A Cut Above, in Multiple Senses
In Portsmouth, they’re debating whether a 5% reduction in town spending should be a “goal” or a “mandate”:
After a freeze in discretionary spending for what remains of this fiscal year, Portsmouth will try to cut spending by 5 percent in the next fiscal year.
The Portsmouth Town Council voted 6-0 Monday evening to make next year’s 5 percent reduction a “goal” rather than the mandate sought by Republican Councilor Jeffrey Plumb who had called for the budget action.
“Welcome to an emergency,” Mr. Plumb said, adding that strapped taxpayers cannot afford business as usual from their town government — “We should have cut our spending three years ago.”
Town Administrator Robert Driscoll agreed that spending must be tightened but asked the council to make the 5 percent reduction a townwide goal. He said that while managers will do their best to “embrace” the challenge of identifying savings, departments in Portsmouth have less leeway than other places since they are already more lightly staffed than most towns.
In Tiverton, meanwhile, the Budget Committee has concluded that the only way (PDF) not to raise taxes on a struggling citizenry will be to institute the maximum reduction in school funding (enabled by declining enrollment) and to cut every expenditure that can legally be cut by 16.5%. As it is, the budgets currently submitted by the school committee and town council will result in a 13% tax increase (PDF).
A request from the Budget Committee, which is currently dominated by members of Tiverton Citizens for Change, for department heads to give the town a sense of what it might look like to cut 15% from their budgets has stirred up all kinds of resistance. Town Administrator Jim Goncalo has intervened to insist on a process of moving that request through him and the Town Council (with some ambiguity about whether he’ll actually follow through). In a very interesting exchange, Fire Chief Robert Lloyd insisted that he simply cannot cut the budget 15%, called the committee a “kangaroo court,” and stormed out of the meeting (audio: stream, download).
The line from town officials appears to be that expense accounts are already bare-bones, and everything else is mandated by law or by contract. Oddly, our elected and appointed negotiators (as it were) appear reluctant to acknowledge that every labor contract that is relevant to next year’s budget is currently open. Perhaps they intend to accede to the unwritten law that union deals can only advance or, during real calamities, level off.
Further along in the meeting, Budget Committee member Rob Coulter noted that committee documents show the school department’s budget growing from $16,504,785 to $25,156,129 (52.4%) from FY01 to FY09, even as enrollment fell from 2,201 to 1,965 (-10.7%); per-student expenditures therefore grew from $7,799 to $12,802 (64.1%). For some perspective, I calculated what the per-student expenditures would have been if they had only increased along with inflation and found that, rather than $12,032 in FY08, the number would have been $9,120, which works out to a total appropriation of $18,642,027. In other words, from 2001 to 2008, the school department’s budget increased 31.9% more quickly than inflation — or $5,952,360.
One gets the impression that the primary goal of municipal government is to transfer money from residents to union members.