AYER -- With newly elected Town Moderator Tom Horgan presiding for the first time this year, 110 voters turned out to consider 38 articles on the May 13 Annual Town Meeting warrant.
Progressing as far as Article 24 Monday night, most articles passed, including an $11.3 million Omnibus Budget for Fiscal 2014.
It was a long night, wrapping up after 10 p.m. with half the people having gone home and several articles left to consider. After the motion on Article 24, to pay prior year bills, was approved, a motion was made and passed to adjourn. With 14 more items to address, the meeting was set to reconvene Tuesday night at 7 p.m.
Money matters, early on
The final figure approved for Article 4, the Omnibus Budget, was somewhat higher than the original amount presented after Selectman Gary Luca made a series of amendments to Article 3 -- Salaries of Elected Officials -- and to certain items in the Omnibus Budget.
The omnibus header covers operating budgets for six town departments: general government, finance, public safety, public works, human services and management support.
Acting on his own as a "private citizen," Luca was out of sync with the rest of the board, which voted in concert with the Finance Committee on the budget as presented.
"The discussion was heated," when the two boards voted, he said, but he felt it was key to bring the matter to Town Meeting "on my own."
Had it not been for Luca's amendments, Article 3 would probably have been only a housekeeping task, with amounts already set for elected positions such as the chairmen and members of boards of selectmen and assessors, treasurer, town clerk, tax collector, tree warden and moderator and with recommended changes pre-determined by the selectmen and Finance Committee.
The two boards in a previous joint session voted to recommend a level-funded salary line for elected town officials and not to apply COLA increases to the compensation plan this year. But the arrangement didn't sit well with Luca and voters had the final say.
Rather than maintain the status quo, as recommended, Luca asked voters to increase salaries for three elected positions that are also full-time town jobs -- treasurer, town clerk and tax collector. In his amended version, those salaries went up from $59,799 to $60,984, from $26,905 to $27,443 and from $32,884 to $33,541, respectively.
But the amendment failed, leaving the salaries as listed.
By prior agreement and at Horgan's request, the moderator's stipend had already been reduced from $562 to $500, an 11 percent cut.
Taking up the next article, the moderator read through the budget, line by line, with items anyone wanted to discuss passed over. Departmental budgets held in this manner included the Police and Fire departments, public works and the library.
Luca first made a motion to amend the police budget from the requested $1,872,657 to $1,875,115, a difference of $2,458. His argument for the amendment was based on the same premise he used for the elected official's salaries -- fairness. It's mostly a union department, he said, with only two nonunion employees, neither of whom got raises when everybody else did. His aim was to fix that disparity, he said.
The amendment failed.
Next, he took issue with the Fire Department, this time upping the bottom line by $2,544 to $1,357,826. His reasoning was basically the same. He said the fire chief and 30 on-call firefighters and EMTs should get 2 percent cost-of-living increases, same as the 12 full-time firefighters represented by the union.
According to one of the on-call firefighters, they get about $16 per hour, with an hour's minimum each time they respond to a call and no step increases, no matter how many years they've been on the job. "We just want our 2 percent," he said.
Luca also said the chief should get the increase, too, although it's not in his contract.
Selectman Pauline Conley said it was neither the time nor the place to take up that issue. "I support increasing the on-call firefighter's pay," she said. But it's the chief's purview to do so, with an appropriate hike in the budget he presents.
As for the chief's pay, he can negotiate for an increase, as other department managers do, she said.
There was much discussion on the floor and with a voice vote too close to estimate, the moderator called for a count. The vote was 42-41 in favor of the amendment. The approval held up when the budget item was considered. With 45 yes votes and 39 no votes, the higher, amended amount was approved.
A similar amendment to add COLA increases to the DPW administration line failed.
The library budget request stayed as is and didn't even come up for a vote after the library director said her department was not seeking raises at this time. She indicated that the fairness gap was also an issue for her staff, but said the trustees agreed to go along with the level-funded budget the FinCom and selectmen were looking for this year.
ASRSD school assessment rejected, as requested
Another unexpected sidestep from routine business was a presentation that preceded consideration of Article 5, the regional school assessment.
Article 5 sought $8,820,134 to fund the town's Fiscal 2014 Ayer-Shirley Regional School District assessment and another $195,396 for its portion of the debt-exclusion previously passed in both member towns for the high-school building project.
But the Regional School Committee recommended rejecting the assessment, which in effect was like withdrawing an article, but within the protocol required by state law.
School Committee Chairman Patrick Kelly explained the strategy early in the meeting and offered a brief recap when the article came up later on. "At this time, we recommend a no vote," he said, giving the School Committee time to come back with an "appropriate number" to be considered at a Special Town Meeting within 45 days of its special session the next night.
After a few questions and a couple of dissenting comments, Town Meeting voted down the motion, as recommended.
One resident asked why Ayer should be asked to pick up the slack when the assessment split in the regional agreement was based on student numbers rather than either district's ability to pay the bill.
The answer to his question was that the RLC is a state issue, not part of the agreement.
Other than Kelly, a couple of other School Committee members and Superintendent Carl Mock, there was no noticeable parent turnout.
Kelly sketched a more comprehensive picture, with details, but the condensed version is that this year's certified ASRSD budget absorbed all the savings in the district's emergency bank account, mostly due to a $550K increase in special- education expenses.
Now, with conflicting prospects for Required Local Contributions, mandated amounts the state requires communities to contribute to education in their districts, the School Committee was expected to reconsider its budget Tuesday night.
In the governor's budget, the RLC formula upped assessments sharply for communities in arrears, such as Shirley. But the house rejected it. The Senate budget is still pending. If it follows suit, the local picture would change significantly, shifting assessment balances such that Ayer's would go up and Shirley's would go down, Kelly said.
So the figure on the table would be a moot point. Rather than vote for it now and then be asked to consider a new number later, the School Committee's recommendation was to reject the assessment, Kelly said.
"All our numbers were based on the governor's proposal," he explained. But big changes are expected in the House and Senate versions, including "a deep disparity" in Chapter 70 education funding and charter-school reimbursement, up in one case, down in the other.
The bottom line, if there is one, is that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had a plan to fix the RLC, but the governor's proposal went too far, slamming towns like Shirley with several years of back payments in a single year.
The catch-up amount was going up incrementally, but in this proposal, the impact was sudden and included a penalty, Kelly said, and Shirley couldn't absorb the hit.
Picturing the protocol laid out in state law, Kelly said that if the assessments are not passed, that is, if either one of the member towns says no, the School Committee has 45 days to bring back a number, new or unchanged, at a Special Town Meeting. But the timeline has deadline dates, too. If there's no certified budget by July 1, the DESE director will set it, Kelly said, using the previous year's budget as a starting point.
"It's not our goal to have that happen," Kelly said. Worse, if an impasse were to continue, and the budget is still a no-go by Dec. 1, DESE "takes over" the district.
To avoid such undesirable outcomes, "I ask you not to support the assessment" as it is, Kelly said, giving the School Committee time to "take action tomorrow ... to solve the budget problem.
"We've been working with the selectmen and finance committees" in both towns, Kelly said, and the solution is close. The message, say no for now, please.
Town Meeting did as asked and voted down the assessment.