POLAND — Town officials from Mechanic Falls and Minot met with Poland selectmen Tuesday to try to figure out what sort of message they should present to RSU 16 school officials when they meet next week.
In May, and again in June, voters in the three towns rejected proposed budgets for the school year that began July 1 in a process that town officials say was flawed from the get-go.
In both instances, townspeople approved proposed budgets at town-meeting style votes only to reject them when it came to voting in validation referendums.
Both times, they said they rejected the budget as presented because it was too high.
However, according to a new school consolidation law, schools are allowed to use the most recent budget that had received some sort of approval, even if it was rejected when it came to the validation vote.
Following the June vote, school officials decided they would wait until September before acting a third time to pass a budget. In the meantime, they sent July bills to the three towns based on budget amounts that, as town officials saw it, the voters had rejected.
Minot selectmen reacted a week ago by approving a check for the same amount as they had been billed monthly for the past year.
School officials responded by saying the town owed another $6,690.
Poland selectmen this week decided to postpone paying any part of the town's $480,000 July bill.
Selectman Erland Torrey said he took that position as a way to express townspeople's frustration.
“In nine years, I have never had as many calls over an issue as I have with this one. I'm just amazed,” Torrey said.
Poland Selectman Wendy Sanborn noted that the town had 60 days in which to pay the bill and added that she hoped the action might compel the Regional School Unit 16 School Committee to act more swiftly to set a budget.
“I find the School Committee taking two or three months off unacceptable,” Sanborn said.
Mechanic Falls Town Manager John Hawley noted that the Town Council had debated whether to withhold payment but in the end decided to pay up with the expectation that if the town's assessment does turn out to be more than last year's, the money can come out of overlay.
Having voiced their grievances, officials tried to come to a consensus on how to improve the process.
While no one was ready to back off demands that this year's budget be lower — selectmen from all three towns were firm in their resolve to push for a budget that would not increase property taxes — they did agree that the key to preventing similar budget impasses lay in altering the budget process.
Longtime Poland Budget Committee member Norm Beauparlant commented that the current process was broken, plain and simple, and that things might flow much smoother if town budget committees weren't looked on as adversaries.
With that, the group assigned Steve Robinson, who has been liaison to the RSU 16 committee from the Poland board, the task of writing up a proposal that calls for more and earlier involvement by town officials in the budget's development.
Robinson noted that this might not solve the present impasse but would be a good starting point when town officials meet with RSU 16 officials next Tuesday.