Removing a warrant article that allows the use of surplus to cover over-expenditures in department budgets was one of the best things the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen did in 2015, Chair Ben Rines said.
In the final minutes of the final joint meeting of the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen and Wiscasset Budget Committee on Tuesday, April 26, the selectmen reversed that decision. Selectman Judy Flanagan called for the board to reintroduce a warrant article allowing the use of surplus for department over-expenditures.
The motion passed, 3-2, with Rines and Jeff Slack opposed. It was the last vote taken at the marathon meeting April 26, which lasted about four hours.
Rines said he felt “sandbagged” by the motion, which he called an act of “bad boardmanship,” especially since the issue was discussed months earlier. According to Rines, he would have voted differently on each warrant article had he known the use of surplus to cover over-expenditures was going to be reintroduced.
Flanagan denied “sandbagging anyone,” saying she made the motion after a recent conversation with Town Manager Marian Anderson.
Without the warrant article, selectmen would have to hold a special town meeting to approve an appropriation from surplus to cover over-spending.
Wiscasset has already held a special town meeting to appropriate the first payment on a refinanced $2 million bond from surplus; the amount was not included in the 2015-2016 budget.
As of April 12, Wiscasset’s contractual services and town clerk budgets are over-expended.
The county tax figure used in Wiscasset’s 2015-2016 tax commitment was incorrect, resulting in an over-expenditure of $17,592 in the county tax budget item.
The Wiscasset Fire Department, Wiscasset Police Department, and Wiscasset Ambulance Service budgets are also teetering on over-expenditure. Had a $52,000 write-off for bad debt not been removed from the ambulance service budget, the budget would have been over-expended in April.
The board of selectmen will need to hold a special town meeting in the near future to authorize the use of surplus for the over-expenditures in the 2015-2016 budget. According to Rines, going before the town is the appropriate thing to do. It keeps government spending transparent and accountable, he said.
Flanagan and Selectmen Judy Colby and David Cherry disagreed, citing low voter turnout at special town meetings as a reason to discontinue the practice of bringing over-expenditures before the town. They also argued that selectmen are responsible for authorizing the payroll and accounts-payable warrants, and monitoring expenditures.
The use of surplus to cover overdrafts in departmental budgets has been a long-standing practice in Wiscasset. According to the audit from 2014-2015, a year when surplus was allowed to cover overages, about 12 town departments and budget lines were over-expended, resulting in about $178,000 in overdrafts.
The budgets for the finance department, municipal building maintenance, public utilities, highways, contractual services, the sewage treatment plant, the waterfront, the parks and recreation department, shellfish, and the fire department were all over-expended in 2014-2015, Rines said.
Outside of the fire department budget, the over-expenditures were never publicly discussed on the board of selectmen, Rines said.
In finalizing the warrant for the annual town meeting Thursday, April 28, Rines asked to change his vote to oppose a $35,000 appropriation for the contingency account.
If voters authorize the use of surplus to cover over-spending, town departments will have more than $1 million in contingency, Rines said.
Bob Blagden, a former selectman and budget committee member, spoke out against using surplus to cover over-expenditures without a town vote. “It circumvents the whole budget process,” Blagden said. “I’m stunned almost one- quarter million dollars was spent (in 2014-2015) with no discussion. At least now there’s a discussion.”
Voters will decide whether to use surplus to cover department over-expenditures when they answer Article 62 at the annual town meeting in June. The warrant article also asks if all unexpended balances should go to surplus, and if selectmen can use surplus to reduce the property-tax commitment.
“This is a big step backwards for Wiscasset,” Rines said.
Flanagan prepared a written statement, which she read at the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen’s Tuesday, May 3 meeting, to address the discussion about the use of surplus for over-expenditures. In the statement, Flanagan said the tone and demeanor in which Rines spoke out against the warrant article was inappropriate and a violation of the board of selectmen’s order and procedures.
“May we all show each other respect,” Flanagan said. “That’s all I wanted to say.”