Longmeadow is heading for the most contentious budget battle in years. Strangely enough, the debate is not about whether to raise or lower taxes. No matter how the vote goes at Town Meeting, no matter which alternative is passed, property taxes are going up the usual 2.5 percent.
There has been much hand-wringing about the prospect of a "floor fight" at Town Meeting, as if the preferred method of operation were to make the decisions beforehand and then to have them ratified by supine voters in the style of the former U.S.S.R.'s Party Congresses, where loyal communist party members would signal their assent in unison to the prescribed program. This "floor fight" is nothing more or less than a choice being presented to the voters at Town Meeting, who are, under our town charter, the legislative body. Making that choice is a matter of the voters doing their job.
Readers of this space may recall that I have lamented the lack of choice at Town Meeting. The annual budget, the main order of business, is normally presented in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion. Or, more accurately, the budget choice is: approve this or face disaster. The voters at Town Meeting have an aversion for disaster and typically approve what is presented to them. I have, in years past, suggested that those elected town leaders who are unhappy with the prescribed budget submit an alternative and let the people decide, rather than grumbling on the sidelines.
This year, the School Committee and other town leaders have wisely opted to let the voters decide whether the budget, narrowly approved 3-2 by the Select Board, or whether a compromise, which has the support of a larger number of our elected officials, should be approved. The compromise is the better choice.
The Select Board's budget raises spending on capital by making cuts to town services and to the schools with a zero percent increase for all components of town government, except capital spending. This "zero budget" means, in real economic terms, a decrease in funding across the board since inflation has made a dollar worth about 2.5 percent less every year for the last few years. 2013 is expected to be the same.
The issue then is not of taxes, but of allocation. The cuts instituted by the Select Board budget would be, by the admission of the Select Board itself, painful to town departments that serve seniors and working adults. This comes at a time when the services provided to seniors, evidenced by the shabby condition of the Senior Center, are hardly abounding. The cuts will also be painful for children in the schools.
In the past several years, under the former town manager and with the support of such stalwarts of fiscal rectitude like William Scibelli, Longmeadow has had "level service" budgets. This meant basically that we wanted to keep things from getting worse in Longmeadow by keeping the level of services the same. Level service budgets kept pace with inflation with the customary 2.5 percent increases.
So why are we now suddenly being asked to adopt an austerity town budget? Three members of the Select Board tell us we need to spend money on "capital." And yet, the telling moment during the March town budget forum was when the interim town manager admitted that there was no capital plan. Spending on capital without a plan is not responsible, and it is not frugal. The plan should come first, and then the spending.
Spending on capital without a plan simply creates a pot of money that may not be wisely spent. Spending without a plan, without direction, and without a process for reviewing the efficacy of these expenditures is a recipe for wasting taxpayer dollars. It was a lack of direction that allowed the Maple Road paving project to start late, to take too long, and to straddle the winter months when paving should not be done. The result was a mess. It was a lack of direction that allowed money to be given to DPW in the last year for trees, and then the work ended up being done on overtime. A boon to DPW employees perhaps, but it was not the most frugal way to get the job done.
Sacrificing services that have real value in order to engage in a pell-mell rush to spend money on "capital" is not the best way for Longmeadow to move forward. The compromise is imperfect because it does not remove the austerity onus on services for seniors, and it only mitigates the cuts to education. But of the two, the compromise is the better budget.
Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is email@example.com.