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Capital Budget raises questions of fiscal responsibility

May 1, 2013

If you have been reading 180, you have heard this before: during the run-up to last year’s election, with a $3 million override on the ballot, town officials said they were being careful with our money. Town Hall promised that they would match the new revenue stream with continued efforts to cut costs.

The override indeed passed, and this year’s Capital Budget offered a wonderful opportunity for Town Hall to demonstrate the commitment to fiscal responsibility that they espoused so regularly. Frugal spending, after years of spending a lot, would have sent a strong message of fiscal conservatism.

That’s why it’s disappointing, though unfortunately unsurprising, to see that town officials fell through in this assurance. This year’s Capital Budget is filled with a number of big-spending items that don’t have much merit. Just like last year, there is still much work to be done in reforming this area of the town budget.

Some of the scariest expenditures in this year’s Capital Budget are $243,000 proposed for the expansion of Big Brother into our lives, as if government isn’t big enough as it is. The money will be used for the installation of security cameras at municipal buildings and in our schools.

Not to mention the frightening invasion of privacy, the cameras are wholly unnecessary and do not justify the costs. Can town officials point to $243,000 in potential property damage or theft that could be avoided with these security cameras? If so, the town has bigger problems than just a need for security cameras. If not, this is nothing more than a poor use of our money.

Contact your RTMs this week and let them know you want them to vote “No” at next Monday’s Town Meeting on the following expenditures. At the very least, let’s have a serious discussion about these items at Town Meeting, instead of rubber stamping them as so many of our RTMs are prone to do year-after-year:

Security cameras – Town Hall, Water Treatment Plant, Walpole Schools – $243,000

The justifications being used by town officials for these security cameras range all the way from a need to prevent lawsuits, to preventing illegal dumping on town property and preventing theft by town employees. In theory, there are limitless reasons for security cameras. Once government determines that everyone is inherently up to no good, as is apparently being presumed in this case, nothing can stop the expansion of the police state.

After the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. in December – a result of our nation’s poor mental health system, more than anything else – school and law enforcement officials have argued that cameras are necessary in our schools to allow police to monitor the whereabouts of a school shooter in the event of a similar mass shooting.

See previous 180 article here for a rebuff to these arguments.

The school department also refuses to put cameras in any of our school classrooms, which is a striking irony in all this, because it exposes the holes in the claim that we need to monitor a gunman’s whereabouts. The decision not to put cameras in classrooms is largely a move to appease the Walpole Teachers Association, because the union is terrified (perhaps rightly so) of being filmed for teacher evaluation purposes. Yet if there is anywhere in a school that cameras should be, it should be the classroom. After all, if someone is shooting up a school they will go to where the students are, which is in the classroom.

It’s also important to note, for the record, that school shootings remain remarkably rare statistically. The alarmists in the law enforcement community who are pushing for these cameras will not change this fact.

These cameras are opposed by a wide range of individuals, on all sides of the political spectrum, including Walpole High School Social Studies teacher Christopher Jean, who is well-known to his current and former students as a strong liberal. The cameras are also opposed by hundreds of students who have signed petitions opposing them – many of whom supported the $3 million override last year.

If Walpole school officials are really concerned about security, they should start locking all exterior school doors at all times of day. There is a door near the Walpole High School cafeteria that is routinely left unlocked during the school day. Most current and former WHS students know the location of this door. 180 tested it last week, during the early part of the school day, and found it not only unlocked, but slightly open, with not a single person around. When 180 raised concerns about it being open in the morning well before lunch periods, school officials insisted that the door is only unlocked during school lunches for students to use as a shortcut to get to class. But the fact is that the door is often, or at least routinely, left unlocked. Even when students use that door during lunch, there is rarely staff supervision of who is entering and exiting there.

Proposed alternative use of the money: Put Karen Connolly in jail. Sending a strong message to our town employees that theft is not tolerated in their service to the taxpayers will be just as much of a deterrent of future crimes as security cameras would be.

2. Walpole Police Department Motorcycle – $11,000

180 pointed out last year that the Walpole Police Department has a more than adequate number of police vehicles to do its job. No more vehicles are needed, including motorcycles.

The police department currently owns two motorcycles, with the oldest one from 2007.

Motorcycles are very much a warm-weather vehicle, virtually unusable during the winter months. Motorcycles also can not carry prisoners in custody, and they lack some of the equipment that a police car would provide. They do have advantages over traditional police cars, including in the lower costs of maintenance and operation, but ultimately the Walpole Police Department has not demonstrated a serious need for a new bike. Police cars, which they have plenty of, will suffice for getting around town.

Most importantly, Town Hall has better uses for this money.

Proposed alternative use of the money: Save for new police station (though a small amount, it’s a start and sends a message to taxpayers that the town is so serious about the need for a new police station that they are saving for it starting right now.)

3. New vehicles total: $119,000
(One-ton dump truck – $55,000
F-250 Utility Truck – Building Maintenance Dept. – $40,000
F-150 Pickup Truck – Parks Dept. – $24,000)

Town Hall can’t afford any new trucks. This is simple math. It doesn’t add up. We just came off a bad budget year, where we needed an override just to maintain level services. Families and businesses can’t afford new vehicles either.

If a truck still runs, it does not need to be replaced. Rather than rehashing the arguments 180 uses every year, see previous article from 2012.

Proposed alternative use of the money: Purchase iPads for students and cut costs on textbooks, just as so many other school districts are doing. This is a proven method of cutting costs on books, used in an increasing number of other school districts.

Total capital budget expenses that should be rejected: $373,000 ($243,000 of which is for new security cameras)

This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are other items in this year’s Capital Budget that should be scrutinized, but 180 doesn’t have enough information to declare them unnecessary spending at this point.

There is also a proposal in this year’s Capital Budget for a new fire truck. This deserves a hard look by RTMs. The town already has a number of other apparatuses stored at the South and East Walpole Fire Stations that should be considered for use instead of a brand new purchase.

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