The final topic on the agenda for the November 9 meeting of the Greenfield Charter Review Committee (for a bit of background on this committee, see the beginning of this post) was Article 5 of the City Charter, which covers Finance and Fiscal Procedures.
Given the complexity of municipal finances and the amount of stress and conflict regarding the city budget in recent years, I was expecting a longer, more detailed conversation on this part of the Charter, but it ended up being about a third of the meeting. It starts shortly after the 1-hour mark.
The two main recommendations up for consideration here were:
- Change the timing around how and when the School Committee is required to get its budget to the Mayor, relative to when the City Council holds its final vote on the budget. This suggestion came from the city's Director of Finance, who noted that it would help to alleviate timeline problems for the School Committee and the Superintendent.
- Adjusting language in Section 5-7 about the timelines for end-of-year transfers between supplementary budgets. Currently, these transfers have to happen within last the two months or the first fifteen days of the fiscal year. The suggestion here was to change it 21 days so as to not require the scheduling of a special meeting of the City Council in order to vote on the changes.
In both cases, the Charter Review Committee seems to be settling on making no change.
For the suggested change to the timing of the delivery of the School budget, the discussion revolved around two basic questions:
- What amount of time is wasted because of the public hearing/comment requirement and how that works, and how much of that time is due to this requirement being from a different era, when public notices and distribution worked much more slowly?
- Are the broader problems about getting to a timely school/city budget just bad process in recent years, or is it a systemic problem? If the former, then it shouldn't be a charter discussion.
The conclusion here was that, as long as the Mayor is able to give the budget (including the School budget) to the City Council ninety days ahead of their final vote, and as long as there are procedures in place to allow the public to know about and participate in the public hearing, it is up to the School Committee to manage its own business.
As with so many of these discussions, there is some political history that plays into the other major discussion topic—the timing for supplementary budget transfers.
Two years ago, there was a relatively significant crisis around this process. The City Council scheduled a special meeting to vote on the end-of-year supplementary budget transfers. However, a number of Councilors did not attend the meeting, meaning there was not a quorum sufficient to have a vote. This affair coincided with a contentious Mayoral and Council election cycle, so it is an open question as to whether the lack of a quorum was a legitimate scheduling conflict or a political stunt, and the Charter Review Committee wisely sidestepped that question.
In the end, the determination is that, while changing the requirement for these from two weeks to 21 days after the start of the new fiscal year would eliminate the need for a special City Council meeting and possibly avoid a recurrence of the quorum issue, this timing comes from Massachusetts General Law and is not something that can be changed via the City Charter.
So, what next?
The Committee’s goal is to have its report final report to the City Council before the end of 2020, as required by the Charter. Per Committee Chair David Singer at this week’s meeting, they want to be able to provide the City Council with a report that shows the Council each change the Committee considered, what its conclusion was, and why it reached that conclusion, along with a record of other options they considered.
With that final report in hand, it is then in the hands of the City Council to vote on the recommended changes, any of which would then also (as far I understand it) also need to be approved by the state.