Wednesday, September 19, 2007

FY09 Priorities

Sent: Wednesday, September 19, 2007 11:58:49 AM
To: Select Board

To the Selectboard:

As you consider guidelines for the Town Manager as he prepares his proposed municipal budget, I would urge you to incorporate the following principles:

1. The municipal budget is one component of the town's total spending plan, and ultimately Town Meeting must determine the right balance among municipal, school, and library expenditures. That is hard to do, because the budget is organized in large, abstract groupings like "public safety" and "elementary schools." Setting the town's priorities requires getting inside those groupings (i.e. the question is not whether we will have public safety or public schools, but rather how much of each). I therefore urge you to ask the Manager to present his recommendations in a way that provides clear programmatic implications for different funding levels. For example, the Manager will recommend a fire budget based on some specified level of staffing per shift. If that represents an increase over current staffing levels, then the Manager should articulate what the difference buys in terms such as response time, number of occasions upon which all firefighters are out on call, and so forth.

If the recommendation reflects a decline in staffing, then that should be expressed in similar terms.

While there is always some attempt to do this, the structure of the budget exercise tends to emphasize numbers over actual impacts. The Manager's budget includes all kinds of data on service levels, but that does not easily translate into a practical sense of what is lost or gained at various budget levels. Often, this kind of context does not get broad discussion until the actual vote at Town Meeting, with a police chief or an LSSE chair trying to articulate the consequences of various budget levels on the fly. If the Manager's budget proposal (particularly the transmittal memo) carefully places the budget numbers in programmatic terms from the beginning, and provides a context for what a higher or lower number means, the process of determining townwide budget priorities by Town Meeting will be greatly assisted.

This cannot be done for every budget area, of course, but usually the budget debate tends to focus on some major questions lending themselves to this kind of treatment. I will make the same suggestion to the library trustees and the school committees.

2. I hope you will ask the Manager to set his priorities in light of the town's obligations vs. its choices. By this I mean that the highest priority should be given to those activities for which the town is legally responsible, vs. those for which town funding is discretionary. My reason for this is simple: it is very important that what the town does, it does well. Taxpayer confidence quickly erodes when we try to spread the butter too thinly, and service levels fall below citizens' expectations. What are these obligations? There is obviously some room for debate, but probably not too much. The town and only the town can provide police and fire protection, discharge the municipal corporation's fiduciary responsibilities to taxpayers and bondholders, satisfy statutory requirements relating to public health, and so forth. It would be very helpful if the Manager annotated his budget recommendation in a way that relates these obligations to actual expenditures.

3. Even in our current financial straits, we still pay for a lot of things that are not legally required. For discretionary expenditures, I hope you will ask the Manager to give the highest priority to activities that fall the closest to the set of services that citizens customarily associate with local government. While not strictly speaking obligations, there are certain kinds of things that people expect from local government, and when they are missing or severely compromised, taxpayer support for the whole municipal enterprise erodes. In many communities, for example, trash collection and recycling are tax-supported activities. That is not an option for us, at least at this point, but it illustrates the kind of expectations that folks may bring to the budget debate, and that may cause them to begin the process somewhat disappointed. Some examples of common expectations might be many aspects of library services (albeit not in the Manager's purview), programs for seniors, and recreation programs for kids. My purpose is not to suggest what the list should be, but to urge that there be clarity in the Manager's budget about what kinds of expectations we are trying (and not trying) to meet.

4. There is a stark asymmetry in public budgeting that I believe you can help address. Some programs and activities, by their nature, have constituencies to support them (because they appeal to some interest on the part of a group of citizens). Others do not, even though they may be very important to the overall success of local government. The myriad "green eyeshade" functions that ensure financial integrity and efficiency might be an example. I hope you will ask the Manager to give special attention to the necessary but unglamorous components of the municipal budget. If the Selectboard is not "the constituency" for these activities, then I do not know who is.

5. You will undoubtedly receive many requests to include one specific program or another in the budget. I hope you will not pass these along, or try to come up with your own list. I hope your guidelines will focus on the reasoning behind and criteria for the decisions the Manager will make, not what outcome you want to see. This seems important for two reasons. First, under our system of government making these recommendations is a central part of the Manager's job, and we should try to support him in that process. Second, the absence of an early and clear focus on criteria and the framework for decision-making is, in my opinion, a weakness of our current system. The Selectboard can make an important contribution by bringing these issues to the forefront before the inevitable haggling over preferences begins.

6. Finally, as part of that framework I hope you will ask the Manager to organize his budget proposal in terms of the most significant challenge facing our community's ability to meet the needs of our citizens now and in the future: broadening the revenue base so as to minimize the reductions in services with which we are currently grappling, and will surely grapple for years to come. Much discussion has already been devoted to this topic, but the Manager's budget must reflect the urgency of that task.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

Bryan H