SOUTHWEST HARBOR — The Warrant Committee here concurred unanimously with all of the items in the proposed town and school budget but strongly advised the town leadership to improve transparency and communication with voters.
After a series of meetings over the past month, the committee recommended all articles of the proposed 2018-2019 town budget at the Board of Selectmen meeting on March 15. The total sum they reviewed and approved, after recent amendments by the board, was $3,764,344.
Before the Warrant Committee shared its report, Selectman Lydia Goetze pointed out discrepancies in the minutes of some budget meetings. She said that wrong amounts were carried through for several budget items and requested that Town Manager Don Lagrange review those accounts before selectmen approve the minutes.
Selectman Ryan Donahue asked whether the difference would impact the direction of the approved budget. Goetze said the changes would be small, as long as the figures for the debt service and repayment revenue for the Water and Sewer District were correct.
Goetze and Chair Dan Norwood mentioned that the budget process was “a bit chaotic” this year. This year’s budget deliberations schedule made it challenging to keep track of the numbers, he said. The meetings were drawn out over two weeks, whereas “normally, we have three [consecutive] days of intense budget work.”
While the Warrant Committee was in agreement with the board on the almost-final numbers, members expressed concerns over the transparency of the information, particularly in the capital improvement plan. They said that the CIP forms were challenging to understand. Some appeared to be incomplete or contain errors.
“If I don’t understand it, somebody else doesn’t understand it,” said Warrant Committee Member Kristin Hutchins. “In my perfect world, the public is very engaged, and when they look at that [document], I want them to be confident in the work that the staff, volunteers and elected officials have done.”
Lagrange proposed that the Warrant Committee and selectmen plan a prebudget meeting for November to review budget items and discuss a clear format, which both the board and committee members agreed was a good idea.
In its list of five recommendations, the committee also advised the board to come up with a policy to indicate “what kind of things get bought, what’s allowed to get bonded and what gets saved for,” said member Don Lodge.
Members also expressed concern over CIP items that appear to be significantly underfunded, specifically for the harbor and the highway.
In discussion with Police Chief Alan Brown, the committee learned that the town’s security cameras are not all interconnected. Members advocated that all monitoring be done at a common location, “preferably the Police Department.”
The Warrant Committee suggested that selectmen meet with the School Board separately, outside of any regular Board of Selectmen meeting, “to allow time for in-depth discussion of budget line items.”
This year, the school requested to meet with the Board of Selectmen and the Warrant Committee together, according to Lagrange. But the physical set up of the room was “odd,” said Warrant Committee Member Ellen Nolan; sitting further back in the room made it difficult for members to engage in the discussion.
Newer members were hesitant to ask questions because they felt “it would have kept the meeting from going forward,” said Lodge.
“Whether it’s separate or a singular budget meeting, we all need to be around the table and look at each other,” said Norwood.