Liberty voters approve 6-month, 1-year budgets to control cash flow
Liberty — A crowd of more than 100 Liberty residents thinned to less than 40 by the end of the six-hour Town Meeting March 29, but the 31-article town warrant was approved with few adjustments.
Town officials this year presented both a 6-month budget — covering Jan. 1, 2014 to June 30, 2014 — as well as a 1-year budget for July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015, in an effort to change the way the town spends its money. For years, according to selectmen, the town has paid the first three months of the years' bills with money from town surplus. With the adjusted fiscal year running from the first of July to the end of June, tax money would be readily available and lead to less reliance on the town surplus.
A few residents expressed confusion about the amounts presented in each budget, saying the 6-month budget should show as half of the 1-year budget. Selectman Jim Caldwell explained some bills are due before the end of June and need to by paid in full during both budget cycles, leading to similar amounts.
"In March, you are voting on a budget that's already behind you," Selectman Steve Chapin said.
The first budget item, 3A, discussed passed a 6-month budget for town officials and employees. Upon moving to 3B, the 1-year budget for the same items, former town clerk Warren "Bud" Steeves said he prefers to have audit results available before approving the next budget. He proposed tabling the 1-year budget and rescheduling the town meeting to later in the year. That motion failed for lack of a second.
"It makes sense to hold the town meeting at a different point in the year," he argued.
Steeves then resubmitted his motion to table the 1-year budget. A two-thirds vote in favor of tabling was ruled not met with 45 votes in favor and 18 against tabling. Steeves then called for a written ballot with the result of 55 in favor and 31 opposed to tabling the 1-year budget.
Discussion continued on the original motion to approve Article 3B following the written vote, with selectmen pointing out the 2-month time frame for completion of any audit. Caldwell noted it would be September before all of the information from the audit and school budget became available.
"Right now, we are working off our surplus, paying $94,000 per month to the school [district]," Caldwell said, noting there is enough money to pay in April but probably not May without an influx of property tax money. "Why write them a check they can't cash?"
School Board representative Kathy Eickenberg said the town has had trouble paying the school bill in the past and has been up to a half-year behind on payments at one point.
"Our [municipal] budget doesn't change all that much each year but the school budget will," she said. "This is trying to get ahead of the curve."
Chapin concurred and said "We used to not pay the bills, we are paying them now." He said an article within the town warrant allows unexpended money to be moved into the surplus account, "in theory, until this passed, there was no spending authority ... legally."
Resident Dick Warren questioned why the town doesn't make use of Tax Anticipation Notes, which allow a town to borrow money against expected tax revenue.
"It's a case of been there, done that, didn't like it," Chapin responded.
He said the TAN process is increasingly complicated as well as costly.
"It doesn't really buy you that much," Chapin said.
Emergency Management Director Elise Brown said any discrepancies in the budget would be reflected during the next selectmen election and noted the change in fiscal year is intended to control when the town is spending money in relation to when the money is available.
Moderator Andrew Wooster said there is no mechanism within the town meeting warrant to set another town meeting, doing so would be at the discretion of selectmen. Chapin said selectmen would be willing to host public input meetings if there is enough interest in moving town meeting to September, or any other time of year.
The 1-year budget for town officials and employees was ultimately approved.
Residents next addressed election of Town Clerk/Tax Collector/Town Agent, treasurer, fire chief and road commissioner. Following election of Gail Philippi as town clerk and Betsey Davis as treasurer, Steeves again spoke up, questioning the "one year" designation of the office term. Wooster said it is defined as town meeting to town meeting, not as a physical 12 months. Bill Gillespie was reelected fire chief and Tammy Reynolds as road commissioner.
There were two nominations from the floor for selectman to replace Jim McDevitt: Pam Chase and Joy Hadsell. Resident Mark Haskell questioned if there is a procedure for voters to know ahead of town meeting who is seeking office. Philippi pointed to the town of Washington, which hosts voting the day before town meeting and announces the results during the meeting. She said she did not know how that would work in Liberty as she is unfamiliar with the process.
Chase and Hadsell each took a few moments to share information about themselves before the vote. Steeves again, prior to the vote, requested clarification on the length of the term, listed on the warrant as a three-year term. Wooster again noted the term is town meeting to town meeting regardless of the actual number of months that have passed. Chase was named the victor with a 47 to 35 vote.
