Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Who did it? Whooooooo……did it?

            

Two weeks ago, on Thursday, May 15th, we attended the Town Council’s public hearing on the Brunswick budget for 2014/15.

We’d been out of town for several days prior to the meeting, so we don’t know what we missed in the way of preliminaries.  Let’s just say we were thoroughly surprised by the meeting we did attend.  We were expecting numerous representatives of ‘the schoolies,’ including the mommy mafia and their friends from the BCU (Brunswick Community Unionists.) 

            

We saw nothing of the sort.  So either they made their presence known in the usual fashion at earlier meetings we missed, or something very unusual took place this year.

In fact, very few people spoke on the budget; the fewest Side can remember.  Your correspondent banged his head against the wall as usual, offering a statement that seemed out of place under the circumstances, though we modified our prepared words on the fly.  (The original version is appended at the end of this post.)

Frankly, we were a bit embarrassed, but since nothing we say ever makes any difference, what does it matter?  We were but an actor upon a stage, strutting out our part, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  (To paraphrase an author in another medium a long, long time ago.)

This is not to say there was no testimony.  One town resident gave what we would call a ‘gut take’ on how tough the constant increases in property taxes are on his family finances.  We have no way of knowing how it was received by the councilors, but as we see it, he distilled town spending and property taxes to their very essence.  Nothing can be spent by the town that isn’t first taken from local tax payers.

He was a grim reminder that discussions of increased spending, even if the increase is reduced from what was originally proposed, affects EVERY ONE of the conveniently anonymous property taxpayers in town. 

We perceive that this simple reality, more often than not, is lost on most.  Too many, we fear, don’t make a connection between their tax bills and town budgets.  Especially those who have their property taxes impounded by their mortgage holder, which renders monthly increases some sort of distant ‘calculation.’  Taxes go up by ‘x dollars a month’ rather than 12 times x dollars per year.  You know how this works; that new car is only $400 a month, not $25,000, or $5,000 per year.  Stop with the whining, right?

Which brings us to the ‘bookies.’  If you’ve been coming here over the nearly five years we’ve been publishing, you know we consider them second only to the ‘schoolies’ in believing they have a moral claim on town resources, no matter the consequences for those who provide them, including the person you see in the mirror. 

The ‘schoolies,’ whom we referred to earlier, are those who rally around school budget requests no matter their scope, scale, irresponsibility, unaffordability, unsustainability, etc.  The ‘bookies’ are those who see the town’s library as even more sacred than the school system, and dare we say, Amtrak’s Downeaster.  (Maybe we should institutionalize the ‘trainies!’)

We’ve said more than once that you don’t want to mess with either, unless you’re as plain spoken about such things as Side is.  We’d like you to be so, but we’re mindful that behaving thusly could lead to your ejection from polite ‘inner circles’ in town.  So take your pick; say what needs to be said, or protect your social stature. 

As for us, as the old saying goes, ‘when you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to lose.’  OK; it’s not an ‘old saying.’  It’s a new saying to add to our original collection.

Wow…we went off on a tangent, didn’t we?  Back to the ‘bookies.’  As we listened to the head of the Library Board of Directors, we were a bit ‘tweaked’ by her choice of language. 

Only upon thinking about it over the next day or so did our thoughts on the matter crystallize.  The hot buttons (emotional triggers) she used included these:

- “our goals for the year”

- “losing important opportunities”

- “services the public demands”

The Ostrich reported on the library issue as follows:

This year, the town funded the library to the tune of $1.2 million. The library is requesting $1.28 million for the next fiscal year. Eldridge is recommending a figure of $1.26 million.

Curtis Memorial Library President Kate Egan noted that the library has lent out 130 percent more items and experienced 8 percent more traffic than five years ago. Cuts to the library’s proposed increase may result in “critical staffing positions” not getting filled, said Egan.

“So what’s your point?,” we ask.  Shall we come to budget hearings with reports on how much our food, gasoline, utility, and health bills have increased?  And how the increases have eaten into our ‘discretionary’ ability to pay for town ‘services,’ especially those THE PUBLIC DEMANDS?

Bluntly put, this classic trope of ‘services the public demands’ makes us want to grab the town chicken by the neck and choke the living sausage out of it.  This was a standard card played by a long time Brunswick Mr. Manager who retired a few years ago, and was also favored by a long time Brunswick school superintendent who retired and then became Mr. Manager in a nearby town.

We won’t bore you with the details of the People Plus request for an increase in town subsidy of nearly 5%.

We’ve asked before that anyone who comes to a governing body to seek increased taxpayer support for services ‘the public demands’ provide written proof of these demands, including names and addresses of those making such demands.  We’ve sat in public hearings, and listened to residents assert how they were ‘more than willing to pay higher taxes to pay for blah-blah-blah,’ and when we passed them a sign up list to record their name, address, and how much more they were willing to pay, discovered they had somehow left the room, or otherwise lacked the courage of their convictions.

So you know what, Library Lady?  Take your ‘public demands’ and sell them somewhere else.  They have no more relevance than folks standing in line at Hannafords ‘demanding’ we pay a greater share of their grocery tab.  Frankly, HOW DARE anyone use the word “DEMAND” to impose their will, via government force, on the rest of their neighbors?

Come to think of it, perhaps we should begin our statements to the town council in the future by “demanding you lower our property taxes.”  We’re tired, thank you, of sitting idly by while others get up and suggest that others whom they don’t know have an obligation to pay for whatever they might want, no matter what the consequences will be for their own family finances.

