With the economy looking up and a consequent calming down of fiscal waves that have battered communities across the state, local officials say they are looking forward in 2014 to making improvements and perhaps finishing off projects that have been on the drawing board for several years.
"I think financially, we're in very good shape," said Ayer Board of Selectmen chairman Gary Luca. "The last two years we were not even taxed up to two and half percent, we've been under one and half for both years. We're looking to keep that going. The Finance Committee does a good job recommending things. We work well with them to make things affordable for people in town.
"For next year, we're still waiting on the parking facility," continued Luca. "Funding has been approved so it's just a matter of when it's going to happen. The business community is looking to have it happen sooner rather than later. We're also looking to build up downtown a bit more and getting more businesses into town. Not big box stores, but things people might be interested in patronizing. And more restaurants would be nice, too. We have a really big issue with water and sewer infrastructure down on East Main Street. The pipes there are over 100 years old and need to be replaced so we have to find some funding mechanism to make that happen.
"We also want to focus on nuisance properties in the coming year," added Luca. "And we want to make sure department heads are keeping selectmen in the loop and, as always, doing what's right for the community."
Also coming next year in Ayer will be an upgrade to the pumping station on Mulberry Road, the installation of a new water storage tank at Pingree Hill and curbside trash pickup.
Not a worry, said Luca, will be the town's finances, which he feels have been stabilized.
"Finances have been no struggle for Ayer," Luca said. "We're doing a good job managing it. The unions have been very cooperative. We're in very good shape compared to surrounding towns and we're not even taxing to our full capacity. So I think the citizens are getting a good bang for their buck.
"As for local aid from the state, we don't receive too much of that," said Luca. "Only around $600,000. If they cut it by 10 percent, we could handle that. So unless they decide to get rid of it completely, it's really not an issue as it is in other towns."
A factor not to be ignored in budget considerations are local schools.
"We belong to two school districts, including Nashoba Valley Tech, which keeps its funding level pretty reasonable," said Luca. "They don't hire staff unnecessarily. Which is not to say the Ayer-Shirley district doesn't, but it's still a new district working through some things. I have no idea what their budget will be for next year but feel confident we can work with the district. It's important to give our students the tools to be successful and we'll contribute to that without any problem."
Last year, Ayer was allowed to join other area towns as a member of the Nashoba Valley Technical School District.
"By joining Nashoba Tech, we saved about $150,000 a year," revealed Luca. "Before that, students had a choice at other schools but with higher rates. Nashoba locked us in at a lower rate. It's been a good cost-saving measure for the town and good for all those kids to have a place to go for technical training."
Always a key piece in the town's wellness puzzle is commercial development.
"We're always looking for new businesses to move into town," said Luca. "We have many fine restaurants downtown and now Subway is coming back and a couple other restaurants are also opening up. However, we're still concerned about the West Main Street area. We'd like to get some development going on down there because we're always looking to increase our commercial base."
That said, local businessmen have expressed concern at the town's dual tax rate.
"For the most part, Ayer's business community is happy," said Luca. "But we have a split tax rate that's been a bone of contention the past few years. I can understand why business owners in town are upset at what they're paying, but we do provide full water and sewer service and there's the train station. Plus, we get 12,000 cars a day that go down 2A. So for local businesses, we're a pretty busy town."
One long-running issue facing Ayer that no one expects to end in 2014 is that of the former Fort Devens.
"We're still talking, still trying to figure out what direction to go," said Luca of Ayer, Harvard and Shirley's relationship to the quasi-autonomous area. "The JBOS is trying to come to some little victories along the way to hang our hat on. Right now, we're not being very productive in what we're doing. If we could do something collaboratively with all the towns, including the Devens community, like having recreation fields there that all the towns could use, it would be a step in the right direction.
"We're also discussing if the JBOS should take more of a leadership role in governing Devens and whether MassDev should take a back seat," said Luca. "That should be discussed quite a bit next year."
One big change for Ayer coming next year will be the downsizing of its Board of Selectmen from five members to three.
"People at Town Meeting decided that they wanted it," said Luca of the change. "It's just like anything else, whether you have five or three members, they have to do their best for the town with no agendas. They still need to work collaboratively to get things done. Which, for a five man board, it's been very difficult. That's why I'd like to see more involvement by the town administrator. Maybe it's time to look at a charter and a town manager form of government. I would like to see a town manager for Ayer. I think we're big enough for that. But so far as a charter is concerned, we'd need to look at the whole form of town government. Right now, there are so many things that come before our board that don't really need to come before us."
For Luca himself, the new year will likely see him looking to keep his position on a newly shrunken Board of Selectmen.
"I'm looking strongly to run for re-election in 2014," revealed Luca. "I think I still have something to give to the town."
As for Shirley, things are looking up following an embarrassing contre temps with a former administrator for the town.
"I think the coming year looks really good for Shirley," said an upbeat Kendra Dumont, chairman of Shirley's Board of Selectmen. "In Patrice Garvin, we've got a new town administrator who's phenomenal and who will be taking us in a different direction. Our employees have definitely grown more confident in town government now that we have Patrice. She's rebuilding their confidence. So the new year, I believe, will all be positive."
Not that 2014 won't have its challenges.
"We'll struggle with the budget a little bit this year but that's to be expected," Dumont said. "We're going to be a little short so we're going to do some serious looking to see if there's any consolidating we can do or if there's any new revenue we can collect. We'll check over our insurance rates. We'll be looking at everything."
As for assistance from the state, Dumont said that the town will not be counting on it in putting together its budget for 2015.
"We try not to rely on it," said Dumont. "The state comes in with its budget after we have to present ours so how can we know what we're getting?"
What the town does know, continued Dumont, is how much New England Clean Energy, a private energy provider, will pay whether or not Shirley sees any savings from a new agreement worked out with it.
"The Energy Committee has worked on a performance contract with the company for lights, insulation, etc. that includes a guaranteed savings," said Dumont. "If you don't get the savings, you get a check instead."
On top of that, the town's Economic Development Committee will continue working to bring more commercial activity to town.
One difficulty however, will be the consequence of the town's joining Ayer to form a new school district. With a single tax rate, Dumont admitted that school spending will hit Shirley residents harder than those of Ayer, which splits tax collection between residential and commercial with commercial paying more than ordinary homeowners.
"It will be more difficult with a regional school district," admitted Dumont, "but I think we'll work it out as we've always worked it out in the past."
As for the town's relationship with Devens, Dumont said since Shirley has less of a stake in the disposition of the former military base, it has been able to take a less hard line approach to the issue.
By contrast, Harvard and Ayer will seek a piecemeal approach to the relationship with MassDev in an effort to seek common ground ahead of the time when the state retreats from its caretaker role.
"MassDev has made it pretty clear that they're not going anywhere," observed Dumont. "Shirley has been very accommodating to MassDev. Any time there has been a vote, Shirley has always passed it. But they've always been helpful. I don't have a problem with them."
Finally, Dumont foresaw no major infrastructure projects on the immediate horizon for Shirley save for a pair of state-related efforts including trying to get repairs done for the Main Street bridge and to try and get the MBTA to pay for parking space by the train station that is currently free.
If the town could either be recompensed for the parking or be able to charge for it themselves, it could prove to be a valuable source of added revenue.