Oct 2, 2010

Guest Column Re Budget Deliberations

When you hear "somebody's got to be willing to make the tough decisions", you know the politics is getting revved up.

Guest column: Time to fix budget

A Town Board member’s vote on a budget is a matter of judgment. Where would the majority of residents come out on it? Are the compromises palatable? Is there something “good” which trumps something “popular”? When the majority of the Town Board voted to submit the “austerity budget” to public hearing last week, they apparently found that tax relief outweighed all other considerations. I (and Bruce Pavalow, though I do not purport to represent him here) found otherwise.

The price for achieving the proper “visuals” on this budget includes, among other things, the slashing of an already thin workforce, and cutting of essential services. I saw impacts to our fundamental obligations towards the safety of our residents, and the human reality of long-term dedicated employees and recognition of their status as important stakeholders in the process as tipping the balance against the drastic cuts. I also have strong reservations about the continued masking of financial deficits with temporary plugs.

I think there may be some difference in perception about what actually was sitting on the other side of the balance. My colleagues saw it as an increase that “we just can’t ask of the taxpayer after all they’ve been through.” Whether it’s 6.7% (the original tentative budget), or four-point-something that would have been the figure if we had restored some of the above-mentioned real people to the roles, it was just too much to ask of them. Maybe it’s hard to ask, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not the right thing to do. In absolute terms, those items may cost the average taxpayer roughly $60 a year. Non-wealthy folks that I know have made it clear that they would prefer a modest increase to service cuts that typically hit the average working stiff harder than someone better off.

My colleagues did not characterize it this way, but there are critics out there who want to draw parallels between our town workforce and the “bloated government” archetype as one might find described in a New York Post article on the MTA. Having lived through last year’s seven-month long budget process and the cuts that were made then, I can say that our small town government, made even smaller thereby, just does not harbor a lot of places where anything like bloat can lurk. That does not mean we don’t want to constantly be looking for ways to be more efficient, but we certainly are at the point where we should be trading in our budget machetes for budget paring knives. I feel this last session was one whack too many with the machete.
Perhaps most importantly of all, in placing a flat budget above all other concerns, my colleagues are not making adequate progress in eliminating the budgetary misdirection that is at the root of our financial troubles. There is about $430,000 of “Levy Money” (proceeds from the sale of the parcel left to the town in the deal establishing the preserve) being used to compensate for an operating deficit of the same size in this budget. The $75,000 reserve allowance cuts that deficit back to, call it $350,000. This is only marginally less than the operating deficit in the 2010 year. This means we are passing this problem largely on to the future to resolve. Unsustainable staff cuts are also a form of deferral. Eventually, we are going to have to staff to do the job, and at that time, we will have to pay for it. In my mind, we should at least be cutting this operating deficit in half, to $200,000. That means another $50 to $60 a household. In total, perhaps $150 from each taxpayer will restore services and move us towards fiscal stability. Put that in your scale and let the Town Board know which way it tilts. There is still time to fix things before the final vote.

Mr. Welsh is a Town Board member.