The Charter Review Committee (CRC) will hold a public hearing on June 9, 2022 at 6:00 p.m. for input on the proposed changes to Sanford’s City Charter. Some of the changes will clean up or clarify language in the Charter, while others are of a more substantive nature.
The biggest proposed change to the Charter is to expand the Budget Committee from seven to seventeen members. The Budget Committee would include all seven members of the City Council and five members of the School Committee, plus five appointed voter members, who will serve staggered three-year terms. (The term “voter member” means members of the public who are registered voters.) The voter members will be appointed by the City Council.
The Budget Committee at present includes three City Councilors and four voter members, and no members of the School Committee.
At their April 11 meeting, members of the CRC were leaning toward expanding the Budget Committee to nine members, but over the course of subsequent meetings, came to a consensus that including all members of the City Council and School Committee would provide greater accountability for the budget. Some members of the CRC expressed the view that some City Councilors were voting on budgets that they were not sufficiently informed about, and making them members of the Budget Committee would address that problem.
The City Council will also be given the power to set compensation for voter members of the Budget Committee.
Another proposed change to the Charter will increase funds that are set aside for the Capital Improvements Program (CIP). The current charter caps this at 4% of the previous year’s combined City and School operating budgets, less the previous year’s budgeted CIP. The proposed new language would increase that amount by .25% per year until reaching 7.5%. City Manager Steve Buck and Public Works Director Matt Hill advocated strongly for this change, as they documented that without it, the City will fall behind on the goal of improving the overall condition of our roads, due to severe inflation in the cost of construction. While the City has already made this change to the budget, by putting it in the Charter, it protects that process from future City Councils who might want to reduce taxes by slashing the CIP.
The School Budget validation process is set by state law and cannot be changed by the Charter, but language in the Charter is being proposed to clarify the process, with the inclusion of references to the relevant state statutes.
There was extensive discussion at several meetings about whether the right to vote on the municipal side of the budget should be returned to voters, or whether the City Council should retain the power of approval. CRC members eventually concluded that a citizen up-or-down vote on the budget is meaningless, for the following reasons:
- A “no” vote would not actually affect the budget. By law, the budget as approved by the City Council would remain in effect until a new budget could be approved. In other words, voting no is not enough – voters must say yes to a budget before it can be enacted, which might require multiple referenda to be held, at taxpayer expense, until a majority of voters can agree on a bottom-line figure.
- A “no” vote, and even a subsequent “yes” vote on a lower budget, would have no effect on that year’s property tax bills. By the time a budget referendum could be approved, property taxes for the fiscal year have already been committed, which has to be done on July 1. It might seem that moving up the budget process to earlier in the year could address this aspect of the problem, but crafting a budget depends on the amount of revenues the City gets from the state, and those amounts are not set until the state legislature passes Maine’s final budget and the Governor signs it. This year that happened in late April, but last year it was much later. There is a short window of time to post public notices, and hold public hearings and the referendum.
Some CRC members pointed out that since Sanford is a representative democracy, unhappy taxpayers already have a means of affecting the budget, by voting for City Council candidates whose priorities align with theirs.
No change is proposed to be made to Section 1302 of the Charter, which provides a process for citizens to overrule the Council on the budget or other matters.
A proposed change to the Charter would increase the amount that the City Council can appropriate in emergency situations, from $250,000 to $1 million. Another proposal would increase the amount of bonds the Council can approve, from $250,000 to $1 million. Bonds over $1 million would require voter approval.
A change to the Planning Board section would require at least four members to vote in the affirmative on any Planning Board action. Currently only a majority of members present are required for approval.
The City Charter, with all the proposed changes redlined, may be viewed online here.
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