AYER -- Three back-to-back special Town Meetings took place Monday night at Ayer-Shirley High School. It was a marathon evening that wound to 11 p.m.
The first two meetings were sparked by citizens' petitions circulated by Selectman Frank Maxant. In the first warrant, Maxant asked voters to petition the legislature for Ayer to retake governmental control over its former Fort Devens lands. That measure failed.
Maxant then asked Ayer voters to jointly petition the legislature, in concert with Shirley and Harvard at a future point in time, for the towns to all retake governmental control according to historical town bounds. That notion was tabled.
Maxant said the issue was municipal jurisdiction, not of ownership of the Devens lands. Maxant estimated $2.3 million in annual revenue from Devens when Devens properties were taxed at Ayer's rates.
Devens resident and business owner Armen Demerjian said Devens residents want to remain together instead of being carved up into "little communities -- especially our children who are going to the Harvard schools."
Demerjian challenged Maxant's revenue projections and warned that Maxant hadn't calculated the cost of educating Devens children. "I checked, and, Frank, you are over 50 percent off," said Demerjian. "So my estimate is that Ayer is going to be getting a burden, not a windfall."
Maxant said Ayer would benefit from tax revenues on the 770,000 square feet of available Devens space.
"We'll have jobs, which was the promise of the redevelopment of Fort Devens in the first place," said Maxant.
Finance Committee Chair Scott Houde said his committee surmised the "the really big unknown" was education costs. The Finance Committee opted against making a recommendation on Maxant's two warrants.
Laurie Nehring suggested Maxant's presentation was infused with a "strong bias." Nehring also said there was no detail provided on the different Devens properties that fall within Ayer's historical bounds.
Former 12-year selectman Cornelius Sullivan knocked Maxant's revenue projections, stating the town's commercial/industrial/personal tax rate is "way out of whack" compared to surrounding towns. Sullivan said Maxant's math "certainly doesn't add up."
Rejected at annual Town Meeting in May, selectmen again asked voters to consider creating a Finance Department, led by a selectmen-appointed finance manager, and to switch from an elected to an appointed treasurer and tax collector. It was proposed the collector would also serve as a town-wide collector of taxes and fees.
On all three counts, the selectmen-recommended articles failed to gain traction -- again. Voters rejected granting selectmen the power to appoint a finance director, collector and treasurer.
Selectman Gary Luca said the suggestions sprang from both a Department of Revenue audit and from recommendations of the Town Government Study Committee.
"I personally feel insulted and my intelligence questioned on this article," said Bob Ryan. "It was not too long ago that this town voted no. If any intelligence should be questioned, it should be yours for coming back to us."
Selectman Chairman Jim Fay insisted the recommendation was not some "kind of power grab."
"If we do this, who's going to be their boss?" asked Elizabeth Bodurtha. The audience groaned when Luca said selectmen would oversee the posts.
Former selectmen candidate Mark Coulter urged a no vote. "I think the voters are smarter than that."
Tax Collector John Canney said he brings a law and business degree to his position. "I say that humbly," said Canney. "The point is here in Ayer we have the natural home-grown talent" to serve via election.
Debbie Walsh said she feared opportunity for "embezzlement, fraud, collusion and nepotism" if selectmen appointed the treasurer and collector posts. "They are public positions. It's not as though we're a private company."
"This is exactly what happened in the spring," said Canney. "I have a feeling that history is going to repeat itself."
"Humor me gentlemen: How many times on this particular subject did we vote in May?" asked Dan Demato. "Mr. Fay, Mr. Hillman, Mr. Luca, how many times is it now? I say let's vote on it to send them a message so at least it's on the record."
Voters rejected an appointed finance director, appointed collector and appointed treasurer.
Town Meeting opted to alter an article regarding the vacant Washington Street firehouse, closed in 2005. Voters agreed to strip authorization for selectmen to sell the building, instead urging selectman to study its potential municipal reuse.
The headcount dwindled as the night wore on. With the numerous empty seats, an audience member suggested a vote on a comprehensive zoning bylaw overhaul be tabled.
At its peak, 388 of the town's 4,895 registered voters were present for Monday night's fall Town Meetings.