Calls for "living within our means" and "long term financial planning" are popular because they are so clearly desirable. No individual or organization can ignore these sage prescriptions and hope to endure. And, no organization, be it a family, a corporation, or a community, can ignore the fact that such goals cannot be accomplished in a political vacuum.
While the politics of families and private organizations usually have the benefit of a clear bottom line as well as a solid consensus on goals, the politics of communities rarely do. In our homes and board rooms, the policy makers cannot escape the "bottom line," which provides them with irresistible and economically rational incentives regarding policy decisions - especially budgeting decisions. In short, families and companies are NOT democracies! Neither parents nor CEOs face regular elections with the kids or the workers as voters. Thank God! This narrow politics allows for significantly more efficient decision making, which facilitates more precise and productive strategic (long term) planning.
Unless we repeal democracy, American states and localities will continue to operate in a political environment that bears little resemblance to those discussed above. The people who make budget decisions in our town do not share a common vision of our mission, or our "bottom line." The members of our community (understandably) separate their personal financial picture from the town's. This individualistic tendency exists in all organizations, including the family, but in families and private organizations it is disciplined by a shared (or at least enforceable) understanding of "the bottom line."
In the public sector, the bottom line is always in dispute and the enforceability of any bottom line is very difficult. In communities there are a number of narrow interests that compete for resources in the short term. The interests of particular taxpayers and those of schools, and other public services are often at odds (or at least apparently so). For example, a childless couple might see a clear need to invest in town infrastructure and be satisfied with the condition of our schools because they continue to achieve high test scores, graduation rates, college bound seniors, etc... Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. On the other hand, a family of six may be upset that their kids have outdated textbooks, no enrichment programs, and enough fees to make you think it’s a private school, while not being too upset about a DPW building that is crumbling simply because from their perspective a DPW building is not an urgent need. Sounds equally reasonable to me.
Can we satisfy both perspectives? Sure, but it will be expensive, so instead we pit each perspective against each other in a competition for resources. Well, this can't be good, right? We are always told that pitting groups against each other is destructive and bad. But how can we avoid this competition without failing to properly manage our resources? Isn't the fact of government waste at all levels a by-product of conflict avoidance? That is, trying to be all things to all people. Elected officials simply do not want to make decisions that will alienate valued constituencies, which is perfectly understandable from their perspective.
Seems like we've got a bunch of reasonable perspectives that don't add up. The thing is, we have a way to choose – it’s called politics, and it’s not something voters should try to avoid. Indeed, voter avoidance of politics lies at the heart of our budgetary problems. Understanding the perspectives of others is useful, but it shouldn't short circuit our competition for resources. We simply must require elected officials at ALL levels to defend a distinct perspective against other candidates doing the same. Instead of obscuring their preferences in an effort to maximize political support, politicians must be made to take harder positions, and take them VERY publicly. The result would be much more competitive elections and much more accountable government, two things that cannot exist in isolation.
Longmeadow's present financial troubles should spur residents to get political, not just to get mad. We have an opportunity this spring and fall to elect local officials and a new state representative. If we force candidates to speak directly to our conflicting visions, and to actually take sides, we can make serious progress toward public policies that will move us forward. The winners may not see it your way, or my way, but they will have a clear mandate to pursue the vision that got them elected, and we the voters will get an opportunity to hold them accountable for promised results.
As for the upcoming town meeting, I strongly suggest that you come and vote your interests, and that you hold your local elected officials accountable. By this I mean, only support those officials (at the next election for them) who share your interests and the vision produced by those interests. By doing so you are helping to clarify the incentives of elected decision makers and forcing them to link their political interests to the REAL interests of their core constituencies.
At Longmeadow’s town meeting this Tuesday, we will be passing the annual budget. Unfortunately, the unelected committee on whom we rely for long term financial recommendations has failed to meet its obligation to inform the voters of their recommendations in a timely fashion. Instead of publishing their recommendations with the warrant, or otherwise even agreeing to such recommendations prior to the day of town meeting, the Finance Committee has damaged its own credibility. Such blatant disregard for the voter’s right to know, and know in time to absorb and evaluate, these recommendations should not be taken lightly. While the as yet unknown recommendations may be quite sound, the failure to arrive at them earlier should be publicly condemned. The town should think seriously about structural reforms that would disallow such practices in the future.
UPDATE (April 29th)
Last night the Finance Committee met to formalize its budget recommendations, which had been left unclear in their published report. I applaud the Finance Committee's effort to correct its earlier mistake, and agree with them that the time line which put them in this bind in the first place needs to be changed.
At last night's meeting, the Finance Committee voted to support an amended budget, not the one passed by the Select Board. The Finance Committee's amended budget recommendation calls for $90,000 to be cut from the non-school budget for FY09. Otherwise , the Finance Committee supports the Select Board budget, including it's $150,000 cut of the School budget.