A Tale of Two Committees

Falmouth Selectmen vs. the Finance Committee

The Falmouth Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen seem to be living in two distinct realities, one where dire fiscal times are demanding difficult spending reductions and budget reviews, and the other where it is business as usual, and the solution for every problem lies in the pocket of the taxpayer.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..." So said Charles Dickens in his legendary tome, "A Tale of Two Cities.  Perhaps, though, Dickens had a bit of foresight in his literary quiver and was shooting a soothsaying arrow into the future - right at our own Falmouth Town Hall and our local version of his great work, "The Tale of Two Committees."  

The Falmouth Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen seem to be living in two distinct realities, one where dire fiscal times are demanding difficult spending reductions and budget reviews, and the other where it is business as usual, and the solution for every problem lies in the pocket of the taxpayer.

The Finance Committee is engaged in thorny and complicated discussions on how to handle the capital spending requests for the upcoming Town Meeting while keeping their sights on the ever-darkening financial horizon and state aid cuts looming.  At a recent meeting, they considered deferring most capital spending until next spring, when local aid figures will likely be better known.  Committee members lamented delaying important purchases, but recognized the need for both frugality and caution. 

"Do we want to spend our free cash down to zero...or do we want to only vote those items that are absolutely necessary," asked FinCom veteran Gardner Lewis.  This approach demonstrates the kind of attention to our financial detail that is necessary to protect our basic services and the taxpayer in this most wobbly of fiscal times.

Meanwhile, the Selectmen, who held their annual fee hearing this week and engaged in some happy hiking of a variety of fees, from a sixty percent increase in sewer rates, to huge increases in Conservation Commission surcharges, appear to be oblivious to the crumbling economy around them. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, we convened a Special Town Meeting to reduce this year's spending by over $2 million, and heard the admonition from FinCom Chair Gary Anderson about cutting costs.  Instead of heeding this, the Selectmen welcomed the opportunity to increase the burden on Falmouth's taxpayers, welcoming virtually every fee placed before them under the guise of having each department raise enough revenue to cover its costs.  The problem with this flawed logic is that the source of funds for this additional revenue is, inevitably, the same taxpayers.  Take a typical homeowner on the town sewer.  Their basic rate for a cubic foot of sewage will go from $3.81 to $6.10 under the plan approved unanimously during Monday night's marathon that lasted until after 11:00.  The triumph offered by Wastewater Division staffers was that this mammoth hike in user fees will actually result in a surplus in revenue for the department.  This is not good news - it simply means that the ratepayers (also known as citizens and taxpayers) are being soaked even more than they are now (probably not a good word to use when discussing sewage)  Sure, we sorely need to find a way to balance our budgets, but I continue to scratch my head that the only solution coming from the corner conference room is to do that on the backs of the average hard working Falmouthite.

One shining moment in an otherwise dreary hearing was the news by Assistant Town Manager Heather Harper that revenue from the new wind turbines at the Wastewater Treatment Plant will produce significant non-taxpayer-based cash after they are installed and creating renewable energy.  That's the kind of solution-focused thinking that we need.

So, this Tale of Two Committees will converge in a couple of weeks when the Fall Annual Town Meeting gets down to the business of considering the year's capital spending.  The Finance Committee will likely tell our local legislators that it is most prudent to hold off on most initiatives and save our available cash for the certain cuts that are coming.  What will the Selectmen say? Perhaps they'll pass the hat in the Lawrence Memorial Auditorium as they hum the rock anthem "The Best of Times."  After all, Town Meeting Members are also taxpayers and are part of the solution to all problems... 

This column is reprinted from the Falmouth Enterprise.

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