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Some more thoughts about town spending

November 22, 2011

Update 11/22/11 7:15 PM: I was reminded that the Town Administrator is not the only top town official who takes home a pay raise with a town car. The School Superintendent, who got a substantial raise this year, also has a taxpayer-sponsored vehicle which costs about $40 in gas per week, although he pays for gas used when the car is for personal use and he told 180 that he “is charged and taxed for commuting use per contract and state and federal regulations.” The School Superintendent’s vehicle cost about $400 per month in leasing costs as of late 2010, but I believe the car is now owned by the town and is no longer leased.

Other town officials also have access to take-home cars.

I’d like to get some things off my chest, because I feel like I’m about to scream. Nobody in town seems to be happy about the town’s financial situation right now, whether it be the school supporters or the conservatives.

Here are some of my recent thoughts about the ongoing override discussion:

Let me be very clear: most fiscal conservatives are willing to pay taxes, too. As a fiscal conservative, I have a natural dislike and mistrust for politicians and government officials. I inherently don’t trust government. I inherently don’t trust where my tax dollars are going. You can call me a cynic. But in the end, I value my money and I want it going to the right uses. I think most citizens, at their core, are fiscal conservatives. But too many people are willing to trust government officials rather than asking the tough questions and holding officials accountable.

I think what concerned taxpayers in this town need to do is they need to put together a list of what they want from government, and how much they want to pay for it. The old way of thinking is that town officials should tell us what we should get from government, and how much we should pay for it. That old way of thinking has evidently left us in debt, not only here in Walpole but also in Massachusetts state government and at the federal government.

For instance, I have been told by an off-the-record source that it can cost as much as $10,000 in fees to get the necessary permits from Walpole Town Hall to build a new house in Walpole. Is this reasonable? How much should residents have to pay as a fee to use the town pools, if any? How much should we pay our teachers? How many police officers should we have? What kind of a library do we want? How many students should be in each classroom in our schools? Do we want street lights, and if so, where? Do we need a fire station in East Walpole? We need to agree as a town on these things, and then all agree to pay for it. There will be disagreements, of course, but there will be a majority that will favor one thing over another. There is also room for compromise.

There has been no town-wide discussion of what we want our town government to provide and how much we should pay. Instead, we are told by our town officials the answers to those questions, and look at the problems that system has brought us. Perhaps the town government we want would actually cost us more than it does now, but if it does we need to figure that out for ourselves by having an honest discussion about it, looking at the town budget from the ground up.

Let me brutally honest: I am not against tax increases or taxes in general, and I know that may disappoint some of 180’s loyal conservative readers. I am against tax increases, however, when I see money not well-spent. My philosophy on property tax overrides has already been summed up by local conservative Russell Jones: “People see waste and then they hear override. (If) people don’t see waste (then) maybe when the override comes, it’s a little more acceptable.”

I’ve already discussed on this blog many times over what I specifically do not want my tax dollars paying for. I know many people agree with me. To me, most of my suggestions seem to be common sense: Cut the raises for town employees. Cut the longevity pay. Cut the take-home cars for a Town Administrator and School Superintendent who live miles away from town. Cut the Economic Development & Grants Officer. Cut the bull****. The list goes on…

For example, I don’t understand why a non-unionized high-school-aged library page should receive a raise every year. That was the job I held during high school. I shelved books and I did other work, and I did a pretty good job, in my opinion. I liked my job and routinely got excellent performance reviews. Yet no one ever asked me whether I thought I deserved a raise, and yet I got one every year automatically by a vote of the Personnel Board. I wasn’t even notified when I had gotten one – I just did.

I don’t think I deserved a raise at all. I didn’t do my job better the second year of working than I did the first year. That doesn’t mean I didn’t do a good job. Not getting a raise shouldn’t have a negative connotation associated with it – it simply means that I am doing my job the way I am supposed to be and I am not getting fired.

Raises should be for employees who go above and beyond and do their jobs in an extraordinary manner. I don’t believe I can name any town employee, except perhaps the occasional town “Employee of the Month”, who deserves a raise because they have done something extraordinary. Everyone working for the town does their job and does it well, but they should not get a raise simply because they did their job the way they were supposed to.

I think another huge issue that has emerged in recent years is that town officials have a communication/perception problem.

It just looks bad to have a Town Administrator who doesn’t live here, and who is already seen as a highly polarizing figure, driving around in a town-owned vehicle with a raise for himself every year. It looks bad to have town employees working lazily and inefficiently when doing work for the taxpayers at Town Hall.

It looks bad to have large expenditures routinely approved by the Board of Selectmen with little discussion (like last year’s mystery money incident.)

All of this feeds into the perception issue. The town will not get an override passed if residents perceive waste. This feeds into the feeling among some in town that officials are arrogant and ignorant.

The communications issue is significant. The Selectmen and School Committee budget meetings, Personnel Board, and Finance Committee meetings aren’t televised. The Board of Selectmen constantly accuses the Walpole Times of not writing the full details of their budget discussions and of not being fair to them.

So clearly there is a communication issue – voters don’t know where their money is going, and if you do want to know where the money is going you have to do the work to read through the dense charts on the town website, or go to the Finance Director or go to the Town Administrator. Town officials will answer your questions – but if you really want to go in-depth you have to talk to them for awhile and have your research already.

I don’t understand why the town budget has to be so dense and so long. Why does it have to be written in typewriter font and only available for public review at the Walpole Library and other select locations?

I am continually told I don’t get my facts straight on 180. If that’s the case (which it isn’t) – then why would that be? Why should it be that difficult for a town resident like myself to get information about the town budget and the town spending?

Here is what I would like to propose:

Selectmen and the School Committee and the Finance Committee should have one big televised meeting, perhaps all day on a Saturday, and build a budget from scratch from the bottom up, justifying every expenditure and explaining their rationale (the true definition of a zero-based budget.) They should allow citizens to participate, ask questions, etc. The Board should go through the town union contracts, state mandates, etc., and all other funding that is required and show the citizens exactly what is required and what is not.

It will take a long time to go over the budget like that (maybe multiple meetings), but it will be worth it because then voters will actually know where the money is going and will know what their position is on the override. I think people would definitely show up to the meeting too, as long as it is publicized. The conservatives will come in droves, and the school machine will come too. An important key, I think, is that the meeting needs to be held on a Saturday, not on a weeknight.

Another major problem that has emerged is that there is so much spending that is now mandated through union contracts (town raises, longevity pay, etc.), our Personnel Bylaws (longevity pay, raises for non-unionized town employees, etc.), and state mandates (Veteran’s Agent, SPED services in schools, etc.) that the town is essentially handcuffed about much of what it can cut. But the union contracts and personnel bylaws are controlled by the town, and the state mandates are controlled in part by our five state legislators. There needs to be a town-wide discussion about these mandates, and the town needs to work together to decide how they are going to meet these mandates or decide whether these mandates are unfair. If they are unfair, how can they be repealed?

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