Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Frugality is a word that rarely enters the debate about government spending at any level. Instead, voters hear about "unnecessary spending" and the need to eliminate it when annual budgets are out of line. It always begs the question of, if the spending was unnecessary, why were we doing it in the first place? And then there are the politicians who aim to balance budgets by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse, as if waste, fraud, and abuse were OK when times were not so tight.
Politicians who spend tax dollars undertake a solemn responsibility. Elected officials ought to be as careful with the public's money as they are with their own. That is the true test for fiscal responsibility.
To make it through college, I grew wild blueberries with my grandfather on a remote parcel of land in Maine. Keeping costs down meant the difference between making money or not, the difference between attending school in the fall or not. Frugality meant hoping for rain, and when rain did not come, it meant irrigating the land with a used, and not a new, pump. It meant buying some odd lots of used pipe that did not fit together, and then blacksmithing some connecting pieces so that our strange collection of mismatched pipe could do the job.
Frugality is a way of doing business, and for households, it is a way of life. It is my grandmother opening a Christmas present, taking care not to rip the wrapping paper, and then smoothing the paper out, so that it can be used for next year. Frugality is waiting to buy bread at the Big Y until it is a two-for-one special. It is buying your paper goods at Target and not CVS.
Frugality is an everyday thing, not an end of the year thing. It is being mindful of every expenditure, working efficiently, and re-evaluating constantly to make sure nothing is wasted. Sometimes it is making do with what you have, using a thing until it is broken and beyond repair. And it is always about taking care of your tools, and not throwing out things that will have value in the future.
Frugality is an easy idea to grasp while eking out a living on your own blueberry field, wood lot, or lobster boat in Maine. It is easy to understand if you are a senior living on a fixed income. But a spirit of frugality is harder to maintain across a large organization, when the visceral feeling of reaching into an almost empty pocket at the checkout line is gone.
So frugality also means never spending without a plan. Blue chip companies with an eye on the bottom line, like GE and Monsanto, set goals, formulate plans, and then review performance to match up the execution of those plans with the goals. A good company answerable to its shareholders does not allow its money to wander aimlessly from the prescribed path.
Likewise, a good government answerable to the voters is frugal, and it insists on a sound plan before spending any money. A frugal government does not try to save money by haphazardly drawing lines through a budget spreadsheet at the end of the year, eliminating some programs and positions entirely, and doing nothing to increase the efficiency of other programs and positions. A frugal government becomes lean the way a smart dieter loses weight, by slowing shedding calories and pounds over time. Lopping off programs at the end of the year is like trying to lose weight by chopping off a hand. It accomplishes the short-term goal, but it is destructive in the long run.
In recent years, Longmeadow's annual budget has sometimes sparked discord, and sometimes not. This year, the rancor has been notable. But through it all, have we ever looked at our operations, our objectives, and our plans? Have we looked at the way town government does business, in the manner a management consultant would scrutinize a company seeking to improve its performance? Have we, with fresh eyes, looked for redundancies, inefficiencies, and ways in which our spending has deviated from our plans, or ways in which spending has proceeded without a plan?
An attentive voter listening to the statements of our town leaders in recent years would have to conclude that every department, down to every last employee, is a model of efficiency. We just seem to take it for granted in the way that the citizens of Lake Wobegon believe that all of their children are above average. A frugal government does not indulge in such fantasies.
Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.