TOWNSEND -- The Finance Committee began planning for the fiscal year 2014 budget process by reviewing past year figures and discussing the best ways to move forward.

"We can't do much without projections and budgets," member Carolyn Smart said. Figures from the previous year are beginning to come in. The year-end report showed $700,000 in free cash, Chairman Andrea Wood said at the Jan. 17 meeting.

"We did come in way over on our tax revenues," Smart said.

The report was prepared without the list of general fixed assets. Wood said she asked Andy Sheehan, town administrator, about the missing list. Buildings and land are fixed assets, she said he told her, but there are other fiscal assets that still need to be included.

The fiscal year 2011 audit will be in soon, Wood said. "It should indicate problem areas." From there, she added, the committee can make recommended adjustments. "It should cast a good light on how to organize things," she said.

The committee approved sending a letter to Sheehan to remind him that the town bylaws require that departmental budget requests go to both the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee. Last year the committee did not get the departments' budgets in a timely fashion even though they were sent in to the town administrator by the deadlines, Wood said.

The committee will also ask to be included in meetings between the North Middlesex Regional School District superintendent and the selectmen. "It's probably better if we all meet at once with the superintendent rather than coming in and out of meetings. She's a busy woman," Wood said.

Getting financial figures from the district as soon as possible is a priority. "If we don't have their budget, there's really not much point (in meeting). We need to stop having a feel-good session."

In other business, the committee approved $75,000 in deficit spending on snow and ice for the Highway Department. Before the Jan. 16 storm, there was an estimated $8,000 left in the account, Wood said. It was budgeted at $125,000.

Towns are allowed to appropriate less than will likely be spent on winter operations and carry a deficit into the next budget year.

The law that went into effect in 1976 allowing deficit spending was designed to give municipalities more flexibility to manage winter expenditures. The amount needed can vary widely from year to year, according to an article published in 2008 by Tony Rassias in "City and Town" and available on www.mass.gov.

Carolyn Smart agreed with allowing the deficit spending but voted against putting a limit on the spending.

"I don't agree with the cap of $75,000. Ed (Kukkula, highway superintendent) sends an ice and snow report every other week," she said. The committee is kept well informed, she indicated, as to the amount needed to cover the ice and snow account.