According to town manager Scott Murphy, the selectboard is choosing to change the process now to come into compliance with state statutes. “ The seven budget committee seats were created as elected positions,” said Murphy. “The town has not been doing what state statutes say because they (the statutes) set up no authority to elect the budget committee.”
Created by Wilmington voters at the 1926 Town Meeting, the committee consists of seven elected members and one representative each from the selectboard and school board. According to the town’s website, the committee’s duty is “to consider all articles in each warrant authorizing the expenditure of money and to report thereon to the Town Meeting with such recommendations as it may consider desirable.”
While the selectboard would like to change the budget committee soon, they are also weighing options of how to proceed with transitioning the committee to one that is appointed rather than elected. Jacob White, a selectboard member and 25-year veteran of the budget committee, says that while most Vermont towns do not have budget committees, Wilmington’s has served a great purpose. “I think the voters rely on the budget committee because we review the selectboard’s decisions,” said White. “Most people think the budget committee sits down and creates the budget, but all we do is read and advise.”
White also said the committee provides a watchdog for the voters. “It gives the town a broader view of opinions. It’s checks and balances.”
Chapter 55 of Vermont’s statutes, titled “Local Elections,” lists elected town officer positions as well as their qualifications, and rules. While the statute does not specifically exclude budget committees, it simply doesn’t include them in a list of 17 elected positions.
According to Murphy, the board’s decision was not prompted by state officials, but came to the town’s attention after the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) talked about this issue in one of their monthly newsletters. “The state isn’t requiring us to disband the elected committee and have not commented,” said Murphy. “The selectboard just wants to conform to the state statues as they are written.”
In conforming to state statutes, White says the selectboard will look at a number of possibilities, including switching the committee to a citizen advisory board that sits in on meetings regarding funding requests from town department heads. White says this would keep the budget committee working in the same capacity, but in better coalescence with the selectboard.
“Each year the heads of the town’s departments meet with the selectboard and the budget committee separately to propose their funding requests,” said White. “That process is a little redundant, and we want to see them work more in lockstep with the board as we prepare the budget.”
Murphy said that with the dissolution of the committee, those elected for the seven unpaid seats would be out of their jobs. Any new committee or advisory board the selectboard creates to replace the elected one would require the same process for appointing members that other town committees and boards must go through, including an application and interview process.
Murphy also said the selectboard would like to resolve the issue sooner rather than later as they are planning to put together the town budget in October rather than November and December. This will give the selectboard the advantage of getting the budget done in a smoother fashion, before the holiday season and end-of-year auditing.
White said the board will have to look at the process by which the review of the school budget will be performed in the budget committee’s new capacity as well, due to the merger of Twin Valley Middle and High School, and the two-town vote that will be needed for the school’s budget.
White and Murphy both said that the town is open to the public’s opinion on what direction to take as the process moves forward. “We (the selectboard) haven’t discussed it in depth,” said White “We’ve skimmed the surface so far looking for ideas to work this out.”