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Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — One of the articles on the May Annual Town Meeting warrant seeks to establish a policy to automatically remove, after three years, any unused money in municipal budget lines.

The money would be returned to the general fund at the end of the third fiscal year. It was proposed by Finance Committee member Christopher DeSimone.

Its goal is to guarantee as much money as possible is available to reduce the tax load.

Going into 2009, a $1 million budget override request seems inevitable.

DeSimone said that’s the way his former town, Billerica, did it. With the committee’s backing, he has asked town administrator Robert Hanson to fine tune the article’s language.

If approved, the measure would apply neither to previous municipal budgets nor water and sewer budgets that are supported by rate payers via the enterprise fund.

This year, each Finance Committee member has studied a section of the 2009 budget. They’ve compared previous and new departmental requests and looked for potentially unnecessary expenses in every line item.

Thus far, the committee has identified slightly more than $33,000 that could be returned to the general fund. Admittedly not much in the face of a $1 million override request.

The worth of the effort has been questioned by committee members. But they said they’re committed to seeing it through.

The line items most commonly questioned concern professional publications, dues and memberships.

Ironically, DeSimone has repeatedly advised departments during one-on-one sessions with the Finance Committee that fuel requests should be bolstered. The reason is because the reserve fund, from which money is usually transferred to fuel accounts, might be emptied to soften a the large anticipated deficit going into 2009.

Hand-in-hand with the budget-scouring, is a Finance Committee recommendation to all departments to fully fund each line item and avoid shifting money from one line to another as a means to come in under the recommended cap.

Each year, the Finance Committee caps operating budgets at a percentage increase and calls in any department that exceeds it. For 2009, that cap is 1.5 percent, much lower than the usual 2 or 2.5 percent.

Finance Committee Chairman Diane Gaspar has said repeatedly the committee wants to assure Town Meeting voters it has “honestly” looked at saving money everywhere before making its recommendations.

For the first time in recent memory, the committee has considered moving to a balanced-budget accounting system.

Pepperell is one of the few communities whose June 30 end-of-fiscal-year budget is not balanced. The town traditionally balances the budget at the special town meeting in October after state aid has been received — usually not until after the July 1 start of the next fiscal year.

Consideration was made because Pepperell, for the first time in recent memory, will have used most of its saved revenue to pay for a well-over-minimum regional school contribution as the municipal state aid money dramatically decreases.