PEPPERELL -- A $2 million structural deficit and a state Department of Revenue report urging changes in Pepperell's government structure were the precursors to the town's development of a charter -- a document whose draft is due to be presented to the state at the end of this month.
Chair of the Charter Commission, Joseph Sergi, said the charter was necessitated by a structural deficit that left the town in a jam in 2007 and 2008.
"The town was drawing on reserves to fund the operational budget. Coupled with the recession and a breakdown of new growth, it created the perfect storm, and there was no forewarning because of the current structure of finances," Sergi said.
Sergi said the deficit was initially $2 million, and had drastic effects on the town, including $600,000 to $700,000 in cuts that included a reduction in the police force and cutting of other town jobs.
The deficit has since been reduced to less than $150,000, Sergi said, but Pepperell's finances are still a subject of concern.
In April, the Department of Revenue released a detailed report analyzing Pepperell's town government structure and its financial mechanisms.
The report made several key recommendations, the first of which was "define a strong Town Administrator position in the charter." The second was "formalize the budget process in the charter with the Town Administrator as the lead.
Sergi said the draft of the charter took in "the spirit" of the DOR's recommendations, expanding the role of Town Administrator.
Chief among the reforms in the draft charter is an expansion of the role of the Town Administrator, allowing for more control over town finances and the ability to appoint department heads based on the recommendation of the related boards.
Sergi said the expansion of the Town Administrator role will allow for a more streamlined budget process.
Under the current system, department heads submit individual budgets to the Finance Committee, and then to the Board of Selectmen for a cursory review.
The system being proposed by the new charter allows the Town Administrator to compile the budget's of all town departments. The administrator would approve the budget before sending it along to the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee.
Sergi said this system will help the town avoid financial problems in the future.
"When you hold someone accountable you should get better results. By consolidating the finances and budget process, and giving the Finance Committee more of a policy role, we streamlined it. That coupled with the department heads working with the Town Administrator will provide for more accurate forecasting and ensure the budget is done in a more efficient manner," Sergi said.
However, Sergi said the charter doesn't go too far in expanding the Town Administrator role, highlighting the difference between a Town Administrator with the authority to oversee the budget and a Town Manager who would have control over day-to-day operations of town departments.
The charter will be submitted to the attorney general and Department of Housing and Community Development by Aug. 26.
After that, a public hearing will be held and the charter will be sent to the Board of Selectmen. Then residents will be able to vote to approve or deny the charter at next spring's town election.
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