The county budget season is upon us and it’s a perfect opportunity to break down the process, which isn’t well known.
The typical annual county budget is around $20+ million. To give you a comparison on both ends of the spectrum, the city of Saco annual municipal budget has been around $35+ million and the governor put forth her most recent two-year budget proposal of $10+ billion.
The budget process begins with the county manager meeting with individual department heads to find out what their needs are for the upcoming fiscal year and to collaborate to draw up proposed departmental budgets and priorities. The manager puts those together and distributes the proposed county budget to the commissioners and posts it to the website.
In late March and early April, commissioners hear presentations from each of the department heads and the administration around their budget priorities including any new requests being made like new positions. Commissioners ask questions and review financial impacts.
It’s typical for a vote to take place to indicate a general direction of each section of the budget. I objected to voting at the same meeting where a particular section is first heard, allowing more time for the public to digest the information and provide feedback before any vote is taken. At the end of the presentations and discussions, by the 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th meeting, commissioners vote to send their version of the budget to the budget committee. In our case, we have hearings planned at least through our April 12th meeting.
At each regular commission meeting, including any special budget specific meetings, there are two opportunities for the public to weigh in on any county matter, both at the beginning of the meeting and at the end. These public comment periods are open to any county resident and there is not a specific time limit. You can provide opinions, ask questions, either in person or via Zoom, totally up to you. Zoom links are provided on meeting agendas in advance, posted on the county website.
Meanwhile, as commissioners work towards initial passage of the budget, the budget committee holds an annual caucus to determine its full membership. This year it’s April 12th at 6:30 PM at the York County Courthouse, 45 Kennebunk Road in Alfred. Budget committee members are elected at this caucus to 3-year terms. Terms are staggered so they don’t all come up at the same time, though if municipal officials cease to be elected officials or there is a resignation, then individuals would be selected to fill the remainder of that term.
The budget committee is composed of three members from each of the five commission districts, with two being elected municipal officials and one representing a member of the public. No two can be from the same municipality. Only elected municipal officials in the county can vote on the selection if present at the caucus. Our district, which includes the communities of Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, and Buxton have all three vacancies up at the same time this year. I encourage any elected municipal official and member of the public who is interested in serving in those spots to attend the caucus to put their name forward. The greater the participation, the greater the diversity of the committee to make budget decisions that are most representative of the wider community.
There is also technically a state legislator who is supposed to fill a non-voting role on the committee. This lawmaker is supposed to be selected by the entire legislative delegation of York County, but this is something that doesn’t appear to have been done in recent years and is not abundantly clear about the process for selection nor who is supposed to be notifying the delegation of this opportunity.
The budget committee then meets in May to review the proposed budget. Their role is to ask questions of the manager and department heads as needed. They can approve it as is or modify it within the parameters of state statute Title 30-A. They schedule a public hearing before their version of the budget is adopted. Notice of the public hearing is sent to all newspapers and municipal clerks at least 10 days before the hearing.
The budget committee then adopts its version of the budget and submits it back to the commission, who can either adopt it as is or modify it. There is additional public comment at this last step. If commissioners decide to modify the budget, it then goes back to the budget committee for final passage either by overriding the commission decision or agreeing with the changes made as the final step in the process. The budget must be adopted prior to the start of the new fiscal year which begins July 1st. The budget committee represents an important accountability measure for municipalities and the public to have direct influence over the county budget.
Full details of the budget, full videos of proceedings, and links to each meeting are available on our newly designed county website: YorkCountyMaine.gov.
Justin Chenette is the County Commissioner for Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, & Buxton and serves as vice chair of the commission. He also serves on the executive committee of the Southern Maine Planning & Development Commission, Maine Right to Know Advisory Committee, Age Friendly Saco board, and provides college scholarships through his foundation. Get county updates at CommissionerChenette.com.