AYER - Change may be inevitable but it's not always for the better, to trade in on an old adage and tie into the conversational thread Monday night in the Great Hall, where three candidates awaited election results.
Voter turnout was sparse at 455, 8-percent of Ayer's 5,517 registered voters, according to Town Clerk Susan Copeland. Board of Health member Mary Spinner, who has been involved in town government and civic affairs for many years, lamented the low turnout. "It's a shame," she said.
Spinner, who ran unopposed for a 3-year term and was re-elected with 324 votes, recalled busy past elections that were the talk of the town back in the day, when the community had its own weekly newspaper and the world's worst news was not the first talking point when neighbors met on Main Street. The election schedule, however, has stayed the same: the 4th Monday in April. "It's in our bylaws," Spinner said
Politically, Spinner still trends local. Never mind Washington scandals or social media chatter, which she avoids. "These are the things that matter," she said, meaning issues townspeople can impact at home by voting, such as property taxes, schools and the extent to which the town can count on "new growth" to pay the bills, given that development has about maxed out in Ayer's small footprint.
Michael Pattenden, one of three candidates vying for a single seat on the Board of Selectmen, had quibbles of his own. For example, he said it was astounding how high property values and taxes have risen over the last decade or so.
Finance Committee Chairman Scott Houde, who won the selectman's seat and was sworn in later that evening, sided with his opponent on the first point, but had a sunnier slant on Ayer's streetscape and its future . He cited big plans in the works for a Main Street makeover and other improvements and said the 3-percent hike in the school assessment for FY2019 wasn't bad, all things considered.
Houde garnered 237 votes for the contested selectman's seat versus Pattenden's 46 and 154 for incumbent Gary Luca, who was not present when results were announced, about 40 minutes after the polls closed. Former selectman Pauline Conley got 5 write-in votes and there were 13 blanks.
"Me...I won?" Houde marveled when Town Moderator Tom Horgan shared the news.
Houde submitted his resignation from the Finance Committee the day after the election. After eight years on the FinCom and ending his tenure as chair, Houde, in a phone interview, said he's learned a lot and will continue to do so in his new role as a selectman. But he's still committed to serving the town and aims to do the best job he can for its citizens. "I don't take this change lightly," he said.
One item on his to-do list is to get the budget out to the public earlier, in final form as well as while it's shaping up so that residents know what they will be voting on in advance, with time to "digest" what's in it and to ask questions. "I've struggled with that" he said. "We need to do a better job."
Another challenge echoes a FinCom goal, to hold the line on annual budget increases to 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 percent, based on current trends in the private sector and annual raises many Ayer residents can expect.
But that's a problem when contractual obligations up the benchmark. "For the last couple of years it's been tracking at 5 percent," Houde said, due to deals with unions for, say, 4 1/2 percent increases., which is what happened in the last budget cycle That's too far above the bar, in his view and unfair to town taxpayers.
Drawing on experience, Houde sketched the system: Working with the accountant and the administrator, FinCom builds a budget, with input from town departments and interacting with the selectmen in the process. "The selectmen own the warrant," he said, so they get the final say. And with contracts in the mix, the figures often change substantially going into Town Meeting. He's hoping now for a more balanced scenario. "It comes down to watching out for citizens," he said.
The only other contested race was for a 1-year term on the Library Board of Trustees. Cynthia Lavin won with 259 votes versus 147 for her opponent, Jack Wool. There were no write-ins and 49 blanks. A 3-year seat went unchallenged and Debra Faust-Clancy was re-elected with 329 votes. There were two write ins: Wool, 3, Lavin 2. and 121 blanks.
There were no names on the ballot for Commissioner of Trust Funds. Murray Clark, who previously held the post but didn't file papers before leaving town for the winter, had asked for write-in votes and is likely to accept the seat he won with 13 write-in votes, a slim margin over Kathleen O'Connor, who got 10 write-in votes and would be next in line should he decline, Copeland said.