Time for Tax Compromise in Falmouth

 

I've told this story before, but it bears repeating given the current budget conundrum.  I'll never forget my first budget in the Town of Falmouth.  I was a newly elected, know-it-all, 24-year old Selectmen back in 1994.  Our first budget hearing of the season was on a cold January Monday.  Barb and I were driving back from my Aunt Jennie's wake in Brockton, and in the course of that hour drive, I had it all figured out.  While I drove and conducted what I thought at the time was a keen and insightful analysis of the wasteful spending of the Town, I penned over $1.5 million in cuts to the budget.  I slashed and sliced with reckless abandon, convinced that I would take my seat at the corner conference table as the wise and experienced fiscal conservative and arbiter of responsible spending. 

The rest of the Board had other plans.  They reduced my million dollar cut-a-palooza to a mere fifteen hundred dollars.  The lone victim was new guns for the Natural Resources department.  I think Mark Patton is still smarting today.  Anyway, the lesson I learned is that my big plans for cutting the budget failed miserably because I fancied the distorted thought that my fellow board members would simply accept the ideas of an upstart Selectman just because I said so.  My education in the art of compromise began that night - and it continues today.

It is that skill, that ability to share thoughts rather than plunk them down in the middle of the table - the art of give and take - that is necessary as the town struggles yet again with how to close a budget gap.   The fact that many of the financial stakeholders are at the table discussing solutions is a positive development,  and the recent proposal by emissaries of the business community and the Chamber of Commerce has some real merit and must be analyzed closely - but even the proponents must be willing to compromise.

Discussing a tax increase of any kind is a thorny proposition.  In fact, the last time the local option meals tax and the local option rooms tax were proposed, I offered some pretty strong thoughts against them both.  Times though, and the fiscal state of the Commonwealth, have changed.  The economic recovery has not materialized, and the state continues to reduce its aid to cities and towns, making the job of managing local budgets and providing services an ever-increasing challenge. 

The idea presented by Chamber Chief Jay Zavala and Selectman Emeritus Kevin Murphy to boost the rooms tax - which would be paid exclusively by non-residents, effectively sharing the tax burden - and to set aside a portion of that revenue for marketing Falmouth as a destination is just the kind of creative thinking that we need to get us out of this budgetary nadir.  The idea of dedicated rooms tax funds to destination marketing was actually first floated many years ago, when a similar committee that included financial veterans like Bill Smith, Pat Flynn and then-Chamber Director Kelly Pratt floated the trial balloon.  The difference was we didn't have the local option 4-6% increase that is on the table now, effectively providing nearly a half-million dollars in additional revenue to combat the declining contributions from the state and a little extra for marketing.  This proposal deserves the scrutiny that Finance guru Gary Anderson and others will give it, but surely deserves a close look and consideration. 

Here's where the compromise comes in:  The proponents of this local option tax cannot champion their cause with a straight face if they then turn around and oppose the local option meals tax.  This "tiny tax," (I can't believe I just used that phrase), would add 75 cents on a $100 dollar restaurant bill.  So, your average order for a few  pizzas in the old oven and an order of wing dings from Paul's would cost about a quarter more with this revenue enhancer on the books.  Would that really scare would-be eaters away?  Really?  I think not.  The time has probably come for this one, as over 100 Massachusetts municipalities have instituted it, and no one has been seen running for the borders in those towns to save a few pennies.  This local option tax would also provide the opportunity for our visitors to share in helping our infrastructure and personnel, as they would throw in a couple of coins with each meal without a second thought.  If the business community is going to support additional local option taxes, they have to be consistent and move off of their current hard line, translated as a compromise.

So as these proposals meander through the process leading to Town Meeting, here's to hoping that the lessons of this former hammer-wielder turned compromiser are not lost on the pundits, decision makers, coffee shop prognosticators, and most importantly, Town Meeting members.  To get out of these financial doldrums with any long-term stability, we've got to create long-term solutions.  And as I learned those many years ago, solutions often, if not always, require compromise.

This column is reprinted from the Falmouth Enterprise.

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