It’s Budget Season

There may be nothing more important as a town’s budget. There may be nothing more boring than town budget meetings.

In Fairfield, once the budget is released, the Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen conduct joint hearings throughout the month of March where each and every department comes before the Board to justify their requests.

The Board of Finance usually is filled with dutiful public servants, some with their own agendas. Most have not only read through the budget, but look back on notes from last year’s budget hearings to see if matters discussed have been addressed.

Those of us on the RTM, are encouraged to attend as many of these meetings as possible to hear the back and forth and decide for ourselves what the right number is. When it finally gets to us, the town charter allows us to only cut specific budget lines, not change or add to them.

Wednesday night’s meeting had several departments or line items coming up for discussion that I felt it incumbent upon me, as chair of the Finance Committee, to attend. I was one of 8 RTM members present, about 15% of the Body which is pretty good in my book.

One by one, department chairs sat before the combined boards and gave a two-minute address, more or less parroting what was already in the budget book. Then came the questions. In several cases, frustration was heard as things asked for over the last year, had yet to be provided the Board of Finance. Other times, people seemed shocked and dismayed we somehow signed a million dollar contract and no one on the Board seemed to recall discussing it and couldn’t imagine how the town committed the funds without their approval. Well, that particular discussion went back two years so people were proven wrong just plagued with faulty human memory.

Still, things got dragged out and beaten to death, things mulled over and discussed at a budget hearing that should have been discussed much earlier when these items came up initially. As a result, it was well past the two and half hour mark when I had to give up. They were stuck on the town’s Risk Management fund, which looked just fine on paper but people felt the need to stick it under the microscope and dissect it in detail.

Some of the topics I should have heard about, I missed and will have to play some catch up before this hits my committee in April.

The budget is the map for our town, in many ways. But it also has become a political tool, used by one Board to humiliate or play games with anther. And there will always remain the Town Budget vs. Board of Ed budget. After all, Education takes 57% of the overall budget but our town bodies beyond Board of Ed have very little control over it. In fact, the Board of Ed felt generous this year and exceeded the Superintendent’s request by a few hundred grand; something I would have liked to see better explained.

In review, there has to be a more constructive way to let a proper examination of the budget be done without veering off topic or beating something to death that clearly was sound to begin with.

When someone finds the way, let me know.