An hour into a budget forum, a handful of Gardner citizens broke into small groups to set priorities for the 2016 city budget.
The first hour of the meeting was contentious as citizens voiced ire at consultants and city staff. By the time the formal priority-setting started, more than half of the meetings’ participants had left the building.
Consultants from Allen, Gibbs, and Houlik (AGH) mediated the forum.
Ben Hart, vice president of AGH, said a good municipal budget requires that citizens are involved.
“Rule number one — you guys are critically involved in this process,” Hart told an audience of about 25 citizens.
Hart began a slide show to define what a budget is and how a good budget should work.
“We want your opinion,” he said. “What I want to do is start off with a little bit of background…What do you want the city to look like when you’re walking down the street?”
The budget process should establish broad goals, develop approaches to achieve those goals, develop a budget consistent with those approaches and then, evaluate the performance and make adjustments, he told the group.
Ultimately, a capital improvements plan (CIP) — or list of future projects and anticipated costs — plus operational costs should equal the city budget.
“What you’re describing now is not what we’re experiencing,” Debbie Hickman, a Gardner resident attending the forum, said.
She noted that the city council has yet to approve a CIP.
“You’re now asking us to look at 2016 without knowing what direction we’re heading,” she said. “I hear this, but this isn’t what I’ve experienced.”
Hart called the budget process “an evolution.”
“When you start a CIP process, it’s not easy,” Hart said. You’ve got multiple opinions to work through. You’ve got department opinions to work through. Then what’s the priority and the governing body opinions.”
Bruce Hughes, a Gardner resident in attendance, said the consultants were asking citizens to put on blinders and see nothing.
“You want us to believe it will be followed even though we’ve never seen it followed,” Hughes said. “Why should we believe that going on 2016 this is what the process will be?”
Cheryl Harrison-Lee, city administrator, told the crowd that the forum was an opportunity to provide input without council members possibly influencing their input.
Members of the governing body did not attend the budget forum at the request of Mayor Chris Morrow, though Harrison-Lee did not tell the group that.
However, earlier in the day, Morrow sent an email to council members asking them to stay home.
“Since this is an event for the citizens, I humbly ask that none of the elected representatives attend,” Morrow wrote. “We will each have multiple opportunities to participate in the development and approval of the 2016 budget. In my opinion, if any of us were to attend tonight, it may inhibit discussion by some, and inflame the rhetoric of others. So, let’s please allow the citizens we serve to have their meeting tonight without distractions.”
The absentee governing body was an issue of contention, however.
“I don’t want a liaison or a mediator between council and me,” Hickman said.
Rich Melton, Gardner, also attended the forum.
“Council could have just been here listening,” he said.
More than an hour into the meeting, Morrow arrived at city hall. He said he left his dinner waiting so he could speak to the forum, after learning of the meeting disruption via text messages.
“We heard from the citizens that they wanted to be more a part of the budget process,” Morrow said. “We started in the process in January and we started with the citizens.
Morrow’s appearance was not all that well received.
“I don’t appreciate you coming in here and admonishing me,” Hickman said as she and another member of the audience left.
Melton said he was disappointed that Morrow would come into the meeting late and say things without having heard the first part of the forum.
Morrow responded directly to Melton.
“And if you had contacted me and said things are going sideways, I would have come and interceded on your behalf,” Morrow told him.
One resident said the budget forum would have been improved had the meeting’s agenda been better outlined in advance.
Another resident said he came to the forum hoping to be involved.
“But I feel like we can’t get to it because we keep getting held up in the past,” he told the Mayor and forum attendees.