Friday, January 9, 2009

Send for the Mathletes!

This is the time of year when municipalities start 'working' on their next budget--all the agencies in your town from public safety through public works and education etc, are developing what they feel are their best estimates at the public funding they need for whenever the next budget year starts (here in Connecticut, for the state as well as cities and towns, it's 1 July).

Odd, how in years past (a/k/a 'the good old days') there was spirited debate about the costs of municipal government in relation to local (usually property) taxes of residents. Someone once told me, at the turn of the 19th Century there were more millionaires in Norwich than in New York City-but long before the turn of the 20th Century, New York City had its own sales tax and income tax while Norwich, along with the other one hundred and sixty-seven municipalities in The Nutmeg State, relies on the largess bestowed through deus ex Hartford.

With the turbulence and market meltdowns, this looks like a tough year across this state (not that we are alone on that, right?). Earlier this week, Connecticut's Governor, M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, and the Democrats who control both houses of the State Legislature agreed 'Holy cow' (sorry, Scooter) it's going to be one heckuva of a struggle to cover the funding gap that grows larger in the current budget as well as develop the next budget. Here's a slightly different take on that task.

It's reassuring but, simultaneously, disconcerting that government, at all levels, has (finally) arrived at where you and I (and our families) have been, in terms of fiscal realities. Omar is right, it is Hard Times in the Land of Plenty. It's the 'how shall we proceed?' portion of the proceedings, and how that will trickle down to our households that causes me to reach for my trusty yellow Mac and hat (George! No, not the one behind the podium with the seal. The other one.) when everyone talks about a 'responsible budget'. Sadly, responsible budgets (like diets) always begin 'tomorrow'.

The challenge for those in Hartford (and for all of us who live by the decisions they make, and shape) is getting all of us to tomorrow and beyond. My evil twin, Skippy, suspects the legislators (and not just in my state's capital, either, I might add) can (and will) reduce funding to municipalities for the programs they have mandated the cities and towns must accomplish. (Ask the Czechs about Neville Chamberlain's solution. Now there's a snarky recollection of a preposition, Nat C.!) Such a maneuver will create a 'responsible budget' of sorts, but will shift a burden to the backs of local residents whose property taxes will, by necessity, escalate to offset the loss of state funding for required (by the state) programs.

The cities and towns, themselves, in turn will elevate fees and other costs (and invent new instances to extract these charges) to close their gap. And round goes the gossip. Remember in school wondering how much of all that arithmetic we were learning we would ever need when we grew up? Now we practice magic bookkeeping while picking one another's pockets and it's all second nature.

Remember our brave talk about 'energy independence' all summer long as regular gasoline skipped the light fandango beyond 4 dollars a gallon? T Boone Pickens is still at the barricades, but the rush to join his New Energy Army has slowed as gas prices ebbed (though they look like they're heading upwards again). Just another recipe for boiling a frog. Y'know, it really does taste just like chicken.

Every local TV newscast and every newspaper has reports on the new mantra, which seems to be 'regionalization'. Ahh.... the power of words especially when you keep them vague. Sometimes you feel like Alice, confronting Humpty, and when real dollars follow the words, since money is power, the secret agenda is actually autonomy and control.

You have examples from where you live, but I don't live there so I don't know them. Instead, I do know that here, on this side of the Connecticut River, we wrangled for a year plus about building a regional animal shelter and you don't need Regis to know our final answer. All Dogs (may) Go to Heaven, but here in New London County, get that mutt away from me.

In cash-strapped cities and towns (anywhere), hands on our hearts, here's the (literally) Million Dollar Question: what are we willing to do without, or do with less of, than we currently have? Put everything on the table or .....? Do we consider: police and other public safety? infrastructure? road, bridge and sidewalk repair? education? sewers and utility upgrades? It's a target-rich environment if we could only choose. Where do we draw the line and who holds the pencil as we draw our conclusions?

It's taken us how many decades years of profligate spending and living beyond our means to reach (maybe) a point where we are willing to say 'enough!' and 'no more!' (And I'm thinking it's only maybe because somewhere in each of us is the dream that around the next corner is a money tree.) The quickest way anyone elected to lead will 'lose our confidence' is to tell us the truth, which means telling us 'no'. The Good Ship Lollipop has run aground, Bright Eyes, and we're manning the lifeboats, women and curly-haired moppets first. Just wait until we find out how much it will cost to lower the boats and who's paying for the oars.
-bill kenny

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