By Pierre Comtois

Correspondent

AYER -- As the budget formulation process for fiscal 2015 moves along, the Finance Committee has discovered that increased costs of insurance, utilities and payroll are driving new spending up despite efforts by department heads.

That was the major factor in cost increases in the DPW's budget as presented by Director Mark Wetzel at a meeting Wednesday.

According to committee Chairman Scott Houde, town departments have been instructed to pursue a "pseudo-zero" procedure in presenting their proposed budgets for next year.

Houde said the committee was still proceeding with caution, this time allowing departments to propose new spending so long as it was recognized that there would be no guarantees that it would be approved.

Compliant with the committee's request, Library Director Mary Anne Lucht told members Wednesday that her modest budget increase represented a "level-funded" budget with little in the way of fat.

"It's sort of cut and dry," said Lucht of the $5,275 increase in spending over 2014. "It's the way libraries in this state operate."

Lucht referred to a mandate by the state requiring local libraries to earmark so much money for spending, including reserving at least 19 percent for the purchase of books in order to be certified.

Lucht's proposed budget for fiscal 2015 came in at $472,708, up slightly from this year's total of $467,437.

In addition to funding needed to keep up with state requirements, Lucht said her budget also included a request for a young-adult librarian that may be needed should a current employee be promoted.

"So far, we're doing okay," said Lucht reminding committee members that the library has seven staffers and volunteers.

Working on an accelerated schedule, the committee expects to meet with department heads through December and have a draft fiscal 2015 budget prepared for presentation to selectmen by early March.

By then, residents would have also had a chance to comment at a number of public forums on the issue.

The budget for fiscal 2014 was approved at $20,867,500.

If all goes according to schedule, a final budget for fiscal 2015 should be in place for the first week in April, in time for consideration by residents at spring town meeting.

Until then, the committee plans to continue reviews, like the one it held Wednesday with the Department of Public Works director.

Going through his budget section by section including water, sewer, solid waste, highway maintenance, and public lighting, Wetzel told members what was driving his costs up were insurance, contractual obligations, and especially utilities whose final costs were unpredictable.

For that reason, and pending statistics on debt service (money owed by the town on outstanding municipal bonds), he could not nail down a final figure for his department's budget.

The number for 2015 is expected to rise and likely exceed that of 2014 when a bottom line is established.

In the meantime, Wetzel was able to tell committee members that he expected payroll spending to increase by 2 percent, more money to be spent on streetlights and snow and ice removal, $5,000 needed to repair a dump truck for further service, and $45,000 to pay for specialized chemicals needed for water treatment.

Also on the director's wish list was hiring a new town engineer.

Choosing not to delve too deeply into individual budgets at this stage of the process, committee members kept their own comments on the two presentations brief, bringing up issues of staffing, employee benefits and new positions.

The committee will continue its departmental reviews Wednesday, when it will hear from the town administrator/Board of Selectmen and the Fire Department.