The Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 Tuesday night in favor of the split, with Selectmen Tony Archinski and Tami Dristiliaris vehemently voicing their opposition. In the end, the decision hinged on the vote of Selectman Alison Hughes, who has been at the forefront of the budget debate since she chaired the Joint Budget Task Force and was the first elected official to publicly raise the question of an override to stem Dracut’s budget woes.
“I think we were elected to put things to the voters and give power to the people,” Hughes said before the votes were cast. “I don’t think it’s splitting, I don’t think it’s dividing … I want to give them all the information and have faith in the citizens of Dracut to make the right decision.”
Hughes said she would vote for both overrides.
In subsequent votes, the board also approved the language of those ballot questions.
One will ask voters to approve a $560,000 Proposition 2 1/2 tax override for the police and fire departments. If approved, it would pay for six additional police officers and two additional firefighters.
The second question will ask for $550,000 for the School Department. The money would initially be used to upgrade the schools’ internet infrastructure. A federal rebate for around $200,000 of those expenses would then allow the district to hire several more employees.
The School Committee and others had been pushing for months for the two questions to be combined into a single $1.1 million override that would pass or fail as one, in large part out of fear that voters would be confused by the separate questions or choose to approve one and not the other.
Dristiliaris characterized the two-question option as an effort to destroy any unity that had been built up between Dracut’s various governing bodies.
“We should not confuse the voters,” she said. “I think the reason some people — this is my belief — want two questions is because they think both will fail … we’re doing a disservice to our children to separate (the schools) from the town.”
Archinski agreed, saying that he would support whatever questions came out of the night’s vote but “the fact is we need more firefighters, more police officers, more teachers, more guidance counselors, and more technology and I don’t think the people should be made to choose.”
Schools Superintendent Steven Stone declined to comment on the vote after the meeting. School Committee Member Michael McNamara, who was also in attendance, also said that two questions were likely to confuse rather than unify residents.
Throughout the nine-month period of fact finding and budget deliberations that culminated in Tuesday night’s vote, Selectman Joseph DiRocco Jr. has warned his colleagues that nothing will change unless the town’s elected officials can win voters over to their cause.
As he reiterated that point prior to the vote, it appeared that several of the selectmen will be campaigning against each other over the override questions leading up to May 2.
DiRocco has previously stated his skepticism about an override for the schools and Selectman Cathy Richardson said she would not vote in favor of either override question because she did not want the tax increases to be permanent.
“To me, the debt exclusion would have been appropriate for the technology piece,” she said.
Tax increases implemented as part of a debt exclusion go away after a set number of years, while overrides create permanent tax and revenue increases.
“Personally I won’t vote for an override because I think it’s bad municipal practice,” Richardson said, adding that she didn’t want residents to think that by passing an override they had fixed the town’s budget problems for good.
Regardless of how the selectmen advocate over the next 55 days, town and school administrators plan to stage a public-education campaign to win voters over for both overrides.
“I see my role, whether it was going to be one or two questions, as going out and educating the community,” Town Manager Jim Duggan said. “We’re going to be going to as many venues as possible.”
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