Friday, October 1, 2010
Good plan! Now what?
Last May at Town Meeting it was reassuring to learn that there was a financial plan to help us all survive two major school renovations over the next ten to 15 years. This fall though, as the budget process begins anew, it becomes clear how many ways Carlisle’s decentralized town government can inhibit carrying out the thoughtful recommendations made by the Structural Financial Planning Committee (SFP) last winter.
A few have already been accomplished or are underway (e.g. increasing some fees, a study of regionalizing the Board of Health and Recreation Department), but others will face obstacles that will require some sort of deeper organizational or political changes to achieve. For example, a suggestion to keep nearly all non-school departments at their current levels of service even if the population grows runs counter to what most members of town boards and departments see as their proper role: to advocate for services or preserve benefits for interests they represent. So a budget “veto” (refusing to include a request in the “no-override” budget or to put an override on the ballot) may be the Selectmen’s only way to control tendencies to expansion.
Sustainable pay increases are also critical to controlling the growth of labor costs says the SFP, calling for tying a standard increase for all noncontractual (not represented by unions) town employees to changes in the Consumer Price Index. But historically town boards negotiate independently with unions (Selectmen with police and dispatch, School Committee with teachers) and then noncontractual salaries and budgets are increased based on the agreement. So again, how FinCom or Selectmen can influence this process without some organizational or political change, or threatening a veto, is hard to imagine.
Then there are the “budget busters,” expenses like health insurance and energy costs, where the town has little control. Past increases for special education in particular have been “precipitous” and often unpredictable. So a joint Carlisle-Concord committee should study and develop “strategies for cost control” for both schools, the SFP says. Yet procedures ultimately governed by state and federal law set these costs, and do not allow for intervention from non-educators like budget planners. Also, Concord members of the Regional School Committee seem unlikely to cede to Carlisle any more influence over this than any other budget line.
So, while it is heartening that the Selectmen are committed to work on the SFP plan, they will most likely need more than vigilance and good working relationships with other groups to overcome these organizational hurdles. A start would be somehow to get these good ideas on to-do lists throughout town government. Some tasks could become the responsibility of existing committees, such as FinCom reviewing fees or developing budget formulas, while others (e.g. estimating future pension and health benefits costs in detail) might warrant a short-term, ad hoc task force.
Anything town leaders can devise that “bakes in” these strategies to the bureaucracy of the town will help. For example, the SFP recommends that for the foreseeable future, any CPS budget savings from serving fewer children should be used to offset the building project costs to taxpayers, rather than reducing class size or other program enhancements. Agreeing on a formula to set school budget guidelines based on changes in the number of students would help make sure this actually happens.
The long-term achievement of these savings can also be undermined by loss of institutional memory. Each year there are “shift changes,” as Selectmen, board and committee members and town employees move on and are replaced. Within a few years, an entirely new cast could be wondering how to cope with big tax increases, the careful planning of the SFP discarded as just another old report. So the more these ideas become part of “the way we do things” for as many town bodies as possible, the more likely any savings can be sustained through the tough years to come. ∆
What I did this summer
Every week or two throughout the warm months, the Mosquito’s Police Blotter carries at least one item wherein motorists have complained about cyclists or cyclists have complained about motorists. Living on a main thoroughfare favored by both cyclists and motorists, I have had a ringside seat from which to observe their behaviors in their native habitat, and I feel myself in a good position to diagnose the problems and pontificate about solutions.
As is said of the law, nine-tenths of the complaints from cyclists and drivers revolve around possession, that is, possession of the right of way. There is room for a bicycle and a car side by side on most of our roads, but it is uncomfortably close, especially given a bicycle’s ability and a car’s inability to swerve suddenly. So on passing, cars generally drift over the center line to the left. This works all right – except when it doesn’t – for instance, when an oncoming car prevents drifting over the center line. That’s when the problems arise.
To simplify, it seems there are two kinds of cyclists: the racers, who are trying to beat a clock, and the lackadaisical, who just want a pleasant outing. And both can cause problems. The racing cyclists, all decked out in form-fitting, shiny outfits said to reduce wind resistance and show off well-developed muscles, proceed at speeds close to normal driving speeds, so that sharing the road should be quite natural – except when it isn’t – for instance, when the racers are passing one another, or when they are going uphill, or when there are tight curves and drivers cannot see around the next bend to give the cyclist a wide enough berth.
By contrast, the lackadaisical cyclists, dismally dressed in baggy shirts and pants, are easy to pass – except when they aren’t – for instance, when going uphill, they select some absurdly low gear so that they must pedal furiously just to move forward at all and they wobble all over the place, or when they have a friend along and want to talk, which means they must travel abreast or else shout to one another.
The shouters, by the way, provide some puzzlement and a degree of amusement because one hears only a snippet of conversation before they are out of earshot. Men seem usually to be discussing how something works, but women talking to women seem usually to be discussing people, which is more interesting. For example, I surely wish I knew what preceded, “I would never do that, even if he asked me,” or “And there I was with no clothes.” She may have meant no clothes suitable for some social event, but that’s not the way my mind works. Anyway, it’s something I shall never know.
Having brooded about it for a long time, I have concluded that there are no obvious solutions to the problems of cyclists and motorists using the same roads, so each must endure the other, and, I hope, avoid any serious mistakes. ∆
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