June 25, 2015: Belmont’s budget: A “very public review”

June 25, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Town Meeting met in early June and approved next year’s budget for Belmont.

There is a tendency at times for those who disagree with the decisions of Town Meeting to characterize Belmont’s financial decisionmaking as something that is imposed on the community.  These objectors often claim that the cost of running Belmont is developed by an unresponsive, bureaucratic “them.”

I couldn’t disagree more.  Belmont’s budget process is open to significant and ongoing review, not merely by the Town’s financial professionals, but by a host of ordinary citizens who volunteer a huge amount of time to ensure the Town is running appropriately.

The two primary elected boards in Belmont (the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee) manage the process.  And, as we found out this spring, when there is dissatisfaction with that management, voters can freely elect to change the management team.

While the SC and BOS prepare the budget, they do not have the authority to approve it.  Only Town Meeting has the authority to give final approval to what levels of spending occur, and on what.  Town Meeting Members can vote “yes” or “no” on specific spending proposals.  They can decide to adjust proposed spending on specific activities, either up or down.

Let’s think about that for a moment.  In a community of 25,000 people, a group of roughly 300 community members reviews both revenue and spending decisions.  This group is comprised of one of every 80 people in Belmont.

The odds, in other words, are actually quite high that one of Belmont’s budget decisionmakers lives on your street, or that they are standing beside you on the soccer sideline, or that they’re sitting at the table next to you when you’re dining at Kitchen on Common or at Patou’s.

That can be compared to the 435 members of Congress, each of whom represents somewhat more than 710,000 persons. The 160 members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives each represent roughly 40,000 persons.

The really heavy hitting in the budget review process involves a group called the Warrant Committee.  This committee, comprised of 16 ordinary individuals, not only examines Belmont’s budget line-by-line, item-by-item, but these Warrant Committee members then write-up their findings, their praise (and their criticisms), and their recommendations to present to Town Meeting.

So, let’s sit back for a moment and ponder the very public review that Belmont’s town budget must pass through. It must pass muster of the Town’s paid professional financial staff. It is reviewed decision-by-decision by the Warrant Committee.  It must be approved by both the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee.  And even after all that, it must then be presented to a group of regular folks, gathered as Town Meeting, who can decide to approve, disapprove or change it.

Some members of the Belmont community may disagree with the decisions reflected in the budget each year.  Perhaps even vehemently disagree.  Such disagreement is to be expected.  Setting the annual budget is not simply a process where dollars are allocated between accounts.  The budget process is, and should be, a process that reflects the community’s priorities.

It’s okay that we don’t all have the same priorities.  What is not okay is for someone to argue that Belmont’s budget-makers are somehow cavalier in their decisionmaking.

That’s simply not true.

Over the next few weeks, I will be taking a look at Belmont’s budget for the coming year.  I’ll try to help readers understand more clearly what the budget will (and will not) do in the coming year.

I not only welcome, but actively solicit, your feedback.

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