Jim Goodrich is a retired businessman and a 35-year resident of Westport. His 3 children are graduates of the Westport school system. Here are his thoughts on this year’s town budget — and his solution.
In trying to resolve a single budget issue, the Board of Finance has created a host of problems far more significant than the one they have set out to fix. There may be other ways to remedy the situation.
Attending the review of the Board of Education budget by the Board of Finance was disheartening. I was disappointed because significant reductions to a well received and well thought-out budget were made, and the reduction did not square with my personal values. The disheartening part came from statements made by certain BOF members that indicated to me that some of them understand little about how the school system operates. They may not even believe in public education.
I understand how town officials can also feel frustration. Cutting police and fire headcount, for example, is pretty draconian stuff. When you have the first selectman talking about being forced to cut vital services, and the schools talking about cutting educational programs, you feel the divisive battle lines being drawn.
Is this the way it must be? I certainly hope not. But I think we have been brought to this juncture as a result of less than effective leadership by the Board of Finance.
The BOF apparently believes that its only job is to keep taxes flat or low, and they have found a way to do so by “spreading the pain” – but at a cost to the fabric of the community they serve and that we all live in. The BOF may feel that its job is done and now they can pass the problem down the road to the RTM that will have to resolve a serious set of issues.
Somehow we’ve come to this point without a good look at the elephant in the room: a town pension liability of $3 million that needs to be funded. The BOF may think it has handled the issue by cutting expenses by about $3 million. But from another viewpoint they have created a host of other significant problems, while superficially solving the one they most feel responsibility for.
The pension issue is real, and because it is a town liability, it is also a taxpayer liability. We taxpayers own the liability and have to pay it. The essence of the BOF’s decision is that we taxpayers must pay for our liability by cuts in essential services. Those cuts means a dirtier town that is less secure, with an educational system that is less than high quality.
In other words, the only “win” for the taxpayer is to continue to pay low taxes as compared to neighboring towns. In every other respect we taxpayers “lose.” I’m not pleased to think that a stretched police or fire department might not be available for my emergency, or that our schools may not do for today’s students what they did for mine.
I believe that if you have a complaint or a problem, you have a responsibility to try and resolve it. I do not believe that cuts to key services is the way to solve the liability we taxpayers own. I do believe there are things that can be done. I offer a couple of possibilities that are more of a rifle shot aimed at the proverbial elephant in the room, as opposed to destroying the house with the elephant in it.
The most simple-minded suggestion is to raise taxes to pay for the liability of $3 million.
A variant of the first is to create a tax surcharge targeted at the liability, and payable over a defined period of time. Taxpayers who are unable to pay the surcharge could be eligible for relief through a program similar to that offered to seniors (a deferral of tax until the taxpayer’s home is sold, or the tax lien is otherwise paid off).
Create a tax-exempt, interest-bearing bond for the $3 million liability that could be purchased by taxpayers (or, perhaps anyone) and paid back to investors over time. My parents bought me war bonds when I was a child, and savings bonds later. Why not Westport Bonds and Minute Man Bonds?
“Our” liability has a defined size and scope, and we can end it. If the clever people involved with the Westport Country Playhouse could raise $30MM to fix a facilities problem, perhaps some of them would lend their considerable “bling” to help fix a one-time budget problem.
How? Hold a “Retire the Debt” fund raiser. Buy a kid a piece of a fire truck, police car or classroom. Sponsor a teacher, a firefighter, a cop, a police dog. If you like golf, sponsor a fairway or one of the greens. You want waterfront property? No problem, you can have your own section of Compo beach. Then let’s recognize and celebrate those who have taken part.
Hey, this is Westport. We’re smart, generous and creative. Given the choice between a poke in the eye with a sharp stick (read “cuts in essential services”) or a pat on the back (read “my own section of Compo Beach”), I know what I’d choose.
So come on, Board of Finance: Hunker down and think of something more uplifting than “shared pain.”
You’re Westporters. You can do better.