New budget process; steep learning curve

This year’s test run of the new budget process proposed by the Charter Commission has been challenging for the selectmen. It’s been a steep, winding learning curve, and never more so than this week as they reviewed the proposed fiscal 2019 school budget.

Preparation of this year’s omnibus budget is a two-stage affair. First, the selectmen are to assemble and deliver a balanced budget to the Finance Committee by the end of December. Second, the Finance Committee is to review that budget, discuss areas of disagreement with the selectmen, and deliver its own report by the end of February, though the May Annual Town Meeting will allow the schedule to slip. Meantime, the Capital Planning and Investment Committee has been reviewing capital requests, as reported elsewhere in this paper, and will deliver its own recommendations to the Finance Committee Dec. 20.

But this fall, all eyes have been on the selectmen, who have been starting their meetings an hour earlier than normal to deal with their increased budget responsibilities. Last month, one such meeting ran until 10:30 p.m. as the selectmen worked through the budgets of nine town boards and departments, their leaders seated before them. For the selectmen, the experience has to be eye-opening, as they review the details of organizations with which they have little or no prior experience.

This week, the selectmen were presented with the school budget, the most complex and expensive of them all. The newness of the experience was reflected in the more than 80 questions the selectmen submitted to Superintendent Linda Dwight and business manager Peter Rowe, four times as many as the number submitted last year by the Finance Committee. As School Committee Chairwoman Mary Traphagen said at the end of this week’s review, many of the questions reflected a lack of familiarity with school operations. Moreover, she noted, by the time it reaches the selectmen, the school budget has already been thoroughly vetted in multiple sessions. She suggested that a representative of the board be assigned to attend those reviews in the future. It’s a practice the Finance Committee has followed for years, as the committee’s longtime liaison to the schools, Steve Colwell, can attest. Whether or not the selectmen continue in these new responsibilities, they should do the same. And while they’re at it, it would be a good idea to beef up communication with other town boards as well.

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