Groton - A modest 0.6 percent increase in spending in the town manager's proposed $121.7 million budget for fiscal year 2014 would amount to a 5.4 percent tax hike.
Town Manager Mark Oefinger said a steep drop-off in revenues is partially to blame, though a 1.3 percent dip in the town's grand list has not helped.
Under the spending proposal, yet to be taken up by the Town Council, the tax rate would increase from 20.22 mills to 21.31 mills - a $109 tax increase for every $100,000 of assessed property value. Three-quarters of the increase is due to declining revenues, Oefinger said.
"The issue with the budget is not the expense side, it's the revenue side," he said.
The proposed budget, completed and printed this week, proposes $731,395 more in spending than last year's budget, despite the $1.2 million more requested this year from the Board of Education.
Oefinger said proposed increases in education, town operations and other areas have been offset in part by a $1.2 million drop in debt services and capital spending.
Anticipation of a tax hike has Representative Town Meeting members restless.
In a vote taken Wednesday, the RTM asked Oefinger to present a budget that represented no tax increase.
"I think it would be nice if we had a benchmark from the town manager to look at as we go through the budget and we can see how much should be expended versus how much is requested to be expended," RTM member Jack Sebastian said. "Just going along like we usually go along … the taxes are just going up for everybody."
Oefinger told the RTM he would give a dollar amount but leave it up to them to make the appropriate cuts, warning it would mean a cut in services.
"Cutting the budget is the easiest thing in the world. What's difficult is living with the consequences," Oefinger told the RTM.
He said it would take an estimated $4 million from the budget proposal to make up for revenue losses and avoid a tax hike. He said he essentially has control of about 27 percent of the total budget. By charter, Oefinger forwards the Board of Education and political subdivision budgets to the Town Council as they were presented to him.
RTM member Archie Swindell said the town and its subdivisions must discuss consolidation of services.
"We have three police departments. We have two separate public works departments with a vast amount of expensive machinery," he said. "We really have got to have some constructive, innovative thinking."
Oefinger has proposed $2.4 million in capital projects that include $250,000 to continue development of plans to address school facilities, $445,000 for asbestos removal at Charles Barnum Elementary School and $640,000 for a radio control console system for the emergency dispatch center.
Capital spending is more than $1 million less than last year due to a bond referendum passed last year that will borrow money for road maintenance that normally would fall under the capital fund.
The overall budget proposal shows the town departments would get a 0.9 percent increase, $23.8 million, covering the town's 268 employees. Town operations would increase by 1.9 percent to $33 million. The City of Groton is seeking less, $4.4 million for police and highways, a drop of 2.4 percent. Groton Long Point has asked for $604,600 for police and road maintenance, a 74.5 percent increase over what they were funded last year.
The school board presented a $73.6 million spending plan, a 1.4 percent increase over the current budget. School spending accounts for 60.6 percent of the overall budget.
Oefinger also has proposed using $1.04 million from the fund balance, a drop of $545,310 used in the current budget. Oefinger said the reduced use of the fund balance combined with a 4 percent - $1.6 million - decrease in revenues, combine for a $2.2 million drop in funding. There is about a $1 million loss in tax revenues associated with the grand list.
Residents will have a chance to comment on the budget at a meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. March 28 at the Senior Center. The Town Council has scheduled a series of workshops in the weeks following the public hearing.