Searsport probably headed for fiscal year budget cycle

Selectmen urge change with or without popular support
By Ethan Andrews | Nov 10, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Searsport Selectman Aaron Fethke, left, urges strong leadership from his fellow selectmen during a Nov. 9 public hearing about switching the town's budget cycle from a calendar year to a fiscal year.

Searsport — The town of Searsport could begin a transition early next year to a budget cycle aligned with the fiscal year used by the state and schools.

Local officials believe the town would be better off. And while voters have balked at the idea in the past, selectmen at a public hearing Nov. 9 appeared ready to simply do it and hope that residents come around to the idea eventually.

"The clam chowder tastes good in June, as much as it does in March," Selectman Aaron Fethke said, referring to the tradition of Angler's Restaurant serving chowder at Searsport's annual meeting.

Searsport starts its budget year Jan. 1, paying bills on estimates until the annual March town meeting when the year's budget is approved by voters. That budget is partly based on estimates of state revenue and school district costs, both of which are finalized on a fiscal year schedule that starts July 1.

"The biggest thing is to line up with the schools," Fethke said. "We always guess, but unless we're Nostradamus, we're not going to get it right."

When Regional School Unit 20 was eight towns, he said, any unexpected increase in school costs was spread out. Now that the district has been reduced to two towns, Searsport and Stockton Springs, there are greater consequences in getting it wrong, he said.

For all the apparent advantages of being on a fiscal year, the change has been a hard sell. In the past, residents have turned down the idea in straw polls and selectmen have been reticent to push ahead without widespread support.

Fethke, who did most of the talking Thursday night, guessed that voters wouldn't feel differently if the question were put to them again. He said it was the responsibility of selectmen to lead the town, even if it meant pulling residents along.

Several town officials noted that a late spring town meeting might attract some seasonal residents, who traditionally have been left out of the budget process.

Town Manager James Gillway said the change to a fiscal-year budget cycle would mean a transitional "year" of either six months or 18 months to get on the new schedule.

He recommended the 18-month option with three billing periods for property taxes, after which the town would continue billing every six months. If the change were approved next year, Fethke said in a Nov. 11 email to the Journal, Searsport would hold its regular town meeting in March 2018 and 2019. June town meetings would not begin until 2020, he said.

Many at the public hearing Thursday, including selectmen, voiced reservations about breaking with the traditional March town meeting schedule. Fethke offered that there could be a March meeting to settle other business, then a second meeting in May or June to pass the budget, but said he didn't think that made much sense. A woman in attendance asked rhetorically, "What are we going to do, eat chowder and go home?"

A late-spring town meeting wouldn't be perfect — even towns that hold their annual meetings in June had to approve budgets last year without state or school budget figures because of political battles in Augusta that delayed final approval of the state budget. But selectmen seemed to agree that a May or June meeting would be better.

Most also agreed that the hardest part of the change probably would be educating property owners about the new system.

At present, Searsport sends property tax bills once a year. Under the new system, that would probably change to twice a year, with three bills going out during the 18-month transition.

Complicating matters, Searsport is in the middle of its first major revaluation in almost 15 years. Gillway said this could make for some confusing tax bills — if a property's assessment went up at the same time that a the town entered a six-month billing cycle, the resulting bill would appear to go down, despite the actual tax increase.

Under state statute, the decision is ultimately up to the selectmen. Searsport's elected officers said they want the public to know what is happening, whether through additional hearings or public notices, but as of Nov. 9, they appeared unlikely to wait for approval.

Fethke recommended that selectmen vote in January to go to a fiscal year, then use the March town meeting as an opportunity to explain the change to residents who attend.

"People are going to be upset," he said, "But I think ultimately they'll accept it and be grateful for the leadership."

Comments (1)
Posted by: from the kitchen | Nov 11, 2017 05:07

Time to back off a little on that chowduh, Cappy.

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