Keeping Sight of Community Despite Disagreement

Maybe something arrived in the local air, with the summer months.  Or maybe we were all exhausted by the constant roll of local issues about which we had to care, from major development proposals to all-day kindergarten.  Whatever the cause, we seem to have had some months of relative political peace, in Tiverton.

For my part, I’ve used the time to figure out what sort of future, exactly, I would advocate for and to think about what it is, exactly, that has led to so much acrimony and division in our town.  In a nutshell, I’ve been thinking that we have to return to thinking like a community.

The challenge, of course, is that “thinking like a community” means different things to different people, so I guess the goal should be to work things down to basic principles.  The first part of behaving like a community, in other words, is to allow each other to be comfortable expressing what we believe.

One belief that I’ll offer up front is that we have to stop using debt — with the town selling bonds that taxpayers simply have to pay off — as a way of growing town spending.  Think of some of the bigger, more-divisive, controversies we’ve had recently.  Five-to-seven years ago, we saw major battles over budgets at the financial town meetings (FTMs).  This year, the Tiverton Glen project was a matter of significant disagreement and stress for many who live here.

A community is supposed to help relieve stress, not increase it.

I would argue that the single biggest reason for the knock-down fights of the last decade and for the major pressure for economic development of any form was the very narrow vote to build three brand new elementary schools.  In November 2004, fewer than 75 people made the difference in deciding to borrow over $30 million to build three elementary schools.  That decision alone required more than $2.5 million to be added to the annual budget, or more than 5% of the whole budget for the current year.  Without that one decision, Tiverton’s tax rate would decrease about $1.30 per $1,000 of value, to around $17.80.

This isn’t (necessarily) to say that the town shouldn’t have undertaken to build the new schools, but to note how things pile up to the point of constant fighting if we don’t address opportunities and risks with each other in mind.

There are many issues that we must be able to discuss without all running to our fortresses.  The schools’ results on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests are one, with only 8% of Tiverton High School students’ performing up to expectations in math.  At the same time, costs keep going up while enrollment keeps going down.

With a surprise vote for state senate coming up, followed by budget season and then the 2016 elections, we’re sure to have a contentious year.  Let’s enter into it planning to treat the debates and campaigns as things that we do, not lines dividing us into groups as if they’re who we are.

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Justin KatzJustin Katz is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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