AYER - The Ayer Finance Committee unanimously approved a draft Fiscal Year 2014 budget on Tuesday night. With the vote, the committee sends its $20 million proposal to the selectmen in hopes the two boards can unify behind one budget to present to Annual Town Meeting.

The budget includes a 2 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) "placeholder" for town employees which, if approved by Town Meeting, would total $96,000 for unionized employees, with an added $22,000 budgeted pay increases for non-union employees if the bump is likewise approved by Town Meeting.

Selectman Pauline Conley cautioned that Town Meeting could reject the pay increases. Committee Chairman Scott Houde said if the COLAs are rejected, "We'll reduce the budget on Town Meeting floor."

Town Accountant Lisa Gabree said that town counsel has previously advised, "You can't adjust the budget up" at Town Meeting. "I'm just trying not to presuppose," said Conley.

Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand's request for a $1,200 stipend for an intern to assist in the selectmen's office was included in the budget but Houde joked "Unfortunately we could not find room for combat pay" for Pontbriand.

Without missing a beat, Pontbriand answered that selectman Chair Jim Fay "said this afternoon that he will find change for a dollar."

Pontbriand explained the selectmen continue to need $2,000 for secretarial overtime to take notes at late-running board meetings. "I agree the ultimate goal is to find a technological solution," said Pontbriand. The board had briefly considered having automatic transcripts created of board meetings instead of the secretarial service.

The committee recommends an added $20,000 for reserve fund transfers, bringing the pot for unexpected, un-budgeted expenses in the coming fiscal year to $150,000.

Gabree said its "high time" the town invested in an automatic back up service for the MUNIS finance database. "God forbid" there's a system crash now, said Pontbriand since the system is currently backed-up by aging tape drive technology.

The committee rejected Treasurer Stephanie Gintner's $500 request for a new desk for her office. "There is an election this year" said Houde, who said the expense should be considered again with "the next treasurer... if there is a next treasurer."

The committee likewise rejected Ayer Town Clerk and Tax Collector John Canney's $500 requests for each of his two offices to set aside money for education opportunities. Committee member John Kilcommins said he would prefer if Canney instead sought reserve fund transfers on an as-needed basis next year rather than "lose control" of the total $1,000 sum.

Pontbriand sought a 15 percent increase in the budget for town counsel to $78,000 for next year. "We do our best to budget," said Pontbriand. "But we don't know what's going to happen in terms of suits."

The committee funded a full-time, 40 hour per week Building Inspector. Incumbent inspector Gabe Vellante presently works 16 hours a week between his regular Tuesday and Thursday office hours. The selectmen have yet to take action on that proposal which Fay first floated at the selectmen's Feb. 19 meeting.

The budget includes building repairs, including $2,000 for a new overhead door for the former firehouse on Washington Street, $7,000 worth of HVAC work and equipment for the police station, and $5,820 for a granite sign to replace the rotted wooden sign in front of Town Hall. A stone sign "should last the ages," said Pontbriand.

The budget includes $48,000 for hiring a new Ayer Police officer to allow the department to deploy a more-seasoned officer to serve as a school resource officer at the Page Hilltop Elementary and Ayer-Shirley High Schools. There hasn't been a patrolman school resource officer for two years. The Fire Department budget remained largely level funded in the FinCom budget.

The committee recommended a separate warrant article asking Town Meeting voters if they'd approve the appropriation of $17,000 for a study of the 130 acre DPW complex at the end of Brooks Street. The study would analyze the infrastructure needs for the department's building, driveway, road, administrative and garage space needs.

After several years of cuts, the committee approved a $5,000 minimum bump-up for the Ayer Council on Aging. "They do a fantastic job on a shoestring," said Houde.

The Finance Committee voted to present the budget to the selectmen at the board's March 5 meeting.

Houde clarified that the committee "has not taken an official stance on the COLA" but left the sum in the budget as a placeholder.

Included in the budget is the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District's $8.8 million assessment, the $195,000 year one Ayer contribution towards the upcoming high school renovation project to off-set Shirley's debt obligation on the middle school, and $600,000 Ayer assessment for the Nashoba Valley Regional Technical High School.

Another Finance Committee proposal is to channel all $80,000 in projected town meal tax revenues into the Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) account to help chip away at the town's looming retiree health insurance expense exposure.

Ayer Town Meeting is May 13.

Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.