WINCHESTER — So dissatisfied with the way the budget committee operates, selectman want voters to get rid of the committee altogether so the town can “start over,” officials said Saturday during the town’s deliberative session.
Selectmen and nearly 100 voters made significant changes to the 38-article town warrant during the more than five hour meeting. The most contentious debates seemed to stem from a rift between the budget committee and selectmen. So great is the rift, selectmen inserted a petition article that if passed will get rid of the budget committee altogether. Selectmen Vice Chairman Roberta Fraser said selectmen want to have more oversight over the budget committee.
Kenneth Gardner, the selectmen’s representative on the budget committee said he was, “embarrassed to be a member” of the budget committee and that it was, “the worst year I’ve ever seen.”
As an example of how broken the process was, voter Kevin Whippee went on to point out that budget committee members would refer to people’s names — instead of positions or programs — when proposing cuts to the budget. He said this showed that these budgetary decisions were personal and not made based on what was best for the town. Whippee said it’s the “vindictive nature” of the committee, the members not letting people speak and having others removed, that makes it “the poster child” for rescinding the act.
Budget committee member Richard Horton acknowledged the process could have been better, but he seemed confident things could get better despite a few bad actors this year.
“This definitely was not our most productive year,” he said. “We did waste some time. But in years past, the committee has done an excellent job. I think we can get back to that.”
Voter Miriam Jonson echoed that sentiment when she said a temporary clash of personalities is no reason to get rid of the committee.
“There has to be a better way to start over again,” she said. “There has to be a better or different way other than to just start eliminating committees or boards. We need to find a way to work together for the best interests of this town.”
She was greeted with a big round of applause after she went on to say that it’s important the town’s monetary decisions aren’t left in the hands of just one board or group. Instead, there need to be checks and balances, she said.
Former selectman and member of the budget committee Harvey Sieran said instead of voting away the committee, people should vote out the members they believe are causing problems.
Gardner pointed out that the terms are generally for three years, which means people have a long time to wait before voting someone out.
“A lot of harm can be done in three years,” he said.
If the measure fails, another article is still on the warrant that would restructure the budget committee so there would be seven members at large in addition to a selectman and school board representative.
Also considered Saturday was whether to include two special articles on the ballot that would separate the $238,372 water budget and $299,430 sewer budget. This, too, stemmed from the chasm between the budget committee and selectmen. The budget committee proposed significant cuts to the two departments’ funding in its operating budget proposal, according to town officials.
The two departments are funded entirely by user fees, explained Fraser. She said the two departments used to be in the operating budget when they were running deficits. They are finally operating in the black and should not be rolled into the operating budget, she said.
The budget committee wanted it in the budget. Horton questioned selectman on what would happen if voters rejected the two articles. Selectmen said there is no back up plan since according to state officials, no municipality has ever voted down funding its water and sewer departments.
“Do we want to be the first in the state to be that foolish?” Gardner said.
Other changes to the warrant include:
Raising this year’s proposed operating budget to $3,071,587 from the budget committee’s $2,946,475 proposed budget;
Putting $1 in the non-lapsing Capital Reserve Fund for Fire Mutual Aid instead of $35,000. The $35,000 was already included in the operating budget;
Asking for $20,000 — the town’s share of the road grant construction project;
Raising $28,000 for Evergreen Cemetery (instead of $18,000);
Asking for $1 to purchase a single-family home on 3.3 acres on Hawkins Road, instead of $130,000.
In addition, articles 25 through 27 were amended so that regardless of the issue raised in the article, if passed, current policy remains in place.