Citizen Convinces Board to Alter Budget

1/28/21 Selectboard Meeting

by Ken Signorello

January 29, 2021

Warning the “Annual Meeting” vote on March 2nd was the main task for the Special Selectboard meeting on January 28th.

 

First, the budget -- to be voted on by Australian ballot for the first time ever -- needed to be finalized. During the public hearing, Essex resident Walt Adams asked the board to change the bottom line before warning it.

 

Last week, Adams was lauded for his past input that changed this year’s fund balance allocation. At this meeting, he convinced Finance Director Sarah Macy, and eventually the majority of the board, to budget less money toward Police salaries, a category with a history of being underspent, which, subsequently, results in a fund balance on an annual basis. 

 

Adams suggested a decrease of one position. To ensure that position would not be eliminated, it was reduced to half. That way, it could be fully-funded more easily using prior fund balance, should the police department get lucky in FY22. 

 

While the 1% reduction in the police budget isn’t significant, it does provide a more realistic expenditure and revenue figure than previous years. 

 

Selectboard member Andy Watts proposed that acting on Adams’ suggestion would show that the SB was hearing the public and adjusting their bottom line accordingly, as would have otherwise been done in past years by the assembly at Town Meeting. He hoped it might attract more participation.

 

What was remarkable about this whole interchange was the rarely, if ever, seen nimbleness demonstrated by the Selectboard and staff. The final budget number that had been weeks in development and ready to be approved at that very meeting was actually changed at this last of all possible moments. 

 

Police Chief Hoague was contacted on the fly. He confirmed public safety would not be compromised, and the board members made that change happen. Pat Murray, the solo no vote, explained he was “respecting the process by not making a last-minute change”.

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The final number decreased by $45,455 to $15,926,128, which will appear on the March 2nd ballot as the FY22 General Fund Budget for approval

 

The merger question did not receive full support from the board, nor the public in attendance.

 

Audience member  Betsy Dunn reminded the board the merger plan was still incomplete: Get it right, rather than warn it as is.

 

Mary Post suggested they start over and involve citizens, not just elected officials.

 

Annie Cooper said that if the merger vote were postponed “folks will go bananas”, possibly referring to the excitement she has stirred up around the issue on Facebook.

 

Back to the board, Watts noted that, as busy as the legislature is with COVID and other important issues, sending them two charters would likely mean no answer would be granted till next year anyway. Why not reschedule the vote for November? 

 

While the majority of the board voted (3-2) to warn the Town Meeting with the merger question, both Watts and Dawn Hill-Fleury voted nay, consistent with their months-long position that the plan isn’t complete.