May 30, 2017 – When voters eliminated the Financial Town Meeting last November, it was guaranteed this year’s budget process would be different, but it’s turned out to be a whole lot different, with one result being fewer opportunities for residents to weigh in.
Let’s back up. By town charter, the School Committee must present its budget request to the town manager by April 15. The town manager then has until May 1 to present his budget to the Town Council. The Town Council must vote on its budget – including the amount it will give to the schools – by June 10. These dates are all about one month LATER than they were last year, when the Town Council had to pass its budget by mid-May in preparation for the Financial Town Meeting (FTM), held in early June.
In recent years, after the town manager released his budget, the council would hold a number of public budget “workshops” with town department heads, allowing a deep dive into such things as why the police department needed new police cars, or the town IT director was asking for additional money for part-time help, or why the town clerk’s budget for elections was higher.
Along the way, town and school officials would also be meeting in public over the budget. Eventually, the Town Council would approve a budget to be presented at the Financial Town Meeting for a final up-or-down vote – IF there was a quorum of 250 registered EG voters in attendance. For more than a decade, there had been no quorum, so there was no vote, and the council’s budget would become law. As was often argued by members of earlier Town Councils when making the case for the elimination of the FTM, because there were many opportunities for residents to weigh in throughout the budget process, the FTM was an unnecessary $15,000 relic of a bygone era.
This year, however, the first year with no FTM, there have not been as many opportunities for public comment on the budget. According to Town Council President Sue Cienki, there are a few reasons for that.
“We eliminated the FTM and we’re all learning how to do this,” she said Monday. “Now we’ve hired Providence Analytics – they did an assessment of the schools. We’ve hired them to come and look at the town side. It seemed kind of ridiculous to us to simultaneously do something until we learned about their review. So on June 5th there will be a public hearing on the budget and the results will be in. The council will take their recommendations, look at them and probably vote on the budget later that week.”
While the vote to eliminate the FTM took place last November, it was not official until it is acted upon by the General Assembly.
“Sean and I went to the Senate and House hearings to testify about the elimination before the respective committees,” Cienki explained, referring to Council Vice President Sean Todd. “The bills went before the GA and it was recently adopted. We also need to change our charter and had to wait until the General Assembly approved the change before making the ordinance change.”
The council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance change at its meeting on Monday (June 5).
“Lots of moving parts,” said Cienki.
In addition, the Town Council offered to pay for a school department audit, involving outside auditor Providence Analytics. Then the council voted last Monday to have PA audit the town as well. The Town Council will hold another public hearing on the budget – with audit results – on June 5. There will be no vote on the budget that night, Cienki said. Rather, there will be at least one additional meeting next week, possibly more.
She said she has been getting updates from the auditor.
“So we have a pretty good idea where we’re going,” she said. “We will take care of the schools. Our objective is to make sure there are no programs cut for the kids. No programs, no sports, everything stays intact. That was the message we gave to [the auditors]…. We want to make sure that programs and sports remain.”
Cienki said she did not anticipate such a compressed budget cycle next year.
“I think that will change going forward. This was a really unusual year, a confluence of events.”
– Elizabeth F. McNamara