• Navigating the budget maze
    January 31,2013

    Whether a person’s ballot is cast by early voting beforehand or on Town Meeting Day (Tuesday, March 5), this year particularly, voters of Montpelier should seriously consider reading as well as examining the details of the proposed fiscal year 2014 city budget very carefully and then, thoughtfully consider whether it measures up to their own expectations and priorities concerning the provision of quality municipal services.

    One can only speculate, of course; however, there appears to be those serving on the City Council as well as others involved who seem to be assuming that a majority of voters will not bother doing their own homework prior to voting.

    There could even be those who are cynically figuring that, since city voters have approved most fiscally related items on the ballot — including the city budget — in the past, most voters would simply rubber-stamp whatever the city manager as well as the City Council came up with.

    Beyond the maze of dollar amounts, various associated numbers and related details provided within the proposed fiscal year 2014 city budget one can easily get lost among, and the stated reasons, justifications, priorities and policies that are said to be behind the decisions made at both City Council and administrative levels when formulating the budget, one will find a number of positions within city government being cut.

    According to my read and understanding of the draft of the FY 2014 city budget made available and picked up at the second and final public hearing regarding it, these are not layoffs, but are instead being done by attrition due to “four anticipated retirements and two recent resignations.” This translates into the elimination of four full-time positions and one part-time position. In addition, one full-time position has been converted to part-time. Two small part-time positions have been added.

    As is often the case with these type of matters, however, unless one digs deep enough, asks the right questions and receives actual facts — free from the spin of a self-serving political agenda behind them — with which to base an informed decision upon, it would of course be too easy to assume that cutting these municipal positions could only be a good thing.

    Although there are other positions being cut in this manner that are certainly worthy of retention and filling, the most glaring and concerning of the positions being eliminated involve the following: one full-time police officer position, one full-time firefighter/EMT position and one full-time Department of Public Works street employee position.

    Though there are those who would have voters be convinced differently, these are vitally important direct service positions that have up to now helped in maintaining the level of services not only expected, but also needed by residents as well as others who come into or through the city.

    Are things really so bad economically that voters have no choice but to accept such choices and continue the downward spiral of cutting city services to the bone in this manner?

    This leaves one to wonder what the actual cost will prove to be if voters were to approve the proposed FY 2014 city budget. Can we truly afford to head in this direction?

    Any careful analysis of the so-called big picture should also include recognizing the reality of life as lived and experienced at street level, the growing needs and demands for municipal services in one form or another that would otherwise be provided if these cuts were not made, as well as the fact that there have been previous position cuts over the years.

    The burden and cost of these position cuts and resulting service delays — or, in certain cases, even lead to a possible lack of provision altogether — will be unavoidable, no matter how much political spin is use to disguise them.

    However, if I recall correctly, it was reported at the final budget hearing that restoring the aforementioned three full-time positions would cost roughly $45 or so per year, per taxpayer.

    The proposed FY 2014 budget is one that creates a major as well as dramatic shifting of priorities as well as policy in a different direction, doing so by cutting or at least seriously reducing services by eliminating positions through attrition. This rather than fairly balancing different or, seemingly, competing priorities.

    To add insult to injury, during the final public hearing on the city budget there were some members of the City Council who cynically kept stating, among other things, about how if voters did not like the choices made within the budget, then voters could vote it down.

    It is deeply troubling to contemplate that the only means now left for city voters to make their concerns and voices heard as well as heeded when it comes to ensuring a good and healthy quality life is to vote down the city budget at the ballot box.

    This is leadership? I think not.

    While it might be true that the city manager and City Council are empowered to develop and propose the city budget, it is also true that the last word on approving the same belongs solely to the voters. No matter how one might chose to vote in the end, providing truly informed consent occurs only when one does their own homework before casting one’s vote.

    Morgan W. Brown lives in Montpelier.

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