Budget Committee's requests raise questions
September 14, 2011The budget committee met Thursday, Sept. 8 to discuss resubmitting a request to the selectmen for town and school financial information and general data from the past 10 years.
Committee members stressed that they needed the information to adequately do their job of analyzing and forming a budget for 2012. They discussed how the information would help them see trends over the past 10 years.
In the request, drafted by committee member Skip Murphy, the committee asked for data broken down in six different headings concerning topics such as municipal and SAU costs of unfunded mandates on county, state and federal levels to gifts to the town and school, which may require funds to maintain.
Under the heading "Welfare Dept.," Murphy stated, "Outrage over the welfare office paying for monthly cable services — how much was spent."
The request for information also touched on issues regarding school lunches.
"Much has been made of the high [percentage] of students on free or reduced fee lunches," stated Murphy.
The request included the criteria for receiving aid in paying for school meals, the standard cost per meal, payment from the third payer (feds, state or other), the cost to provide three meals per day, and the impact of federally mandated fresh fruits and vegtables.
"This is good – for a start," concluded Murphy in the request.
Members of the committee concluded, after a review of state law, that they were entitled to the information because it was necessary to form the new budget, and that the selectmen did not have the right to deny the committee access to the information.
Committee Chairman Richard Hickok added that the selectmen were "out of line" and "disrespectful" with their denial, and wrong with their interpretation of the request.
Selectmen requested that budget committee members take a vote and request the data as a group.
According to Murphy, his request was based on a discussion during a budget committee meeting in May, and "no one disagreed with the request" during the discussion. In the request letter, Murphy stated that the "data [is] being requested by various members."
However, Dale Dormody, committee member, disagreed.
"The request did not line up with the discussion," said Dormody.
He suggested committee members confer with selectmen to see what information is available upon request.
Town Administrator Scott Dunn questioned what purpose some of the requests could serve, or what conclusions could be drawn from 10 years of data.
"What's the point?" asked Dunn, noting that members were requesting information regarding $25,000 line items such as telephone and electricity bills, over which they have little control, in a budget of $11 million.
"It's a few hundred dollars more this year," he added.
Committee members voted to re-request the information from the board of selectmen.
During the public comment portion of last week's meeting, resident Mark Corry brought up his concern over the impending court action against members of the school board by three Gilford residents, two of whom — Kevin Leandro and David Horvath — currently serve on the budget committee.
Corry said that as he understood it, committee members are charged with the task of "watching over taxpayers' money," and openly questioned whether Leandro and Horvath could be "objective and unbiased" when dealing with the SAU budget.
Hickok explained that budget committee members are elected officials, and the only "real control" over them is exercised by voters.
"They aren't doing that as part of the committee," said Hickok, adding that Leandro and Horvath were responsible for separating their personal lives from their duty as elected members of the committee.
Corry argued that leaving the matter in the hands of voters wasn't enough, considering members of the committee serve three-year terms. If voters disagree with the actions of Horvath or Leandro, he said, their terms are not over until the March elections of 2013 and 2014, respectively. This is after their requested date for the elimination of the superintendent position, which is set for Jan. 31, 2013.
"I'm not saying they should resign," said Corry.
He was, however, concerned that the SAU would not be able to recover financially from the legal action. A discussion in a recent school board meeting revealed that the SAU insurance provider would not cover their legal expenses, and even if the case is dropped, plaintiffs is similar cases were not required to reimburse the other party.
Leandro defended his actions.
"I'm a taxpayer and a voter," he said. "I never stood up and said I'm a member of the budget committee. I'm not pushing the issue."
Leandro said his actions were a last resort.
Hickok requested the discussion end so the meeting could continue. The issue came up again later in the meeting, however. While discussing the data request, a comment by Dormody about SAU legal expenses sparked an argument between Horvath and Kevin Roy.
During the argument, Horvath sugested the SAU "shouldn't have spent money on a zero-turn lawn-mower," and should have instead saved it for their "legal fund."
The argument lasted several minutes until Hickok intervened and brought the meeting back to order.
At the end of the meeting, Horvath apologized for the outburst, and suggested the committee "keep it to business."
He added, however, that he would defend himself if he felt it necessary.
"I will oblige if someone wants to get into it," said Horvath.