Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Luck is All You Make It

I ran into someone I've known for many years, practically since my family and I arrived in Norwich a couple of weeks ago who told me, bluntly, he was still waiting for me to write what I think, with the bark off. I've spent some time thinking about that and am tempted to offer the 'no man steps into the same river twice' argument, but in light of all the recent flooding we've endured I think I'll save that for another time. I do consider myself chastised, Henry, and I hope to do better but realize I may no longer be able to. Thanks for your friendship and the candor with which you spoke to me.

It's always intriguing how much easier a task, any task, appears from the bleachers. Theodore Roosevelt had some thoughts about the difference between doing and watching that I think about as I download a copy of the Norwich City Manager's proposed budget as it moves from presentation through public hearings to formal adoption. I spend a lot of my life on the sidelines admiring Waterloo Sunset but no longer inspired or courageous enough to cross over the river and join a safe and sound Terry and Julie who are doing quite well without me.

Across Connecticut as our state legislators and Governor continue to waltz around imponderables to include what services are needed by the citizens of our state and which ones we can continue to afford, the people we've elected to lead in our cities and towns struggle to make stone soup with what's left of the state's largess for our municipal budgets. There are no longer any easy decisions, and the price of stones is going up.

Everything we buy for our families has increased in price and that's as true as well for those goods and services our city, state and federal government purchases. Here in The Rose of New England, the City Manager offered his vision of a budget ten days ago predicated upon protecting 'the lives and property of residents and businesses' while also developing 'a plan for long-term economic sustainability.'

The latter is a shared responsibility with the City Council and the Mayor while the former rests squarely on the City Manager's shoulders. The first of the department hearings last week, and the initial round Monday night of the public hearings suggest many of us either haven't read April 5th's budget message or choose to believe otherwise. Actually the Department hearing demonstrated we have a lot of people who cannot tell time as presentations went long and the answering of questions from the Council became very selective. If nothing else, I've learned many of us have different visions of what the city should invest in, as opposed to how it spends our money.

Talking about how each of us sees where we live, and how we propose for all of us to get to that place, is an important conversation that for too many years too few of us were involved in around here. In the past, the public hearings were scheduled in large rooms with such a poor turnout that those of us who went made a noise like a BB rolling around in a boxcar. And the worst of it was we showed up but really said nothing more than 'no' to whatever was being proposed.

This time around, we're getting better at suggesting our own priorities. I'm hesitant to share mine, because I don't want to poison your well, but having said that, here I go anyway. I get tired of people when arguing about the school budget using 'the children' as human shields. My wife and I had two children in the Norwich Public School system, and you will not find more vocal supporters of its teachers. That said, I want us to do a better job of identifying and funding expenses directly supporting classrooms and to take those tasks and non-core competencies, where centralization, regionalization or privatization would create lowered costs for taxpayers and do just that.

I'm having nightmares about the Kelly Middle School renovation and expansion project and what will go into that facility if we continue to throw teachers, programs (from after-school athletics through music and art to foreign languages) and entire schools under the bus wheels as budget numbers drive the discussion. What will our sixth through eighth graders learn, and from whom? Perhaps we'll hold classes in foraging, taught by those who once frequented the Rose City Senior Center across the street but whose lifetimes of contributions to every neighborhood in our city were weighed and found wanting as we frantically redrew the bottom line. If the actual impact of the proposed budget is half of what the dire warnings have suggested, there will be lots of darkened rooms and locked doors, and not just at the Senior Center.

Everything has a price and everything has a cost--those things we do, and perhaps, more importantly, those that we choose to NOT do. A short time ago, with (to me) surprisingly little public discussion, the Council voted to approve salary increases for municipal department directors. I am in no way suggesting these raises are/were not deserved-my point is could we, as a city, afford to grant them at this time? And in so doing what was the message we were sending everyone else throughout Norwich? I watched at last Monday's City Council meeting as a decade long property tax exemption for the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Government, SCCOG, evaporated, despite what may have been assurances given to them at the time they settled on a new home in the Norwich Business Park. Norwich has had a somewhat adventurous relationship with SCCOG-but I'm not sure you can or should buy regional advocacy the way you shop for ground chuck, but that's what we may be doing.

If you haven't had a look at the proposed budget-stop reading this and go find a copy. There were more Department Budget Hearings last night-if you hadn't at least skimmed the budget, what did you get out of attending and don't tell me you didn't go because 'nothing happens when I talk'. Nothing ever happens, if you don't make it happen. No one can make you a victim without your consent. Get off the bench-get in the ring. In case you haven't figured it out, you've got skin in this game.
-bill kenny

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