SHIRLEY -- The Finance Committee voted Tuesday night to stick with recommending the 4.88 percent increase built into the town budget for the regional school district assessment, which would cost the town $260,000 more than last year.
Town Administrator Patrice Garvin said that by dipping into free cash and with cuts both planned and accomplished and more hoped-for savings in the works, the town can manage to cover the lower percentage increase and balance the budget, which is running a deficit about equal to the penciled-in assessment hike.
The cuts include eliminating the assistant tax collector's position, which has been done, and shearing the Planning Board administrator's time from 20 to 15 hours a week, a pending move the Planning Board aims to contest at Town Meeting.
More savings might come from an anticipated employee health insurance design plan change, but the Insurance Advisory Committee must vote on it first, Garvin said.
But the balancing act she's been orchestrating could be upset if the School Committee certifies a school budget for fiscal year 2015 that ups Shirley's assessment by 8.6 percent, $452,000 more than last year.
"That's a huge increase for any school system," Garvin said, positing that a "distribution problem" rather than lack of revenue might explain it.
Either way, "it's more than we can afford," Chairman Mike Swanton said.
The committee discussed parameters for forwarding a Proposition 2 ? tax override, which they agreed might make sense a couple of years down the road, but not now.
Swanton said that before he'd ask town taxpayers for an override to pay an assessment bill, the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District, now in its third year, would have to show it had done it's "due diligence," to control costs.
Specifically, he said the district should trim expenses and seek to increase revenues, especially via School Choice. The district's choice-out numbers are too high, he said.
When students choice out to another public school district, per pupil state aid goes with them, a problem the Ayer-Shirley school district hasn't done enough to address, Swanton said.
The FinCom also took a stand on one of a handful of bylaw changes the Bylaw Review Committee wants to put on the Annual Town Meeting warrant that will be aired at a public hearing Monday night, March 31, at 6 p.m., before the selectmen's meeting.
The committee recommended amending a town bylaw to change the way FinCom members are appointed. Currently, the sole appointing authority is the town moderator.
The amendment seeks a new set-up, with joint appointment by the selectmen and the moderator, one vote per person.
"We talked about the contentious history" of the process, said Garvin, who served on the committee. According to a previous Government Study Committee report, the combined approach is "standard" for communities like Shirley, she said, adding that "it's just an idea" meant to spark discussion.
Comments around the table ranged from mild to miffed.
"It's an interesting recommendation," Robert Schuler said. "Let's see what people say."
But Swanton said it was a non-issue. There was no "contention," he said, only "a couple of individuals" who didn't like some of the moderator's appointments.
Besides, the FinCom is supposed to be independent and if the appointment method were changed as the committee recommends, the vote would be weighted too heavily toward selectmen, whose opinions could then be seen as marching orders for the other board.
Garvin countered that town committees in her experience are "open" to new members, but she'd been told it was "more directed" in this instance.
Joe McNiff said that if people wanted to serve on FinCom, they should step up and say so. But there are open seats now and nobody seems interested. "Where are they?" he asked.
The FinCom voted unanimously to oppose the measure. .
But Garvin said she'd push for it. "It's a conversation worth having," she concluded.