Beyond Bean Counting
( from Maine Townsman, January 1993)

Though the following article may be somewhat dated, it is still believed to include information that may be useful to the reader.

In the best of [all] possible worlds, budget committees should be skilled in asking the right questions regarding the budgets they are reviewing. They need to go beyond merely understanding the numbers presented to them. They need to go beyond merely reducing them when they appear to be out of line. They need to ask probing questions leading to innovative solutions.

The warrant committee in Bar Harbor is a good example of such probing and innovation. Last year, faced with escalating solid waste costs, it asked the town’s largest generator of waste - Jackson Laboratory, a world famous cancer research center with 1,400 tons of wood shavings from mouse cages to dispose of [each] year - to one of its meetings to explore disposal alternatives.

Working together, they arrived at a solution that saved the town about $30,000. By switching from incinerating the material at PERC to composting it at Hawk Ridge, it was able to reduce costs from $50 a ton to $14.74 a ton. Not only did they save money; they found a more environmentally acceptable alternative.

Encouraging this kind of role in the budget planning process is the focus of The Finance Committee Primer, a publication of the Association of Town Finance Committees in Massachusetts.

In addition to spelling out the basics of the budget process in local government, the Primer is chock full of the types of probing questions budget committee members might wish to consider asking, if they haven't been in the practice of doing so already, as they make their annual review. Each question in the Primer is followed by a brief explanation of the context and importance of the question.

There are two types of questions in the Primer:

A few examples of those questions follow: