Forced march to a budget

It’s hard to know what to make of the town’s new budget process. The Select Board has reviewed eight departments’ budgets so far in January, including its own. They’ve heard from the Cable Committee, the Council on Aging, the police, fire, and ambulance departments, the town clerk, and the Bare Hill Pond Watershed Management Committee. This Saturday the school budget is up for review. The Finance Committee will participate in that one, as it has in some of the others.

The format of these sessions is a review of written questions, previously submitted by the Select Board and FinCom, and the answers provided by department and committee heads. The proceedings are carried out with maximum efficiency and minimal transparency. The general public, whether in the audience or watching on cable TV at home, is given no information about the department’s general request, and has no idea what questions have already been asked and answered satisfactorily. Presumably to save time, the Select Board chair doesn’t even read the few questions that are being discussed, usually referring to them by number instead. Although the town paid a great deal of money for AV equipment that would make detailed budget information available to the viewing public, the equipment is rarely used.

Does it matter? The Council on Aging wants to improve its ability to provide transportation for elderly and disabled residents. The police chief wants money for Tasers. The Ambulance Service is facing pressure to charge patients whose insurance doesn’t cover the cost of transport to a hospital. Should average citizens have a way to make sense of these discussions? Should they know what’s at stake when they vote on these budgets at Annual Town Meeting in May?

Of course they should, but that concept seems to have been lost in the shuffle so far this budget season. The new town charter gives the Select Board responsibility over budget development, but it doesn’t give board members the time they need to do the job right. And it isn’t giving voters the information they need to decide how their money should be spent.

At a minimum, there must be a way to project each department’s personnel and expense budgets on that big screen hanging over the table in upper Town Hall and show them to the viewing audience at home. At least that would give residents a way to gauge the impact of cuts that might be necessary before the budget goes to Annual Town Meeting.

A budget review should produce a clear understanding of a department’s inner workings, its current challenges, shortcomings, and plans for improvement. That information should be available to the public, the people who will end up paying the bills.

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