2016-11-03 / Front Page

Saco talks two-year budget cycle

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

SACO – Councilor Eric Cote has introduced the idea of reducing the frequency of the city’s budget process to once every two years rather than annually. Cote initiated a brief back-and-forth on the idea during the council discussion and comment period of the council’s Oct. 24 meeting.

“When I think back on budget time, how much money and time we spend on the budget process, most of it is pretty plain,” Cote said. “And yet, I’ve got a list of stuff that constituents complain to me about . . . items I’d like to get attended to don’t get attended to.”

According to Cote, about half of U.S. state budgets are biennial, including Maine’s, and work has been done on the federal level to switch the federal budget to biennial.

In response, Mayor Roland Michaud and City Administrator Kevin Sutherland were receptive to discussing the idea, but leaned toward putting it off until a later time.

“The hardest part is, it would require a charter change,” said Sutherland, “but that can be part of the discussion when this group is ready to start tackling that.”

“We probably should do it as part of the budgeting process,” Michaud said.

Michaud added to the idea that, during a budgeting process, it might become apparent that some items require more rapid timing.

“You could theoretically have a two-year budget for most of it, and you may have a 1-year budget for things that change dramatically every year,” Michaud said. “There are many ways of looking at it, but certainly something worth considering.”

Ward 2 Councilor Roger Gay voiced general support for the idea, but told the Courier in a separate interview that he’d like more information about it. Ward 1 Councilor David Precourt saw problems with the idea and opposed it.

“I think it’s a lousy idea,” Precourt said. “You get a new councilor (who) comes in, and they’re not familiar with the budget process unless their first seating is right in budget season. Are they gonna be making wise decisions?”

“I’ve been here three years and I’m still learning,” Precourt added.

Precourt’s criticism prompted the idea of changing the length of councilor terms.

“I would recommend if you were to look to do a twoyear budget process you would also look to change the re-election of councilors to a four-year term rather than a two-year term,” Sutherland said.

“When we’re talking about changing the term of councilors,” said Ward 5 Councilor Alan Minthorn, “I think the other thing we should also consider is staggering the wards so they don’t occur in the same cycle.”

Cote told the Courier that he doesn’t know of any other municipalities in Maine that use a biennial budget. Jim Bennett, Biddeford’s city manager, who has taught budgeting classes for the Maine Municipal Association, said he also doesn’t know of any. According to Bennett, there are disadvantages to biennial municipal budgets that might be the reason they aren’t common.

“Newly elected officials generally want to have a say in the budget,” Bennett wrote in an email to the Courier, “and I am not sure that it would be well received for new members to be told the budget is already set for the year and next.”

Another reason Bennett offered is that municipal budgets must be responsive to Maine’s state budget, which has direct and often dramatic impact on municipal budgets.

Out west, the state of Washington has experimented with biennial municipal budgets for decades. According to a report published in 2013 by Washington’s Municipal Research and Services Center, 46 Washington cities have tried biennial budgets, and 38 have stuck with them.

According to that report, there are various forms of biennial budget. For example, some Washington cities include restrictions in a biennial budget disallowing spending from the second year too early. Some cities adopt an “endorsed” budget for the second year, in which no funds are appropriated but all budget reports and budget analyses are done early.

At the meeting, the discussion of the idea ended without any formal plan to discuss the business later.

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

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