SHIRLEY — With 85 registered voters present at the Annual Town Meeting Monday night, all 20 warrant articles passed, including the $16,059,206 budget.
The meeting — which convened at 7:15 p.m. and adjourned at 8:31 p.m. — marked a return to business as usual, as it was again held in the Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School auditorium after a two-year pandemic hiatus during which it was held in the gym.
A few questions came up, mostly related to the budget and those were addressed as “holds” on individual line items, which Moderator Chip Guercio read aloud, one at a time. One hold was street lights: $100,500.
Why so much, a resident asked, noting a much smaller bill in past years., more like $25,000. “What happened?” he asked.
Town Administrator Mike McGovern explained that the account was used to pay for other items besides street lights, including electricity and heat for public buildings in town.
Asked about revenue from solar farms that dot the town landscape, McGovern said the four solar facilities that benefit the town bring in about $350,000 a year, which goes into the general fund.
Another line item that raised questions was road maintenance, which some said they were far from satisfied with, especially given the increased cost. A Pumpkin Brook resident, for example, noted the poor condition of Townsend Road, a well-traveled road he uses daily. “It’s in terrible shape,” he said.
“That type of work is done with Chapter 90 funds,” McGovern said. The town gets about $225,000 from the state each year to use for road repairs, he said, but it’s not enough to repair or repave all the roads that need it, so the Department of Public Works prioritizes its work, with the worst roads targeted first.
In addition, he said the same line item “covers a lot of different expenses” besides roads.
Asked about recent repaving on Front and Main streets, McGovern said a “Complete Streets” grant and other government grants paid for that work. “We’d love to have more funding,” he said.
Another resident wondered if the national infrastructure bill that passed last year could help.
“There will be money (from that bill) but it takes time,” McGovern said, adding that cities and towns in Massachusetts may have to turn to the state to get their share if the funds get funneled in that way. “Maybe in the next six months or so,” he said.
Assessments for the two regional school districts the town belongs to, Ayer Shirley Regional School District, and Nashoba Valley Technical High School, passed with no issues or objections.
There was, however, a question about the breakdown of ASRSD costs. Business Manager Bill Plunkett, accompanied by Superintendent Adam Renda, provided answers.
Transportation costs the district $1.8 million a year, he said, including 12 “regular” school buses via a contract with Dee Bus Co., with added costs for special education transportation and out-of-district placements. Teacher salaries total about $14 million, plus $2 million for other staff and administration.
Asked if the district had “rainy day” funds set aside, Plunkett cited more than one such account, including reserves for unexpected special education costs and an “E&D,” exploration and development, amount that can be rolled over, year to year.
Shirley is one of several communities in the Nashoba Tech district, which assessed the town $714,500 for fiscal 2023. The ASRSD amount was $8,651,605. Assessments for both regional school districts are based in part on the number of town students attending.
Asked about another line item that showed a substantial spike in the Select Board budget, McGovern acknowledged it was “large,” and explained why. “It’s for collective bargaining” with unions and to negotiate the fire chief’s contract, he said.
He also spelled out why the assessor’s budget went up. Basically, it was because a part-time position had been added, formerly filled by a floater.
Someone asked if, given the situation with inflation nationwide, the town is doing enough to keep up and whether the $353,906 rise in the budget from last year is reasonable. Is it enough?
“The vote will tell,” Guercio answered.
The line item pertaining to curbside trash and recycling raised no questions, but Board of Health Chairman Jay Howlett addressed it anyway, noting a three-year contract with the town’s current hauler, E.L. Harvey, that ends in June.
The health board negotiated a new three-year contract with Harvey, he said, before fuel prices spiked. “You’ll see … a substantial increase,” in quarterly bills participating residents pay for curbside pickup, he said. But private haulers charge more, he said. “We believe it’s a good service at the right price,” Howlett said, adding that he wonders why more people in town don’t use it.
There were brief discussions about sewer district betterments vs expenses and about whether existing fire box alarms — one of which needs replacement at a cost of $33,500 — should be phased out.
Resident Jim Quinty raised the issue and made a motion to that effect. Given the number of Fire Department calls versus how often those boxes are used, he questioned whether its worth it to keep the “outmoded” system going. Maybe it’s time to replace them with modern equipment, he suggested.
But Center Town Hall Committee members Holly Haase and Alison Tocci had a different view.
The fire alarm box is a first go-to if there’s a fire in the town-owned building, they said, noting that it’s an iconic community gem. With a host of tasks on its to-do list, replacing the fire alarm comes first. The building can’t be used without it, they said.
Robert Adam added that wireless service carries a monthly fee, while the box does not.
“The fire chief recommends it,” Paul Przybyla said.
Quinty withdrew his motion. “I can read the room,” he said.