Scouring the Cupholder for Spare Change?
It's not often that we talk about the Patriots, Sox, and Town Meeting at the same time, but our ongoing budget woes have prompted a rare September Town Meeting, to be held next Tuesday, the 29th. According to official documents from the Town, the purpose of this rare event is to raise money, roughly $1 million, for expenses already incurred for the town's last financial (fiscal) year, which ended on June 30, and cut another $2 million out of the budget for this year.
I've got a couple of questions that caused me to scratch my head on this one. First, rather than raise a million dollars after the fact, why wasn't the money just saved during the year? Over the last year, the evidence was clear that the state was in a fiscal tailspin, and the news locally was no better. Tax revenues were down everywhere. News sources bemoaned the worst economy since the Great Depression on a regular basis on tv, in print, and in every corner of cyberspace. A causerie with even the most casual observer of local government would result in a bleak economic outlook. The lack of planning and attention to our financial details puzzles me. Give credit to Finance Committee Chair Gary Anderson. He's been beating the drum of fiscal responsibility for some time now and warning of a scenario just like the current conundrum. Earlier reports from the corner office this year were of a deficit in the half million dollar range, but Town Meeting members will be grappling with the aforementioned three million reasons why those projections were no good, and we are going to be searching for spare change in the cup holder to cover expenses that we made months ago.
Secondly, the new budget became effective on July 1, and we are already slashing $2 million from projected spending. With all of the above information at our disposal, should our financial team not have known this months ago? Both scenarios point to a disturbing lack of foresight and planning. Let's hope that all of the other distractions of the topsy-turvy world of our local financiers and policy makers and their current state of discord and disarray isn't distracting our leaders, elected and appointed, from their most basic tasks.
As for the upcoming Town Meeting, we are told that after the $3 million slash and burn, we will be on a "sustainable footing to move forward with our program of services." A closer look at the proposed cuts paints a different picture. Personnel costs are more than two-thirds of our expenses, but are zero percent of the solution for the Town. Words like reductions and furloughs are difficult to absorb, but must be a part of the solution in today's grave fiscal circumstances. Kudos to newly minted Superintendent Marc Dupuis for recognizing this and proposing furloughs as a way to maintain services. The silence from the corner office is troubling on this one. As a result, important services will suffer in the budget reduction proposals. The entire budget for drug investigations at the Police Department is going away. News reports continue unabated of crashes, robberies, and violence with a direct link to the scourge of illegal drugs in our community, but the after-the-thought budget planning seeks to eliminate the main source of funding to combat this cancer in our community. This is but one example of the programmatic impact of poor financial planning. How about the $80,000 reduction in the Waste Management Facility (dump)? Will that produce the profit we were promised months ago?
I know from experience that budgets are living documents that change from week to week as projections and actual expenses ebb and flow. That is part of the process. The problem with the current budgets before Town Meeting is that the process is out of control, a wayward ship, crashing through the rough seas of a sea of financial instability, with the Captain and crew below deck squabbling about what's for dinner. I think I'm getting seasick.
This column is reprinted from the Falmouth Enterprise.