Councilors take early budget look in Bangor

Posted Nov. 02, 2009, at 11:30 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — In the many discussions that preceded the City Council’s adoption of the 2009-2010 municipal budget, nearly every councilor cautioned that as hard as the process was, next year would be worse.

Preparing for that inevitability, councilors do not want to wait until late winter or early spring to start having those difficult discussions. At the City Council’s request, each municipal department head is scheduled to appear in front of the council before the calendar year ends to talk about budgets. So far, councilors have had full workshops with the Police Department and Fire Department.

The discussions are meant to be more philosophical than numbers-oriented, according to Councilor Richard Stone, who is chairman of the finance committee and pushed hard for earlier budget talks.

Stone explained his reasoning this way: Say you’ve been married for 25 years and you and your spouse have raised children together. Once the children are grown and leave the house, you might find yourself alone with your spouse one day and you see them in a slightly different way from the partner who shared familiar obligations. Many older couples admit to falling in love all over again.

“This is a way for us to take a step back from the pressure of passing a budget and perhaps look at the process in a different way,” Stone said.

Finance Director Debbie Cyr, who carries the lion’s share of budget duties for the city, said she’s happy to bring councilors in earlier on the process.

“I think it helps the council get a clearer view of what’s going on in the departments,” Cyr said. “It’s meant to help us revisit how we do what we do and ask: Is there a better way? Are some things obsolete? The process is never as collaborative as we would like, but we want to keep trying.”

Every year, Cyr said, each city department takes the previous year’s budget and uses that as a baseline. Some things might be added, removed or changed, but rarely are fundamental budget changes made.

“Councilors really wanted to look at bigger issues of how we function,” she said. “Starting in mid- to late April doesn’t give adequate time to do that.”

The City Council, during weeks of budget discussion last spring, agonized over keeping Bangor’s property tax rate flat. Some councilors have expressed a desire to set the same goal for 2010, which could be a more difficult proposition if state revenue sharing continues to decline or if the excise tax referendum passes.

Stone said that discussions next spring will be painful either way, but he said councilors want to have as much information about each department budget as possible.

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