SHIRLEY — The Finance Committee is still somewhat incredulous over failing to convince Town Meeting that it shouldn’t spend more money than the town had last year from recurring revenue such as property taxes.
The Finance Committee on Tuesday night discussed how to better get that message across this year.
With department budget proposals just in and the envisioned 19 articles on the draft Town Meeting warrant only sketched out so far, FinCom didn’t have budget figures on the table. Most of the hour-long meeting was spent in general discussion, including brainstorming.
Chairman Stewart Cady shared some of the comments he heard from the public when the Budget Coordinating Committee he served on was reviewing the town’s fiscal situation. The group had been asked by the selectmen to do so with an eye to addressing a possible deficit, possibly with a Proposition 2 1/2 override.
The committee has now completed its work and made its recommendation to the selectmen. Summing up his takeaway from the BCC meetings, Cady said that “besides the (recommended) override” an idea he’s not wedded to, “what came out of the BCC was that municipal finances are a big mystery” to most townspeople that they “would like us to explain.”
The question then becomes “how do we explain our decisions” and why people should back them up, Cady continued.
Recurring revenue, for example. “That’s your paycheck, your pension, Social Security check.” he said. “But how do we come up with a message that speaks to the people of Shirley?”
Member Dreama Sloan Kelly suggested an instructional approach that ties into marketing techniques she uses in her work.
“Simplify the language,” she said. Then get the word out via newspapers rather than waiting to lay it all out on Town Meeting floor, as the FinCom did last time.
“I showed slides that explained how we used and spent Stabilization Fund money,” Cady ventured.
His presentation also aimed to show why it’s important to keep the fund balanced. Maintaining the town’s liquid savings account at five percent of the total town budget, at minimum, is a goal the town hasn’t always met. But that balance is a selling point that affects the town’s bond rating and reputation, he said. In practical terms, it’s helping the town get a favorable interest rate when it borrows money, for example.
General consensus, however, was that most people didn’t get it.
Besides the “home economics” aspect, another budget issue that bears explaining is the cost of public services such as public safety departments and schools and maybe even why each one is needed, members said.
“These are the things folks talk about,” Cady posited.
Member Mike Swanton said he liked the FinCom 101 idea. He suggested getting into what the line items are and “what we’re trying to accomplish” by presenting a balanced budget.
Others said it was key to explain financial terms if the goal is to give people a basic understanding of the process. But the tutorial can’t be too long if they want them to listen.
The budget will be discussed in more detail when the Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen meet in joint session on Monday, Feb. 8. Ayer Shirley Regional School District Superintendent Mary Malone is expected to revisit the budget presentation she gave the School Committee last week.