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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 8, 2009

The key to a sound budget is an open process

Illustration by Forest Byrd

The town could learn a lesson from the school.

Tuesday night, the Guilderland School Board held its first session on a budget that it won’t decide on till spring.  “It’s important work,” said the superintendent, “and the basis of everything we do.” He went on to say that community input “helps inform our process, helps inform our thinking.”

It’s a shame only one person made suggestions this year; other years, a number of citizens have shared their views.

At the board’s next meeting, on Oct. 20, each board member will have a chance to state his or her views on budget direction. There are no political parties in school board elections but there are certainly varying views on how schools should be run and how money should be spent.

After staff members have talked to school principals and after administrators have reviewed requests, the superintendent in February will present a tentative budget to a committee of citizen volunteers. In a series of televised sessions, the citizens will have a chance to ask questions and get answers as department heads present portions of the spending plan.

School board members will observe all these sessions, and listen to comments at an informal hearing before discussing and voting on final changes.

School budgets, of course, must be approved by the public in a May vote. So the school district has a strong incentive to heed what the public’s elected representatives — the school board members — have to say, and to keep the public at large well informed.

Town budgets are not subject to public vote. But wise town leaders follow an open process. Many towns these days, like the nearby town of Bethlehem, post detailed budget information on their websites so interested citizens can see just how their money is being spent.

The town of Guilderland adopted a law 12 years ago to make its budget process more open. William Aylward had been elected as the town’s first-ever Democratic supervisor, heading a Republican-dominated board.  A long-time Guilderland social studies teacher, since retired, Aylward is now serving on the Altamont Village Board and as an Albany County Legislator.

“We wanted to try and make sure that the public would be able to follow the process and understand what went into creating the budget,” Aylward said of the 1997 law. He believes the adopted code worked well and served its purpose as a framework for drafting the budget and meeting all the state deadlines ahead of time.

“It was my process to involve the town board in the department head meetings,” Aylward said last week, adding that the board should have a month to go over the documents.

The two Republicans on the current five-member town board have said the process now is one of rubber-stamping the Democratic supervisor Kenneth Runion’s proposal.

Republican Warren Redlich’s view is that the $30 million budget proposed for next year is about a million dollars off the mark of reality. He sees this as an election-year ploy to keep taxes low.

Redlich points out that the $150,000 the board approved this year for studies of Dr. Shaw Road traffic and McKownville flooding are not in the budget. Nor is the money to pay for a third town judge, which the board passed, contingent on approval from the State Legislature. Redlich also believes the town needs to set aside $400,000 to pay for increased pension costs that the state comptroller has outlined, with the expectation that those costs will grow even more in 2012. Finally, Redlich comes up with differing figures, based on numbers from the Albany County comptroller, for sales tax revenues the town can expect in a faltering economy — $400,000 less.

Since board members, under the current town process, had no chance to state their views early on, there was no public airing of Redlich’s concerns, and no means to answer them or, alternatively, have them shape the budget proposal.

The 1997 law states, “The town board shall classify each budget request as critical, important or optional.” This gives elected representatives a framework for discussing their views. Most board members would agree services like police or sewers would be critical to a town while some of the aspects of parks and recreation may be considered optional. Supervisor Runion said this week, “There is nothing in the budget that is optional, and nothing that’s critical. Everything in the budget is important.” That is circumventing the law and avoiding an opportunity for meaningful discussion.

 While Supervisor Runion met the state’s deadline for filing the $30 million town budget, he did not meet the deadlines set by Guilderland law. The law, for example, requires that, by Aug. 1, board members be provided with a written estimate of revenues and indebtedness for the budget year. Additionally, state law requires that board members receive expenditures and revenues for each month.

That has not happened in Guilderland. The laws are there for a reason. Elected representatives cannot govern wisely without such basic information.

The town law could be changed if a majority of the board voted to do so, but it should not be broken or ignored. We believe it should be followed and even expanded upon.

We want to be clear: We’re not suggesting that the supervisor is stealing funds or committing any sort of fraud. We’ve reviewed the budget carefully and believe it is an honest accounting.

The problem comes in not allowing the board members — the elected representatives of the people — or the public itself enough information early on to be part of the budget-building process.

This hinders the town in the long run.

Over our many years of observing citizens review the school budget, we’ve seen their recommendations make a difference. The results are not always immediate; sometimes it takes years for an idea to come to fruition, but, in the long run, it enriches the process.

The give and take between school board members can also be instructive. For example, the reason that Guilderland has full-day kindergarten this year is because of one board member’s persuasiveness in the final budget session. The board had agreed early on that moving from a half-day to a full-day kindergarten program was a wise move educationally but could not be afforded. The superintendent had removed it from the budget. Board President Richard Weisz convinced the majority who had been against the move to full-day that, with federal funds available, now was the time to do it. Weisz said the budget vote would serve as a public referendum on the issue; it passed by a wide margin.

The current town board lacks the ability to have a similar discussion. Its members aren’t empowered with enough information. And there is not the same sense of shared responsibility.

Following the process the law requires is essential.

And the town could go further, adopting a series of televised workshops where department heads answer questions so that all board members can be informed, and the public, too. We realize the town budget is about a third the size of the school budget and therefore not as complex so there may be fewer and shorter sessions. But the more that public servants can explain their work, the better off we, as citizens, will be.

As the school superintendent said of budget-building: “It’s important work and the basis of everything we do.”

Should seniors have more or fewer services? Should paramedics have more or fewer hours? Should sidewalks be built or playgrounds? Should parks be expanded or salaries raised?

Community input should inform the process. It’s our money and our future.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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