Westbrook council getting ahead of social services budget

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WESTBROOK — The City Council is discussing the upcoming social services budget early this year to avoid repeating last year’s frustration over the process.

The council held a workshop Feb. 5 to have a preliminary discussion of the budget process for social services agencies. Councilors didn’t discuss numbers, but some said they don’t want to see much of an increase from last year.

During the fiscal year 2018 budget process last spring, Mayor Mike Sanphy assembled an advisory committee to review requests from social services agencies. The members interviewed agency representatives and made a budget recommendation to Sanphy. 

According to City Administrator Jerre Bryant, councilors were left out of the loop during this process.

“A key oversight, that the administration takes full responsibility for last year, was that we did not engage the council early in the process and on the night that we heard the social service agencies (budget) we learned and heard loud and clear that that was a mistake on our part,” Bryant said. 

Councilors said they didn’t know who was on the committee or why it made the recommendation it did. The committee’s recommendation was a budget of $198,000. Sanphy proposed $173,000 and the council approved $143,000. 

On Monday night, the council met the advisory committee, which includes four of the five members who served last year. Bryant said he plans to find a fifth member within a week or two. 

The committee is structured to cover different categories of what social service agencies provide, Bryant said, adding the members are people who have a strong knowledge of agencies and the needs of people served by them. None of them are applicants for funding.

The workshop was held Monday so councilors could tell the committee what they expect for the upcoming budget and what kind of information they want. Councilor Gary Rairdon said he was “not comfortable” discussing a budget number he could support, and Councilor Victor Chau said he wants to see “something similar to last year.”

Councilor Lynda Adams said it can be difficult for councilors to make budget decisions about social service agencies because they don’t know what they all do or who they serve. She asked the committee to give the council that information so it can make a more informed decision.

“I’m willing to help,” Adams said. “We just need to know exactly who we’re helping and what for.”

The committee members said they would prepare a presentation for the council prior to the budget presentation. The members said last year they received requests from 16 agencies in the city and this year they’ve received 21 so far. 

Council Vice Chairman John O’Hara said he wants to help all of the organizations, but that he doesn’t want to increase the budget by too much.

“My personal preference is to spread the funding out because usually when we spread the funding out we get a better product,” he said. “Also, I’d like to see us try to keep funding to a minimum.”

Adams, however, said she knows it costs more to help organizations provide good care and services to residents in need.

“I’m open to giving more funding if it’s absolutely necessary to help our citizens,” she said. “I’m not about level funding. If we have to raise the money somehow, we’ll do it.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

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