Shirley residents cruise through annual town meeting warrant

Only one warrant was voted down

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SHIRLEY – With 80 registered voters at annual town meeting last week in the Ayer Shirley Middle School gymnasium, all but one of 20 warrant articles passed in just over two hours.

The $15.6 million budget – article 4 – passed with relative ease, despite some items held for discussion. It was a balanced budget, as Town Administrator Mike McGovern pointed out earlier.

Items at issue included the selectmen’s budget, up from $151,000 last year to $226,575 for 2021.

McGovern explained the added cost was in part related to Covid-19 expenses, but mostly due to collective bargaining, with union contracts all up for renewal this year. Asked if legal fees or raises accounted for the uptick, he declined to say, citing ongoing negotiations. “I can’t go into it,” he said.

One of the line items in the budget – $226,575 – was a reserve for a “just in case (situation),” McGovern said, with any unused money going back into the free cash account.

Of that total, $2,500 is for the board’s expenses, Chairman John O’Keefe said.

The Ayer Shirley Regional Dispatch bill was also questioned, up $25,000 from last year.

McGovern explained the three-year contract came up for renewal this year and that the amount was “negotiated” down from the original request.

When Nashoba Valley Technical High School’s $724,345 assessment was questioned, McGovern explained that there were two or three more Shirley students enrolled at the vocational/technical high school for the coming year.

There was no objection to the Ayer Shirley Regional School District’s $8.2 million assessment.

Another line item held was debt service, which went up by nearly $200,000.

McGovern said the issue dated back five years.The town had paid only interest on its loans, he said, nothing on the principal, and the spike in debt service cost is the result. At last year’s special town meeting, for example, voters approved $160,000 to start whittling down the debt.

Going forward, the strategy is to use free cash versus borrowing when possible, McGovern said, citing the five-year capital improvement plan and $960,000 in certified free cash.

He also noted a goal he has championed: putting half the money budgeted for buildings into regular upkeep, building maintenance and repairs, avoiding costly surprises later on.

Article 10 sought to defray the cost of the town’s new trash and recycling curbside pickup program, launched earlier this year, with $412,500 appropriated for the purpose. Of that amount, $369,650 would come from enterprise receipts, another $4,320 from recycling pay-back and the town kicks in the rest.

According to McGovern and Jay Howlett, chairman of the health board, the town’s balance due – $38,530 – is less than in previous years under the pay per bag program, which could have cost up to $200,000 this year.

“Previous programs were not sustainable,” McGovern said.

Article 14 was the only article that did not pass. It asked if the town should join the Central Mass. Mosquito Control Project, for $50,000 a year.

Last year, the town, virtually the only community in the area that isn’t a CMMCP member, had a scare when a mosquito found at a testing site on the Lancaster town line tested positive for Triple E West Nile virus.

Granted an emergency pass under the circumstances, the town tapped into CMMCP resources to get targeted spraying in areas near the test site.

Selectmen Chairman Bryan Sawyer said that’s why the question came up, despite the town’s historic refusal to sign on. “Last summer, there was a Triple-E case on the Lancaster-Shirley border,” he said, and many residents called with serious concerns.

Spraying then was a “short term” solution and the option might not be available any more. “We thought this might work better,” he said.

Most of the discussion centered on worries about toxic chemicals, long-term effects and threats to honeybees. A CMMCP representative said chemicals used are carefully vetted, with weather conditions and other factors considered and they only spray when and where it’s needed.

The town said no by a handful of votes. The count: 32 for, 38 against.

Article 18, which requested a free cash transfer of $60,000 to pay a financial consultant passed.

Once the books are “cleaned up” the town can move forward with a clean slate, with McGovern added that it was “absolutely necessary.”

Article 19, which sought to create an Illicit Discharge Bylaw, also sparked discussion, but it passed by a majority vote.

Wrapping up the meeting, two transfers to general stabilization and capital stabilization funds: $450,000 and $135,625.96, respectively.

Before the transfers, there was $1,016,610 in the general stabilization fund as of March, 2020 and $364,373.04 in the capital stabilization fund, as of March, 2020.