Old News Archive

Letter to the Editor, Tony Hamlin

July 31, 2007 - TRC

Dear Citizens of Milo :

I am writing this letter to clarify the issues surrounding the special town meeting scheduled for August 1. In my four years of serving the citizens of Milo, Iíve tried to keep in mind what is in the best interest of our town, a town where I grew up and in turn raised my children.

Last year at this time, I spoke in front of another special town meeting called to raise additional funds for our Police Department. We had a new police chief and I felt it very important to support his efforts to put his own stamp on the Department. The citizenry voted the additional funds. This past February at a budget committee meeting there was a move to cut ten thousand dollars from the police budget. I again spoke in support of the Department and the committee approved a budget of $161,000, an increase of approximately $23,000(16%) from the previous budget. At that meeting the budget committee asked the chief if he could run the Department with that amount and he told them that he could. The Town later ratified the $161,000 at the Town Meeting in March.

In late March, my fellow selectmen and I became concerned that the police budget was going in the wrong direction at an alarming rate. I initiated a discussion at the next selectmens meeting, which included the Town Manager, in early April. Much to my disappointment the spending accelerated in April with nearly $2000 paid out in overtime that month. We had exceeded our allotted money for part-time workers, blown by the overtime budget, and spent about 60% of the yearís fuel budget.

Another discussion about the direction of spending in the Police Department among the Board of Selectmen and the Town Manager ensued on May 17. This time the idea of going back to the Town for more money was raised. At that time several selectmen expressed concerns that asking for more money should be viewed as a last resort rather than inevitable. I was among that group. The Town Manager informed us that we had a $27,000 payment coming to us from the state as reimbursement, as the state had just hired a Milo police officer who had recently graduated with honors from the Police Academy in Augusta. As selectmen we informed the manager that we are obligated by law to spend what was approved at Town Meeting under each article of the warrant. In this case it was $161,000. If we spent the $27,000, the result would be a total of $188,000. When informed of this, the Town Manager said this was past practice and that there was no reason to discontinue this. Several of us disagreed with her assessment. After checking with our auditor and another source, I was reminded that one of our jobs as selectmen is to ensure that we donít exceed the amount approved at Town Meeting. The only way to avoid this is if at Town Meeting the selectmen get voter approval to spend gifts, grants, or other funds that come into a particular department. We had no such statement in our town report, and an argument can be made that to allow selectmen to spend money brought into a department in any fiscal year is unwise. A better method might be to carry surplus amounts into the next fiscal year and, if appropriate, use them to supplement department budgets or reduce taxpayer obligations in the following year. I conveyed this information to the Board along with my opinion that past practice does not make it right and one shouldnít point to wrong behavior to justify continued bad behavior.

As May turned into June, the spending continued and once again a discussion was initiated among the Board members and the Town Manager about the direction of the police budget. The consensus was that a special town meeting was indeed inevitable. No definite date was set; it was assumed that it would be in early fall.

At the July 11 meeting I pushed the issue once more as the budget was down to about $3400 left to spend when the salaries of the three full-time officers were accounted for. By law if we exceed the amount approved by citizens at the annual town meeting, the selectmen are personally responsible. There are only two exceptions to this: road repair and general assistance. If we knowingly overspend and go back to the Town retroactively and get turned down, the expense is borne by the selectmen. With this knowledge, the Board set August 1, 2007, as the date for this special town meeting.

On the surface, the warrant articles that the Town is being asked to approve giving the selectmen the authority to spend additional income in any municipal department. Beneath the surface, however, are disturbing questions. Among them are:

1. Should the manager of any department who participated in the development of that departmentís budget be expected to stay within that budget ?

2. Who is ultimately responsible for managing the departments and overseeing appropriate spending,
and why was there a breakdown in the system ?

3. Should a department that overspends its funds in seven months be given more public money to make it through the year ?

4. If a department went back for more funds last year and is doing it again this year, is it unreasonable to assume that next year will be any different ?

5. If a particular department can overspend its budget, why canít every department do so ?

6. Are the taxpayersí wishes as expressed by votes at Town Meeting indeed final, or can town officials override those stated wishes ?

7. Should we follow generally accepted accounting procedures ?

I want to be clear that these are my personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of my fellow selectmen. However, I hold my fellow selectmen in the highest regard. To a person, they act in what they believe are the best interests of the Town of Milo. While we may not always agree, we respect each otherís opinions and concerns.

Before closing, there are a few other facts that might be helpful to you as you analyze these issues. As selectmen we had never had a discussion over the need to add a fourth full-time police officer. It was mentioned on July 11 by one selectman in passing and no discussion or action followed that simple remark. As a result, at a brief Board meeting on July 23, we removed this article from the warrant. If there is to be consideration of this issue, it will be done with sufficient deliberation and citizen input.

The bottom line is that the meeting on August 1 is not a referendum on the police department, and I make no judgment here on that topic. For me the issue is one of accountability. I feel we have an obligation to live by the money the Town approves at the annual town meeting. If we add an additional $27,000 to the police budget now, the total for fiscal year 2007 will be $188,000.

We have another officer going to the academy next year and we will have to pay $15,000 for him to do so, plus pay his salary while heís away, as well as his replacementís salary while heís there. If we start next year at $188,000 and add just the amount needed to send our officer to the academy, we will have a police budget of approximately $215,000. That is up from $138,000 in fiscal year 2006 for an increase of 56% ! This would reflect an additional mil and a half on our tax rate.

A better approach might be to set the incoming $27,000 aside into a carry-over account labeled ďAcademy Training,Ē to have next year when we need it, and use what funds are still available to cover the Townís needs to the best of our ability. It will not be easy, but the responsibility to make it work rests with those officials being paid with taxpayer money. As I told the police chief in open session, if in fact we do need to increase our police budget substantially, the time for that discussion is in November when the Budget Committee starts its deliberations. We need to make those arguments at that time and work through the appropriate process; and if we agree this additional funding is necessary, take it to the taxpayers in March for approval.

In my opinion, to do so now and in this fashion is an admission of our failure. As someone involved in town governance, I accept my share of this failure. However, I strongly believe the hard-working citizens of Milo should not unfairly bear that additional financial burden.

Thank you for listening.
Respectfully, Tony Hamlin

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.