AYER -- A short-handed Finance Committee began its fiscal 2015 budget formulation process Nov. 7 with the first of a series of interviews with department heads that are expected to continue over the next few months.
According to committee Chairman Scott Houde, town departments have been instructed to pursue a "pseudo zero" procedure in presenting their proposed budgets for next year.
Although the town is past the immediate economic strictures that straitjacketed many fiscal planners in the last few years, Houde said the FinCom is still proceeding with caution. This time, the committee is allowing departments to propose new spending only so long as they recognize that there are no guarantees of approval.
The budget for fiscal 2014 came in at $20,867,500, of which $9,771,645 was allocated for school spending.
The total amount represented an increase in spending from fiscal 2013 of almost 2 percent.
"We weathered the financial storm much better than other communities," said Houde. "We run a fairly lean ship here and the departments do a great job in preparing their budgets."
Last year, said Houde, the committee worked on an accelerated schedule, one that "seemed to work fairly well" even while not having the state's local aid numbers available.
"The feedback we got back from everyone was that the new schedule worked rather well," Houde said, adding that the accelerated scheduling would be tried again for the upcoming budget process.
FinCom members listened to information technology director Cindy Knox make the case for her department. She hopes next year to see more online services for the town's website as well as wireless Internet access in all of the town's public buildings.
Houde asked Knox about the possibility of creating increased digital storage methods for the town clerk's office.
Houde said such forward thinking is part of a new effort the FinCom would like to see launched in which departments start looking at their budgets and needs in three-year projections instead of taking them a year at a time as has been done traditionally.
Three-year projections, said Houde, would fall into line with five-year projections now used to determine capital spending for the town. Such advance planning would avoid sticker shock and allow better preparation for one-time expenditures.
"We're in good shape right now," said Houde. "But we're not loosening the purse strings all the way due to that financial anomaly that could come up unexpectedly."
With the accelerated scheduling, the FinCom expects to meet with department heads through next month and have a draft fiscal 2015 budget prepared for presentation to the Board of Selectmen by early March.
At that time, Houde said, there would also be a chance for residents to comment at a number of public forums.
Houde said a final budget should be in place for the first week in April and in time for spring Town Meeting.
Houde expected everything to go according to schedule despite the committee being short by two members.
He hopes to see some volunteers step forward to fill the positions soon, so anyone interested should inquire with the town clerk.