SHIRLEY -- The Board of Selectmen face the possibility of presenting a Proposition 2 1/2 override to voters at Town Meeting if they cannot close a substantial deficit in the fiscal 2015 budget.
Town Administrator Patrice Garvin said the projected operating budget for fiscal 2015 has a standing deficit of $138,000, even with proposed cuts, layoffs and changes in health insurance. That number includes the town's proposed Ayer Shirley Regional School District's increase assessment, totaling $269,000.
However, Garvin wrote in her April town administrator update, the requested assessment is $200,000 above the town's budgeted increase assessment.
If voters at Town Meeting approve the School District's requested budget, the deficit will jump to $300,000, she said.
"To resolve this issue, the town would have to use all of its one-time monies to fund this deficit, leaving no room for much-needed capital," she wrote in her update. "Further, there are expenses that could not have been foreseen or accounted for in this fiscal year 2014, such as snow and ice and the veteran's benefits, each needing additional appropriation."
Municipalities are only allowed to increase their tax levies by 2.5 percent each year. If a city or town wishes to exceed that growth rate, voters must approve a Proposition 2 1/2 override.
The debt incurred for the renovation and addition to the high school will begin on residents' fiscal 2015 tax bills, Garvin said, and the town must be weary of asking for an override at the same time the high-school project is slated to hit the books.
"An override would put a heavy burden on the taxpayer and would not solve the budget problem next year," she said. "The town is seeking ways to cut expenses and increase revenues, while at the same time has adopted to wean itself off of using one-time revenues to fund recurring expenses."
Selectman David Swain said an override hasn't been brought to the board's attention as a possibility for the general operating budget, but one may have to be considered for the school assessment if it is not brought down.
"We have enough money for the municipal side of the budget. The school budget is coming in at twice as much as we can afford," he said.
He said some of the increase is to hire two additional special-education teachers and health insurance increases.
However, he said, the House and Senate just came out with their respective budgets and both are projecting a net increase of $97,000 to the regional school district's operating budget.
If that's the case, he said, all of that money should be divided proportionately to both Ayer and Shirley.
Selectman Bob Prescott said he hasn't made up his mind on whether he could support proposing an override.
"They're still wrestling through the budget. There hasn't been talk about an override yet," he said. "We're trying to reduce the amount of one-time cash we use and by doing that, it will allow us to free up money we could use on capital."
He said it's not "a good practice" to fill a municipalities budget with one-time funding mechanisms.
"It's called one-time money for a reason," he said. "Nobody wants to raise taxes but my position has been this. We've been operating in a structural deficit. Trying to spend less free cash is the plan. We need to implement consolidations and reductions and savings. I don't think you can go and ask the taxpayers for more money when you aren't doing things as efficiently as possibly."
Ideally, he said, if the town decided to pursue an override, more time would be needed to prepare it.
"You have to educate the voters that this is really and truly needed," he said. "You can't just put it on the table and say we need this. ... We need to show we are doing the best we can with those tax dollars. I'm not sure the time is now."
Selectman Kendra Dumont said that regardless of what the school does with its final budget numbers, she would not support presenting an override to voters at Town Meeting.
"I think we've asked the people for enough. Their taxes are going up and they haven't even see their increase for the school project yet," she said. "The timing is not right. I think we just need to build credibility before we start looking at the taxpayer again. That's always the easy out."
She said the state should be held more accountable for things they promised to fund, but haven't, like funding for regional school transportation.
Ideally, the boards of selectmen from both towns, the finance committees from both towns and the School Committee would meet and hash out the details in the next month.
"Hopefully we'll resolve it before Town Meeting. We still have time," he said.
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