By M.E. Jones
SHIRLEY -- After lengthy discussion at Monday night's selectmen's meeting of the town's projected $550,000 budget shortfall based on a regional school assessment raised by that amount this year, a plea from a World War II veteran and former town official for $5,000 to help pay the War Memorial Building's heating bill seemed small by comparison.
But Chairman David Swain said there's a legal issue that complicates matters, and even if the Finance Committee were to agree to a reserve fund transfer for that amount, the "Anti Aid" provision in state law might prevent the town from using its funds to pay the bill.
The genesis of the glitch came out of a previous request. When Shirley American Legion Post No. 183, the building's sole occupant, asked Town Meeting to appropriate money for the War Memorial Building last year, Town Accountant Bobbi Jo Colburn questioned whether it was legal and sought guidance from the state Department of Revenue and forwarded the response to selectmen. The upshot was that a DOR attorney underscored her concerns, citing the Anti Aid Amendment.
The law prohibits using public funds to benefit private organizations, including charitable institutions. The argument against the trustee's request is that because the American Legion hall, housed in the basement of the building, operates as a private club, the town can't legally pay the building's bills.
But this request is from the War Memorial Building trustees, not the Legion. "I'm concerned with the building's condition," he said, adding that he's also worried about paying the town-based fuel firm that provides the War Memorial Building with heating oil. The bill is overdue.
"It's not fair to him," Albert said.
Although he said he did not represent the trustees and was not asked to speak for them or for the town's 436 veterans, Albert reminded the board of the town's duty to those who served their country, "past and present," and to maintain the building that stands as a memorial to them all.
Swain restated the town's dilemma. Basically, selectmen are waiting for town counsel to weigh in on the question he was asked three weeks ago.
"Why is it needed?" Albert asked.
Because the DOR has opined "it might not be legal" to grant the trustee's request, Swain answered, calling the situation a "catch-22."
He agreed, however, that three weeks is too long to wait for an answer. "We're all frustrated with the lack of response from town counsel," he said.
At the board's request, administrative assistant Kathi Rocco agreed to press attorney Gary Brackett for an answer .