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Special Contributors

Part two of an ongoing series

AYER — The town has several issues that will come to a head in the next few years. The following is our thoughts on those issues. Read this with the understanding that it was created to inform, and the authors do have an opinion regarding the direction of the town.

Managing a small town

Let’s talk about the work required of a small town.

There is, of course, a moral imperative to “take care of our own” and make sure that residents get what they need for emergency, safety and general services.

Beyond that, the largest role the town plays — in terms of dollars — addresses the need to provide educational services. We must educate the next generation, those residents who will run our businesses and towns, be our doctors and nurses, build our homes and towns, and take care of us as we get older.

Since they aren’t able to participate in the process, we must be their advocates. We also must advocate for the infirm and needy who have no other means but to rely on us.

This isn’t easy for a small group of people to do. These services all cost money, and inflation makes the task more difficult. To simply hold our services level, the town must contend with the reality that costs increase faster than revenue is generated by the current tax rate.

We should note that Ayer operates on a fairly tight budget. The largest percent of Ayer’s annual budget is for payroll and benefits for the town’s staff.

Balancing the cost of town services

Just like any family on a budget, we have choices to make. We must balance what we need with what we have to spend.

Spend less?

Certainly, we can spend less. We undoubtedly could save a small percentage in careful budget cuts around payroll and other expenses. Realistically, however, if we want to hold our tax rate steady, we will have to reduce the number of staff we employ. And subsequently, the services and quality will likely suffer.

Raise more?

On the other hand, we could choose to raise more money. That means more taxes.

That choice will have positive and negative results. We’ll be able to keep our services and, perhaps, improve the quality, but we’ll also put at risk any property owner on a fixed or limited income. We will also risk jeopardizing or driving out the businesses so important to our economy. Ayer currently has one of the lowest residential tax rates in the region. At the same time, our business tax rate is high.

Manage differently?

There are things we can do to make our local government more effective in dollars spent as well as breadth and quality of services. But to do anything without a way to gauge progress toward what we define as a “well-run” government providing “good quality” services is folly.

It seems we need a metric or framework by which we can clearly set out our goals and measure our success toward meeting them.

We don’t have this yet, exactly.

The comprehensive plan lays out goals and tasks, but we need a metric applied to gauge our success in achieving the master plan. The metric has to be something that town meeting can understand and deliberate on to make meaningful choices about what money we want to spend to implement the plan.

Read the plan at www.ayer.ma.us/boards_compplan.html.