Does anyone care about the budget?1/22/09

Few citizens attend sessions to discuss spending

Jan. 22, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Mike Mauss and his neighbor Welby Reynolds were the only citizens watching as the Selectboard debated how to spend millions of dollars of the public’s money earlier this month.

They sat side-by-side on thinly padded metal chairs in the stuffy meeting room at Town Hall, first listening to a discussion of a liquor license and complaints from a local developer before talk turned to the $7.8 million municipal budget. Mauss and Reynolds finally took the floor, each critiquing spending by the Williston Fire Department.

Their seemingly routine participation was actually an uncommon act of civic involvement. At most, only a handful of residents provide input into the budget each year.

This year has been no different. Even after the town tried to encourage attendance by holding meetings at various venues around Williston, Mauss, Reynolds and one other person were the only ones who attended any of the half-dozen sessions held to date.

Mauss said he wished he had more company but understands why so few attend meetings.

“People get home after a long day at work and the last thing they want to do is listen to one of these things drone on for three hours,” Mauss said. “I don’t.”

Nonetheless, he did attend the Jan. 5 public hearing on the budget, stubbornly insisting that the Fire Department’s 10 percent spending hike should be pared. Reynolds echoed his neighbor’s criticism.

The Selectboard listened intently. Board member Ted Kenney even offered the men a thick black binder containing his copy of the proposed budget so they could better understand spending minutiae.

Kenney and other board members said they would welcome more input but they, too, realize that not many residents are motivated enough to sit through long, often arid discussions of municipal spending when they have dinner to cook and kids to supervise.

“I understand why people don’t go,” Kenney said. “I never did until I was on the Selectboard.”

Months in the making

The process of formulating the annual municipal budget starts in the fall, when department heads propose spending plans. Town Manager Rick McGuire then considers each budget request and formulates a town-wide budget.

The public part of the process begins in early December, when McGuire presents his budget to the Selectboard. The board then meets several times before finalizing the budget in late January. Each meeting is open to citizens.

Residents vote on the municipal and school budgets in early March. In Williston, there is one last chance for citizen input the day before the vote. But because Williston years ago decided to move budget votes to secret balloting, that session is a formality because spending cannot be altered.

Frank DeVita is the other resident who attended a budget meeting this year. To prepare, he spent about three hours poring over the budget, marking up the document with suggestions and commentary about expenditures he thought were excessive.

Being the only resident to speak out at a meeting can be a lonely feeling, said DeVita, who both lives in town and operates TimberNest, a Williston-based furniture manufacturer. And with little public input, he said, the Selectboard is left guessing.

“You feel like you have got no backup,” he said. “And you feel like the Selectboard has no backup. They have got to make a decision on their own.”

Board members say public participation is most effective during December and January, when the budget is still in flux. But they also note that empty chairs at public meetings don’t mean the Selectboard is making budget decisions in a vacuum.

Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig said residents occasionally send him e-mails or call.

“I think we have some kind of sense of what the public wants,” he said.

Sometimes the communication is more personal. Board members say citizens they encounter in the grocery store, the school or the library sometimes offer opinions on spending and taxes. Kenney recalls being buttonholed by a resident on Halloween. His costume — Superman — didn’t fool the person.

“We do get input,” he said. “It’s a lot more helpful if we get input at the beginning of the (budget) process, and have a good cross-section of people showing up for our meetings.”

Mauss said he took pains to be both polite and informed when he spoke to the board, lest he come off as just another resident peeved about high property taxes.

“There’s a difference between being a crank and someone who is simply interested in being part of the process,” he said. “Sometimes you feel like a crank, and sometimes you feel like the lone voice in the wilderness.”

 

SIDEBAR

Flat spending appears likely

A proposal by Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs to tighten the town’s belt enough to maintain municipal property taxes at their current level appears to be gaining traction.

Town Manager Rick McGuire proposed a $7.8 million budget in December that would have raised the property tax rate by 2 cents. The increase would have boosted annual taxes by $60 on a $300,000 home.

But Fehrs said in tough economic times the town should share the pain. He proposed spending be shaved enough to prevent a rise from the current property tax rate of 20 cents per $100 in valuation.

Other board members were originally noncommittal on that proposal. But now at least some board members have indicated they support the cuts needed to keep the tax rate level, McGuire said.

Ted Kenney, for example, said he was leaning toward supporting Fehr’s proposal. He said that would mean cuts to some services, in particular a reduction in salt usage that would leave some residential streets more slippery.

Other proposed reductions include elimination of partial funding for a new position in the town manager’s office and a scaled-back contribution to the environmental reserve fund, money set aside for buying development rights on land the town wants to preserve as open space.

The Selectboard is scheduled to finalize the budget Monday. The meeting starts at 7 p.m.

— Greg Elias, Observer staff