Government Spotlight

Third vote on library budget set for December 15; collaborative budget process in the works

| Joanne Cole |

With little discussion and even less fanfare, the board of selectmen voted unanimously Monday night to accept the budget committee’s recommended funding for the library.  The $102,033 agreed on is sufficient to support two 36-hour/week library positions with benefits. 

The board set the vote on the new budget for Tuesday December 15. Given the lead time needed to get ballots printed and sent out to absentee voters, the board agreed mid-December is the earliest feasible date. A public information session on the library budget will be held on Tuesday October 27 at 7 pm on Zoom. 

While library matters likely drew the most community interest, the board’s attention centered on the new budget season getting under way.  Town manager Brenda Fox-Howard had prepared a multi-step FY21-22 budget process that she hoped “would have more unity,” along with a list of proposed budget parameters.  Both reflected departures from past practice.  By meeting’s end, the board had nudged partway back onto more-familiar terrain while retaining Fox-Howard’s more collaborative and transparent budget process. 

On budget process, Peter Bragdon, former chair of the budget committee, said committee members had two principal concerns: to hear answers directly from town departments, rather than as reported through the town manager, and to see and consider departments’ initial budget requests, without adjustment by the manager or board of selectmen.

As proposed in Fox-Howard’s eight-step “Team Style Comprehensive Budget Process,” the budget committee would hear directly from department heads, at a joint meeting with the board of selectmen.  Timing was the question: Would each group independently review the draft budget before the joint meeting, as Fox-Howard proposed, or do their reviews after hearing from department heads? 

Members weighed the pros and cons, ultimately deciding to leave the joint meeting in the seven spot after they conclude their own initial reviews.  A public hearing was added to the steps, and the board kept the door open for additional meetings as needed, at the urging of Linda Chase. 

Of Fox-Howard’s proposed budget parameters, provisions regarding staff salaries and the undesignated fund drew board comment.  Recent budget parameters have expressly prohibited cost-of-living increases and instead permitted only merit raises capped at 3% or less.  Fox-Howard had instead proposed a 1.5 % cost-of-living increase and a merit cap of 1%; taken together they amount to level funding, she explained.  George Colby preferred the 3% merit raise only, adding, “You don’t have to use all three percent.”  The board agreed.  

Also on employee salaries, the board clarified that any increases in salary should be made in reference to a recently concluded salary study of similar positions, taking into account differences in tasks and workload from similar positions elsewhere.  New positions—net new staff—would have to be justified and need-based, as before.

Fox-Howard’s budget parameters included an item “A modest undesignated fund balance.”  The board was unclear whether that was a direction to retain only a modest undesignated fund balance (rather than hold a large surplus), or instead to spend only modest sums from the undesignated fund balance.  Last year, the undesignated fund was the subject of a tug of war, with some citizens wanting to tap the surplus to avoid cuts to programs and personnel, and board members resisting. 

At a minimum, as board members acknowledged, the undesignated fund should hold several months’ operating expenses in accordance with town auditors’ guidance, as revenues ebb and flow through the year.  However, the town has typically held significant reserves well beyond the auditors’ recommended cushion. What might “modest” mean in this context? The board found a landing spot in past language. Linda Chase pointed out that the relevant prior budget parameter had said, “No excessive use of the undesignated fund balance.”  The old version prevailed. 

As an overall approach, Peter Bragdon again suggested the board set a specific percentage limit on how big a budget increase any department may request.  This would force departments to set their priorities, he said, instead of requiring the board to whittle requests down.  “Let them tell me what they really need,” Bragdon said, not the other way round. 

What they really need “might be a big number,” Fox-Howard cautioned in response.  Karen Gilles agreed that a set percentage could prove too limiting; if the need is greater and the department can justify it, “we go forward,” she said.  The budget discussion concluded with hopes that the new multi-step process itself would provide “different catchpoints,” as Fox-Howard put it, for making appropriate adjustments. 

In earlier action, the board appointed Colleen Strickler to the library board of trustees.  Trustees chair CeCe Rohrbach told the board that the group will begin work on a memorandum of understanding and revising its bylaws to reflect its newly formalized advisory role. 

Regarding the hiring or re-hiring of library staff if and when its budget passes, George Colby wanted citizens to understand that those hiring decisions are the town manager’s alone, not the board of selectmen’s. 

Meanwhile, a search is under way for a new parks and recreation director, Fox-Howard said.  Board members and Fox-Howard acknowledged the impending departure of current parks and recreation director Morgan Rocheleau.     

During public comment, former selectman Joe Davis wanted the board and community to know that the planning board would be considering an application the following evening, October 20, for a commercial marijuana-growing operation at 609 Penney Road.  The meeting had not been listed on the town calendar or in board chair Karen Gilles’s rundown of upcoming meetings, and Davis wanted to get the word out.  He expressed concerns over the project’s scale and suitability within a residential area, and encouraged citizens to press for a full public hearing.  Town planner Scott Hastings clarified to NGX that no retail component is proposed.  The application is for a 70’ x 100’ building for growing medical marijuana.

Resident Alan Gregory spoke to request greater transparency about the work of the board of selectmen, town manager, and board and committees in general.  He cited examples of agendas and minutes years out of date on the town website.  Gregory asked specifically for periodic updates on the town’s current financial situation and also urged the board to set aside for the library’s exclusive use any savings from its months-long closure.

Rounding out public comment, Penny Hilton, a member of the budget committee, expressed the committee’s frustration at not receiving timely answers to their questions last year.  “We felt we were making our decisions without all the needed information,” she said. 

Hilton hoped the revised budget process under consideration this year would be more comprehensive and timely.  Fox-Howard’s process proposals, and the board’s reaction to them, make that prospect more likely.

Once it becomes available, video of the board of selectmen’s October 19 meeting can be accessed here.