Monday, May 21, 2007


Imagine a young person just out of college: first job, shoebox apartment, eating a lot of rice as she tries to make the entry-level salary cover life’s start-up costs. Now imagine her mom, worried and well-intentioned, deciding that the stress of it all is not good for the daughter, so she gives her a gift certificate for the works at a fancy day spa. Now the daughter would love to have these relaxing spa treatments – who wouldn’t, after all? – but more than that, she really could have used that money. If Mom had really wanted to help her out, she would have just given her the gift certificate money to apply to her own priorities as needed.

That’s how I feel about budget amendments at Town Meeting.

This is an illustration, not an etiquette lesson, so never mind that the daughter should just be grateful for the gift.

When someone from the floor of Town Meeting moves to add back funds for X, Y or Z in any of the budget areas, they are not respecting the funding priorities of that area. Sure, the Town Manager would love to be able to open the pool and the schools would love to bring back the Ecobus, but unless such items are next in line on their funding priority lists, insisting on those expenditures amounts to meddling.

“But Town Meeting represents the priorities of the citizens!”

Well, first of all, the whole structure of Town government represents the priorities of the citizens – as a whole, if not as individuals.

And secondly, individuals are always going to get worked up about something sexy like the pool or the Ecobus – there’s no such thing as a rallying cry of support for the boring but vital nitty-gritty elements of administration. That’s why we need the Town Manager, the Superintendent, and the Library Director – it is their job to know the big picture of their departmental priorities better than anyone else in town, and we should respect that.

The big-picture part is key. These people are responsible for serving and balancing the needs and wants of the entire town, and not merely the loudest or the most eloquent Town Meeting members.

I am inclined to defer to the experts. I believe that no one understands the complexities of the Town’s revenues and expenses better than the Finance Director and the Finance Committee. Ditto for the Town Manager, the schools, the Public Transportation Committee, etc. in their respective domains. That labor and knowledge is divided into different areas for very practical purposes – we can’t all know everything about everything. Why do we think the little that we each do know about any given area has more value than the vast amounts of knowledge held by the committee or official dedicated to it?

I expect to be voting for the 1% budget with the Finance Committee’s recommendations.

Bear in mind that the Finance Committee didn’t determine how the money would be spent, only how much was available for spending.

I accept that a 1% budget will be painful and will entail cuts to a lot of important services. To me, there was only one good way to avoid this, and that was with the override and the three-year plan. I feel that taking money from reserves or seeking a smaller override to simply meet this year’s needs perpetuates the cycle of delaying rather than addressing our fiscal problems.

I have heard powerful arguments to justify both, but I am not persuaded. I think working toward a larger override next year is our best short- and long-term option, and I believe that a small override this year dramatically reduces the chances of that passing. There is no guarantee for next year, obviously, but I think we need to take the best steps we can now to help make that happen. A small override this year, on top of last year’s CPA tax increase, feeds the perception that “we’re always voting to raise our taxes.” We must be judicious in going to the voters, and I think we tried this year and failed, and now need to look ahead.

So those are my sentiments going into the budget articles, and my expectations for how I will vote. But you never know. Like they say in sports about the folly of predicting an outcome based on what is known about the teams beforehand: “That’s why they play the game.”