Thursday, May 25, 2006

And the budget saga continues

So now it’s Wednesday and we’re right back at this.

We began with a most arcane issue: the calling of a Special Town Meeting – full reading of the “O hear ye, hear ye” warrant and all – followed immediately by a motion to adjourn it until after Article 34. This has something to do with new money that is needed for land acquisition with Community Preservation Act funds, and by my interpretation, is essentially equal to adding a new article to the current warrant. Apparently you can’t do that, so you go through the technicalities of calling and adjourning a Special TM, which basically means we’ll deal with this issue a little later. Okie-dokie.

Next up: a massive and unnecessary mea culpa from the moderator for the stresses of Monday night’s meeting. From his explanations, I gather that he got angry feedback regarding his moderator skills, his integrity, his intelligence and the horse he rode in on. PLEASE! Monday was kind of confusing, kind of heated and even kind of messy. But if ever there were a situation where the intentions were good, but the execution didn’t quite work out so well, that was it. Anyone who bothered to get indignant over it being anything more than that should really step back and take a very deep breath. If Harrison Gregg weren’t usually so excellent, then our standards wouldn’t be so high. Cut the man some slack, for goodness sake! Hmmph. Well. So there.

Amidst the self-flagellation was some good and clarifying info about the rule for “voting the higher number first,” which didn’t happen Monday but will happen henceforth. (Talk about arcane!) Next a few more new members got sworn in, and then the best housekeeping detail yet: correcting an erroneous vote from Monday. It seems that the tally vote record showed that John Musante, who is interim Town Manager, voted in Monday’s dispatcher vote, while Select Board member Gerry Weiss, abstained. Big whoop, you say? Well, by tradition, the Town Manager does not vote, and the dispatcher thing was part of the Select Board recommendation, so why would Weiss abstain? Drama! Intrigue! Noooooo. Somehow Gerry Weiss happened to vote with one of John Musante’s tally vote cards. Amusing, and frankly surprising it doesn’t happen more often. These meetings generate a fair amount of paper. I’m personally expecting to screw up my own tally vote by using a card from a previous night. It’ll probably happen.

So we’re finally back to the budget. We’re still on the second half of the divided motion from Monday regarding Public Safety money. The Select Board amends the Finance Committee recommendation, moving to reduce it by about $30,000. Some attention is paid to this being equivalent to not filling a police officer vacancy (of which none exists,) but there is repeated emphasis that we vote to appropriate Public Safety money in general, and not on the specifics of how it gets spent. One person speaks to how vital police are to the community, and another points out for the first time that the key difference between the two budget recommendations is money for Public Safety versus money for human service agencies, and their importance to the community.

And then we get an entirely new proposal from a Town Meeting member. I was wondering if this would happen.

This one seeks to increase public safety spending by about $254,000, with the recommendation to fund that increase by taking $164,000 from Community Services (essentially wiping out the human services and human rights money) and about $90,000 from Planning, Conservation and Inspections (about 10% of that budget.) This would potentially fund five additional police officer positions which were in the earliest preliminary budget proposal from the Town Manager, but which disappeared quickly from all future recommendations once the extent of this year’s fiscal crisis became evident. Passionate talk about public safety, core of the town’s body, underappreciated, underfunded, etc.

It might have had some potential. Until the Police Chief shot it down.

He appreciated the sentiment, but thought such a recommendation should go through the proper channels of the Finance Committee, the Select Board, etc. Hallelujah.

After others questioned the figures that had been presented about past public safety support, and the need for such a proposal to be considered and vetted with time and care, and in the context of the budget as a whole, the amendment was quickly and decisively voted down. I was among those voting to oppose it.

Back to the Select Board’s smaller amount vs. the Finance Committee’s larger amount, and how everybody thinks public safety is vital, and they just made different choices on how to distribute the money. The Finance Committee’s larger amount wins in a tally vote of 102 in support, 75 opposed. I voted in support. That was still a preliminary vote though, with the potential for more discussion of other public safety areas, but there was no further discussion, and we came to a quick vote “to appropriate $8,029,047 for public safety . . .” and with that, we officially approved the original Finance Committee recommendation.

We move on to General Government – this is the guts of how Town Hall works and the business of the town gets done. It includes collecting taxes, paying bills, conducting elections, maintaining town buildings, all the work of the Town Manager’s office, the Town Clerk’s office, Information Technology, etc. Again, we have a Finance Committee recommendation, and a smaller Select Board recommendation ($20,000 less.)

And then it happens again.

Another member offers an entirely new recommendation for this whole area of the operating budget. This time though, the proposal is not to add, but to subtract. The motion is to reduce spending in General Government by $204,000. This would appeal to all those who think government is generally wasteful and has plenty of fluff in its budget. The recommendation would be to cut the Assistant Town Manager’s position, combine the Treasurer and the Collector, take various monies from other places, and a big chunk out of Information Technology.

And this too might have had some support. Until Mr. Musante pointed out that the Assistant Town Manager and Treasurer positions had already been eliminated several years ago. And no one wants to cut I.T.

So we vote on this, which again is a preliminary vote. Because of the whole “larger number first” thing, we have to vote on the Finance Committee proposal versus both of the two lower ones – the Select Board’s being $20,000 lower, and the new one being $204,000 lower. It is a tally vote, and the Finance Committee’s larger amount fails, with 74 supporting, and 98 opposing. I voted to support it.

Now we have just the two smaller numbers before us. More discussion of how very big the big cut is. We then quickly vote on the two remaining motions. This time the Select Board’s recommendation wins overwhelmingly, no tally vote necessary. We immediately have the official appropriating vote, and hence nearly unanimously vote to appropriate the Select Board’s figure of $5,304,392 for General Government. With the FC's figure now gone, I supported the SB’s figure for both of these votes.

After a procedural motion having to do with whether or not we’ll meet Thursday (we won’t,) we adjourned until next Tuesday.

Random bits

Today I sat in the center of the back row on the moderator’s right/audience’s left. I hear very different chatter depending on where I sit.

TMCC voting was tonight, but not everyone knew about it, so there was a bit of confusion. It lead us to adjourn a smidge earlier than usual so people could vote at the end. I, alas, voted before the meeting.

Town Meeting starts at 7:30, but you’d never know it. We don’t typically have a quorum (and hence are unable get started) until 10 or 15 minutes later than that. How about we all try to be prompt, folks? Like this whole thing doesn’t take long enough already?

Much calling the question tonight. Definitely cuts to the chase and keeps things moving. I like that.

Much picking at the budget and offering random cuts, alternatives, etc. I don’t like that at all. I feel strongly that TM is vastly too late in the budget process to be seeking to eliminate positions or change spending policy. I’ll pontificate on this subject in much greater detail soon.

Another day, another $13 million dollars appropriated.