SHIRLEY -- Selectmen and Finance Committee members agreed that the fiscal 2015 municipal budget town administrator Patrice Garvin presented during a public hearing Monday came out of the best budget-building process in recent memory.
But the good news didn't cancel out the bad news: The town faces a $300,000 deficit and selectmen may have some tough choices to make, including employee layoffs.
Sketching the chronology, Garvin said she began the process in mid-December with a department heads meeting, when she set an early January deadline to submit budget proposals.
"Most of them complied," she said.
She followed up with sit-downs between each department head and the finance team over a two-week period. Attended by Selectmen Chairman Kendra Dumont and Finance Committee members, the goal was to hammer out doable, needs-based budget requests aimed at preserving services.
"We also identified efficiencies," she said.
Then, during an all-day finance team session, the group reconciled revenues with expenses and prepared the "budget book" they delivered to the selectmen, Garvin said. In the process, they set up a "true omnibus budget," that will hopefully be presented as such at the June 2 Annual Town Meeting, she concluded.
Figures showed "little change in revenue," although actual numbers were lower than estimated, resulting in a gap of about $300,000 when the process concluded.
The same goes for maintenance, she said, and as a result, some savings were realized.
"Clearly, these buildings need maintenance," she said, and it's starting to show. The Custodian line will include custodial expenses for the police station and DPW garage as a lump sum this time. And instead of a cleaning contract, a custodian will be hired for 10 hours per week to cover both buildings. To "centralize operations" and maximize time on the job, the new hire will work under the direction of the facilities manager, Garvin said.
Noting that employee benefits represent the heftiest chunk of the municipal operating budget each year, Garvin said some cost-saving changes were made in health insurance benefit policies. The town is "moving toward" plan design changes that, if they pass muster with the unions and other employees, would mean "real savings" for the town.
Despite the looming deficit, the team tried to find a way to add wish list items that are truly needed, such as a new police officer.
"But we just couldn't," Garvin said.
Finally, Garvin brought up the town's biggest bill, the annual Ayer-Shirley Regional School District assessment, for which she built in a 4.88 percent increase over last year. The School Committee, however, in its preliminary budget, came up with a figure that more than doubles that percentage increase, at 10 percent.
That conversation isn't over yet and is expected to continue at an upcoming Ayer/Shirley Leadership Team meeting. Established after the creation of the regional school district a couple of years ago, the team consists of town officials and key personnel on both sides of the table, including the two town administrators, town accountants and the school finance director, School and Finance Committee members from each town and Regional School District administrators, including the superintendent.
Finance Committee Chairman Mike Swanton applauded Garvin for heading up a successful budget-building effort. Citing his long history, off and o, with the FinCom, he said it was the only time in his experience that the town administrator did the heavy lifting.
"She's done yeoman's work," he said, presenting his group with all the data needed to do its job "as the advisory committee we were meant to be."
Garvin shared the spotlight with the finance team.
"I'm only as good as the people I work with," she said.
Swanton predicted the budget as presented would be good to go, with "minor tweaks," although it hinges on the School Committee adjusting its budget to meet the percentage hike Garvin penciled in for the assessment. In that light, it's "critical" that Shirley's elected School Committee members" attend the leadership team summit, he said.
Dumont agreed the selectmen would take another look at the budget after that meeting.
"This board also needs to discuss our options, preferably in executive session," Selectman David Swan remarked, alluding to the possibility that there might be discussions and decisions regarding personnel. In other words, layoffs.
Painful or not, Garvin indicated that conversation is a must for selectmen to have, and she has the numbers worked out when they do. How much it would cost, for example, to compensate laid-off workers for unpaid vacation time due and/or to pay the town's share of unemployment benefits.
Swanton said "workforce reductions," Garvin listed as a go-to option in her budget presentation might be unavoidable in order to "dig out" from a deepening structural deficit.
Another option would be to close the gap with Free Cash, assuming there's enough in that account for the purpose.
Swain suggested that MCI money (prison mitigation funding from the state) might be considered part of the town's state revenue stream. It amounts to $230,000 annually and although Governor Deval Patrick does not include it in his budget, the legislature usually does.
Although the Department of Corrections it's funneled through has on occasion waylaid prison funding to address its own budget problems, Swain said the MCI money almost always comes through in time for the fall Town Meeting.
Swanton saw it as an iffy proposition. In his view, MCI funding can't be counted on as revenue until the legislature makes a commitment, such as inserting it as a line item in the state budget, with funding direct to the town.
Garvin tended to agree. Although she didn't rule out the idea of injecting MCI funding into the overall budget scenario, she'd prefer to see it used for capital purchases if it does come in, such as heavy equipment -- one-time buys with one-time money.
Selectman Bob Prescott asked Garvin how long she figured these lean times might last.
Right now, she's forecasting two or three years of belt-tightening but no lost services, Garvin said.