AYER - The Ayer Finance Committee voted unanimously on Oct. 24 to support two pivotal ballot questions being posed to Ayer and Shirley voters on Saturday, Nov. 17. In order for the proposed $56 million renovation and addition for the Ayer Shirley High School to proceed, 'yes' outcomes are needed on each ballot in each town.

Chair Scott Houde said the present high school building provides a "poor learning environment" for students, adding that the "school's lifespan is spent." The proposal, approved by the Massachusetts School Building Administration, calls for the state to cover 70 percent of the project costs, with the towns picking up the difference.

Debt load   The Ayer Finance Committee has prepared a 10 page presentation which can be found on the town website at www.ayer.ma.us.  This chart shows the
Debt load The Ayer Finance Committee has prepared a 10 page presentation which can be found on the town website at www.ayer.ma.us. This chart shows the cost of the proposed secondary school debt load in relation to other debts incurred by Ayer. (Ayer Finance Committee chart)

To help offset debt service on the Ayer Shirley Middle School, currently borne by Shirley alone, the global financing proposal calls for Ayer to pick up more of the high school cost initially to offset Shirley's debt service burden.

Houde feared a 'no' vote, stating that the alternative is an ominous projection of the two towns having to shoulder $3 million a year to "outsource" Ayer students to choice, charter, private and vocational schools.

The committee has posted on the Town of Ayer website [www.ayer.ma.us then see Finance Committee's page] a presentation about the school district's proposal.

The total cost estimate is $56,543,765. The Massachusetts School Building Association (MSBA) has approved a reimbursement of $37,174,694 which is 70.25 percent. The estimated cost split is 60 percent of the local share to be borne by Ayer, and 40 percent of the local share to be borne by Shirley.

The impact on the average Ayer home, valued at $271,600 according to Board of Assessor information, is estimated at $202.75 a year for 20 years.

The proposal also contemplates a shift to Ayer of $1.9 million of the Shirley Middle School debt since Ayer students began attending the school when the towns regionalized into one school district.

The Ayer Finance Committee calculated the 'impact of failure' of the Nov. 17 vote.

A repair-only approach for the high school may seem less expensive at $30 million, but Ayer would bear 60 percent of the cost, or $18 million, assuming no reimbursement assistance from the MSBA. Shirley would bear 40 percent, of $12 million of the cost.

The Ayer Finance Committee said that scenario would cost the average Ayer taxpayer $268.87 a year for 20 years. School Superintendent Carl Mock noted that while it may be possible to receive MSBA reimbursement on a repair-only approach, it would not be on the same timetable and Ayer-Shirley would certainly lose its place in line with this project's defeat.

"It's a little complicated in the sense that the feasibility study is to study your best option in terms of cost and program," said Mock. "We recognized early-on that a repair-only project would not have been conducive to the educational program."

If the addition/renovation approach fails, "we'd need to submit a new statement of interest and start again," said Mock. "If we were to do that and made a case that you could live with the educational spaces for the next 50 years- which I think is a difficult case to make- but bring the building up to code, you could get MSBA reimbursement."

"I don't want to be misleading," stressed Mock. "It's not that they'd only do the case we brought forward but it's the preferred approach."

"I think to say that if we were not to do this project and decide to do only the repairs, we'd be foolish not to submit a statement of intent to see what [MSBA] participation we could get, but we'd still have the academic piece unanswered," said Mock. "Frankly we'd try to get MSBA participation if we could, but we'd go back down to the bottom of the pile."

"It would take years again?" asked Kilcommins.

"Right," said Mock. "It's not something you'd get approval for next fall." Mock said the district would likely qualify for 56-57 percent reimbursement for repair only, but beyond that the additional percentage points are "dependent on the type of project you put forward."

Some points would be given for reuse of an existing building, but Mock cautioned "We'd surely not get added points for green efforts because if we were only doing renovations and code work, minimum repairs are not really achieving that."

Another big unknown - would Ayer-Shirley still receive an added percentage reimbursement for being a "new district." The district formed on July 1, 2011.

"It's not clear," said Mock. "We've asked that question but they're not able to answer that specifically within their guidelines. If a couple of years pass, it may be OK to get a portion of that 6 percent [added reimbursement rate]."

In any event, straying from the proposal would likely negatively "impact the omnibus budget" said Houde. A higher share of a different project would cut into money available for other departments, Houde said.

To help inform voters, the committee prepared a list of other municipal projects that are being paid off via debt exclusion.

Due to be paid off in Fiscal Year 2014 are a new fire pumper and the library expansion project. Due to be paid off in Fiscal Year 2015 are water department meters and improvements to the Grove Pond treatment plant (though both of those debts would be financed through their respective enterprise funds, noted Capital Planning Committee Chair Mary Spinner).

The town hall roof is paid in Fiscal Year 2020. The landfill closure, high school roof, town hall restoration project, a sewer extension project, and fire station land purchase and design debts fall off in Fiscal Year 2021. The fire station construction falls off in Fiscal Year 2022.

In comparison, the Shirley Middle School debt is to be paid in full in Fiscal Year 2026. And the projected pay off date for the proposed renovated and expanded Ayer Shirley High School would be Fiscal Year 2034.

Selectman Pauline Conley asked if some of the debt sums were small enough to be paid off ahead of time with any future free cash. "If we have $1 million in free cash next year or something near that, it would be worth exploring," said Conley. "I would like to see us pay off" the $550,000 'buy in' that Ayer must pay to the Nashoba Valley Technical High School district with the town's new membership in the district.

"I thought that had already been voted by the board of selectmen," said committee member John Kilcommins.

"Well we did but that was before we learned there was $1 million in free cash," said Conley. The selectmen voted in September to pay off the buy-in sum from money in the selectmen-controlled Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) account. "We could un-vote it as quickly as we voted it."

Houde said in any event, he and Kilcommins "stressed" at an executive finance board meeting "we want to see it [UDAG funds] be paid back. If we have enough free cash, we want to see it paid off right away."

Spinner asked what about the town's policy to place money aside annually to pay for Other Post-- Employment Benefits (primarily health insurance) to retired employees - known as "OPEB"

"The budget starts next year," said Houde. The OPEB policy was originally to have started in Fiscal Year 2012.

The committee voted unanimously 4-0 (with member Michael Pattenden absent) to support the Nov. 17 ballot questions to support the proposed high school renovation and addition project.

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