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Town Meeting Preview – Part 1

October 10, 2011

Fall Annual Town Meeting begins next Monday evening at 7:30, and a few potentially explosive articles are up for debate. The main theme of the meeting is moving Walpole towards becoming a “Green Community,” which would require the adoption of a stricter building code, among other proposals. 180 will discuss these green proposals in “Town Meeting Preview Part 2” later this week.

In his customary letter at the front of the Town Meeting Warrant sent out to all voters, Town Administrator Michael Boynton took the opportunity to lay the groundwork for an override for next year:

For several years, we have reduced budgets, including personnel, as a response to the nearly $3 million in cuts we have seen in base revenues. These cuts have resulted in a greater strain on existing service delivery, both in our schools and within all of our Town departments. As we move forward, cutting alone is simply not a recommended option. With the partnerships of our Committees and Staff, and the support of the Community, I am most confident that we can collectively put a plan in place that will give us greater flexibility and prevent further losses.

To say that “cutting alone is not a recommended option” is simply untrue. Whose recommendation is this? Ask any fiscal conservative to review the town budget, and they will gladly recommend some serious cuts that could equal the amount of money Boynton wants through new revenue. 180 has already outlined some of those potential cuts in the past. There are plenty of people who would “recommend” cuts instead of revenues. It all depends on who you ask to offer recommendations. Boynton hasn’t asked Russell Jones or James Taylor for recommendations yet – that conversation would be fun to see.

New revenue may be needed, but town officials need to clean up the waste in the current budget before taxpayers should be asked to hand over more of their money.

Boynton also said “for several years, we have reduced budgets, including personnel.” It is true that some employees have been cut and painful reductions in labor have been made, particularly in the school department. But in reality, the personnel cuts have been modest and they are not nearly as severe as Boynton makes it sound. If it was true that personnel has been cut significantly, the town wouldn’t have moved forward with hiring three new employees just last month. The town also wouldn’t be currently seeking applicants for a senior center and police station janitor. The number of employees on the town payroll, according to my count, actually went up by a small amount between FY 2009 and FY 2010. The number of employees earning more than $100,000 per year also increased by 1, from 30 to 31, during those two years. That number may seem small, but it shouldn’t have gone up at all if the town is really in the budget crunch it claims it is. Every small amount of money counts.

Also, according to the Department of Revenue, despite having almost 400 fewer full-time employees on the town payroll than Dedham did in fiscal year 2010, Walpole spent about $4 million more than Dedham on payroll costs. Dedham and Walpole have a similar population size, so there is no reason for the discrepancy. Of the 336 towns across the state for which data was available, Walpole had the 59th highest payroll costs in fiscal 2010, and among the 290 towns with fewer than 1,000 full-time employees, Walpole had the 11th highest payroll costs. Those are pretty staggering numbers, and they are not made up – they come directly from the state Department of Revenue.

It is safe to say that the personnel budget still remains an issue that should be addressed by our town officials. If Boynton has already determined that in his view it isn’t an issue and that the personnel budget has been reduced to a level he is comfortable with, perhaps he is not the best person to be leading the budgeting process next year and he should step aside.

Relating to personnel costs, next week’s Town Meeting will also take up various town union contracts. All of them include automatic annual raises and longevity pay for town employees. That is, in essence, the reason that the town is in the position right now where it claims it needs more money: it is allowing its own personnel costs to skyrocket. Personnel costs are well within the town’s control. But nothing is being done to exercise this control.

Town Meeting should reject each of these bargaining agreements and demand that town officials go back to the negotiating table for more responsible contracts. To be fair, the contracts do include concessions in health care costs and the increased costs of these contracts overall is very small. But that’s not good enough. If the town intends to come up with a sustainable budget going forward that doesn’t require new revenues, mandated yearly raises and longevity pay should not be part of the negotiations and should be off the table from the get-go. Longevity pay should also be simultaneously removed from the town’s Personnel Bylaws, and replaced with a system of merit-based pay raises. Town Moderator Jon Rockwood should appoint fiscal conservatives to the Personnel Board to accomplish this.

Unions and collective bargaining can work effectively in the private sector, because there are natural checks and balances. When businesses negotiate with their unions, there is an incentive for both workers and business owners to negotiate a contract that is fair to both parties. A contract that hurts either group in a significant manner would result in the business closing down and thus putting the workers out of work or causing the workers to be unhappy and provoking strikes, work stoppages, or reduced productivity. Problems do emerge in the process, of course, but the concept of collective bargaining makes sense at its core.

But government collective bargaining is inherently unfair to the taxpayers, who pay the final cost of workers’ wages and benefits. When the public sector can not meet union demands, government can not just close down like in the private sector. Instead, government must raise taxes, giving public sector unions virtually unchecked power to demand wages that will bankrupt governments. The people who will pay for the contracts in the end – the taxpayers – don’t even have a seat at the bargaining table. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a liberal icon, said, “all government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”

Eliminating mandatory raises in favor of merit-based pay, as exists in the private sector, and elimination of longevity pay are both excellent proposals that would make for more responsible union contracts.

Unionized town employees should not mind these modifications to their contracts, because they should be working hard anyway and would qualify for merit-based pay. If town employees don’t want merit-based pay put in their contracts, perhaps that is reason in itself to be concerned about town personnel. If merit-based pay works in the private sector, it can work in the public sector too.

Given the concerns about the budget that he expressed in his letter at the beginning of the warrant, Boynton should be the first one to propose going back to the bargaining table with the unions. Any fiscal conservative on the Board of Selectmen should be right there with him. Town Meeting should resoundingly reject these contracts on Monday and start over.

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