LEBANON, Maine – Last Tuesday’s snowstorm canceled a meeting that would have potentially cleared the air about issues stirring between some members of the town Budget Committee and town selectmen.
Nancy Neubert, chairwoman of the Budget Committee, said the selectmen have been refusing to answer any questions about this year’s budget, have been voting on items before presenting them to the committee and added she felt they were trying to strip the committee of its responsibilities.
Selectmen Chairman Jason Cole said that isn’t the case and the new changes are all part of a process to help put together the town’s budget in a smoother, more timely fashion.
Cole said he and the selectman worked closely with North Berwick Town Manager, Dwayne Morin, who helped them develop a budget process similar to North Berwick’s. Cole said in past years, the selectmen and Budget Committee were rushing until last minute to get things done.
“Now we’re on a timeline so we don’t get behind,” he said.
The new process involves department heads providing their budget to the selectmen, who in turn schedule meetings to work with department heads on their budgets.
After the meetings, the selectmen will compile a book full of all the budget details, which will be released to the Budget Committee and public on Feb. 2. The book will not only be available at the Town Hall for public viewing, but Cole said he hopes to also get it online to make the budget as transparent as possible.
The idea with the new process, Cole said, is a way to prevent redundancy. In years before, he said department heads would have to not only sit down with the selectmen, but also separately with the Budget Committee to discuss issues.
Cole said now all that has to happen is they meet with the selectmen, who vote on the recommendations that go into the book, and the committee receives a copy of all the information compiled.
But Neubert said that is where the problem lies. She said she doesn’t feel like the committee has any input on the budget this year and that she is being prevented from doing her job.
“In our government we have a system of checks and balances,” she said. “It’s not just one group or committee in charge of everything. Eliminating that is going against what residents said they want in town.”
In the past six or seven years, Neubert said it had been a tradition in the town for the Budget Committee and selectmen to work with department heads and go over budgets. She said the reason behind this was so the committee would be able to recommend items that needed to be changed to the selectmen before an article was written up.
“They are voting before we see the article or budget,” she said. “We will vote at the end, which means whatever recommendation or changes made are final. When we voted together we worked as a process and things could be changed.”
Cole said they are not stripping the committee of any of its responsibilities and said the panel acts as only an advisory board.
“They can’t make changes,” he said. “They just vote to support or not.”
Cole explained it has always been the selectmen’s duty to approve and make decisions on the budget. He said the process has received favorable feedback from the community.
“Since we’ve been doing this they’ve been fighting the process,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything to complain about. It’s transparent and makes the public able to understand better.”
For Neubert, though, there are still many questions she’d like answered. She said every document received from selectmen has had multiple mistakes. The committee has asked to meet twice with selectmen, Neubert said, and have been finding it hard to get information from them such as why certain items were placed in certain lines.
Cole acknowledged the committee had presented several questions to the selectmen, but he said they had done the best to respond and had given them a packet two inches thick of answers to their questions. As for questions not answered, Cole said selectmen did not answer them because they felt the department heads were more suited to answer questions about their own departments instead of the selectmen.
“The selectmen oversee the budget,” Cole said. “If there’s a question about why there’s a road ditch it makes more sense to ask the road commissioner.”
It is for this reason selectmen posted a list online of the dates selectmen were meeting with certain department heads. Cole said the list has been up since Oct. 26 and that selectmen had asked the committee to come to the meetings if they had any questions concerning specific department budget expenses.
Neubert said there were only two meetings she was aware of where department heads would be attending. She said she attended one only to find out the department heads only gave brief reports and that it was not a question-and-answer type meeting.
“They certainly have the information and knowledge on a lot of decisions about what is spent and where,” she said about the selectmen. “In the past, they have been able to answer our questions and haven’t had any problems.”
Neubert said she felt like the new process was a way to remove the Budget Committee’s power so the selectmen can budget adjustments they favor.
“Some departments have way more leeway to spend money and others are brushed over with a fine-toothed comb,” she said about past selectmen budget decisions. “The committee feels all departments should be treated the same across the board. I feel the selectmen want to shut us down, that they don’t think they all should be treated the same.”
Cole said that isn’t the case and selectmen recognize the importance of having the Budget Committee. He said the new process is simply a way to make a complicated process run smoother.
He added selectmen hold the same views that all budget cuts should be equal and that the committee is not exempt from the accusation that they make budget adjustments in their favor.
“I see favoritism on their board,” he said. “Last year they spent hours picking at budgets, like maybe spending $5 on toilet paper, and when they got to certain budgets they have interest in they flew by with no problem at all.”
Cole said chances are the selectmen and committee will be unable to reschedule their meeting. He said they will have to meet at the Feb. 2 meeting where the selectmen will present the budget book. The selectmen will have voted on and finalized the book the day before.
Neubert said she would like to reschedule a meeting with the selectmen for next week.
“The public needs to know this is the way things are being handled,” she said.
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Copyright (c) 2011, Foster’s Daily Democrat, Dover, N.H.
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