With Monday’s Annual Town Meeting fast approaching, I thought I would share a few thoughts outlining my position on a couple of key issues as some of you may not be able to attend, while those who do, may not – due to time limitations on speakers – have the benefit of explanations at Town Meeting. To be clear, these are my individual positions and are not intended to represent those of the Board of Selectmen. Equally, I offer my thoughts not for the purpose of trying to move voters in one direction or the other, but solely rather, for the purpose of providing my rationale for voting the way I will; I believe such is a responsibility of elected officials. In addition, I must point out that my approach here will lack the political correctness some might prefer, for that I do offer my apologies, but there are important issues before us and little time for the subtleness some might deem more prudent. I invite you to take the time to read through this correspondence and if inclined, feel free to share your thoughts with me, supportive and more importantly – otherwise.
Perhaps two of the most discussed items on the ATM warrant are Articles 3 & 4, both of which deal with the budget. Article 3 is specific to the budget recommendations of the Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen, which amounts to an FY13 budget proposal of $26,750,919. Article 4 is a citizens’ petition for a level-funded budget at FY2012 levels, which amounts to $25,578,124; this budget is $1,172,795 less than that recommended by the Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen.
It is very important to note here that the “nightmare budget” offered by the Finance Committee in its FY13 report, suggesting the elimination the Council on Aging budget as well as that of the Recreation Committee, should Article 4 pass (effectively and literally closing the doors to the Senior Center and the Recreation Department) are scenarios that absolutely will NOT happen. Those extremes, as well as others that strategically focus on eliminating services for our seniors and youth do a disservice to the residents of this community who have every right to expect honesty and facts from their local officials. Equally discrediting are the comments offered by the Town Administrator in public statements that the citizens’ petition “…seeks to tap into general frustration over taxation, and perceived governmental largess, in hopes of gaining an emotional vote to level fund budgets with no workable or known alternative plan”. There is little doubt that the very same characterizations can be made specific to other comments made publicly wherein the the citizens’ petition is referred to as a “blunderbuss approach lack[ing] credibility and, if passed, will result in substantial personnel layoffs and deep cuts to existing services”.
Oddly, as pointed out by member of the Board during public discussions specific to same, neither the Town Administrator nor the Finance Committee offered any cuts or reductions in the nearly $200,000 capital raise article, elimination of the non-union pay raises, merit increases, or other non-service related items that could be cut if necessary. Instead, public officials are focusing on personnel and services “in hopes of gaining an emotional vote to” support their recommendations (including a pay raise and merit pay for the Town Administrator and others) instead of offering a truly “workable or known alternative plan” that reduces/eliminates pay raises, merit pay, capital expenditures and other “workable” alternatives. Though, as stated publicly and previously, I do not support Article 4 (level-funded budget proposal), I also do not support fear-baiting or strategically placed overstatements designed to manipulate individuals into decisions or actions that may run counter to their beliefs or financial situations. Very disturbing to this particular elected official is the fact that at this very moment an 80 plus year-old volunteer at the Sturbridge Senior Center is under the belief that if she (who happens to be on a very minimal fixed income) does not vote to support an increase in her taxes, she will lose her ability to serve at the Senior Center. This is not only disturbing, it is unconscionable that we have created this level of fear not only in her, but in hundreds of other residents as well.
Whatever happens on Monday with respect to the budget, residents need to vote their conscience and their beliefs, secure in the knowledge that we as a community will weather any financial challenges in a pragmatic, reasoned, and rationale manner that does not gut or destroy the services we provide. Certainly some reductions/cuts will be necessary and yes the wage and merit increases supported by the FinCom and 3 members of the BOS will have to be eliminated. So too will the proposed additional hours in nearly every department as well as personnel increases in some departments have to be eliminated. To that particular point, though the majority vote on the BOS supports wage and merit increases for all non-union personnel, I personally believe those wage & merit increases to be unnecessary and ill-timed when juxtaposed against an economy where many residents have taken wage and benefit reductions in an effort to keep their jobs, while others have seen their jobs eliminated or shipped overseas.
Equally unnecessary are the proposals for increased hours in nearly every department, as well as additional personnel - NONE of which are supported by the majority of those on the BOS – as there is no objective or detailed criteria that has thus far been offered to substantiate those increases. What has been presented in support of these increases to date amounts to little more than a laundry list of subjectively drafted “justifications” explaining how “busy” everybody is. When one considers the fact that we now have more people working more hours at Town Hall than we did back during the building boom 9 years ago and today development and tourism is at a virtual standstill, one is at a loss to understand how we need more people to do less work than we were doing years ago.
