2010-04-15 / Front Page

Former Town Council members talk about making budget choices

By Liza Yorks

There’s nothing like town budget season to stir up a bit of controversy.

Whether it’s school spending, road repairs or eliminating a town position – such as the animal control officer – councils are faced with many decisions when creating a budget.

But how do council members make those decisions? How do they decide what stays – and what goes – in any budget?

Former Town Council President Julio DiGiando recalls one of his council’s most prominent budget decisions – the acquisition of local farmland. At the time, he believed that purchasing the land was the right thing to do for the town – and he still does.

“If we didn’t, the opportunity would be lost. If we didn’t do it today, it would cost more tomorrow,” he said.

With more than half of the budget going to schools, each fiscal year, the Town Council receives recommendations from the town administrator to help it decide how to spend approximately 45% of the town’s budget.

The council also decides which areas will take cuts – or be eliminated entirely.

So, what is the process behind these and other decisions?

According to DiGiando, budget decisions are typically made as follows: Department heads recommend cuts or increases in the budget to the town administrator. The administrator then reviews those recommendations and submits a proposed budget to the council. Issues are then discussed at an open town meeting and a vote on the proposed budget may take place that day, or some time in the future.

Most importantly, DiGiando said, the town administrator must think ahead in terms of how the town will be affected by a decision five or six years down the road.

“The most important thing that needs to be done is to keep things from getting broken,” he said.

DiGiando said the town has spent a lot of money during the last few years on upgrading sewer systems, water systems and improving public infrastructure.

“All that stuff had been neglected for a long time,” he said. “So it needed to be fixed.”

If anyone is familiar with fixing problems in the town’s budget, it’s former Town Council President Jerry McIntyre, who served three consecutive terms on the council until 1989.

Most notably, McIntyre and his council were involved in the town’s acquisition of the property that is now home to the golf course. Various councils had tried to negotiate purchasing the land, he said, but McIntyre’s council finally sealed the deal at $2.1 million – preventing the land’s former owner from turning the land into a condominium complex.

“The budget process really came down to addressing needs and trying to fit them in without busting the budget,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre emphasized the importance of having a well-qualifi ed town administrator with the ability to prepare a “lean” town budget.

“We had a great town manager who treated the town budget like his own personal family,” he said of former town manager Bob Sutton.

Mike Smith, who served as Town Council president from 1975 to 1979, said he was part of the first council to employ a town manager, adding, “we were the first ones to go through the budget process.”

Contrary to popular belief, Smith said, a council president’s input regarding the budget is the same as that of any other council member.

A council president can “lobby, discuss or do anything he wants for items that he thinks are important, or items that he thinks should be changed or deleted, or reduced. But basically, he’s just one voice and one vote,” he said.

Most importantly, Smith said, the majority of the council must be in agreement when it comes to big town budget decisions.

“You can always get a split vote if somebody abstains. But it would be highly unlikely that [a council member] would abstain on a budget issue because they would be the deciding vote,” he said.

Residents also play a role in budget decisions, Smith said.

To be heard, show up at a town meeting to lobby your cause, make a suggestion or complain. The more supporters you bring, the better your chance of being heard, he said.

But residents’ input on budget issues may not always be well received by the council.

During McIntyre’s time as president, he said, residents sometimes showed up at meetings with “pet projects” that had yet to be proposed as part of the budget.

“That was always a concern that somebody would show up with a group of people and get something added that we, as a council and with the administrator, thought we didn’t want to have or to spend money on,” he said.

Nonetheless, the power of the people did sometimes prevail.

“If they had enough supporters at the meeting, it would get voted in,” he said.

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