The high water mark of “kill the beast”, anti-government, slash taxes activism was two years ago in the RTM — or so I thought. At that time a sense of the meeting resolution (SOMR) was passed calling for a reduced budget. I spoke against the “motherhood and apple pie” motion for it represented nothing less than an evisceration of town services and our public education system. The motion passed but a few months later a “level services” budget was nevertheless adopted and our current budget also reflects an increase that falls between the
hitherto agreed range of a 2-4% increase. All parties, selectmen, BET and RTM (at
least the majority) seemed to have accepted a continuation of Greenwich’s
budget model and the level of service delivery currently in place.
So I thought that the budget cutters had gone away but to my dismay they are back and this time they have infiltrated the BET. The most recent meeting of the budget committee of the BET was the scene of the latest attempt to reduce the size of our town government. The chair of the committee and lead budget-cutter wrote a set of guidelines proposing a 2% budget increase and an overall budget cap of $340 million. This is a dry subject but for the benefit of those who
(understandably) don’t follow these matters too closely, this increase will
actually result in a reduction in town services due to built-in contractual and
fix charge increases in, for example, pension and health care costs.
“Reduction in town services” seems a relatively anodyne phrase but let’s be clear, it is a radical departure from the level services consensus and in the real world it will mean layoffs in town departments and poorer service delivery to residents. This talk in the budget committee is dangerous and hardly conducive to high morale in town hall. What’s more it is totally unnecessary.
What is the impetus for this radicalism? The budget guidelines say that we are in the “fifth year of a recession,” that a “severe recession has gripped our nation since 2008” and that the budget needs to take account of prevailing economic conditions. I agree with the last point; we cannot be immune from the rest of the world. For example, when the crisis hit in 2008 the town responded at that time with layoffs. They were not well handled but that they were needed was the reluctant consensus. By the time I spoke against the SOMR in 2009 the crisis had passed and we had enjoyed two quarters of positive economic growth. Since then we have had fourteen quarters of economic growth; slower growth than we would all wish but growth nevertheless. We are quite simply not in the fifth year of a recession. Furthermore the IMF is forecasting four years of continuing improvement for the US economy. The mischaracterizations of the “lead budget cutter” cannot go uncorrected. He is flat out wrong and his nostrums represent no justification for cuts merely for the sake of cuts.
The fact of the matter is that our taxes and debt are already the lowest of any comparable gold coast town. It could be argued that we pay a price for this and that school standards and in some case cases poorly maintained school facilities and public buildings are the result. Let us never forget that we are in competition
with our neighbors and that families looking to settle in the general area look
not just to low and predictable taxes but also to the standard of the public schools
and the general quality of life. That said I am absolutely not arguing for tax
increases above those needed to maintain level services. But I am arguing
against cuts that represent a radical deviation from the practices of the past
few years and that would take us from fiscal conservatism to fiscal
destruction. There is just no need for it.
Let me make two other points. I am clearly a believer in government as our friend but I also believe in efficient government and studies should continue to find ways
to improve productivity. That is not the same at all as imposing caps and
asking departments to cut back. Finally the BET really does have to reconsider the
financing policy for major capital projects. As a finance professional I have
always matched financing against the life of the project. That means using
longer term bonds, which will spread the cost of, for example MISA or a new
town pool or a King Street fire station over all the generations who will
benefit from these new amenities. Mirabile dictu it also means that our taxes
will be lower because we won’t be cramming project costs into near term
budgets. And if there was ever a time to take advantage of historically low
interest rates it is now.
But back to the budget process — the guidelines failed in a 2-2 vote in the budget
committee and the full BET will now take up the matter. I urge the BET to show
the flexibility needed to maintain level services and the vision to adopt a
modern financing policy. There is nothing in the current economy or in
comparisons with other towns that warrants the draconian cuts implied by the
budget chair’s guidelines. The consensus of the past few years is not perfect
but it’s better than any alternative that I have seen. Don’t snatch defeat from
the jaws of victory!