Civics 101: On Boards of Finance
Your property taxes are collected, and that money is spent. Who decides how much to collect and what to spend it on? Additionally, who makes sure it is spent properly?
The Board of Finance (BOF) of course. The BOF sets the annual mill rate and manages the process of funding the town budget. It is a delicate act: one that balances the perceived needs of the town versus the ability (and will) of our town to pay for those services.
The town is divided into 46 departments. Each department presents its budget request to the BOF. After the money is allocated, how it is spent is monitored by the BOF under the guiding eye of the paid town finance director.
To serve on the BOF, one must be a town resident and a registered voter and taxpayer in Easton. The job is non-paying, and all members are elected to six-year terms. There are six elected positions and three alternates. Alternates are appointed by the Board of Selectmen. No more than four elected members can be from any one political party. There are no term limits.
BOF members can come from any professional or educational background. The ability to read financial documents is helpful, however. That said: the most important skill a BOF member can possess is common sense.Members allocate our limited revenues to fund the institutions that make our town one we are proud to live in. Every year, they must decide how to best spend these monies.
The BOF meets the first Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. Meetings tend to run about two hours. They are held at the Senior Center, and they are open to the public. During budget season (spring), the BOF meets more frequently. It hosts the heads of town departments and commissions. These heads submit budget requests for the fiscal year. The town finance director puts together a binder that contains these requests juxtaposed with the past year’s budgeted and actual departmental spending numbers.
The BOF meets once with each town department to discuss the reasoning behind its budget request. Some departments are called back before the board if the BOF feels that there is too much fat or not enough money in the request. There is an unspoken agreement between the BOF and the departments that cuts will only happen when a representative of that department is present to be informed of them.
The BOF could, in theory, grant every department everything it asks for by raising the mill rate. But it is the BOF’s duty to assess every request and see how it fits into the bigger fiscal picture. BOF members diligently try to balance the needs of all town residents when deciding how to allocate tax revenues. They are also hesitant to recklessly raise taxpayer contributions, as fiscal restraint is considered a guiding principle.
Cuts to proposed budgets occur when there isn’t enough money to fund everything a department or commission would like to have. Note: proposed budgets tend to be optimistic. Hence, the “cuts” they entail don’t always mean that the department or commission is receiving less funding than it did the prior year.
maintain level services
The unstated goal is to keep the level of services a department or commission provides the town the same, without raising taxes. Of course, if towns want to remain a desirable place to live, increases to services in times of plenty, can pay huge dividends down the road. And, from time to time, it is vital to invest in our town no matter the financial climate so that people want to live in it.
Things do become more expensive over time. And, recognizing the need to pay more to get the same — or to pay more now to save more down the road — are realities. A rule of thumb: Sometimes you have to actually pay something to get something. Another: Cuts that are pennywise and pound foolish help no one and often cost more to fix down the road.
The power to see how your tax dollars are being allocated and how much you’ll pay in taxes is firmly in your hands. So is the monthly process of making sure the departments are spending the money they said they’d spend. Even if you can’t attend a BOF meeting, you can easily find out what will be discussed and afterward know exactly what votes occurred.
The BOF agenda (the order of business) is published on the town website here under Board of Finance. According to law, the agenda must be published there 24 hours in advance of the meeting. Four members constitute a quorum and three “Yay” votes enable the board to conduct business. The meeting minutes (a record of what took place at the meeting) are also published on the Board of Finance page on the town website within seven days, as required by town ordinance. You may have to wait the full seven days, but a plea for patience. It will be posted.
Meetings on zoom
During the pandemic, the BOF is meeting via Zoom. It is unclear if this access will continue after COVID-19. BOF meetings are typically on cable access during budget season. Regular monthly status meetings aren’t typically broadcast. If you would like to comment on a BOF agenda item, there is an opportunity for public comment at meetings. If you have questions, contact Matt Gachi, BOF chairman, here.
At monthly meetings, BOF members are presented with a year-to-date “State of the Budget” by the town finance director and treasurer (two-year term) Christine Calvert. She lets the BOF know if town departments are staying within their budget allocations.
If something unexpected happens and a department or commission needs an emergency infusion of cash, the department or commission head with the unanticipated expense reaches out to the BOF and makes a case for more money.
The BOF can appropriate up to $20,000 from the “Unassigned Fund Balance” (basically a rainy-day fund) to plug the gap without consulting the town population. But if the cash infusion requires more than $20,000, the BOF must convene a vote through the town’s legislative body: Town Meeting.
Departments and commissions cannot continually come to the BOF for extra funding. If a department has requested additional funds in a fiscal year, they can’t request for a second appropriation in the same fiscal year without a town vote.
The BOF is also charged with determining how town financial records are kept, arranging for an annual audit of the town, and publishing the annual town report.
The BOF has a very important role in our town. Do you know your members? Do you know what they stand for? As I’ve said many times before: National Elections are exciting to talk about, but knowing our BOF and following the budget process is one of the most patriotic (and self-serving) things residents can do.
No decisions effect quality of life or the services residents will directly experience (schools, police, fire, conservation, senior services) more than those in our town. For more on how Connecticut Boards of Finance work, check here.
THE BUDGET PROCESS
- The BOF meets with the department heads (and their associated board or commission) during March and April. Budgets are set for initial review.
- If the budget passes, the mill rate is set.
- The BOF holds a public hearing on the budget during which, budget requests are presented and the public can comment on what is presented.
- BOF meets with departments with the most complex budgets for a final review. And a final budget recommendation is prepared.
- Annual Town Meeting (the town’s legislative body) assembles and is led by a moderator. Town Meeting agrees to the budget or it doesn’t. During TM, the budget can be cut, but nothing can be added. The final number is referred to a referendum.
- The town votes at the polls and the budget passes or fails.
- If it fails (this is very rare), the BOF begins the process anew.
- Tax bills are sent to all taxpayers in June.
- Typically, about 700 residents will vote on the town budget out of the roughly 5500 registered Easton voters. Sadly, this means only 13 percent of the town comes out to vote on the budget.
- This year the total town budget was $44.6 million, an increase of 1.8 percent ($786,000). That is less than the costs of living increased (2 percent).
- Even though the budget increased 1.8 percent, the mill rate was lowered from 31.33 to 31.00 (1 percent). So: the average taxpayer saw a decrease of about $140.
- The $20,000 limit on increasing funding to a department after the budget was set was last adjusted in 1990 — 30 years ago.