AYER -- With 5,037 registered voters in town, only 110 turned out to consider 38 articles on the annual Town Meeting warrant, and the turnout was about half of that the second night, when the count was just 52, with 14 articles left to consider.
Most of the articles passed without discussion, but there was lively give-and-take on some, with a string of amendments and audible angst over elected officials' salaries -- Article 3 -- that wafted over into the next item, the fiscal 2014 Omnibus Budget.
Totaling $11,227,354 to start off, the budget number was a couple of thousand dollars higher when it was voted in. That, thanks to amendments made by Selectman Gary Luca that added 2 percent cost-of-living increases to a few payroll line items, including the treasurer, town clerk, tax collector, on-call firefighters and the fire chief.
But with identified revenue sources for the increases, the budget was still balanced when all business on the warrant was concluded. Town Meeting adjourned at 9 p.m. on the second night, having lasted until 10 p.m. the night before.
Town Accountant Lisa Gabree gave an overview of the budget early on, the main point being that it was balanced. A graph in her PowerPoint presentation showed where the money came from and where it went, mostly to the schools, which she said was "typical for small towns.
But there were savings this year in the education category, thanks to the town's recently minted membership in Nashoba Tech, the regional vocational-technical high school in Westford the town now belongs to after years of tuitioning students there.
With fewer students attending Nashoba Tech this year and a more favorable formula for assessment versus tuition payments, the town realized $400,000 in savings, Gabree said.
Continuing her state of the budget presentation, she said some line items went up, including employee retirement costs. On the credit side, property taxes were raised by the legal limit of 2.5 percent and the debt exclusion voters agreed to accept for the high school building project kicks in this year. Revenue projections pretty much kept pace with town services, although some figures haven't been finalized yet.
More good news, the free cash account wasn't depleted to balance the budget. "We didn't use all our free cash" this year, Gabree said, noting it's the first time in her 20-year tenure that it wasn't necessary to do so.
Besides funding all of the articles with dollar figures attached, voters agreed by the required two-thirds majority to authorize borrowing for capital budget requests and purchases. They included technology network upgrades, a new tractor for the Parks Department, new Police and Fire department vehicles and a truck-mounted asphalt recycling mixer that will allow the DPW to do its own pothole patching using stockpiled materials.
With explanations provided by the DPW director, voters said yes to borrowing money for several town projects, such as replacing a filter valve at Spectacle Pond and a culvert on Victor Drive, buying new software and laptops for the Ambulance Department to upgrade billing capability and a $100,000 facility engineering evaluation for the Sewer Department.
They also said yes to relatively small amounts to pay old bills that came in after the fiscal year books were closed and an overdue state tax bill of $2,702.05 that resulted from an adjustment the town treasurer said she'd been working to correct for some time.
All the catching up came in the second night, with a round of bill-paying that included compliance with GASB 45, (state disclosure requirements for post-employment benefits) setting aside $7,200 to fund actuarial costs. A separate article, which also passed, set aside $170,000 to meet the town's obligations to future retirees, with $70,000 to be raised and appropriated and the rest from Free Cash.
Voters authorized raising and appropriating $9,421 to pay the town's 5 percent share of an $188,432 equipment purchase for the Fire Department, a self-contained breathing apparatus for which the chief secured a grant to cover most of the cost.
They also said yes to the DPW administrator's request for $17,000 to pay for an independent facilities plan study that will take a comprehensive look at the 160-acre treatment plant area with an eye to a makeover as part of the DPW Master Plan.
Challenges the study will address include vehicles and equipment kept outside that should be secured indoors, wetlands, power lines and other obstacles on the property, an old wastewater plant tank used for storage and other cobbled-together uses and units that need upgrading, The study will determine the best way to do that, he said.
On a simple majority vote and with no objections, Town Meeting approved the transfer of $550,000 from Free Cash to repay the UDAG Fund for the Nashoba Valley Regional Vocational Technical School membership buy-in, and on a two-thirds vote, as required, a total of $234,427 went into the Stabilization and Capital Stabilization funds.
Nearing the end of the warrant, Article 33 called for $192,871 to be transferred from Community Preservation Act coffers to fund items covered under the act: Specifically, $11,435 for acquisition, creation and preservation of open space (not recreation); $40, 718 to acquire, preserve, restore and/or rehabilitate historic resources and $40,718 for community housing projects.
Funded with a 1 percent surtax voters agreed to several years ago and diminishing matching funds from the state, the CPA provides funding for projects in those categories that have been reviewed and recommended by the Community Preservation Act Committee. In a separate article, 35 that also passed, the required CPC membership roster was reduced by two positions, removing one member of the Advisory Committee and one selectman.
Another CPA transfer voters approved was for $30,000 to review and revise the town's five-year Open Space and Recreation Plan.
Zoning generates debate
The last three articles on the warrant, proposed bylaw changes, generated a lot of discussion before someone in the small crowd made a motion to "move the question" on the final item. The motion passed on a hand count of 35-12. With a required quorum number of 50, the 47-vote total could have been an issue, but a count was also called for on the main motion, with 31 yes votes and 19 nos, totaling 50 votes in all.
Former selectman Frank Maxant wasn't the only one who spoke out when the three articles came up seeking to create a new anti-littering bylaw, a new unregistered vehicle bylaw and an enforcement bylaw.
Maxant said the articles were ill advised without more research and review to back them up, while two other residents, Chuck Frisbie and Richard Ressijac, raised concerns about practical applications such as enforcement and unforeseen loopholes.
"I concur" with Maxant," Frisbie said, citing "contradictory" elements in the three proposals. As an engineer and mechanic, he repairs his own vehicles and sometimes may pull them outside to do so, he said. The time limit in the Unregistered Vehicle Bylaw worried him. He asked if it could be adjusted.
But Selectman Chris Hillman and Town Counsel Gregg Corso, of the Boston-based law firm Kopelman and Paige, said it wouldn't be a good idea.
Conceding it could be a judgment call on any given day as to how long an unregistered vehicle was outside and whether to issue a verbal warning versus a written citation, or fee-carrying ticket, Hillman said he trusts the Police Department to enforce the bylaw fairly.
Corso said the enforcement element in the trio of new bylaws would streamline the process, bypassing court in most cases, which would be less costly for the town and for residents when bylaw violations come up. Nor would the new paradigm rule out existing practices, such as committees designated as enforcement agents discussing the matter in concert, as they do now, or even rescinding an order.
Ressijac asked for clarification on several points, including what constitutes a building versus a temporary shelter and whether that could be a "loophole" in the unregistered vehicle bylaw.
Selectman Pauline Conley assured him that an existing town bylaw clearly identifies what a temporary structure is versus an adjunct building and when a permit is required.
All three articles passed, as did every one of the 38 articles on the warrant.