In Whitingham, the budget passed 60 to 45, and in Wilmington it passed 75 to 51. Although the vote and the board’s informational meeting were properly warned, it was their annual report that threw the results into question – specifically the amount of time people had to study the report. Under state statute, annual reports must be in the hands of voters at least 10 days before an annual Town Meeting. But this year the Twin Valley budget report was late, arriving in some mailboxes only three to six days before the vote.
At an informational meeting three days before the vote, Whitingham resident John Robohm asked the board if their budget vote was subject to the statute. Board members told him they’d look into his question. When they did, they discovered that the statute did, in fact, pertain to their annual budget vote.
As a result, board members said, voters will be asked to ratify the vote at this year’s annual Town Meeting in March.
“This vote will be held as an Australian ballot vote on Town Meeting day in both towns,” said board member Phil Taylor. “We consulted legal counsel on this matter and are using this mechanism of the confirmation vote under counsel. An affirmative vote will confirm this passed budget and make the vote binding.”
Twin Valley School Board Chair Seth Boyd says there were a multitude of forces conspiring against the board this year, but he acknowledges that the school board is ultimately responsible. “We apologize to the voters,” said Boyd. “It wasn’t intentional. But this was a difficult year to pull it all together in a timely manner.”
Taylor says the joint board has always been under pressure in preparing their budget because, under the joint agreement, the Twin Valley budget must be approved at least 45 days before Town Meeting, because each town’s Twin Valley assessment had to be included in the town school budget warning for Town Meeting day – that warning must be signed 45 days before Town Meeting day. “The current time constraint of a January budget vote is very difficult to manage,” he says. “It means we are developing budgets at the beginning of the school year and working through the holidays to bring the budget to public vote.”
Even in past years, Boyd says, it could be a challenge to get some of the information from the state, such as statewide property tax rates and common level of appraisal figures, in time to be included in the final budget.
This year, there was more standing in the way. “For one thing, it’s a transition year,” Boyd says. “We switched from a Twin Valley/Wilmington/Whitingham budget to a Twin Valley-only budget. That changes all the line items and you can’t compare one year to the next, so it’s labor intensive for the board and the business manager. There was a lot of back and forth between us and our consultants to make sure everything was right.”
After the new budget was created the board trimmed some of the proposed spending to bring tax rates into line with those predicted during public consolidation discussions. The process was still on track, at least until the state issued its common level of appraisal (CLA) figures for Whitingham. “At the 11th hour, the state CLA numbers came out and there was a significant change in Whitingham because of a reassessment of TransCanada property.”
Whitingham’s CLA dropped by almost 5%, which resulted in a 9-cent increase on the residential property tax rate.
The change in TransCanada’s assessment, Boyd explains, was thanks to the expiration of an agreement between the power company and the town, and the expiration of a statewide moratorium on changes in assessments on utilities.
Also, sometime after Whitingham and TransCanada’s deal was sealed, a new state statute prohibited towns and utilities from entering into similar agreements – so no new deal could be negotiated.
“Whitingham and TransCanada always had a good relationship, and both were happy with it,” Boyd said. “But last year, the state raised TransCanada’s assessment by $9 million.”
When the CLA was released at the last minute, board members scrambled to see if anything could be done to reduce the impact before the annual Twin Valley budget vote, and to make sure the budget figures and tax projections reflected the latest information. “We stopped everything and did our homework,” Boyd said.
That delayed the printing of the annual budget report. And, as if to pile on to the board’s difficulties, there was a delay in mailing the booklets. “We dropped them off at the post office on Monday, but they didn’t go out until Friday,” Boyd notes. “So when I say the stars were aligned against us, I’m not just making excuses.”
Board members will offer an article in both towns at the annual Town Meeting in March that they hope will put an end to their January rush. The article will ask voters to move the annual Twin Valley budget vote to Town Meeting day. The vote would still be by Australian ballot, but Boyd says it would likely find more voter participation. “For the last few years it has been slow,” he says. “I think moving it to Town Meeting will increase the number of people voting on the budget.”