SHIRLEY -- Selectmen signed an amended version of the May 20 annual Town Meeting warrant Monday night, moving in unison with the Finance Committee through its 21 articles, with favorable recommendations on most.

After about an hour's discussion, proposals for an additional police officer and added hours for a few departmental line items that would have upped the bottom line were sliced away.

Even so, the end result was not the balanced budget both boards were aiming for and hoping to achieve but pretty much gave up on at a previous meeting.

Instead, they ended up with a $200,000 deficit that hinges on a controversial call to recommend that the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District assessment be rejected.

In a sense, the move is only protocol.

Having determined that the town can't afford the amount the Regional School Committee set for the next fiscal year, the aim is to go for a do-over that would result in a lower assessment and a balanced town budget.

Following state law and the regional agreement, this is the way to go, the two boards agreed. But they know it's risky.

In addition to scratching the requested budget increases for departments under the selectmen's jurisdiction, when it came to recommendations on each article, both boards stood by a previous agreement to hold out against the $5,505,590 Ayer-Shirley Regional School District assessment.


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Acting on a tentative plan they'd agreed upon before, the two boards voted unanimously to reject the assessment in favor of a penciled-in placeholder of $5,300,000.

In the envisioned scenario, the assessment would be bounced back to the School Committee, which would hopefully adjust it down accordingly. It would then come up again for another Town Meeting vote.

If the assessment, adjusted or not, gets voted down again, the process proscribed in state law and outlined in the regional agreement calls for a "super Town Meeting" in which both member towns vote at the same time and votes are tallied together. Thus, if the larger community -- Ayer -- says yes, Shirley's no is canceled out.

"So, we balance the budget, but there's a risk," Finance Committee member Mike Swanton said. That is, if the School Committee sticks by its budget and the assessment figure. The alternative is also a risk."Essentially, we'll leave (this year's ATM) with an unbalanced budget that may not be resolved until fall," Finance Committee Chairman Frank Kolarik added.

Newly minted Selectman Bob Prescott, who served for several years on the former Shirley School Committee and later its regional counterpart, was asked how he viewed the situation.

"We need to realize that the state has raised the bar," he said, and the impact of the increased required local contribution amount will impact the town for the next two or three years. "We need to resolve this by September," he posited. Otherwise, if the bill comes due later in the year, it would be even more difficult to find another $150,000 than it would be to add it in now.

Prescott voted with the other two selectmen to recommend rejecting the assessment, but he indicated it was only the first step in a process to frame a long-term solution and he said he'd be willing to work with the School Committee toward that goal.