Friday, March 19, 2010

Escaping from the corner: an alternative to the usual budget kabuki dance.

Your humble correspondent has ‘invested’ a great deal of psychic energy, detailed research, and personal capital over the years in commenting on the annual circus known as the Brunswick budget process.  All for naught, as best we can tell, other than providing a big fat target for various councilors to demonize and politely accuse of ’delusions’ and ‘frankly inflammatory’ rhetoric.

All in a day’s work, I suppose.  Taking issue with town hall is never a career enhancing pursuit.  But if they don’t want us to do it, why do they keep setting up all those sitting ducks?

Back to the main theme.  We are in a period of acute economic stress, as reflected in reduced government revenues at all levels.  This is a direct consequence of the stress on individual incomes (personal revenues) at all levels, and the associated reduction in taxable consumptive behavior. 

Pretty basic stuff, unless you are a true believer in government immunity from the petty personal problems of the average taxpayer.  Astonishingly, a sizable segment of our population is, and similarly considers the laws of economics to be an inconvenience that can be overruled at will.  You know, it can be so constraining to require that 2 + 2 = 4, no matter what else is going on.

Well, there I go again.  Regardless of original intent, I’ve gone off on a tangent.  But that’s why you love me, isn’t it?

So here we are; the school department and the town both facing revenue stress, necessitating suggestions on how to deal with it.  Thankfully, the council is addressing the reality early, rather than being confronted with it at midnight in the garden of good and bad.

On the other hand, the early consideration allows far more time to manipulate the emotions of those in charge, those of the relevant stakeholders, and the public overall.

Let’s put this aside for the moment and address the problem objectively.  While both the school side and municipal government are challenged this year, their circumstances are considerably different.  As you will eventually see, however, Side proposes that a new and different approach could possibly resolve the dilemma each faces.

The school department, if we read local reports correctly, says that they can get by with a 2% property tax increase as long as they terminate 40 staff positions.  The department, as everyone knows, is somewhat distracted by its own very publick Keystone Kops Komedy. 

That aside, as reported in detail here in the past, there is no denying that the department’s ‘client base’ has shrunken severely in recent years, with no meaningful reduction in expenditures as a result.  This is certifiably unacceptable.  Happily, we maintain that the solution we will describe in subsequent paragraphs could easily apply and resolve this disconnect with reality.

On the municipal side, revenues are under less stress, mainly because of excise tax and revenue sharing reductions, although we confess to not understanding the gloom and doom projections put forth so far.  While the municipal ‘client base,’ or local population, is clearly in decline, the consequences are not the same as in the school department.  The latter can consolidate classes, while the latter can not consolidate street plowing and other population independent services.

The town manager has been asked by the council to provide a range of budget scenarios spanning from no property tax rate change to a 6% increase.  Today we read that a minimum of seven town positions would be cut to avoid a sizable tax increase.  

Let’s be frank.  No one wants to be the bad guy in recommending and approving job cuts, and everyone preparing budget submissions knows this.  The pressure is on a very visible school board and town council. 

Let’s recognize, as well, that virtually no one on that board, or on the council, makes a point of noting how many of their constituents have lost their jobs in the last year, and how many more are being forced to get by on less income.  The result is a published scenario that ignores the realities ‘on the ground’ while emphasizing the tragic possibilities for public sector staff.  Officials and the public are manipulated into very uncomfortable corners.

There is another option, we’re here to assert.  Instead of having the school superintendent and the town manager report on how many positions must be eliminated to meet a particular tax target, why not ask them to calculate what percentage reduction in average compensation (and benefit allowance, as an option) would allow staff levels to be maintained while achieving the desired tax profiles?

This would allow school department and town staffs to decide whether they prefer that some give all (by losing their jobs), or all give some (by taking a modest reduction in compensation) in order for their associates to keep their jobs.  Those who would be affected get to decide what form things take.

Staff would have to decide what they prize most…employment for all, including their friends and associates, or preservation of their previously contracted compensation levels and promised increases. 

This may seem like an uncomfortable choice, but we here at the offices see it as an option well worth considering in comparison to putting more folks on the unemployment rolls.  And it gives those in peril real control of their futures.

Will the employees go for it?  We have no way of knowing.  But if given the choice, their reactions and subsequent decisions should be extremely illuminating.

What say you, elected officials? 

Why wouldn’t you ask professional staff to work up the details of such a compassionate option? 

Even if the suggestion comes from a pajama-clad, long-winded, public pain in the toochis.

Be bigger than Other Side; we’re use to it, and we get over it quickly.

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