AYER — “It was an interesting meeting Monday,” said Ayer Finance Committee member Brian Muldoon on Oct. 24. He was referencing the Oct. 22 trilogy of Special Town Meetings held two days earlier.
Muldoon noted that the high school auditorium lost voters immediately after Article 1 of the third Town Meeting. Article 1 passed overwhelmingly with one audible no vote heard from the front of the room.
The issue was whether or not to amend the Ayer-Shirley regional school agreement to allow the district to assess the towns for Shirley Middle School debt (which extends through fiscal 2026) though the debt arose before the towns regionalized their schools on July 1, 2011.
Now borne entirely by Shirley, a Nov. 17 ballot is required in both towns that will ask Ayer and Shirley voters to buy into both high-school renovations/addition, but also to share the middle-school debt service between the towns. The formula calls for Ayer to offset Shirley’s high school contribution by contributing more towards the middle-school debt through fiscal 2026.
The middle-school debt is to be satisfied in fiscal 2026. The high-school project debt service, if approved by voters, would extend through fiscal 2034.
Muldoon noted the precipitous drop in attendance for Article 2, which had a vote of 107 to 87. There had been 388 voters counted at the peak of the meeting. By Article 5, a voter requested a headcount to ensure a minimum quorum of 50 voters were still in the room. Moderator Dan Swanfeldt conducted a rough count and stopped when it was clear there were more than 60 present.
Still, Muldoon was miffed. “So we lost 200 between the two articles. You have to hand it to how many the school brought in … (but) I’m just wondering where all these people came from.”
“I’m glad they stayed til the end,” sniffed Muldoon. “All those people come for a special thing.”
There were also hollers from different quadrants of the room from time to time. “I thought it was disgusting myself that people where shouting things out — yelling and making noise. It was disheartening for me.”
“It’s entertaining, to say the least,” quipped Finance Committee Chairman Scott Houde. “I’d understand an exodus at 9 o’clock when child-care ends … (but) as soon as we moved on from Article 1 it was a mass exodus. It was sad.”
Ayer Capital Planning Committee Chair Mary Spinner suggested “folks can get there earlier” so the meetings could have started at 7 o’clock. There were three consecutive meetings scheduled — one for 7, the second for 7:15, and the third for 7:30 p.m. But the line stretched for so far outside the auditorium that the start of the first meeting was delayed in deference to those in line.
Houde also expressed remorse that the committee didn’t devote more time to preparing on the first two Town Meeting warrant articles — whether or not Ayer voters should petition the legislature to resume municipal jurisdiction (not ownership) of former Fort Devens lands now managed by MassDevelopment. The second Town Meeting asked Ayer voters to file jointly with Harvard and Shirley to seek a return of jurisdiction over the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone to all three towns as existed in 1917.
“It’s something we should take a look at if and when this issue comes up again,” said Houde.
Selectman Pauline Conley noted that though Selectman Frank Maxant gathered more than 200 signatures on each Devens citizen’s petitions warrants, that number of supporters “weren’t there. It would have passed if they were there. It might have been a closer vote.”
“I heard a lot of people say they signed the petition only because they didn’t like the way he (Maxant) was treated at annual Town Meeting (in May 2012) but they had no intention of voting for it.”
“We didn’t have a lot of answers, but for me it was about the question,” said Houde. “He deserved to be heard. Frank put a lot of effort into it, but the amount of information he fed to us was not quite as much as we needed.”
“I was looking for more guidance from him,” said Houde. “To that effect he never came before our committee to ask us to look at anything. I did the best I could with what I had to work with. A lot of it was carryover from Vicksburg Square.”
At the Oct. 22 special Town Meeting, Houde presented rough figures that reflected Maxant’s projection that retaking jurisdiction of Ayer’s former bounds would bring an estimated $2.3 million in annual tax revenue to Ayer. Maxant collected data from Ayer’s fire, police and DPW departments that suggest the cost to provide services to the added acreage would be $1.3 million.
However, that figure does not include the cost of educating Devens children within the town bounds. Devens children are mostly educated in neighboring Harvard under contract with MassDevelopment at the cost of $13,500 per student.
Regarding the present Devens contract, Houde noted, “They have the right to stay (in Harvard schools) until graduation.”
But Houde noted for students that have yet to reach school-age or enter the Harvard schools, “That contract with Harvard is with MassDevelopment, not the Town of Ayer.”
Capital Planning Committee Chair Mary Spinner noted that the projections also did not include estimated costs for the Ayer Parks Department if it assumed responsibility for maintaining the Devens playing fields located within town bounds.
“That’s my bad,” said Houde. The idea of added playing fields for Ayer sports was appealing to Houde. “Look at how crowded we are as a town. Look at Pirone Park on a weekend and try to find a parking space … so the open space is what I personally like about Devens and the potential there.”
Houde also said “I feel horrible” for Planning Board member Jeremy Callahan, who presented Article 13 on behalf of his board. The article suggested a sweeping set of housecleaning and modernization indexing areas for Ayer’s Zoning Bylaw. “I don’t know how I feel about the zoning being tabled,” said Houde.
The zoning bylaw updates have been tabled by Town Meeting before. “The Planning Board went through the proper process … It should have been earlier in the warrant.”
The warrant order is determined by the Board of Selectmen. To that point, selectman Pauline Conley said from the committee’s audience, “It was our fault.”
“It was 11 o’clock,” noted Muldoon. The third Town Meeting adjourned late into the evening with a necessary quorum in attendance but little more.
The next regular Finance Committee meeting is Nov. 14. However, starting on Nov. 1, the Finance Committee is commencing regular budget meetings with department heads. The full schedule of what department will appear on what night will be posted to the official town website, www.ayer.ma.us.