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Town preparing for cuts, in case state aid is reduced

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AYER — With the current state of the economy and facing possible cuts in state aid, even though the fiscal year is already underway, town officials are taking precautions by prioritizing programs and town services.

Town administrator Shaun Suhoski held a meeting with department heads to discuss what the selectmen would like to see from each of the departments.

“Through a quick calculation, we came up with a 4 percent cut,” Suhoski said. “If the state cuts 10 percent of the aid, it would result in 4 percent. We would like a list (from department heads) that identifies cuts in order of priority. It may impact hours and personnel.”

The 4 percent cut is based on potential state revenues that have been lagging, Suhoski said.

“This is a real potential, the cuts,” he said.

Town accountant Lisa Gabree explained that state aid makes up 24 percent of the general fund revenues.

“Eighty percent of state aid goes to the schools,” she said. “The other 20 percent goes to the town. Question 1 will devastate our schools if it passes. Other town departments will be affected too, but the schools will be affected the most.”

Gabree said departments are often reluctant to give up money that has already been given to them, but urged them to take a hard look at their budgets.

“Before it becomes a personnel issue, take a look at where you’re at,” she said. “If a project is complete, please release the money back to the town.”

Suhoski said the cuts are only 2 percent of the omnibus budget but with only a few months left in the year, the cuts will seem like 4 percent.

“The selectmen will be meeting Wednesday night after the election,” he explained. “They will know the result of ballot Question 1. I don’t think it’s going to pass, but if it does, legislation is going to make it up. If they lose income tax, they will have to raise the gas tax.”

Selectman James Fay was the only board member at the meeting and tried to explain that the cuts are not definite.

“We have to know what-if,” Fay said. “Let’s look at it from what-if and hope for the best.”

Suhoski said the departments that are directly under the jurisdiction of the selectmen are not the only ones being asked to create a list of potential cuts.

“The Board of Selectmen can rein in the departments within their jurisdiction,” he said. “But with the other departments well, technically they don’t have to sign the warrant.

“We are looking for recommendations from the department heads and then the selectmen will be debating and discussing the proposed cuts; that’s how it works. It’s going to be a discussion, not everyone is going to get 4 percent cut. It’s really not that clear-cut across the board.”

Interim Superintendent George Frost, representing the School Department at the meeting, asked Suhoski what portion of the cuts would fall on the town versus the schools.

“You have my commitment that the schools will make the cuts they need to make,” he said. “That’s not an issue, but we need to step back. The town collectively needs to prepare for the possibility, not the inevitability.”

Gabree brought up a $47,000 permit fee for the Pleasant Street school project that was waived by the selectmen.

“That money could have covered a police officer or a school teacher,” she said. “I don’t understand why a fee of that dollar amount would be waived.”

Suhoski said charging the fee could have meant the project might not be done at all. Building Commissioner Gabriel Vellante agreed with Gabree.

“Fees like that would basically cover my entire department. I don’t understand that,” Vellante said. “What happens with the departments that aren’t under selectmen jurisdiction? Times are tough; are they willing to suck it up? If they don’t, what happens when the burden comes back in the departments that are under the selectmen?”

Suhoski said he didn’t have a ready answer.

“We’re really one town,” he said. “Even with seven departments not under the selectmen. The selectmen may just call a special town meeting and let the tax payers hash it out.”

The departments not under the selectmen are the School Department, Council on Aging, library, Parks and Recreation, town clerk’s office, treasurer’s office and the Board of Assessors. Only the library did not have a representative at the meeting.

“We’re talking about each department advocating for their department,” Frost said. “That’s normal and how it should be. But I don’t see the School Committee sitting there saying, ‘We’re going to keep our marbles on our side of the table and not make cuts.’ We’re going to do our share.”

If the worst-case scenario does happen and state aid is in fact cut, Finance Committee and Board of Health member Mary Spinner hopes the unions are as open-minded as the department heads.

“My thought is all contracts need to be opened up and renegotiated,” Spinner said. “If not, shame on them. If it means they will save personnel by renegotiating, then that’s what should be done.”

Fay added the selectmen’s plan is to have a fully vetted budget from the town before it’s brought to the residents at town meeting.