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SHIRLEY — The Budget Committee has reached consensus on how to develop a balanced budget for fiscal year 2010, but it won’t be the “zero-based” strategy that had been envisioned.

The new committee — an offshoot of the previous Deficit Committee — consists of the Board of Selectmen and two representatives each from the Finance and School committees.

The committee’s stated aim is to build a balanced budget that officials and department heads can agree is workable and fair before it’s presented to annual town meeting voters.

A “modified zero-based” strategy was previously proposed, with emphasis on narrative before numbers, but the group has now decided to reverse direction on that point.

At the Dec. 3 meeting, Selectman Andy Deveau said residents he’s talked to are concerned about the new committee’s direction and have asked about “metrics” that departments would be asked to submit.

The metrics come from the departments’ internal assessments and would be presented on a form designed for the purpose. FinCom members will be available to assist department heads in fitting descriptive narratives to the format, Chairman Frank Kolarik said.

But it’s not an employee evaluation process.

“At this point, we’re only asking” what each department does for the town, Kolarik explained. “We’re not measuring individual performance but the department’s effectiveness.”

For example, the Fire Department aims for speedy response times, while the Police Department needs a certain number of officers on each shift to ensure public safety.

One question that narratives would address is what it takes to achieve those goals.

Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Joe Lynch said his primary concern in the winter is getting road crews out early during a storm. Timely clearing and treatment with salt and sand avoids frozen buildup that can add hours of labor, he said.

Asked if he felt the budget review infringes on his ability to manage his department, Lynch said no.

“I feel we deliver good service for a fair price,” he said, which will be evident in his report. “I’m not intimidated it’s a healthy approach.”

But town administrator Kyle Keady said the picture isn’t complete without cost, which should be the first step in the budget-building process.

“My question is, are you putting the cart before the horse?” Keady asked.

For example, if the intent is to identify and prioritize work done by DPW crews around town, such as mowing playing fields, the process should start with “specific numbers” for each task, Keady said.

The key question is “What does it cost to run this community?” he asked.

Keady said it’s imperative to develop the budget before “trying to determine what people do.” He suggestion was to “marry the two” — with numbers first then added narrative submitted by Jan. 12.

Kolarik was reluctant to abandon the other option, however.

“Remember, 80 percent of our budget is salaries,” he said, and for that reason he doesn’t foresee a “significant difference in the gross numbers” by adding costs early-on.

A recent Department of Revenue report supports his view, Kolarik added. But since the majority favored the numbers-first method, he voted in favor to make it unanimous.

Deveau added a caveat. “If we can get the numbers fairly fast,” he said. This would postpone only the narrative until after the first of the year.

Kolarik agreed. “I think it’s important to start tomorrow,” he said. “To wait until Jan. 12 is too long.”