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Bethlehem's budget process doing a 180

— The approach of September can only mean one thing at Bethlehem Town Hall: budgeting time.

Town leaders will soon be settling in for weeks of meetings and shuffling through spreadsheets in hopes of adopting a complete 2012 budget by Nov. 9. But this year the process will be turned on its head, with Supervisor Sam Messina presenting his draft budget at the first meeting of the season rather than near the end.

Messina said he's opting for a top-down approach this year in hopes of establishing the big-picture issues early on. In past years, the Town Board examined the budget line-by-line, department-by-department before the supervisor drafted a budget plan.

“The department heads will be there too, to highlight anything that they'd like to or respond to questions from the board,” Messina said.

Last year, board members rejected Messina's draft budget after weeks of crunching numbers. This triggered several late-hour meetings to hash out a consensus budget. The spending plan was ultimately passed unanimously and on time.

Leaders acknowledged that the 2011 budget process was the most difficult in recent memory, and it's unlikely things will get much easier. One positive is that Bethlehem's population increase recorded in the 2010 census has afforded the town a bigger slice of the county's sales tax receipts, but it's unlikely that will cover costs that seem to never stop rising.

“I think last year was a challenging year, and we came up with a responsible budget,” Messina said. “This year, the challenge is even greater, and we're up to the challenge.”

The supervisor declined to discuss specifics of his draft 2012 budget before they're finalized and he's had a chance to brief the rest of the Town Board.

The draft budget will first be presented at a Wednesday, Aug. 31, budget workshop at 6 p.m. at Bethlehem Town Hall. There are six other budget workshops and board meetings on the budget development calendar, though more could be added should the board desire them.

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