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Board members discuss budget format per new Charter

By Kathleen Grady & Rebecca Townsend

Longmeadow Select Board Vice-Chair and Former Charter Commission member

Longmeadow's next budgetwill mark a new era for the town. The budget's format and presentation will be new, and the process leading to its creation will be new. These changes are required in the Home Rule Charter which was passed by nearly two-thirds of voters in May of 2004. Many residents said they were frustrated with the lack of both accountability and cooperation between departments. The new charter was designed to deal with these problems.

New budget process

and format

This is the first year the new requirements for the budgetary process and format will be followed. Previously, the former Appropriations Committee had the duty to construct a budget after meeting with department heads and reviewing their past budgets and expected needs.

The conscientious volunteers who served on this committee devoted countless hours throughout the winter months sorting through the competing needs of the departments in order to develop a budget they could recommend to the annual town meeting. Town meeting, of course, has final approval of the town budget.

Now, the Charter assigns budgetary preparation powers to the Town Manager. Because of Town Manager Robin Crosbie's day-to-day management of the departments (excluding school), she has a full-time, comprehensive view on how they are functioning. She is working closely with each of those departments on their budgets and her supervision and authority over these departments will yield a more thorough review of their needs. She will be having the kind of meetings that used to be held by the Appropriations Committee, but with the notable difference that the departments are now all aligned under a new managerial umbrella. She has the authority to determine appropriate staffing and to shift resources.

At the December 19 Select Board Meeting, Ms. Crosbie presented four budget priorities where additional resources are clearly needed. First, nearly all town buildings suffer from deferred maintenance and lack of preventive care. Second, grounds maintenance needs additional attention, particularly the school playing fields. Third, the Department of Public Works, responsible forthe crucial environmental compliance order, is understaffed and under-equipped, and housed in crumbling buildings. Fourth, the volunteers who serve on the land use planning boards urgently need technical assistance on an on-going basis. With the scarcity of available land in Longmeadow, developers are getting more creative and presenting more complex legal and technical issues. To the extent possible, the new budget will attempt to address these needs.

Also, as the charter requires, Ms. Crosbie will present the budget in a clearer format. Overhead and fringe costs will be shown with the associated line items so that voters can see the true cost of various services. Other income from fees and grants will be applied where appropriate, again so that voters can see the true costs and who pays them.

Schedule for new budget process

Town Manager Crosbie has requested that departments submit a level service budget; that is, the cost of delivering the same services next year as this year considering increases in costs of personnel, energy, and so forth. She also asked for lists of what would be added or what would be cut should more or less money be available. In the first six weeks of the new year, all of this information and documentation will be assembled.

Meetings with each of the department heads and the School Committee Finance Subcommittee will be held, and the Town Manager will submit her budget to the Select Board on February 20th.

A tentative date of March 6, the next Select Board meeting after the budget has been submitted, has been set for having the School Committee and the Finance Committee join the Select Board for a review of the financial position of the town, the proposed budget, and a discussion of unfunded/unmet needs. The Finance Committee, bringing their long-range planning perspective, will consider the budget and make their recommendations for or against financial items.

A final budget, prepared by the Town Manager and approved by the Select Board, will be presented at the annual Town Meeting on the last Tuesday of April. The Charter requires that this budget be balanced. If some citizens desire an override, they could propose an amendment to this budget prior to its adoption at town meeting. If an override request passes at town meeting, it would be placed on the ballot for town elections on June 6.

Going forward

This orderly, comprehensive process will allow for the development of a transparent, comprehensive, and balanced budget. This process is new, and for some, it will take a little getting used to. While some aspects of the pre-charter government remain, there are important differences that have not yet been brought to fruition. This new budget process will provide the clarity and accountability that our departments need. All residents will benefit.

Together our officials will work best when working with specifics. At the next joint meeting of the boards, the meeting should have a clear agenda with specific goals. If it is about the budget and unfunded/unmet needs, the boards will work best when they have something concrete and common to refer to: the whole budget. The joint meetings thus far have allowed the boards to continue conversations-no small feat!

It is time to start getting specific. Certainly the Select Board can't evaluate the school budget and unmet needs without looking at the rest of the budget and other unmet needs. The comprehensive process will allow all of us to do just that, and we are optimistic that the new era in Longmeadow's budget process will help all voters decide how best to spend their money.