The Town of Groton, which has traditionally repaired its roads by placing money in the operating budget, is trying a new approach. The town is asking voters to approve an $11.2 million bond issue on Election Day to repair and repave roads throughout Groton over the next several years.
The approach has several advantages.
It will allow for better planning. Under the current system, the administration does not advertise for construction bids and award contracts for road repairs until it knows how much money the Town Council and Representative Town Meeting will approve in a given fiscal year. With money approved for several years, the administration will have greater latitude to negotiate long-term deals, likely leading to per-project savings.
While funding road repairs annually as part of capital improvement projects avoids interest costs - which will amount to $2.37 million for this bond issue - it is subject to the vagaries of a given fiscal year. When money gets tight, and voters demand savings, road projects are often the first to go, delaying repairs and raising the cost when the work finally is done. In Fiscal Year 2011 the council and RTM authorized $660,000 for road projects, in FY 2012 no money was approved, while this fiscal year elected leaders authorized $1.03 million to try to catch up.
Such ups and downs do not make for good planning. Also, outside studies done for the town estimate it would cost around $2 million annually to keep up with road repairs.
The unique nature of Groton, with its many political subdivisions, adds to the difficulty of reaching a consensus on road repair during the annual budget debate. The City of Groton borough, 3 square miles, is located within the town's borders. The city has its own highway department and city property owners pay a city tax rate in addition to their town tax bill. But it is the town that is responsible for "making and repair of roads" throughout the town, including in the city section, according to a 1933 state law.
As a result the town will send $2.25 million in operating funds to the city to pay for the city's highway department work this year. And the town must include the city in the road repair planning.
The same responsibilities hold true for another political subdivision within Groton - the Groton Long Point Association. No surprise then that divvying up road repair funds can be a challenge. The proposed bond issue at least avoids having the debate happen every year.
Under the plan the city will receive $3.5 million to undertake road projects within city borders, while $986,700 would be available for Groton Long Point. Another $6.4 million will repave town roads located outside the city and Groton Long Point boundaries, while $306,500 is set aside for financing costs. Each of these entities would be responsible for awarding and managing "their" road repairs, while to varying degrees supplementing the work with their own highway crews.
We take this opportunity to say once again that we consider these multiple layers of governance in Groton to be wasteful, unnecessary and antiquated. But this long-term road repair project at least tries to apply some logic to an illogical system. We would expect town officials to fund little if any road repaving in the regular budget during the years this project is underway.
There is no better time to undertake such an extensive road repair plan than now. Interest rates are at historic lows and construction bids are coming in low due to the still struggling economy. A homeowner with a house assessed at $200,000 can expect additional taxes of $18 the first year, peaking at $74 in the fifth year, and decreasing after that to $5.50 the final bond-paying year, 2026-2027.
Our recommendation is a yes vote on the $11.2 million road maintenance question. If voters approve this approach, the town will be in a better position to assess in a few years whether bonding for road repairs should become the new norm. For the reasons stated above, it makes sense to try it.