Communities across Vermont are only weeks away from preliminary discussions about town and school budgets. That annual process usually musters loud, long discussions among elected officials about cost savings to keep tax rates as close to flat as possible. Some communities that have bonded for projects or have incurred unexpected costs have had to be creative in that budget process. In most cases, budgets are approved in March; on a few occasions — usually among school districts — budgets fail and have to be reconsidered with slight adjustments.
But it has been shown that Vermont communities continue to show signs of fiscal struggle, especially in towns where school enrollments continue to decline. Other, larger towns and cities enjoy the abundance that comes from being a service center, or hub for social services and business. It is the nature of a rural state with a relatively small population.
Across the state we are seeing a growing number of proposed innovations that look at either centralizing services, consolidating space or streamlining processes. Whether it is combining public safety or dispatch, looking at closing down small schools, or even eliminating redundant agencies or boards, these solutions make sense.
Critics say the loss of local control flies in the face of the principles we stand for in Vermont. But outdated thinking is simply an old conversation directed by people resistant to change. Vermonters are ingenious when it comes to resilience, and they are known now and historically for their frugality. Why is every conversation about community budgets (and taxes) not focused on partnerships that reduce costs and enhance productivity? Are we so averse to turf battles and tough decisions that we fear such discussions will prove fruitless?
In time, and we are not talking decades, Vermont schools are going to have to look at consolidating unless there is a second baby boom. It is not affordable to keep all of these buildings open. Yes, centralizing duties means job eliminations or shifts in positions. It means lifestyle changes and other bold steps to a new normal.
Our public safety departments will likely have to regionalize unless there is a surge in volunteers for the smaller fire houses. Already, we are seeing shifts toward regional dispatch and ambulance services, and additional contracts are constantly being negotiated.
In this age of rapid technological growth, community building and local control still have a viable role. But we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to inevitable shifts in the long-term sustainability of our towns and cities.
Now is the time to start thinking about the future and building a framework for the coming generations. Because if we do not develop a longer view today, we could be faced with very expensive, ineffective tomorrows much sooner than we’d like.
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