It is not lost on me that each year we add hours or personnel to many of our departments, yet the workload remains relatively the same. Yes there are peaks and valleys and some things are getting done now that were not being previously done, but that is because other demands in the offices have for the most part declined due to reduced building, fewer to virtually no new significant subdivision developments, and non-existent new commercial construction/development. Were it not for the unfortunate destruction caused by last year’s tornado, permits for renovations/rebuilds would be nearly non-existent. The BOS has authorized the formation of a Government Services Study Committee that will objectively, accurately, and appropriately analyze each department to determine true vs. perceived needs as well as possible areas of consolidation – if and where warranted. Once completed, the residents of this community will have a blueprint that will provide objective vs. subjective rationale for future proposed increases at Town Meeting. Absent that objective information, you and I as members of the Legislative Branch at Town meeting are being asked to approve increases that would, in many cases, simply not pass muster where we running our community more like a business with financial limitations as opposed to a spending machine that seems to have an unlimited appetite for taxpayer funds.
With respect to the budget itself, I will be placing a hold for detailed explanation and discussion on every line item containing increased wages and/or personnel as there is in my mind, no reasonable benchmark to afford pay/merit increases to employees during this particular economy. Again, while others are taking pay and benefit reductions to keep jobs, we are offering 2% increases and merit pay to department heads and employees who maintain relatively strong benefit packages, exceptional pay for the services performed, job security, and great working conditions that afford a 35 hour work week replete with a one hour lunch, enabling Town Hall to come to a screeching halt each day at lunchtime. (Not politically correct here, but suffice to say the level of frustration I have encountered from residents is staggering). Those ‘hold” lines for me in the budget will be as follows: 5, 6, 7, 12, 15, 20, 25, 26, 31, 32, 41, 42, 47, 48, 68, 69, 74, 80, 81, 87, 89, 93, 98 & 99.
Line 69 contains a School Resource Office position and though I support the position, I no longer support funding that position in light of the Tantasqua Regional School Committee’s vote not to accept the officer. Implementing the SRO position against the wishes of those who would “house” said position - at cost to Sturbridge taxpayers – is of little benefit to any and could serve merely as unnecessary and ill-conceived distraction. The effective implementation of this program demands the support, cooperation, and collaboration of all involved. Hopefully, we can review this over the next year and have the level of discussion this issue merits with all of the appropriate individuals gathered together.
In terms of other items on the Annual Town Meeting Warrant that merit close consideration by voters concerned about spending, are Article 13 (Commercial Tourist District Plan) $60,000, Article 14 (Capital Improvement Plan), $199,817 and Article 15 (CAPITAL RAISE ARTICLE – DPW: DUMP TRUCK w/ PLOW) $169,022. To be clear, I voted to support all three of these articles and continue to support them - to a point, but with the lack of true restraint in terms of “nightmare budgets” and characterizations of resident concerns about spending being a “blunderbuss approach lacking credibility”, it is noteworthy that budget cutting proposals thus far offered by Town officials fail to address the $429,634 that could be leveraged in those 3 articles alone. To that number, one would then add the wage increases, merit pay, additional hours, and additional staff being proposed, not to mention other proposed increases that could be brought back to FY12 levels and we start to get a real strong handle on the challenges that would be faced were Article 4 to pass.
For the record, increased hours and personnel - absent wage and merit increases - as outlined in the Town Administrator's budget presentation to the BOS and FinCom on 25 February 2012 total $230,921, which when added to the $429,634 comes to a total of $660,555. If we reduce the additional $54,900 increase proposed by him for road maintenance in that same report, the figure becomes $715, 455. Noteworthy is the fact that were these increases to be eliminated from the budget, as well as the non-union wage and merit increases, we would be looking at a figure closer to $250,000 in terms of our actual increase over last year's budget. It is really difficult for this particular individual to believe that the $250,000 we would need to reconcile would come at the cost of anything remotely similar to the FinCom's "nightmare budget" or the substantial personnel layoffs and deep cuts to existing services” outlined by the Town Administrator.
Again, I do not support Article 4 and intend to vote against it. That said, I do not support fear-baiting and strategically placed overstatements that seek to tap into resident’s fears, thereby manipulating them into a course of action that may or may not be in their best interests. Only you can decide what is in your best interest and regardless of what happens tomorrow evening, Sturbridge will survive and the appropriate course of action will be undertaken by all in a pragmatic, reasoned, and rationale manner. That, we owe to each and every one of you.