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Worst-case $600,000 deficit causing look at budgeting change

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TOWNSEND — The Finance Committee is looking at new ways for departments to submit budgets, although this year the departments were directed to provide budgets in the traditional format.

For future reference, the committee may request any one of three suggested budget methods: zero-based, performance-based, or program-based budgeting. Otherwise, the committee could just maintain the same standard by which departments submit their budgets using the prior year’s figures, only explaining amounts requested above the previous year’s funding.

Town administrator Gregory Barnes explained the meaning of each budget format at the committee’s Jan. 25 meeting.

“They take work,” he admitted. “They take a lot of work.”

But with a projected worst-case deficit in the $600,000 range, Barnes, along with the committee, is serious about finding ways for the town to achieve sustainability.

“There are different degrees of how you budget,” said Barnes — each method could be modified to better suit the needs of the committee as it reviews budgets to make its recommendation at town meetings.

Zero-based budgeting — which Barnes said he does not recommend — is presented such that all expenditures are accounted for each year, starting at zero, he explained.

“What is only relevant is the budget as presented that year,” Barnes told members.

With program-based budgeting, said Barnes, departments would be asked two questions: What is your core mission, and what are your programs?

The purpose is to tie the funding to specific programs, he said.

Committee Chairman Andrea Wood suggested that program-based budgeting might help the town realize which departments have taken responsibility for services over time that they might not receive funding for.

For example, a lot of services have fallen on the Cemetery and Parks Department that aren’t being reimbursed, Wood pointed out. Snow and ice removal along the town’s sidewalks is not charged to the snow and ice line item, she noted.

“All departments pitch in and try to help each other out,” said member Paul Concemi. “They don’t try to nickel and dime.”

In any event, the committee should be sure that the work is charged to the right account, he said.

“You can’t hold these people to do a job if they don’t have the money to do a job,” Wood said.

Finally, performance-based budgeting is a means for identifying goals and to measure how well departments have met objectives before the town provides additional funding, according to Barnes. Yet, the objectives would have to be worthwhile, he noted.

Each of the three budget formats means some additional work for departments, which could be less productive, said committee member Paul Nicoli. On the other hand, some extra work in the first year, should the committee request a new format, might make it easier in the long run, he said.

The process involved in identifying programs, performance and goals is a good exercise for departments, said new member Jennifer Langton, and could help them better recognize their expenditures and responsibilities.