SHIRLEY -- It took 127 voters the better part of three hours to get past the first few articles on the 12-item Special Town Meeting warrant last Monday night.
Articles one and two sought to pay a prior year's sewer betterment bill of $47,313.28 and a $2,571.61 bill for ambulance repairs that came in after the books closed for the last fiscal year.
When the sewer charge came up at annual Town Meeting in May, a resident questioned whether it was legal to pay it, citing state law that exempts municipal buildings from betterments. The article was tabled while the matter was looked into and the appropriated money to pay the town's sewer bill was set aside in the stabilization account. With the legal issue cleared up, the money could be released for the intended purpose.
Voters approved both articles.
Ultimately, all of the articles were approved, but Article 3 chewed up the most time. Once it was cleared, the rest of the warrant was polished off in less than an hour.
Article 3 proposed a multiple-choice roster of line-item amendments, with override contingencies and a call for reconsideration in the mix. When it was finally finished with, it was nearly 10 p.m. and the bulk of the warrant was still pending.
Town Moderator George Knittel, as is his custom when that hour rolls around, asked if people wanted to stay or go. "Folks, do you want to go home now and come back tomorrow night?" he asked. The alternative was to continue and hopefully wrap up in a single night.
By then, though, the voter count might have been notably less than it was earlier.
Some who came to vote for the school-related article -- an amendment to the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District agreement -- left soon after doing so. And the auditorium emptied even more during a brief recess later on, when the Cable Access crew filming the meeting called for a time out to change the camera disc.
The reconsideration question came up after the recess, prompting one voter to object. "It's unfair and unnecessary to reconsider" that line item, Donald Jones said.
The line item in question called for added hours to up the DPW clerical assistant's job from 10 to 20 hours a week, with commensurate pay increase. When it was voted on, "the disc wasn't swapped out and people left," Jones said. "The selectmen don't have to call an override, they're free to fund it as they choose."
But Knittel disagreed. While acknowledging the problem, he didn't see it as unfair. People come and go as they please, he said, and if they choose to leave, despite the risk of missing something important, so be it. He let the amendment for reconsideration stand, with Jones casting the only vote against it.
On the second try, voters reversed their first decision, which had tied the DPW line item to a Proposition 2 1/2 override.
In the end, all 11 items listed under Article 3 were amended as requested, including added hours and salary hikes for the DPW assistant and COA and library directors, respectively, with enough money in the budget to cover those items this year.
Despite recommendations from Finance Committee and selectmen that would have tied the lot to subsequent successful tax overrides, the only such contingency that survived was for an additional police officer's position, which will cost about $73,000 annually for salary, uniforms and the town's share of health insurance benefits.
Article 4 sought $35,000 to buy a new police cruiser. It will be funded from MCI prison mitigation money, which Selectmen Chairman Andy Deveau said should be at least $99,000 this year. The motion passed without discussion.
Article 5 was also summarily approved, allowing the town to buy a pickup truck for the DPW for $40,250, again with MCI money.
Article 6 sought $15,000 to pay for drainage repairs on Harvard Road. Most of the work will be done by a private developer whose excavations while building Apple Orchards Estates on the hill above worsened existing flooding problems on the road below. The developer agreed to provide free labor and equipment use, with the town paying for materials. The motion passed.
Article 7 called for amending the public drinking bylaw to an open container law, which beefs it up and makes it more enforceable, according to the police chief. Under the old law, the police had to actually see someone drinking in public and then prove it was alcohol with testing. The new law makes it illegal to carry an open container of alcohol on public property and leaves the content call up to the police.
Article 8, another bylaw amendment, called for changing the marijuana prohibition for possession of an ounce or less of the drug, upping the fine from $100 to $300 and adding enforcement teeth. Previously, the police could write a ticket and levy the fine, but the only way the town could go after a scofflaw who didn't pay it would be to file suit in small claims court. Now, if police issue a ticket for the noncriminal offense and the offender doesn't pay, the matter goes to a court hearing and the fine jumps to $300.
Both articles were requested by Police Chief J. Gregory Massak. Both motions passed.
Article 9 was taken out of turn at a voter's request and dealt with earlier. It proposed to amend the regional agreement to allow Ayer to pay its fair share toward Shirley's middle school debt by re-working the formula by which the two member towns split the high school project debt. That is, if voters at a later election agree to move the project forward and accept a debt exclusion to fund it. Tied to that contingency, the article was approved.
Article 10 asked to have two small, vacant parcels of land on Kittredge and Townsend roads, respectively, transferred to town ownership, authorizing selectmen to sell them. The motion passed.
Articles 11 and 12 sought to transfer money to general and capital stabilization accounts, the latter having been recently created as part of a long-term capital improvement plan.
Both motions passed. With nearly $93,000 in projected surplus funds this year, the total was split 50/50 between the two accounts, salting away $46,208.68 in each one.
"This is the remainder of raise and appropriate," Town Accountant Bobbi Jo Colburn said, explaining where the left-over money came from, including new growth that was higher than projected, MCI money and an override request.
"This is a good day, we get to put money in our savings account," Deveau said.