Now that their petition has won at the 2016 financial town referendum (FTR), the supporters of the 0.9% Budget #2 are being accused of unfairly saddling elected officials with the task of finding reductions that they don’t believe should be made. The accusation itself is unfair, inasmuch as elected officials campaigned for the privilege of representing the people, and the people have repeatedly demanded trimmed budgets.
Moreover, the Town Council has held that electors, and even the Budget Committee, have no ultimate authority to set line items in a final way. As the attacks on Budget #3 proved, officials want petitioners to be in the position of opening themselves to attack for proposing changes to line items that the officials have no obligation or intent to follow.
Even so, having given voters a lower-tax option, petitioner Justin Katz promised to offer a strategy and some options to make the lower budget possible without the broadly damaging elimination of services that some political activists are threatening. In general, we would suggest flipping the process. Rather than agonizing over every reduction, officials should begin with reductions well beyond what is needed and add back items that can’t be changed or that they do not want to change. Whatever’s left on the reduction list when they hit the bottom line is prima facie the lowest priority.
The following pages offer over $1.7 million in possible savings, of which only $782,895 would actually be necessary to implement. When it convenes to determine line items, the Budget Committee should add to this total any reductions its members might consider and then restore those that are not possible for one reason or another. The next step would be restore additional items according to committee members’ priorities.
Priorities are the key. The proposals herein include almost a million dollars of reductions that need not be implemented. Elected officials might choose a different million dollars than we would, but such are the differences in priorities (and authority).
Voters whose own priorities are displaced by the decisions of the Budget Committee and Town Council should remember an important point: The town’s budget has never gone down, in our memory, and even a 0.9% increase in taxes is an increase. If some town service or grant that you value is no longer funded come July, it was not displaced by small tax increases, but by the town government’s priority to maintain the rampant overspending of past years.
Pay and benefits for employees are a good example. Despite voters’ choosing a 0.0% tax increase three FTRs ago and 0.9% last year, town officials gave a three-year contract to a new town planner, added a fire marshal position, and provided raises to various employees in and out of labor unions, even as health benefit costs have exploded. Watching the interaction of elected officials and labor unions, one could reasonably conclude that town officials are all too happy to lock in pay and benefits with contracts that taxpayers have no choice but to fund.
If taxpayers decide not to simply add these new costs for government spending to their household budgets, the uncomfortable choices that elected officials must make are the consequence of actions taken by those very same elected officials. Voters’ choosing another zero-point-something budget should not have been a surprise.
Similarly, during the past decade, the town has built over $40 million in new buildings — the bulk of it based on a vote margin of less than 75 voters for three new school buildings in 2004. It is such expenditures that are creating the budget pressure we now feel, not the unwillingness of taxpayers to cover every bit of spending that special interests can push onto their backs.
Another illustrative example of budget pressure is the library grant. When voters approved debt for a new library (again, by a relatively thin margin), few expected a 32% increase in library costs above and beyond the new debt payment. Fewer realized that state law locks in every year’s increase as the baseline for the following year. For these reasons, specifically, the town should pursue a waiver to trim the grant’s recent increases, much of which was explicitly provided in order to get the new facility up and running, not to be a permanent funding stream.
Now may be the time for Tiverton to reassess the purposes of its government. We agree that a community has a responsibility to its members. Where we differ is in thinking that the town government — which is empowered to confiscate money through taxes — should not be considered the same thing as “the community.”
At this year’s FTR, 879 people voted to increase their own taxes by an additional 50-cents per $1,000 of property value. If their average property is worth $200,000, then those voters will pay about $88,000 less in property taxes during the upcoming year. That amount of money given to local non-profit organizations could do wonders fulfilling our obligations to each other as neighbors, all according to our own priorities, not the priorities of whoever manages to take control of local government.