SKOWHEGAN — Dwindling membership and lagging attendance at recent Budget and Finance Committee meetings could mean the end of the group that reviews proposed spending and makes recommendations for the annual Town Meeting.

Voters at the annual Town Meeting next month will be asked to do away with the committee, an advisory board that has been in place for almost 50 years.

“The numbers are down. We can’t find people to serve,” Selectman Newell Graf said last week when the five-member Board of Selectmen endorsed the repeal of a 1964 Town Meeting vote that established the committee.

Things got so bad during the recent budget session that the Budget Committee could not meet quorum requirements. Those in attendance were forced to cancel the sessions. As a result, the committee made no final recommendation about the 2014 budget, which is expected to be enacted June 10 at the Town Meeting.

The Budget and Finance Committee is supposed to meet each week during the budget-making process, working with the selectmen and the town manager in fashioning a budget proposal for Town Meeting consideration. Members are charged with weighing the potential effect on the tax rate while at the same time considering the growing costs of town services.

Budget Committee Chairman Rob Washburn acknowledged that attendance and membership has been off this year, but said selectmen are moving too fast in trying disband the committee. He said the committee lost a few members this year and those positions have not been filled.

The committee’s bylaws say at least six members have to be present to constitute a quorum for a legal meeting. With a total of only seven members now on the committee, that has been a problem, he said.

“I’m not sure that getting rid of the Budget Committee is a smart idea,” Washburn said. “I think that the town needs a second pair of eyes to look at the budget.”

Washburn advocated a renewed push to recruit members or a reduction in the number of people required for a quorum.

Voters agreed at a special town meeting in February 2012 to amend the bylaws to make the committee an 11-member panel, down from 13 members. Members are appointed by the Board of Selectmen and serve as volunteers.

In past years, budget recommendations have appeared on the Town Meeting warrant next to those of the selectmen. Voters, through motions from the floor of the meeting, decide which one to accept.

Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said most towns in Maine that have annual Town Meetings have budget committees that work with selectmen on spending issues.

He said Skowhegan, with a population of roughly 9,000, would be counted among the largest of communities that still do business at an annual Town Meeting with assistance from a budget committee. Larger municipalities often rely on a city manager and an elected town council to hammer out the annual budget, he said.

Conrad would not comment on how important it is to have that “second set of eyes” on the budget process, saying that the concept is up to voters in each community to decide.

Joy Mase, chairwoman of the Skowhegan Board of Selectmen, said she served two years on the Budget Committee before being elected selectman six years ago. She said the bylaws have been charged a couple of times over the years to attract new members.

“I’m sorry to see that we’ve come to this point, but we just cannot get sufficient volunteers to make a quorum,” she said. “If we can find people to step forward and volunteer, it won’t be necessary to end it.”

Lynda Quinn, chairwoman of the Somerset County Commissioners, said she doesn’t think disbanding the Budget Committee is a good idea. She said she was a Skowhegan selectwoman for 21 years and that the board worked well with committee members.

“That now puts five people in charge of the entire budget for Skowhegan,” Quinn said. “I suppose they’ve got no choice, but it distresses me that the people in Skowhegan are willing to let five people make all the decisions. The public has the right to speak at town meetings, and we’ll have to leave it to them.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367
[email protected]

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