SHIRLEY -- When Jonathan Deforge, one of the town's three representatives on the Ayer Shirley Regional School District School Committee, brought a budgetary mixup to the selectmen's attention last month that in effect had mistakenly marked $173,843 in surplus funds from the district's Excess and Deficiency (E&D) account for both the school budget and that of the town, Chairman Enrico Cappucci, while grateful the error was spotted, also seemed to chide Deforge for not speaking out sooner.
It would have been better, Cappucci noted at the time, if he had pointed out the error at Annual Town Meeting in May, before the town voted to spend that money via supplemental budget allocations for the prior fiscal year. "We could have tabled it," he said.
Cappucci revisited that regret when State Rep. Jennifer Benson paid her semi-annual visit to the board Monday night to provide updates on state house doings, the budget in particular. Both the House and Senate had voted on their budgets, she said, leaving the governor's desk as the final step in the process. Line item vetoes, for example, are expected, but she said the bulk of it should be wrapped up by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. Meaning cities and towns get their state aid.
Asked if there were issues the board wanted to talk about, Cappucci brought up the $173,843 the town had mistakenly slated to pay for snow removal, a consultant to head the recent town administrator search and for the Capital Stabilization fund.
"We found out the next day that we don't have that money after all," he said.
Interim Town Administrator Rocco Longo filled in the blanks. He explained that the money represented an E&D balance that was over the legal limit set by the Department of Revenue, exceeding five percent of the regional school district's annual budget by that amount.
"So we forwarded an article to use it," Longo told Benson. "Turns out, the money can be used to lower the FY2019 assessment," he said, citing a "confusing" letter from the DOR that led to the mix-up.
Benson was well aware of the five percent benchmark. "If it goes above that, the state claws it back," she said, balancing the E&D surplus against the amount the district gets in state aid.
"We have to work better with the schools" to prevent such mistakes in future, Longo said "We learned from it."
Benson said the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools (MARS) has addressed this issue "many times" but that it rarely becomes a problem due to established communication lines between municipal and school officials. When she chaired the Lunenburg School Committee, for example, she spoke with town officials informally over breakfast.
"We met with them regularly to keep up," she said. Other options include establishing standing subcommittees with members from both sides to talk and hash out issues, she said.
But Cappucci was not satisfied that the E&D issue has been resolved.
"I'm not sure they (ASRSD) are not mixed up," he said. "Could you look into it?"
Benson said DOR knows about it and that any remaining confusion will be cleared up.
"It will wash out in the Cherry Sheet," she said, citing the state funding form DOR sends out each year. She promised to "reach out" if the school district asked for her help.
Weighing in on another matter close to the town's financial heart, Benson said that prison mitigation funds (Shirley hosts a state prison within its boundaries) were included in both the House and Senate budgets this year. Asked if the funds can be expected sooner as a result, Benson said she could not promise that. Only that the money is there and that the town is slated to get its share, along with other communities on the list.
Benson also said that on a more general note, it's important to bring matters of concern to her attention as they come up rather than wait for her visits.
"Make sure you call my office," she said. With 1,200 budget amendments filed, "we need to know which ones you care most about before we vote."