AYER -- Candidates for treasurer and selectmen were in the spotlight at Wednesday's candidates' forum, sponsored by the Ayer IT Committee. Former selectman and political blogger Chuck Miller moderated the event before a standing room only crowd.

Three seek treasurer post

In the three-way race for treasurer, incumbent Stephanie Gintner is being challenged by sitting Selectman Gary Luca and former Ayer Finance Committee member Glen LaPierre.

The questions dealt directly with two of the three candidates. In regard to "tension" between selectmen and the treasurer's office, Miller asked what each candidate would do to ensure the public knows the office is operating efficiently.

Luca admitted to "contentious moments" between the elected officials. Luca said it's fueled by "frustration" in allegedly asking for and not receiving information from the Treasurer's Department. Luca has also advocated for the treasurer's post to be converted to a selectmen appointee, and not an elected position.

"Cooperation" between departments "is a two-way street," answered Gintner. "I've always cooperated with all of the other departments. Anytime they've asked me for information, I've given it to them."

"I don't always get that cooperation," said Gintner, who added that what's needed at Town Hall is "harmony" between all departments and people.

LaPierre said communications from the treasurer's office (whether with selectmen or the Finance Committee) should be kept simple. "If you get too complicated with things, there can be misunderstanding. ... You've got to be precise and you've

got to be timely with your information."

There was a clear difference of opinion on the need to make daily deposits. Luca said all incoming cash needs to be deposited daily to "limit the amount of short-term borrowing you may need." Luca said he personally had a May tax payment clear three months later in August. Luca added that it took 12 days for his last tax

payment to clear. Luca also claimed there was $36,000 of checks lingering with insufficient funds.

Gintner said of deposits "some days I have none." Otherwise, she performs deposits weekly. "To do it on a daily basis is time consuming." Over the past three years, Gintner said her office has been paid $728,000 on delinquent tax bills. Of $381,000 now in tax title, she has entered payment plans for $121,000 of that sum, while others she continues to track down.

LaPierre agreed with Luca, stating cash is deposited into the bank daily in private industry. "That's where it belongs." On checks bounced due to insufficient funds, LaPierre said "the longer you let it sit out there, the harder it is to collect." Gintner noted that many of those checks date back through the terms of two predecessor treasurers.

Asked what functions are most important, LaPierre said it's about "running a tight ship" in conjunction with the other departments, selectmen and Finance Committee. Luca said it was "tough to narrow down" but suggested the administration of health benefits for employees and retirees was key, as was reporting to the Department of Revenue, cash management and overseeing municipal bonding.

"All the functions are important," said Gintner. Cash management is performed daily, other issues like borrowing and investing are "not a daily function, but you have to watch them." In terms of cash flow, "the treasurer has to determine the cash needs of the municipality to make sure there are sufficient liquid funds or assets available to meet the obligations."

The treasurer's position carries a three-year term.

Four seek BOS seat

In the four-way race for one available seat on the Ayer Board of Selectmen, Selectman Frank Maxant is concluding his third three-year term on the board and is seeking re-election. Former Democratic candidate for state Rep. Jane Morriss, Navy veteran Jannice Livingston and retired Ayer patrolman Mark Coulter are also vying for the seat.

The candidates disagreed as to whether or not Ayer should pick up more of the tab for the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District, after Shirley has signaled its likely inability to pay its share of the bill. 

"I'm all for paying more if it's not going to be detrimental to the whole town," said Livingston. But Livingston said Ayer must wait until after Shirley's own selectmen races conclude at a time when Shirley is without a chief administrative officer. "They need to get that taken care of, then they need to get their budget out."

"I don't think I'm qualified to say yea, nay or boo," answered Morriss. "Before I'd glibly say yes or no, I'd want to consult with the School Committee. I don't think the School Committee knows the answer because there are so many variables right now."

"We do need to wait and see," agreed Coulter. Still, "off the top of my head, it would be unfair for Ayer to pay more" than its share based on the percentage of the two town's student populations.

"Not just no, but heck no," said Maxant, who claimed "promises" on savings and efficiencies were made to the respective towns before regionalization took place in 2011. Ayer's financial strength is due to its tax base "because we've invested heavily over the years in infrastructure ... Guess what? Shirley didn't do that."

Miller threw a curve ball, asking the candidates' views on any attempted effort to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as was attempted and abandoned in nearby Westford. Most agreed it's not a local issue.

"I'm not sure how effective it would be for Ayer," said Morriss, who added she favored limits and background checks for gun owners. "I don't know how you'd enforce it. I'd question the jurisdiction of that for Ayer."

Coulter said most Americans support background checks for gun purchasers, limits on ammo loads, and a national ban on assault weapons. "Why does a citizen need a high-powered weapon like that?" But Coulter said the gun debate has overshadowed review of the country's "deplorable" mental-health system.

"I definitely would not support a ban," said Maxant, who agreed it's not a local issue. "I'd be much more inclined that everybody's required to have a gun," said Maxant, who grabbed onto Coulter's reference to some Georgia localities that have voted to require their residents to own a gun.

"We don't have a problem in the Town of Ayer," said Livingston, who rapped her knuckles on the table to knock on wood. "And hopefully we never will." But Livingston said universal background checks should be mandatory, and mental health-care needs an overhaul. "We, the people, need to take care of one another."

What's the best accomplishment or investment a town can make for its citizens? "The schools," said Maxant. "There's nothing more important to a community's present and future but we have to invest within our means."

"I agree with Frank," said Livingston with a tweak. "I'm not going to say this a lot." Support for the schools "is our legacy." Livingston said a sense of civic belonging is needed, too. "We have to make sure residents don't feel there's a wall on getting involved in how the town's run."

Up there with schools is water quality for Morriss. "Ayer has a legacy -- a gift -- of natural resources, and I think we need to protect them."

Coulter called for spending within the town's means on education. Coulter also called for tax relief. "We have to collaborate on a way to get those taxes down a little bit." Coulter also wanted support for Ayer's senior citizen population.

How many Town Meetings have you attended, asked Miller. A dozen, said Coulter. Two or three, said Livingston and Morriss. Though Morriss moved to town last fall, she said she'd attended before as a spectator.

Pencil in hand, Maxant began scribbling. "I'm an engineer. I don't estimate," said Maxant, who then ballparked he's attended 60 Town Meetings in his adult years.

"Showoff," said Coulter with a smile. The evening was loaded with light-hearted segues and friendly interplay between the candidates. As with the treasurer's race, each selectmen candidate took turns pulling playing cards from a deck to ensure a random order of questions asked and opportunity for candidate answers.

The event was videotaped by Ayer Public Access Channel and can be viewed in its entirety at ayer.ma.us under "other" meeting videos. The Ayer town election is April 30.

Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.