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Assessment of the proposed FY 2012 budget

February 13, 2011

This post has been edited since being originally published.

With higher taxes and higher revenue in nearly every category, Town Administrator Michael Boynton presented his FY 2012 budget proposal last Monday night with what I believe are misguided priorities.

The major takeaway here is that every town resident, including those who do not pay property taxes, will be paying more in taxes and getting less back in services. As usual.

On numerous occasions during his State of the Town budget address last Monday night, Boynton lauded Town Hall for being fiscally conservative. He used the term “prudent” four times in his speech, and the word “sound” two times, both as adjectives to describe budgeting. But unfortunately his references to fiscal conservatism were frequently followed by proposals for new budgetary expenses that did not seem to back up his fiscal conservative claims.

Near the beginning of his address, for example, Boynton praised his budgetary tactics over the last few years. “The sound and conservative budgeting practices implemented in prior years has […] played a critical role in maintaining a consistent level of services,” Boynton said. But shortly after, he announced that the FY 2012 budget represents an increase from last year’s budget by almost $1.5 million, or 2.29%. Apparently an increase in spending is fiscally conservative in Walpole.

The Town Administrator proceeded to announce that local revenues are increasing this year, thanks to higher meals and property taxes. He also revealed that the state will cut local aid for Walpole by a mere $170,000 – hardly a major reduction. Overall, total revenues have gone up by almost $1.5 million from FY 2011, and furthermore state charges and assessments, which the town is forced to pay, went down by about $43,000.

A reduction in state aid of only $170,000 – not a large decrease. Enough in property and meals tax increases to compensate for the loss in state aid, with total revenues increasing by nearly $2 million extra. Yet still Boynton has announced that apparently not enough money is coming in, so he has to lay off the Town Purchasing Coordinator and slash the hours of the Town Webmaster and Town Planner.

So what exactly has gone wrong?

There a few answers to this question, but one important note is that Town Hall is giving all of its employees raises this year when the town clearly can not afford it. The Town Administrator is one employee, for example, who will be walking away with a raise for himself in this year’s budget. The Personnel Board has additionally voted to give non-unionized town employees a 1.5% raise this year.

Cuts included in the budget

The town Purchasing Coordinator’s position will be cut, and the Assistant Town Administrator, according to Boynton, will be taking on the purchasing responsibilities. This in itself generates a great question – if the Assistant Town Administrator can handle the Purchasing Coordinator’s job, then why is the town supposed to have a Purchasing Coordinator in the first place?

Not surprisingly, Boynton quickly shut the door on this question, warning, “this should not be considered as a permanent solution if at all possible.” But why should Boynton make such a statement? If the Assistant Town Administrator can handle the Purchasing Coordinator’s job just fine for a year, it does not seem necessary to maintain this separate position at all going forward. Town Hall will still function well. This indicates that perhaps there are other jobs that could be consolidated within Town Hall. For example, a big question that has remained unanswered and unexplained during the past year is why the town previously had one consolidated position for Veterans Agent and Animal Control but the two positions have now been made separate full-time positions with the excuse that the person who used to hold this consolidated job has now retired and for some reason the jobs must be separate now.

Boynton will also cut the hours of the town’s webmaster, which comes at a time when the town website does not look very good. The town needs a full-time webmaster, not a webmaster whose morale is low because her hours have been cut and is not making enough money to do a good job with the website.

The town is also going to be cutting the hours of the Town Planner, which also comes at the wrong time – Town Hall’s ability to engage in long-term community planning is nonexistent. The town faces many important issues related to planning in the coming years, and it is concerning that Town Hall perceives the Planner’s position to be a needless expense, rather than a necessary resource to help guide the town through major issues.

The town webmaster and town planner are, in my opinion, two very important positions that should be fully funded. It should not be surprising to any local residents if next year Boynton decides the Town Clerk and Finance Director are also near-needless expenditures and need to have their hours cut. One could even argue that perhaps Town Hall should explore scaling back the Town Administrator’s hours.

Cuts not included in the budget

Noticeably, the Economic Development Officer’s hours were not even cut a little bit. The position has been funded in Walpole since 2005, but it is not clear that the position has resulted in any real economic development since that time. The Town Administrator proposed cutting it a year ago in 2008 for exactly the same reasons that have been outlined on 180. Yet the position was not even touched this year. Many other communities in the area that do not have and have not had Economic Development Officers have seen just as much, if not more, economic development than Walpole has.

If even one local business starts up in Walpole in the coming year, town officials will quickly scream about how it must have come because we had an Economic Development Officer. The latest excuse for maintaining this position is actually that the job helps the town bring in grant money. But again, this begs the question of why we actually have a full-time employee spending the day writing grant applications while numerous other towns in the area do not have this position and seem to be getting grants as much as Walpole is.
(In addition, no one ever seems to ask the big question here: Why does one government agency like Walpole have to continually fill out paperwork and grant applications to try to get grants from higher government agencies, like the state and federal government? There seems to something wrong with our government on all levels if one government agency actually has to employ someone full-time to fill out paperwork to navigate the bureaucratic barriers of another government agency.)

The Town Administrator also noted in his address that the town is approaching the expiration of its municipal union contracts. The end of these contracts offers a tremendous opportunity that the town should not pass up – bargain the municipal unions down to a contract that is fairer to taxpayers, and require that mandated employee raises be taken out of union contracts and instead voted on every year by the Personnel Board and Selectmen based on economic and fiscal conditions.

More than half of the Walpole Police Department made more than $100,000 in salary thanks to overtime in 2009. Unemployment in Walpole during the same period was at its highest in ten years, 7.3%. That seems unfair to me, especially when the Police Department keeps insisting there is not enough money to hire more cops. That should be kept in mind when negotiating these new contracts.

Proposals offered by 180:

* Elimination of 1.5% non-union employee raises, and freeze of all town salaries, including department heads and the Town Administrator.
* Elimination of Economic Development Director or at least cut the position’s hours
* Ban on random mystery money expenditures at any point during the fiscal year unless it has been announced to the public several weeks ahead of time, the exact source of the money is clearly described, and priorities like public safety and education are considered first. In November, the Town Administrator announced the magical discovery of $62,000 in mystery money in the town budget, whose existence was not revealed to taxpayers until five minutes before Selectmen voted to spend it.
* Elimination of town unions and personnel bylaws mandating raises.
* Examination of the feasibility of consolidating some town positions – including why the town previously had one consolidated position for Veterans Agent and Animal Control but the two positions have now been made separate full-time positions.
* Scrutiny of town Capital Budget expenditures. For example, how often is the town purchasing new vehicles? Can an audit be done of whether Town Hall is maintaining municipal vehicles so that they last at least as long as the 12-year vehicle lifespan projected by the US Department of Transportation and confirmed by independent automobile experts? The answer to this question is unequivocally NO – the town is not maintaining its vehicles for the full 12 years, and is replacing most of them after only a few years. It is now becoming a running joke among some circles in town that Town Hall has essentially become an automobile collector thanks to its vehicle purchases.
* Requirement that town employees live in Walpole if they are going to use a taxpayer-owned vehicle with taxpayer-sponsored gas to commute to Town Hall on a daily basis.
* Publication of entire town budget, line-by-line, in an easy-to-read format on the town website, and a public budget forum for citizens to discuss the budget with town officials without being lectured to.
* An end to talking about economic revitalization – and a start to actually doing it. For example, every single selectman should be outraged that the Kahana restaurant remains in downtown Walpole, after all these years. Numerous selectmen have made campaign promises during the past few years to eliminate the Kahana eyesore, and yet it remains. Where is the outrage?

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