Monday, February 15, 2010

“Bookies,” the Budget, and a $5 million gap

This reporter attended a special Brunswick town council “workshop” this past Thursday night.  The meeting was scheduled, among other reasons, to take citizen comment on the upcoming budget development process.

I have some good news and some bad news to report.  The bad news is that the town is staring at a roughly $5 million problem in the context of a $55 million total spending profile for municipal and school department operations.

The good news is that you can plan on a bigger property tax deduction when you work on your income tax returns a year from now.

A $5 million problem, taken point blank, would require a roughly 17% property tax increase to resolve.  Expecting the municipal side to reduce spending by $1 million and the school department to reduce spending by $4 million to ‘close the gap’ borders on lunacy.  Not that Brunswick doesn’t have lunacy to spare; but that’s lunacy of another sort.

Here’s my prediction.  There will be much wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth, and public wailing over “devastating cuts to vital services and unfair punishment of our children” as the budget details roll out.  The pros at the game, and there are many, will back the council into an extremely uncomfortable corner, and they will end up trying to make themselves look like penny pinchers with a 10% property tax increase.

We’ll hear all the usual rhetoric about “tough choices” and “hard decisions” councilors and school board members had to make. There will be not a single mention of the “tough choices” and “hard decisions” taxpayers will have to make to cover the tax increases, even if they’ve lost their jobs or suffered major reductions in their income.  Suck it up, folks.

There won’t be a peep about “tough choices” and “hard decisions” made by the teachers’ union, because they won’t make any.

While Other Side is pleased that the council is tackling the problem early, the sad truth is that if you take various town officials and school board members out of the count, there were probably not much more than a dozen or so “ordinary citizens” attending the meeting.  This is not the kind of showing it will take to stop property taxes from increasing by 10%, 15%, or even more.

Now to the fun part of the meeting.  Fred Blanchard, a frequent speaker at such events, talked about the school budget in some detail.  This reporter followed, touching on the same subject, and pointing out that the annual expenditures per student had grown from about $8,400 per student to about $12,300 per student in the last four years.

This elicited not a single comment from either side of the lectern.  But the school Super, Mr. Perzanoski, pointed out that the teachers were talking about agreeing to a “zero percent raise next year.”  That sounds good, but it has little meaning without more information, especially in a multi-year contract negotiation.

Teachers’ contracts include “general increases” plus annual step increases.  My hypothesis is that the teachers will offer a zero percent general increase for next year, while happily accepting step increases so that not a single teacher goes without a raise.  And then they’ll make up for the loss of a general increase in year one by recapturing it in years two and three of the contract.  And I’ll bet a dozen donuts on that.

Teachers are advised by professionals in their state and federal unions, and they’ve known what’s coming for a year or two; those highly paid, superbly financed leaders aren’t about to be outsmarted by some local amateurs.

As I said earlier, there was no reaction to any of these items. 

There, was, however, an enlightening and predictable reaction on another subject, almost as if it had been staged.  Your reporter, moving on beyond the schools subject, pointed out that the town spends more annually on the local library (about $1.1 million) than it does on street resurfacing (about $600,000), and that this is a serious imbalance in priorities.  I asserted that the library is a “luxury” while streets are a fundamental part of the social and economic infrastructure of the town.  I even went so far (are you sitting down?) to suggest that “pay per book” might be appropriate at this point.

While the “schoolies” were absent and/or silent following the comments referenced above, the “bookies” arose as if lightning had struck and revived them.  Two went so far as to intimate they had recently chosen Brunswick as their new residence almost solely because of the library, and waxed eloquent on the numerous miracles that regularly flow from this shrine to community.  A third was a bit more measured in his comments on library funding.

I kid you not; in a relatively sparse turn-out, I find it stunning that there would be three library advocates there to parry a suggestion of priority imbalance.

Consider this a glimpse of what is about to occur; a parade of local “special interests” who will testify with great fervor and conviction as to why their beloved paragon of taxpayer supported excellence should be spared from any reduction in funding.

Any reference to a 30% or more area population decline, huge state and federal budget problems, and a horrible jobs and economic outlook will be seen as irrelevant; harsh facts aren’t “what this is about,” they’ll say.

Their cherished institutions will take on sacred status, and they will be accorded mystical powers to lift us out of the economic morass.

If only we will give them all the funds they request. 

Stand by for incoming, oh generous taxpayers.  I won’t bore you with a summary of the “endless war” testimony that was given at the same meeting.

Just be advised that there’s more than one kind of drone that has our town government in its sights.  And start budgeting for 10% higher property taxes next year, with successive increases after that if some reality doesn’t set in soon.

This seems like a good time to remind you of some favorite quotes:

The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.
- George Bernard Shaw

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
- George Santayana

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