott said he hopes the override passes so he can hire two more officers. He said the department’s detective is working nights to cover a patrol shift, so investigations are taking longer, and there is little time for drug education and enforcement.
“It’s not just about the Police Department, though,’’ Scott said. “It’s about the whole town. At some point, the town will cease to function. We’re hoping the public is more educated this time around. We’re hoping people get out and vote.’’
Debra Spratt, director of the Lawrence Library, said all employees took a week of furlough this summer, and hours have been cut back Wednesday evenings. She said magazine subscriptions are also ending.
Although the town can’t mail out details about the override other than dates, town officials did prepare a fact sheet about the cuts that is available at town offices and the library.
Information about the proposal has also been posted on the municipal website, www.town.pepperell.ma.us.