SHIRLEY -- The new budget layout in this year's Town Meeting warrant will surprise many and even its author concedes it might be confusing. Which is why the selectmen's meeting Tuesday night was scheduled as a run-through of the 17-article warrant.
Conducted by Town Administrator Patrice Garvin, who drafted the document for the selectmen, the presentation offered a glimpse of what to expect at Town Meeting next week.
After sketching the budget-building process this year, Garvin explained each article of substance and outlined a brand new set-up for Article 4, the Omnibus Budget.
In the past, Town Meeting would have voted the total $11.7 million budget up or down, with a process in place for discussing and amending line items.
This year, line items will be presented by category, with total amounts for each one.
General Government, for example.
This category includes budgets and expenses for several boards, offices, departments and expenses that Garvin said belong in that category, the total amount for which is $1,054,889. 91.
Numbered line items in that category are: Town Moderator, Board of Selectmen, Personnel Board, Town Administrator, Finance Committee, Reserve Fund, Town Accountant, Board of Assessors, Treasurer and Collector, Legal Expenses, Computer Operations, Office Machines, Town Clerk, Conduct of Elections, General Insurance and Salary Increases.
"All recommended appropriations are grouped together in a single article," Garvin said. But line items are "divided by functions" this year. That's new, but it's the proper way to present a "true omnibus budget," she said.
Another change Garvin noted was the combination of the treasurer and tax collector's budgets into a single line, a move aimed at consolidating the two departments, she said. Other moves in that direction include actions already taken, such as eliminating one of two clerical assistant positions and combining those duties.
Article 14 is a step toward the same goal, Garvin continued. It seeks a so-called "home rule petition," or special legislation to make both the town collector and town clerk appointed rather than elected positions.
The treasurer/collector model can't be implemented while the collector is an elected position, Garvin explained. Besides, the job calls for more specialized skills these days and an appointed position allows selectmen to seek qualified applicants rather than rely on a much smaller pool of in-town candidates in future elections.
The same logic applies to the proposed switch for the town clerk's position. That job, too, has become more complex, Garvin said, due to a plethora of new state laws.
"Is this article amendable?" asked recently retired former COA director John Oelfke.
Garvin said the article would be presented in two motions, one for each position, thus allowing a separate vote on each proposal.
Planning Board member Sue Snyder, who attended with Chairman Jonathan Greeno, asked about the additional $4,000 they aim to request in an amendment, seeking to restore hours Garvin cut from their administrator's position.
Specifically, if the total amount under Land Use is approved, would that added cash be bankrolled for the intended purpose? Snyder asked. Or would it be subject to later moves from one line item to another within the same category, such as Board of Health, Zoning Board of Appeals, town inspectors or trash collection?
Garvin assured her that would not happen. Based on voters' intent, previously appropriated amounts might later be moved around within a department but not from one board or department to another, she said.
"So, we'll be able to discuss each line item separately but we can't amend" any of them? Oelfke asked, summing up voters' options.
Only the category total can be amended, Garvin confirmed.
"This is a major change to the process that people will neither understand nor appreciate," Oelfke opined. "I think it will be a problem."
"Any change comes with pain," Garvin posited. "The town is committed to an omnibus budget, which has functions," she said. "That's what I'm moving forward with."
Annual Town Meeting is set for Monday, June 2, at 7:15 p.m. in the Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School auditorium.