Government Spotlight

Budget gets close scrutiny, March 10 public hearing

Eds. note: This post has been updated to reflect a new date for the public hearing: Wednesday March 10 at 6:30 pm. The budget committee made the change to allow time for updated budget documents to be prepared and shared with the public before the hearing.

| Joanne Cole |

Remember last year’s budget process?  It saw deep divisions over proposed cuts, including halving the town planner position and eliminating the assistant librarian and parks and rec director positions – cuts later walked back – a new town manager arriving in the bottom of the ninth inning, and a looming pandemic that cast uncertainty over revenues and operations.

By comparison, this year’s budget work so far has been short on drama and long on detail.  Significant questions remain, however, and the clock is ticking.  A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday March 10 at 6:30 pm on Zoom with the budget committee.  Within a week or so after that, the warrant needs to be prepared, deputy clerk Sharlene Myers has told the select board.     

Dollar amounts under discussion are a moving target, changing with each successive meeting and decision, and the budget process is ongoing.  In short, everything’s tentative; nothing’s final.  An updated budget document is expected to be posted online at this link before the public hearing, but even that will be provisional.  Take the discussion below as a snapshot only, and join the public hearing on Zoom on March 10.   

Total budget/tax bill vs. town-only budget.  Together MSAD 15 and Cumberland County typically account for two-thirds to three-quarters of your tax bill and of the total budget New Gloucester shoulders.  But the school budget isn’t set yet, and the county numbers aren’t plugged in yet either.  The board has been assuming a five percent increase in each for discussion purposes. 

Similarly, on the revenue side, state revenue-sharing ($320,000 budgeted for the current year), updated totals for New Gloucester’s taxable property (yielding $8 million+ in real estate taxes), and other budget-helping variables aren’t yet known. 

So, with placeholders of significance on both sides of the ledger for now, the select board and budget committee have instead focused on knowable numbers: expenditures in the town-only budget. 

Through their discussions to date, the estimated increase in the town-only budget has hovered at a 20 percent increase over the current year.  Operating expense increases, a robust slate of capital projects, equipment, and down payments, and paving explain much of the increase.  Again, remember that this represents a fraction of a fraction, not your overall tax bill, and remains under discussion.        

Municipal operations.  The Operations budget is the beating heart of the town-only budget.  In the February 1 town manager’s budget, developed in consultation with department heads, proposed expenditures for town operations were some $4,111,000, up from $3,675,000 in the current year, an increase of more than $436,000, nearly 12 percent. 

Along with inevitable ‘built-in’ increases in wage, insurance, and benefit lines for existing employees, town manager Brenda Fox-Howard’s initial Operations budget had proposed new staffing: a part-time position in the town clerk’s office, a fulltime paramedic for fire and rescue, and a pay boost/position share for the hard-to-fill animal control officer position – all essential in Fox-Howard’s view to manage or stabilize day-to-day operations. 

Fox-Howard also budgeted a return to 40 hour/week compensation for the library director, town planner, and parks and rec director positions; all had been reduced to 36 hours for the current budget year in light of Covid uncertainties.  Fox-Howard argued that those employees actually work 40 hours per week (or more) and should be paid accordingly.   

Those requests have since been rejected or whittled down by the select board in their February and early March workshops: no part-time clerk, a smaller increase for fire/rescue personnel, no return to 40-hour salaries for department directors.  The board has also applied further reductions to departmental bottom lines – three percent to fire and rescue and to public works, one percent for the transfer station – along with numerous targeted cuts, all in the effort to reduce expenditures.

Also of note in Operations:

  • Various replacement laptops, printers, copiers in the town office, the library, for the recreation, planning, and public works departments; additional new computers for library patrons’ use
  • The charter commission gets a $9000 budget for year 1 of an expected two-year cycle, including funding for legal counsel, postage, ballots; by law the commission is entitled to a working budget
  • Town manager salary line increase to $110,000, per recommendations of municipal search professionals, up from current year budget $98,000 and $105,000 placeholder for a recent, prior search
  • More-accurate numbers for heat, electricity, other costs for the newish public works facility, now that actual operating costs are in the books
  • Increases in the Legal and in the Unbudgeted expenses accounts, reflecting matters already in the pipeline and contingencies to come.

