Most of Norwich Finance Committee resigns amid budget tiff with Selectboard

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/27/2021 9:59:27 PM
Modified: 1/27/2021 9:59:26 PM

NORWICH — After weeks of studying the proposed town budget, the Norwich Finance Committee drafted a memorandum, meant both for the Selectboard and for other residents, containing an overview of how the town’s finances work and a set of recommendations for how to improve them.

For example, the town should consider starting its budgeting process earlier, officials should consider revamping the budget’s many designated funds and how money is put into them and capital budgeting should be done earlier in the year, the committee suggested in its four-page memo, dated Dec. 29.

Further, the town should hold its budget increase below 3%, the memo said, and the Finance Committee wrote that it “is acutely aware of the financial difficulties many of Norwich’s residents are experiencing during the current pandemic.” The committee separated budget items into three categories: required expenses that the town can’t do without, necessary spending to be considered after required items are funded, and desired expenses that can be reduced without undermining present operations.

In deliberating on the budget, which is drawn up by Town Manager Herb Durfee in conjunction with town department heads, the Norwich Selectboard made only passing reference to the committee’s memo. On Jan. 20, four of the Finance Committee’s five appointed members resigned.

“While we understand that the Selectboard is under no obligation to accept the recommendations of the NFC, it is our shared belief that the Selectboard does not take, nor seems to desire, input from the NFC,” the committee wrote in a letter to the Selectboard.

“Unfortunately,” they added, “without any degree of real engagement from the Selectboard, our efforts are pointless.”

Finance Committee Chairman Emmanuel Tesone, Vice Chair Pam Smith, Secretary Libby Chamberlin and member Omer Trajman submitted individual letters of resignation. Linda Cook, a former member of the Selectboard, remains the lone remaining appointed member of the Finance Committee, and town Treasurer Cheryl Lindberg also remains on the panel.

Whether this episode portends any further effects on town politics will be determined in March, when voters will weigh in on a nearly $4.8 million budget that’s 6.4% higher than the current year’s, and choose between incumbent Selectboard member Mary Layton and Smith, who decided to run against Layton after resigning from the Finance Committee.

While the charge to the Finance Committee, drawn up in June 2018, calls on it to advise the Selectboard about the budget, financial policies, quarterly financial reports and the town treasurer’s investment reports, the document established no plan for how the two boards would interact.

Durfee noted that the responsibility for presenting a budget to the Selectboard is his alone, and that the Selectboard then approves a budget for the voters to consider.

“I’m the first to say that I was not in favor of a standalone Finance Committee,” Durfee said. He said he has had regular sessions with the committee’s chair to talk over finances, and the Selectboard reads the committee’s work.

Selectboard Vice Chair Roger Arnold said he, too, had spoken at length with Tesone about town finances. He also noted that the town has a memorandum of understanding with the Dresden Interstate School District that members of the Norwich Finance Committee will sit on a Dresden Finance Committee with their Hanover counterparts to examine the school district’s finances.

“I think it’s just a question of better understanding what kind of response or feedback the committee desires from the assigning board,” Arnold said in a phone interview.

For many years, Norwich had an elected Finance Committee that acted independently to pass judgments on town and school district budgets.

That committee didn’t have support in state law, however, and was phased out eight to 10 years ago, said Lindberg, who has been involved in town government since the mid-1980s and has been town treasurer since 1996.

“When you’re all elected, you’re not controlled by the Selectboard,” Lindberg said in a phone interview.

Re-established in 2018, the Finance Committee is now appointed by the Selectboard. It never quite found a home in its new charter.

“We couldn’t get in the mix,” Lindberg said. “We couldn’t get a sense of how we could be helping and how we could get heard.”

“We just felt that whatever work we did and recommendations we made, the Selectboard would ignore them,” said Smith, who also served on the previous Finance Committee, from 1993 to 1996, years before Norwich switched to the town manager form of government.

As a candidate for Selectboard, Smith said she “would like to see the Finance Committee have a greater voice in how these budgets are put together.”

Whatever happens, there will be a new Selectboard in March. John Langhus has decided not to run again, and Marcia Callaway is running unopposed for that seat.

Tesone, who holds a degree from Harvard Business School, declined to comment further on his resignation from the committee. Selectboard Chair Claudette Brochu did not return messages seeking comment.

Until March, at least, the Finance Committee is defunct. Its charge calls for it to have between three and seven members and now it has only two.

“Who knows,” Lindberg said. “Somebody else may come along and give it a shot.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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