BY SUSIE CURRIE — On December 4, under a cloud of dangling, earth-toned ornaments in the municipal building’s multipurpose room, 17 city councilmembers and department heads gathered to discuss the upcoming budget process.
Sitting around a long table rather than on the dais in front of cameras,  they listened to new City Treasurer Ron Brooks and outgoing City Administrator Jerry Schiro lay out a vision for determining how funds are allocated for fiscal year 2015, which begins on July 1.

Under the proposed schedule, budget meetings will take place twice a month on Wednesdays, to avoid dominating the regularly scheduled Monday council meetings. The first one, on January 29, is a public hearing for residents to weigh in on where they would like to see their tax dollars go.

If all goes according to plan, councilmembers would get copies of a draft budget (or “budget book”) on February 26 and approve a budget by May 28.

The budget for the current fiscal year passed on June 28, a little over a month after six new councilmembers were sworn in on May 20. The process was, by many accounts, nasty, brutish and short, with councilmembers clamoring for a more complete financial picture and Mayor Marc Tartaro casting the sole vote against the budget ordinance.

In addition to risking a municipal shutdown, 11th-hour budget passage does not allow for “loading,” the process of assigning each line item to a category within a department. Brooks said that would take up to 30 days.

“We have very good technology, but when you’re loading a budget it’s a manual process. You have to go down each of the line items one by one”  and assign them to categories within a department.

Brooks outlined a seven-part budget document: a summary of all funds; a statement of revenues, expenditures and changes in fund balance; general fund revenues and expenditures, special revenue and debt service funds; and a capital improvements plan.

The council narrowly voted in May to maintain the current tax rate for the eighth straight year. But  since property assessments fell for most homeowners, city revenues were also down. For the first time in several years, the city had to dip into its general fund balance for the current fiscal year to cover the $1 million shortfall.

But both Schiro and Brooks advised against relying on that in future years.

“As your new treasurer I would encourage you to protect that general fund balance at all costs,” said Brooks.

To do that, however, may mean a tax increase.

“I’ve [worked] in municipalities where tax rates are deferred and deferred and the operating budget suffers,” said Schiro. “Then, instead of reasonable, incremental tax increases, you’re in a position three or four years down the road where you have to do a major increase.”

Brooks cautioned against a tax hike intended to cover operating costs.

“If you’re looking at increasing your tax rates, it should be tied to infrastructure rather than operating costs,” he said. “That way, citizens can see where their money is going.”

It remains to be seen where the money will be going in FY15. Brooks recommended cutting one part of the budget: goals and measures.

“I don’t think the city is in a position to give [council] a meaningful document [with benchmarks]” said Brooks, adding that they may return in fiscal year 2016.