Friday, January 8, 2010
Sober thoughts for the next year
Town leaders are about to make budget changes that will alter how the town functions over the next few years (see front page stories this week and December 18), leading this 20-year observer of Carlisle’s budget process to ruminate upon the latest desperate mismatch of spending demands and income. I’m particularly worried about whether the town can recover institutionally from the possible loss in coming years of highly skilled and valued employees. I’ve also been remembering that at least some of the increases in spending over the last two decades that came not from inflation or salary increases, but from the town’s taking on additional services. Most of what was added, such as the town’s financial audit, the reorganized financial departments, housing coordinator, Town Hall maintenance expenses, could not now be eliminated or readily managed by volunteers. Most of the other critical services the town provides also cannot be eliminated, because they are mandated, both by statute and by ethical and public safety obligations – tax collection and fiscal management; police, fire and emergency medical services; road repair, plowing and other clearing; land-use permitting; special education.
However, over the past 15 years or so other activities once performed almost entirely by volunteers have been included in the town’s budget, and in fact are now what a former Selectman calls “entitlements.” Somehow, in the intervening years since the defeat of an override to buy a Council on Aging (COA) van, the COA has acquired a van, purchased by the town several years ago, as well as a part-time “transportation coordinator” paid by the town (though apparently volunteers still drive many older residents to medical appointments).
Similarly, just over ten years ago all staff costs for managing recreation programs were paid from program fees, and the town recreation budget consisted mostly of expenses to mow Spalding Field. Now, the town’s cost for staff for the Recreation Commission (which also has a van at its disposal) is $60,137, and field maintenance costs have nearly tripled, to about $56,000. (A small portion of these costs are covered by recreation fees shared with the town.)
There is not much left to squeeze in the budgets for mandated services. FinCom heard recently that virtually all staff of the COA, Town Clerk and land-use boards routinely work overtime, and future reductions will only increase that stress. I could never have predicted I would ever recommend such a strategy, but maybe it’s time for the town’s financial leaders to consider, at least for the next few years, dropping some functions once performed by volunteers entirely from the town’s budget, in order to keep vital services healthy.
Now is the time to speak up. By March or April, when most townspeople wake up to reductions in budgets, it is too late to influence major decisions. This month and next are the prime time to learn about what all the reductions proposed last month would mean and to speak up, whether you agree or oppose.
Yes, to newbies municipal finance seems terminally dull, with obscure terms and details, but we have and will summarize much of the debate in these pages. You can also learn a great deal at FinCom and Structural Financial Planning meetings, and while you’re there, ask questions. Finally, serving on the FinCom is even less glamorous than other town boards; their meetings are poorly attended, and involve complex and difficult conversations and decisions. So if you know any of the members personally (they are listed at www.carlislema.gov/Pages/CarlisleMA_BComm/finance), take time soon to thank them for serving in this difficult role.
Name that decade!
We seem to have a habit of thinking in ten-year cycles. The ’70s are remembered for the oil crisis and stagflation; the ’80s brought us the Reagan tax cuts and the fall of the Iron Curtain; and the ’90s saw the invention of the internet (then called the “information highway”) with the resulting dot.com boom (and bust!). But what of the first decade of the 21st century? There does not seem to be a convenient nickname for it. The zeros? The aughts? The Os?
Endings are also beginnings. As the inaugural decade of the 21st century is closed out, the curtain rises on the next one. A lot of people are relieved turn the page, as this past ten years was difficult on many fronts. We started off with a crisis that failed to materialize: Y2K, which predicted the world-wide crash of computer systems. This was followed in short order by a real, but unexpected one on September 11, 2001, marking the beginning of a troubling era in which world-wide terrorism became an undeniable fact of life. Two wars and unprecedented prosperity followed. Then the great recession, which, in addition to wiping out homes, jobs, and 401(k)s, shook our collective sense of self confidence to the bone. And let’s not forget the tsunami in Sri Lanka, reminding us all of nature’s incredible destructive power. Yet, despite it all, we are still substantially better off than we were ten years ago.
Looking back, it seems to me that this decade will be remembered most for establishing a sense of global connectivity. We now know that a coal-burning power plant in Shanghai pollutes not only China, but also Canada. It’s painfully clear that a bunch of unpaid mortgages in Detroit and Phoenix can tank a pension fund in Ireland. Cell phones have become ubiquitous, and can be loaded with hundreds of “apps” including cameras, games, texting, twittering, and GPS (there’s no excuse to get lost anymore!). With Google we can find out just about anything we want at any time. And, as Tiger Woods knows all too well, real privacy has ceased to exist. All this has happened in an astonishingly short time. So, while life is more complicated, challenging, and dangerous, we can be comforted by the fact that we are all in it together, for good or for ill, which in turn creates a huge incentive for mutual cooperation. Global connectivity also alters our sense of scale, as things that once seemed far away and relatively unimportant, like a hurricane in Louisiana, now really hit home. Everyone everywhere has become our neighbor, and that may be the biggest revelation of all.
As we say goodbye to this decade, it only seems fitting that we give it a good name. Therefore, I officially declare the first-ever Mosquito “Name that Decade” contest. Submit your ideas by e-mail to email@example.com and I’ll choose a winner. The prize for the best name of the decade will be $10 (of course!), plus lasting fame. Use the cash to buy the winning lottery ticket, and you can get the next ten years off to a great start.
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