SHIRLEY — Saturday’s annual Town Meeting, with a small turnout of 139 voters, began on an upbeat note as Town Administrator Patrice Garvin described a good deed she was able to perform for the Ayer Shirley Regional High School Robotics Team last week.
Responding to a team member’s fundraising request, Garvin and the town accountant found cash in town coffers to help the award-winning team get to the World Competition in St. Louis, Mo. Surplus from a 2012 federal grant allowed the town to kick in $820, Garvin said.
The glow didn’t last long as Town Meeting got down to business, wrapping up in about four hours. Despite a motion to adjourn around noon and continue the meeting next week, voters decided to stick with it, passing all but two articles on the 16-item warrant. Selectmen moved to “take no action” on Articles 14 and 15, which proposed to transfer funds to stabilization accounts.
The first voice of dissent came early on. When the Salary Classification Plan and Wage Scale came up for a vote that included cost-of-living increases recommended by the Personnel Board, resident Bernard Mehserle asked: “How do you justify a 1 percent increase … when you’ve reduced … town offices, such as the tax collector?”
Selectmen Chairman Robert Prescott said changes at Town Offices were part of restructuring to make town government more efficient.
Prescott told Mehserle the collector’s position is elected and she sets her own hours.
The collector’s position will be appointed rather than elected after the election next week.
Speaking as a member of the Personnel Board, Holly Haase, the collector, said the cost-of-living raise Mehserle referred to was “across the board” for town employees. As for his personal complaint, she said she was on vacation and promised to work it out with him privately.
The salary article passed.
The omnibus budget (Article 5) totaled $13,404,437.46. It was presented in categories based on “function,” and voted via eight separate motions.
As the moderator read through line item categories for each motion, voters could call a “hold” for any item they wanted to debate.
The first hold was for the town administrator’s position, totaling $96,753.15. At issue was the added compensation selectmen provided after Town Meeting twice rejected their bid to give Garvin a cost-of-living increase last year.
Enrico Cappucci, who recently stepped down as moderator to run for selectman, made the dissenters’ case, asking town counsel to weigh in.
Based on the premise that “all salary increases are subject to Town Meeting appropriation,” and the fact that voters said no to the town administrator’s raise twice last year, Cappucci challenged the selectmen’s next move, which was to write an addendum to Garvin’s contract, he said.
The addendum provides health insurance to compensate for the raise voters rejected, a provision that will be added annually in lieu of the proposed raise.
“It directly contradicts what the town has said it wants to do,” Cappucci argued. “Is that legal?”
According to Town Counsel, it is.
Lauren Goldberg of the law firm Kopelman & Paige quoted Mass. General Laws regarding contracts, and said that, unlike other town positions, it’s the selectmen’s choice whether to make the town administrator’s contract subject to Town Meeting.
War Memorial Trustee and Veterans Event Committee Chairman Norman Albert spoke up for Garvin and other Town Hall employees, saying they all are “professional.”
When Town Meeting voters rejected her raise, that was their right, Albert said. But now it’s time to close the rift.
“We’ve split this town over personality issues,” he said. “Let’s build a bridge and get over it.”
Holds were also called on the trash and IT budgets but there was nobody present to address the residents’ raised.
William Schilp, who holds a Ph.D. in computer science, questioned the size of the computer-operations budget, which totals $152,192 for fiscal 2017. Itemized expenses include retaining a technical consulting firm for $69,286, $7,000 for equipment and operating expenses of $75,900.
Tim Hatch questioned the trash-collection budget, including specifics on tonnage the town pays to tip at the dumping sites and what the cost-versus-revenue ratio is for the town’s pay-per-bag program that is managed by the Board of Health.
Despite the hanging questions, both motions passed.
So did both regional school assessments. There was no presentation and no discussion about the assessment for Nashoba Valley Technical High School, to which Shirley belongs. At $806,591, the bill is lower than last year’s due to fewer students enrolled from Shirley.
There was, however, some back and forth over the Ayer Shirley Regional School District assessment and a $59,000 gap between the district’s request and the lower amount recommended by the Finance Committee. In the end, Town Meeting agreed to the higher number — $7,061,549 — with the difference to be paid from the stabilization fund.