Government Spotlight

Charter Commission reviews survey results, discusses budget process and town meeting

|Debra Smith|

At their ninth regular meeting on November 22nd, the NG Charter Commission discussed a draft budget process section, reviewed responses to the charter survey to date, and talked about next steps. The meeting ended with a conversation about town meeting, which will be continued at their next meeting.

Here’s the agenda packet that includes all materials discussed.

Draft budget process
The budget section drafted by Steve Libby and Peter Bragdon was reviewed section by section (pp. 11-14 in the agenda packet), starting with the simple: establishing the fiscal year; then on to the complex. Libby explained that the draft process is pretty much what we have now, and they tried to build in some flexibility for the town manager and select board. John Salisbury wants to make sure that the process benefits from the town manager’s professional expertise. Don Libby wants to make sure that the board is setting direction, “They’re the ones who are accountable.” Ben Tettlebaum suggested some clarifying language, that the town manager completes the first-go in consultation with the board.  

Further discussion of the budget process addressed including budget trends from the prior two full years, using the comprehensive plan as a tool in preparing the budget, the purpose of the overlay account (money set aside to balance out fractions of dollars in taxation), and the undesignated fund balance of 25% plus one month’s expenses, as recommended by the auditor. Links with the CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) process, were also discussed, though this will be described in its own section of the charter.

The budget developed by the town manager is reviewed by the select board, and then the budget committee. The budget committee holds a public hearing, with community input then shared with the select board. Penny Hilton, who serves on the budget committee, said as the budget process is now, the budget committee has very little say and doesn’t see the original figures proposed by the town manager. “We were told we could cut but not add items. What’s the value of a budget committee with so many constraints?” Don Libby explained that the town didn’t used to have a line-item budget, and citizens demanded oversight. “Now everyone can see the details.” Steve Hathorne commented, “maybe we don’t need a budget committee.” Salisbury agreed, seeing the budget committee as “an unnecessary appendage” if the town manager does the budget correctly. Ultimately, the board is responsible. The accessibility of the proposed budget to the public was briefly addressed, with a suggestion that there be a budget narrative included so people can understand what is contained in each line.  

Survey results
Moving on to the community survey, Tettlebaum explained that the survey was completed by 332 residents to date. Based on the total population, this is statistically significant sample, with a 5% +/- margin of error.  Here’s a summary of the results.

• About half of the respondents were under the age of 60, and half over 60.  

• 40% said they had attended three or more town meetings in the past several years, and 40% had attended none.

• Results were mixed on how ordinances and budgets should be adopted, with most saying that both should happen via referendum vote or a combination (town meeting and referendum).

• Most agreed that town meeting should continue in some form.

• 65% agreed that there should be a minimum number/ % in attendance for town meeting to take place.

• On the number of select board members, 50% said there should be 7 members, 42% prefer 5 members. Members should be elected at large (vs by district or a combination)

• 70% agreed that there should be term limits.

• 80% agreed that we should continue to have a town manager (vs a mayor or administrator).

Comments elucidated the above results, and addressed other details as well.  Particulars were not discussed, though commissioners noted that they appreciated reading the comments on the survey, and those submitted via email and in person.

Read the survey results including comments here.

The survey will remain open through December 6th. If you haven’t responded already, take it here.

Process and schedule
As the Commission moves toward a draft for legal review by mid-February, they’ll need to make decisions on key sections, starting with town meeting since several other sections hinge on that. The process will include reviewing the draft section, discussing options and if possible, making a decision by consensus. If that’s not possible, they’ll take a straw poll and then decide (by consensus ideally, or by super majority if necessary.)

In an initial discussion of town meeting, Tettlebaum reminded the group that they need to keep in mind the survey results and comments from community members. Residents are inclined to continue town meeting, but not in its current form. While many people value the deliberation that takes place at town meeting, many prefer that budget and ordinances be voted on at the polls, or through some combined process. Don Libby made a passionate statement about the importance of town meeting, and his dislike of the “ugliness” of the referendum process. Steve Libby said he agrees but wants the charter to pass. “With a validation process at town meeting, [the warrant] can then go to referendum.” Steve Hathorne, a die-hard fan of town meeting, said “we need to get people to go to town meeting, not make it easy for them.”

At their next meeting on December 13th, the Commission will review the updated survey results, and take up town meeting, and boards and committees.

See the revised schedule here.

Watch the video of this meeting here.

Take the survey here.

Review Charter information on the town’s web site here.

Email public comments to the Commission at ngchartercommission@gmail.com, or submit via the NGX Suggestion Box.