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The outside entrance to Catania Oils’s manufacturing facility in Ayer, which could have a new expansion built on it
The outside entrance to Catania Oils’s manufacturing facility in Ayer, which could have a new expansion built on it
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AYER – With 32 articles on the April 26 annual town meeting warrant – absent one that didn’t come up – and with another article on a single-item warrant for the special town meeting that preceded the main event, it took three and a half hours for the assembly – 126 registered voters according to Town Clerk Susan Copeland — to complete its work.

Voters were sparsely spaced in the high school auditorium Monday night, with a small “overflow” group of non-voters watching via video feed from the lobby.

The purpose of the special town meeting, about five minutes long, was to transfer funds to cover a shortfall in the ambulance budget, that according to the fire chief and the town accountant, was due to fewer ambulance calls during the pandemic shut-down. The article passed.

After an attenuated launch due to a procedural need – voting in Samuel Goodwin as temporary moderator versus another nominee, James O’Conor – and with several presentations and a few items that raised questions or called for explanation expanding its time frame, the meeting adjourned at 10:30 p.m.

All but one of the articles passed, most of them unanimously.

The one that didn’t pass never made it to the floor. It was a citizens petition article that proposed an amendment to the Ayer Shirley Regional School District agreement.

Initiated by Shirley resident and School Committee member Jim Quinty, who as a non-resident could not forward it himself, the article had collected 400 Shirley citizens’ certified signatures to present was basically dead on arrival when nobody made a motion to bring it up. Other school board members did not back the initiative, and Ayer town officials did not support passage of the article.

Most of the warrant articles dealt with routine business, such as funding salaries, various funds transfers and the $16,252,201 Omnibus Budget, which passed without much discussion and no debate.

The same smooth passage held for the two regional school assessments – $12,680,749 for the Ayer Shirley district and $954,155 for Nashoba Tech, the multi-member regional technical high school district the town belongs to.

The assessments, up 2.12 percent and 9.63 percent from last year, respectively, were attributed to a small increase in the number of Ayer students attending school in the districts, Town Manager Robert Pontbriand explained. The local bill also included another $910,941 for the high school debt exclusion, basically the town’s share of the major renovation/addition project, completed several years ago.

Article 17, which called for $30,000 to chemically treat town ponds to control growth of aquatic weeds at Sandy Pond, Flannagans and Pine Meadow, sparked discussion. Resident Laurie Nehring noted that this had become an annual expense that seemed destined to continue indefinitely. It would make more sense, she said, to attack the cause of the weeds, which she said was mostly due to use of chemical lawn fertilizers, rather than use more chemicals to kill them.

David Bodurtha agreed it was a losing battle, but he also introduced another element: Access. Bodurtha argued private property on Sandy Pond should be excised from the weed control map, since the public has no access to those areas. The general consensus, however, was that weeds are equal opportunity invaders that spread to all areas, public and private. So it’s practically impossible to do as Bodurtha suggested and would defeat the purpose of the weed-control program. The article passed.

Two high-profile items on the warrant later passed unanimously, including one that drew applause.

Article 26, which sought a TIF (tax increment finance agreement) between the town and Catania Spagna, a local business that manufactures an array of plant-based cooking oils, included an informational slide presentation and remarks from the owner, Joe Basile, who noted the long history of the family business founded by his great-grandfather in 1900.

Basile cited Catania’s record of good corporate citizenship since the company moved to Ayer in 1994.

The company – which generates a significant amount of local tax revenue each year — wants to build a 51,000 square-foot addition to its factory, which in the long run will generate even more. The TIF will help defray expansion-related expenses, including substantial project costs. In return, the company promises to create 30 new jobs over five years, with priority hiring for Ayer residents.

Basile said the company has contributed to community initiatives, helped sponsor town events, supports local causes and donates to charitable organizations such as Loaves and Fishes, among others.

Pontbriand pointed out that if the article passed, the TIF document must then pass muster at the state level and that the company’s compliance would be monitored annually by the state and the town.

If a company gets a TIF but does not keep the promises it’s based on, the deal can be revoked, he said.

The article passed, with applause.

Article 27 proposed transfer of the privately owned Woodlawn Cemetery to the Town of Ayer.

Established in 1858 and with graves dating back at least 20 years earlier, the cemetery has been managed by a board of trustees, whose members proposed the transfer earlier this year.

“They approached us,” Pontbriand said, noting the “fabulous” job the group had done over many years. Now, however, board members are retiring, he said. Unable to continue, they want to pass stewardship to the town, he said, which according to one of the trustees who spoke at the meeting, already owns a very small section of the cemetery, near the Ayer Rotary. The 10.5-acre property is an “active” cemetery with a number of veterans’ graves, Pontbriand said.

Flanking Route 110/111, just over the Harvard town line, the cemetery is an Ayer landmark that it makes sense to acquire, he said, along with buildings, equipment and funds in cemetery accounts, including $120,000 in the Perpetual Care Fund, which is revenue from plot purchases used for cemetery upkeep. The transfer would be in the form of a donation, with all legal and financial matters addressed and ironed out ahead of time as part of the “due diligence” that would precede it, Pontbriand said.

Pontbriand made one point very clear: Woodlawn will always be a cemetery and the property can’t be re-purposed. If the town takes over, its continued care becomes a moral as well as a legal responsibility, with maintenance costs estimated at about $20,000 a year.

Pontbriand said the decision wouldn’t be the last word on the matter, but rather step one in the process. “We do our due diligence from May through September,” he said. That is, review records, assess conditions and inventory, audit finances, etc. With legal legwork done, a public report will be issued in September, he said.

The transfer process, if all goes well, could be completed for the fall town meeting in October, when voters get the final say. “So if you agree… we will start” now, he said. Voters agreed. The article passed.