The next budget item to draw discussion was town employee mileage reimbursement. One resident suggested making the reimbursement higher — the 56 cent federal level — but she did not make a motion to that effect. Chapin noted the warrant item was worded to allow mileage reimbursements to follow the state standard, currently set at 44 cents per mile, and increase or decrease based on the state rate. Steeves made a motion to amend the article to set the rate at 44 cents but his amendment did not pass. The original article was passed.
Next, resident discussed a proposal to allow selectmen to interview and hire an assistant. Steeves made an attempt to pass by the article, but Wooster said the motion to accept was stated first. Steeves suggested amending a portion of the article that stated the assistant would report to the First Selectman to state instead the assistant would report to the Board of Selectmen.
"This isn't new," Chapin said, adding the issue has been on the ballot before. He said an assistant would help elected officials hit the ground running by providing continuity. Chapin said the article allows selectmen to begin the process of developing a job description only, as the article did not specify where funding for the position would come from.
When asked if there would be crossover with the town clerk's duties, selectmen said Philippi already has her hands full with town business and no free time for administrative duties.
"I wouldn't want there to be another person between the clerks and selectmen," Philippi countered. "But we need better communication and that could help... I would like to be part of the solution."
"They are different duties. There is more to being a selectman than a clerk," Caldwell said.
The article did not pass and Wooster called a recess for lunch. Upon calling the meeting back to order, several items were approved until the snowplowing contract came up under 14A. Steeves questioned why the $138,510 allocated for the 6-month budget was so high. Selectmen explained that once each payment is made in December, January, February, March and April, according to the contract in place. Stating he wanted to see the amount halved, Steeves made a motion to raise $75,000 from taxation and pay the remainder from surplus.
"We have a 6-month budget. If we pay a full year's cost, the tax bill will look the same. I want to see a [tax] bill that reflects 6-months cost, not 12 months," Steeves said.
The amendment was approved and residents moved on to the 1-year budget for a snowplowing contract. Long-time contract holder Dave St. Clair made it publicly-known he did not plan to bid on the contract this year prior to town meeting. Steeves noted any bid would likely come in higher than the budgeted $153,900. He made a motion to increase the budgeted amount to $160,000, which was seconded.
"You can put any number you want in there but there's the danger of bidders going with the higher number," Chapin noted.
Steeves then withdrew his motion — the second was also withdrawn — and proposed a new motion to fund the 1-year budget for snowplowing at zero. The amendment failed and the original amount of $153,900 was approved.
Road Commisioner Reynolds asked that Article 15A be voted down or passed by. The article sought to discontinue plowing several roads, including Sherman Road, Knowlton Shores Road, Liberty Inn Road, and a portion of Percy, Crie Hill and Howes Cove roads. Chapin said there were problems with the way the article was written and the town is not allowed to make that decision.
"We are going to keep doing it even if its voted down," he said.
Article 15A failed; 15B hoped to prohibit the town from plowing private roads, and that portion passed.
The fire department budget was amended to allow donations that are not specified to automatically be added to the department's capital reserve fund after a short discussion to make the language clear.
Several other articles passed with little or no discussion. But Article 20A — the 6-month budget for recreation requests — caused some confusion when the selectmen recommended zero while the budget committee recommended $2,625. Several motions were made, amended and withdrawn. The final motion to include $2,625 in the 6-month budget and to carry over any unexpended funds was ultimately approved. Another $2,625 was approved for inclusion in the 1-year budget.
Moving through the next few articles quickly, residents then amended Article 23B to provide zero funding to Ivan O. Davis Library due to an incorrect wording on the official posted warrant. The wording limited funding for the library during the 18-month total of the two budgets to $4,700. A special town meeting will be scheduled to decide an amount for the 1-year budget for the library and the full $4,700 was funded in the 6-month budget.
Social requests were approved at the slightly higher budget committee recommendation of $9,950 in the 6-month and 1-year budgets to account for higher electricity, insurance and tax costs at Liberty Historical Society.
The remainder of the warrant was passed, or deemed not applicable, and the meeting adjourned at 3:05 p.m. It began at 9 a.m. with coffee and snacks, as well as lunch, provided by the fire department.
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Stephanie is editor of The Republican Journal in Belfast. She previously served as editor of Camden Herald following its return in April 2012.
Stephanie also was editor of VillageSoup's Capital Weekly in Augusta and has nearly a decade of experience in the newspaper business ranging from southern and central Maine to Waldo County.
Outside the office, she enjoys reading, cooking and gardening.
Stephanie lives in Washington with her husband Jeff, four children, a dog named Chewbacca, a rabbit and chickens.