Capital projects and expenditures.  The board has discussed funding more than $1.5 million in capital projects and expenditures.  Topping the list, the Stevens Brook dam and culvert project on Gloucester Hill Road, a dump/plow truck, and a new loader and roll-off containers for the transfer station.  Happily, much of the funding for capital items comes not from new taxation but from capital reserve accounts – in effect, set-asides for just such needs.

The previously approved–and previously delayed–Stevens Brook project accounts for half of proposed FY21 capital expenditures.  It is expected to cost some $760,000 and is proposed to be funded by $310,000 from various existing accounts and reserves, with a five-year bond covering the remaining $450,000.  The board might use the town’s undesignated fund balance as a bridge loan to itself, in effect, until bonding can be secured in the fall.  Voters will be asked to approve project funding via a special ballot in April so that the contractor can secure the critical culvert in time for a constrained construction season. 

Other capital projects and expenditures:

  • A new combination dump truck and plow for public works for $200,000.  Funds would come from capital reserves and taxation or the undesignated fund balance.  Voters will consider this item in a special ballot vote in April to speed the acquisition
  • Rolloff containers ($30,000) and a loader ($125,000) for the transfer station
  • Add to public works capital reserves: $200,000
  • Add to fire rescue capital reserves: $125,000
  • Add to transfer station capital reserves: $50,000
  • Add to Town Hall complex capital reserves: $25,000

Paving.  Some $346,054 for paving is under discussion, up from $290,750 for the current year.  Roads on the major projects list are Town Farm Road, Swamp Road, Megquire Road, and Chestnut Common.

Undesignated fund balance and current-year outlook.  Good news here.  In budget workshops, finance director Lori-Anne Wilson has pegged $4 million as the town’s likely undesignated fund balance as of June 2021.  She explained that towns should/must keep on hand between three months’ and four months’ worth of expenditures because revenues ebb and flow through the year.  In New Gloucester’s case, that means keeping $2 million in the kitty on the low end and $3.6 million on the high end, she told the board, leaving at least $400,000 available for other needs. 

As for the current year budget, the quick take might be ‘better than feared.’  Wilson has told the board and budget committee that she expects to close out FY21 without needing to draw the $250,000 from the undesignated fund that was budgeted for this uncertain Covid year.  In addition, excise tax and revenue-sharing numbers are strong, she said.  In short, this year likely won’t cloud next year’s budget. 

Budget process.  This year, at the urging of town manager Brenda Fox-Howard, department heads presented directly to the select board and budget committee in extended, detailed sessions in January.  Gamechanger.  The opportunity for direct detailed Q&A not only meant immediate answers and a shared base of information to work from, but the increased access and transparency also appeared to foster trust.  In recent years, budget committee questions were relayed through the manager to the department head and back, in something resembling a slow and sluggish version of the children’s party game Telephone.   

Another gamechanger this year: participation of town finance director Lori-Anne Wilson in workshops and meetings.  Able to convey the thirty-thousand-foot view as well as budget details and past practice, Wilson has instantly updated numbers, caught and corrected others’ errors and misunderstandings, and provided clarification on the spot and in the moment.  She and Sharlene Myers, who shares a wealth of institutional knowledge and command of details, have proven invaluable.  

A bulleted list of highlights, as above, or even the full spreadsheets cannot begin to convey the granular scrutiny the board, budget committee, and town staff give the lines, sublines, and sub-sub-sublines of the budget.  Some combination of accounting nimbleness, deep recall, and clairvoyance are called for.  Feeling lucky and hoping for fewer ice and sleet storms next year?   Reduce public works’ winter salt budget, initially clocking in at $82,000.  Did Engine 3 get new tires (it has many wheels) last year?  Care to predict diesel and propane costs fifteen months from now?     

Learn more. With no in-person town meeting likely again this year, and budget votes by written ballot, becoming informed and following the ongoing budget conversation matters more than ever. 

For the full-immersion you-are-there experience, residents can watch the (many) budget workshop and meeting videos online here.  A particularly important opportunity to learn more and ask questions is the upcoming public hearing on Wednesday March 10 at 6:30 pm on Zoom. Check the budget committee webpage for details.