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Budget Committee picks up where deficit group left off

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SHIRLEY — The Board of Selectmen has resurrected the former Deficit Committee under a new name but with the same basics, from membership criteria to stated purpose.

Now called the Budget Committee, the group has met once so far, mainly to discuss ground rules and to set a meeting schedule.

The next meeting is Wednesday, Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Town Offices. After that, the committee plans to meet every other week.

Consisting of the selectmen and two representatives each from the Finance and School committees, the Budget Committee’s goal will be to hammer out a balanced budget to take to the next annual town meeting.

The previous group fell short of that goal, but they started at a different place.

Formed in response to a looming deficit, the original group began on the negative side of the balance sheet. Working with the town administrator and his staff and other department heads, the group came up with proposed reductions, then tried to reach consensus on the details.

Although the committee had agreed to split the shortfall equally between the municipal and school sides of the budget, Selectman “Andy” Deveau proposed a different split.

Since the school budget makes up the bulk of the town’s annual spending, it’s only fair that cuts should reflect that imbalance, he said at the time. In this scenario, the School Department absorbed a greater percentage of the shortfall, despite substantial cuts already made in its budget.

But the selectmen were divided on what budget they would support. Selectman Enrico Cappucci sided with Deveau, while Chip Guercio held out for the 50/50 split.

In the end, the Finance Committee — acting on a strategy engineered by town moderator George Knittel — presented its recommendation as the budget at town meeting.

The result was a protracted, eight-night ATM that wrapped with an unbalanced budget and tax overrides pending, which subsequently failed at the polls.

Selectmen later opined that negative public perception — the sense that town officials were not in synch and perhaps a mistaken notion that there was more than one budget to choose from — had prolonged the ATM. Confusion and mistrust may have doomed the overrides as well, with some people citing lack of leadership on both counts.

When a new raft of Proposition two and a half override bids were presented at the Nov. 4 town election, voters passed a portion of the seven-item list, supporting some and rejecting others. There were requests for the library, Council on Aging, Police, Fire and Highway departments, but not the schools. Even before the ATM, the School Committee had voted in a budget that was not dependent on an override.

Now invited to join the Budget Committee, some School Committee members at the Nov. 12 meeting said they’re not sure it’s the right fit. After some discussion, the committee voted to support the concept and agreed it’s important to be represented at the table.

(See separate story.)