By Anne O'Connor
SHIRLEY -- When the town administrator prepared a state-of-the-town presentation at the request of the senior center, she was surprised at how much the town's financial picture has improved over the past three years.
"I shocked myself," Patrice Garvin said. "I even shocked myself."
The town is heading into fiscal year 2018 in good shape. There is enough money in free cash to cover any shortfalls, she said. Planning for capital purchases, those big-ticket items like a fire engine or ambulance, means less chance of the need for a debt exclusion.
Just before she came on the job in 2013, the town needed a plow. But voters said no and the truck could not be purchased.
"They just didn't do anything," Garvin said. Capital needs were being put off.
Since then, the town has spent $402,045 on capital items. Staffing has changed.
The Department of Public Works has an additional employee, and a new plow, backhoe and mower. The police added an additional officer and a full-time administrative chief. The number of reserve officers doubled.
Increased on-call pay for firefighters keeps more shifts covered. That and a new ambulance and means the town has retained earnings from the service, she said. New turn-out gear and authorization to purchase a new fire engine mean increased safety for responders and better coverage for the town.
A new facilities coordinator keeps the buildings in shape.
Changes in municipal government helped to make these things possible.
Payroll was reduced by attrition, not replacing employees who left. Instead, positions were combined so that one employee could cover two jobs.
This was possible because of other changes. The town now has a single-point-of-entry data service. Before this was put in place, the same information would need to be entered in different offices, Garvin said. Now, something that is put in the system on the ground floor is immediately available in the offices on the second story.
Changing payroll from weekly to bi-weekly saved administration time, she said.
Changes to the health care plan design saved money. Elected officials no longer have health care benefits from the town. People not eligible for town insurance were dropped. In the first year, those changes saved about $225,000, Garvin said.
New grants have helped reduce both capital and operating expenses. When she sees a grant the town might qualify for, she pursues it, Garvin said.
A recent MassWorks grant for $750,000 frees up other state aid. That can be used to repair a culvert on Longley Road near the Bull Run. Work paid for with Green Energy grants reduce the town's utility bill.
Increasing the combined free cash accounts from $323,738 in 2013 to the current level of $1.2 million benefits the town in ways beyond having more cash for an emergency, Garvin said.
The amount, about seven percent of the budget, looks good when the town needs to borrow. The town also collects interest on these accounts, a yearly amount that increased to about $20,000 last year from $4,000 to $5,000 per year before Garvin's arrival.
Work remains to be done. "I'm hoping to build the budget," Garvin said. The town is still climbing out of its 2013 position.
The overall amount of cash reserves is good, but she would like to see more in the general stabilization account.
Work has begun on the fiscal year 2018 budget. The budget is presented at Town Meeting by the Finance Committee.
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