Taking Away Choice

While I could spend my time writing more about the reactions to President Bush's call to arms the other night, I thought instead that I would focus on something a bit more 'small town America'.

It is said that all politics are local. Truer words were never spoken.

In this case we're talking about a small town's taxpayers and a move by certain elements to make sure that the taxpayers will have less input and less oversight over how their tax dollars are spent.

Like most towns in New Hampshire, our town has a budget committee. This committee is elected by the voters. It is the committee's job to look at all of the budget requests, suggest changes should they be necessary, and vote on whether to approve or disapprove a budget item. For the most part a budget committee works on the behalf of the townspeople. Sometimes they don't.

In our town the present budget committee has been taking a hard look at how much money the town is spending on salaries and benefits for all town employees, one place where spending has been increasing at a rate far above that of the private sector. It's been stressing the property owners in the town, with tax increases well above the rate of inflation.

One of the biggest budget issues any town deals with is the school budget. And so it is with our town. The school budget can be 75% of a town's budget, so it's necessary to carefully watch every dollar that's spent or proposed to be spent. It's part and parcel of what a budget committee is supposed to do. The present budget committee is taking a particularly close look at this part of the budget, much to the dismay of a number of school employees. I guess they figure that it's none of the committee's business how much is being spent to educate our children.

How is it that I've come to this conclusion?

A number of school employees and their spouses have filed a petition to put a warrant article before the voters to eliminate the budget committee as it stands now. Rather than being elected by the townspeople, the petitioners want them to be appointed by the selectmen and school board and to serve at their pleasure. The committee would be stripped of its responsibilities and be beholden to the selectmen and school board and not the townspeople who would have elected them.

This is a bad idea.

Because a small but vocal group feels that they aren't getting their way, meaning that the townspeople seem unwilling to bankrupt themselves in order to pay ever higher town employee salaries and benefits and feed the ever more hungry education system in town, they figure it's easier to do an end run around the checks and balances by doing away with them altogether. How is this in the best interests of the taxpayers?

It isn't. But don't try to tell the petitioners that.

Committee member Doug Lambert said of the petition, "it doesn't really speak well of the arguments they bring to the table."

He said he feels it is nothing more than a ploy by town employees to avoid scrutiny of their budgets, "rather than bring the issues into the light of publicity through the budget committee and debating these issues out in the open."


When asked how confident he was about the committee's odds of having enough support to defeat the petition, Lambert said he could not imagine that the average [town] resident sees the petitioned article as anything more than a ploy by those with vested interests.

"I cannot believe that the voters of [our town] will hand away a check they have on local government," said Lambert, adding that the whole reason the budget committee is elected, rather than appointed, is so that, if the voters do not agree with their actions, they can vote them out.

The budget committee's job is to make sure that the various town departments and school system can justify any proposed spending. Without this oversight it is likely that spending would increase at unsustainable levels, putting a severe strain on many of lower and middle income taxpayers within the town. This is something that I believe too many of the petitioners and their supporters are overlooking in their zeal to preserve what they see as necessary spending. To everyone else it might appear that they're trying to keep the taxpayer's purse string wide open while ignoring the consequences of such an action.

This problem is not limited to our town. Spending is always a controversial topic in any town. Some think their town is spending too much, others think that their town isn't spending enough, and yet others think their town is spending the right amount. Of the three, I tend to lean in the direction that our town is spending too much, no matter where I live.

If it is found that some need is truly underfunded, spending can be increased. But if it is overfunded, it's a good bet that every penny will be spent. The taxpayers aren't likely to get a refund. It's also quite common for some in a town to confuse nice-to-haves with need-to-haves. Our town is no different. Neither is yours.

Bypassing checks and balances, even if some of those checks and balances are partisan, may seem like the answer to the problem. But eventually that bypass will be a far bigger problem than the perceived problem such an end run was supposed to correct. The only ones that will end up paying for it are the taxpayers, and particularly those less able to pay the ever growing tax burden. It will have long term negative affects that will change the character of any town that does such a thing. (Yes, I know I'm stretching this a bit, but I've seen first hand how a scenario like this can play out, and it isn't pretty.)

Welcome to small town politics.

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