SHIRLEY — The Ayer Shirley Regional School Committee at its meeting Wednesday night got its first comprehensive look at the district’s preliminary operating budget for fiscal 2016, which is shaping up to exceed last year’s and translates to higher assessments for member towns.
Sketched out in a Power Point presentation, with details provided in handout budget sheets, total expenses for the coming year were $24,763,538. With income deducted, the figure the 2016 assessments will be based on was $16,286,902.
That bottom-line figure did not include the cost of debt service for the ASRSD High School renovation and addition, Finance Director Evan Katz said.
The amount each town pays for its share of the building project is determined by a formula spelled out in the Regional Agreement.
The project is set for completion in July.
The budget sheets laid out all the numbers, in and out and the presentation by Katz and Superintendent Mary Malone also included no-cost educational improvements and revenue-enhancing ideas.
But the information of most interest — and concern — to the towns was in the numbers.
Of the total assessment — up by 8.6 percent from last year’s — Ayer’s share is $9,943,605, a 7.3-percent increase over last year. Shirley’s share is $6,343,297, an increase of 10.7 percent.
During public discussion after the budget presentation, the two town administrators stood together to voice their concerns.
Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said there’s “no question” that both towns “support the schools” or that the agreed-upon aim was to grow and improve the district year to year. The question then becomes how to grow and sustain all three entities, he said, meaning municipal government and public safety services in the two towns as well as the school district.
The concern is the assessment, he said.
“Our departments were level-funded” this year, with increases of only 1 to 4 percent over the last five years, Pontbriand said, so an assessment hike of 8.6 percent raises eyebrows.
“I know it’s only preliminary,” but the assessment Ayer and Shirley selectmen agreed would be fair and which the towns could afford would be 5 percent, he said.
Given the total property assessment on which the tax levy is based, Ayer is rapidly approaching the 2.5-percent annual cap set by state law, Pontbriand said. And the $1.2 million the town was able to accrue in free cash is spoken for, with at least that much in “capital needs.”
The point is that Shirley’s assessment isn’t affordable and neither is Ayer’s, Pontbriand said.
Shirley Town Administrator Patrice Garvin restated the point, on which she said both towns agreed.
“It is not affordable or sustainable, she said of the school district’s anticipated assessments. “We’re united” that a five percent increase should be the target for both Ayer and Shirley. “This is what the towns are willing to accept,” she said.
Chairman Joyce Reischutz thanked the pair for their input and said it would be useful as the process continues.
The numbers as presented are not set in stone, she and other members agreed and could change when the final figure for Chapter 70 state education aid comes in, which will be after the governor’s budget is released.
And if that happens after the School Committee certifies the budget, it can still be amended and re-certified, Katz said.