Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor and Tremont use the Town Meeting/selectmen/town manager form of government, in which the Board of Selectmen is the executive body. But many decisions, including all ordinance changes, must go to the voters at the annual Town Meeting or at a special town meeting.
No state law requires that the municipal budget be voted on at the annual Town Meeting but that’s the practice in the towns here and elsewhere.
It’s a good system: the budget is prepared by town staff and then reviewed several times, by successively larger groups. The selectmen comb through the budget with help from the manager and department heads. If the town has a warrant committee, it serves as another layer of review to catch any problems and anticipate voters’ questions.
It’s helpful if warrant articles with budgetary impact, especially municipal bonds, also can be reviewed at the same time. That way, elected officials and voters can consider big-ticket projects in light of the town’s total debt obligations, fund balance and overall financial health.
But turnout at Town Meeting tends to be smaller than municipal election turnout, when voters have all day to come to the polls at their convenience. And turnout for both events is usually dwarfed by state and federal elections in November.
Thus a recent discussion in Southwest Harbor about whether warrant articles for long-term debt should be put to voters in November. Votes about bond issues should happen when turnout is highest, selectmen said, and when absentee voting is available.
The problem with that proposal is that a November vote would move the decision away from the budget process, from the time when selectmen, warrant committee members and voters have all the budget information at their fingertips and can consider bond issues in context.
There is a compromise option: decisions about long-term debt could go on the written ballot part of the Town Meeting warrant in May, the municipal election held either the day before or the day after Town Meeting. That way, more voters could weigh in, including those voting absentee, but the warrant would still be prepared and considered at the same time as the overall town budget