A front page news story last week about the $76.24 million dollar tentative 2015-2016 school spending plan presented by the Norwich Board of Education’s budget expenditure committee signals the start of the municipal budget development cycle, as far as most of us in the public are concerned.
I know from having two children in our schools many years ago, across the school system from the classroom to the top of the administration, dollars and cents are carefully measured against desires and sense on a daily basis. It’s a tightrope act that begins anew every morning and each day the rope seems to get a little shorter and tauter.
There’s serious sticker shock in that projected dollar figure, but let’s be real: we’re not buying hamburger. We’re investing in our children and in the city, state and nation in which they will all one day be contributing adult members.
We are here halfway through the second decade of the 21st Century because those before us built with their taxes the institutions, from public safety through infrastructure to public education, from which we benefited and from which we continue to benefit. If you think education is expensive, wait until you calculate the cost of ignorance.
Judging from the tenor and tone of reaction to the story, with apologies to Charles Dickens, we are again in for ‘the winter of our discontent’ to be followed (in all likelihood) by a spring of unhappy public hearings when various stakeholders and concerned citizen groups implore and importune the City Council, Acting City Manager and Mayor to ‘do the right thing’ when crafting the next municipal budget.
How you define ‘the right thing,’ judging from previous year’s deliberations has a great deal to do with your priorities and how willing each of us is to balance sacrifice, savings and spending. We should steel ourselves now for elected officials telling us ‘this is hardest budget year since…’ and just because we’ve heard that before doesn’t mean it’s no less true.
There will be detailed presentations by every municipal department at hearings open to the public that just about none of us ever attend. Instead we’ll look at the dollar figures at the bottom of every page of the budget and wonder how that number could have happened but our attention wanders when the professionals in our city departments try to explain.
It’s human nature to want more from government while also wanting it to cost less. So far, no one is willing to say how we can do that. Too often, the best we have is a solution everyone is unhappy about.
We talk about ‘consolidation’ and ‘sharing resources’ as economies of scale across city departments but those phrases are clichés without real definition and with no examination of consequences. We keep NOT having a conversation about what we want and what we’re willing to pay for it. And that’s why we keep facing the same challenge at budget time. And why we keep failing.