In our system of ‘justice,’ the accused has the right to confront their accuser.  We think it’s time that the demandee have the right to confront the demander.  Every time we get up to testify and make our demand for lower taxes, the council will have a face and a name to associate with the demand.  Which is exactly the opposite of the demands voiced by others.

In a manner of speaking, the next time we hear someone reference undocumented demands, we will offer up this gesture in response:

        

As long as we’re on the subject, we’d like to remind readers that public health and safety are core obligations of municipal government, clearly expressed in the Town Charter.  Providing free loans of books and other library materials are not, no matter how much the community governing elite may think so.

We have ‘pay per bag’ for trash collection, and we even have a current candidate for the state legislature bragging about her role in creating this program.  The same candidate just resigned from the Sewer District Board of Trustees, which has yet to institute a ‘pay per flush’ system, though the technology to do so is readily at hand.

Surely, Shirley, it’s time to institute a ‘pay per book’ program.  How about 50 cents per loan?  That’s much less than the cost to acquire whatever you borrowed, and would create a flood of revenue so the library could hire several more staff members.

What’s that you say?  “That wouldn’t be fair?”

Sorry; we’ve had it up to here with “DEMANDS” that aren’t matched by a willingness to pay for the consequences of such demands.

Stuff it, we say.

While you’re thinking about the subject, ponder the words in this recent report:

http://www.theforecaster.net/news/print/2014/05/15/tax-hike-ceiling-threatens-brunswick-capital-proje/197948

Even with that "glimmer of hope," prospects for the CIP committee's recommendations are dim, Eldridge said.

"I'd like to think it is a deferral, but in all honesty, given what we're looking at and what we already have for built-in increases for next year's budget, I think it's wishful thinking that we're going to fund this at the CIP-recommended level next year," he said.

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Statement to Town Council on Budget May 15, 2014

  • Did you ever notice that rain only falls down, and never, never falls up? I point this out as an oblique reference to Chicken Little, who usually attends these hearings disguised as a variety of parents expressing 'sky is falling' outlooks 'for the children' because of perceived injustice in the funding of the Brunswick School System.

  • We inevitably hear mention of constant cuts in school funding, which is an outright lie. Virtually without exception, especially on a per student basis, funding increases every year.

  • If the council, in all its wisdom and concern for tax rates, asks the school department to reduce a $36 million budget by $100,000 or so, weeping and wringing of hands is heard, and talk of slashing expenditures to the bone is sure to follow. Though only ¼ of one percent is being considered, or about $40 per student per year.

  • Sure as the sun coming up, we can expect to hear that there is no choice but to eliminate school bands, or junior varsity sports, or some other highly visible favorite of parents. That's part of the “police and firemen first” theory of manipulating public sentiment during budget discussions.

  • And before anyone voices the usual equivocation, I don't want to hear one word about cuts in state and federal revenue. That's a deliberate attempt to distract from the fundamental issue, which is spending, regardless of where the dollars come from.

  • If reducing proposed spending by $40 per student leads to falling sky, you'd think increasing per student spending by hundreds or even thousands per year would lead to euphoric claims that the sky is turning sunny as far as the eye can see! Can anyone here remember an occasion when parents bubbling over with joy for sharp and continuous increases in spending per child spoke in gratitude for such generosity?

    • Maybe you can, but I sure as heck can't. And I've been watching budgets and coming to these hearings for a pretty long time.

  • So tonight I'd like to boil things down to a few simple observations and a question or two.

  • First, for this coming school year, the department proposes to spend over $15,200 per year per student. That's an increase of a full $7,000 per year per student compared to ten years ago.

  • I'd like someone to explain what we're getting in the way of increased value for that $7,000 more per year in spending. How have achievement levels improved over those ten years? What other measures of performance are there that reflect positively on that enormous increase in spending?

  • In round numbers, that's an average increase of 6% per year in spending, way, way above inflation rates over this period. Add in the reduction in the number of active school plants over the same years, and the addition of a hyper-efficient new building, and as I see it, taxpayers are owed a lot of explanation.

  • By comparison, if per student spending had increased an average of 5% per year over the same period, still a very fast clip, we'd be looking at a school budget proposal of $32.6 million, or $3.6 million less than is here on the table.

  • Over the last few years, there have been public discussions over whether our schools have a mission to provide 'adequate' education to our children, or 'excellent' education.

  • In that regard, can you recall any time at all when the school department came before the town council to discuss what they were doing to put our children's educations at the very highest priority in budget planning, and how the proposed budget reflects that priority?

  • Can you recall any presentations on improvements in instruction, staff quality, and overall focus on performance and accountability?

  • Neither can I.

  • The only discussion I can remember in front of the council at budget time is how rain only falls down. And how unless taxpayers provide very expensive umbrellas for the school system, the schools and the students will wash away in a flood.

  • Isn't anyone in a position of budget authority ever going to demand more for taxpayer money? Doesn't anyone care about delivering value for taxpayer's funds compelled from them by law? Isn't anyone going to show the courage to seek full disclosure of the conduct of our most expensive government activity?

  • Isn't anyone going to recognize that we are on an unsustainable course that will surely make this town less and less affordable to live in, and add to an already grim demographic destiny?

  • Are you simply going to preside over our demise, because you refused to look beyond the next few weeks into the longer term realities?

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1 comment:

  1. When one talks to a wall there is no echo. When beats one's head against a wall the result is a flat head and extreme pain.

    ReplyDelete