Friday, September 27, 2002
Just talk is not enough
This week's front page carries the optimistic headline "Concord and Carlisle pledge greater budget cooperation," reporting on a joint meeting of the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (RSC) with selectmen, finance committees, and other officials from the two towns. The session was held to discuss how not to repeat last spring's high school budget battles. While joint meetings of the three stakeholders are a step in the right direction, just talk is not enough.
Even if you only moved to town this summer, you must have heard tales of the FY03 Carlisle budget vs. the Concord budget vs. the RSC budget. For FY04, all indicators point to an even tougher set of circumstances, with less state aid, a depleted stash of free cash, and little, if any, growth in local tax revenues. Agreeing on funding for the high school will not be easier this time around.
While each group has presented its needs, procedures, and limitations, so far there has been little dialogue or real negotiation on how a budget consensus will be reached. There is resistance to more meetings and little desire to change the system. (Note references in the front page story to "occasional meetings" and "informal connection.") The RSC assumes the need for overrides of Proposition 2-1/2 and the calendar includes a date for a Joint Town Meeting.
If the town boards and the RSC continue to work independently, each developing their own set of priorities as in the past we are likely to end up again with three different budget levels and little time to work things out. A Joint Town Meeting is not a mechanism for working things out. It is the last resort, where Carlisle has no control and can be outvoted by Concord 3:1.
It is time for the RSC to take the lead in forming a joint group that can analyze and prioritize the school's needs, agree on assumptions, and hammer out several budget options including a no-override budget all of which are at least minimally acceptable to boards and voters in both towns, while preserving a level of excellence at the high school.
Congratulations to the League of Women Voters for sponsoring a panel on joint budget planning. Perhaps they can also initiate a fresh look at the Concord-Carlisle regional agreement and the assessment formula which sometimes produces dramatic year-to-year ups and downs in each town's CCHS budget assessment.
Recently, the Carlisle Board of Selectmen designated Church Street as one-way, running easterly from School Street to Bedford Road. They had previously designated Church Street one-way running westerly from Bedford Road to School Street. It occurs to me that the difficulty in deciding on the best direction for Church Street traffic flow is an apt analogy for the difficulty in determining the direction of our citizens' desires for town services and their willingness to pay for them.
Last spring a large override vote failed by a significant margin. Lacking the funds necessary to meet commitments made to town employees, Carlisle's political leaders sharpened their budget pencils and revised some revenue estimates. The required appropriations that allocated these additional revenues easily passed at a Special Town Meeting. And faced with the prospect of losing the school library and other programs, the community privately raised the money to meet the Carlisle School's needs.
What direction do we now take with respect to expenditures and taxes? On the surface, the community seems to balk at increasing taxes to pay for the rising costs of maintaining the level of services it has enjoyed in the past, yet believes such services are essential enough to warrant additional appropriations of "found" money, and to supplement the town's coffers with private contributions.
In recent years, taxes have grown well in excess of the rate of inflation. A segment of our population that is on fixed incomes cannot afford to continue living in this community while taxes rise at this rate. Another segment of our community paid unbelievable amounts of money to live amidst Carlisle's open spaces and to send their children to a good school system. We need to develop programs to meet the needs of all segments of this community.
The 2004 budget will probably be as tight as this year's. Should our political leaders take the hard line on overrides next spring, limiting and in some cases eliminating programs that the community clearly believes are essential, or should they just throw up their hands and put an array of disconnected override choices before the voters, probably resulting in confusion (and likely defeat)?
In the short term we cannot stick our heads in the sand and rule out the possibility of future override questions. With the town's limited revenue base, along with continued reductions in state aid, it is nearly impossible to offer the existing services without asking taxpayers for additional funds. The first avenue of attack needs to be the continued aggressive review of all town expenditures. Requests for additional funding need to be moderate and well developed. In addition, we must move away from using overly conservative revenue estimates that have often been so inaccurate as to undermine the credibility of the process.
Long term, we must change the dynamics of the town's revenue base. In addition to good schools and open spaces we happen to have some of the brightest minds in academia and the business world as residents. Carlisle would be well served if the selectmen were to establish an independent blue ribbon panel comprised of some of these experts, and charge them with developing recommendations for alternative revenue sources that would allow the town to maintain good schools and open spaces while limiting the financial impact on homeowners.
In contrast to the 180-degree changes in our resolution of the Church Street traffic dilemma, we need to take a reasonable, thoughtful approach to charting the future direction of our entire community.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito