Rodents, resources, and regionalism
Larry Mercier stood at last week's special town meeting in Edgartown to announce that his financial advisory committee opposed Article 4, spending $8,915 to fund the county rodent control program for another year. Harbormaster Charlie Blair stood to say the county rodent control program has helped his department greatly in controlling the rats that were getting into garbage collected from the visiting boaters of summer. The voters, weighing these reports, wisely chose to fund the program.
So, with the squeak of an expiring rat, opens another town budget season on Martha's Vineyard. It's a year when town leaders across the Island are warning that painful and difficult decisions lie ahead.
It's funny (as in funny-weird, not funny-ha-ha), how each year during the rituals of town meeting we Vineyard voters put our municipal expenses under the microscope, piously declaring the importance of living within one's means, even as we remain willing to do nothing of the sort when it comes to our home finances or our nation's.
According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, the average American household carried almost $8,500 in credit card debt last year. That's not counting mortgages, car payments and college loans - that's only revolving debt, the financial holes we dig with swipes of those handy, insidious plastic cards. Meanwhile we're, each of us, accumulating obligations on behalf of a distant federal government which daily spends $1.67 billion more than it gathers in.
But once again this spring, squirming under the interrogator's lamp, halfway between these two binge-spending extremes of our house and the White House, sit the Island towns. Let the chairman of the Oak Bluffs finance committee suggest that to balance the town books this year, we'll need an extra $40 per month from the average payer of property taxes, and we are shocked - shocked! - at the town's inability to live within its budget.
We all know it's important to be financially responsible - we're just looking for the most painless pennies to pinch. Reining in our federal government seems impossible. Our personal finances comprise myriad small decisions - we're surrounded by essential costs we can't control, and bombarded with promises that this product or that one will make us happy, and we regularly test the suggestion. It's easiest to exercise those frugality muscles on our towns, which are close enough for us to control, yet still an arena in which we feel safe being economical without suffering too much.
The conventional wisdom among newspaper editors at this season is that Island town budgets are out of control, and that voters are perversely willing to wave at these budgets as they fly past each spring. Finance committee members agree - but you have to remember that, temperamentally, these are people inclined to suspect that the high ground on any public spending issue is the simple word, no.
But as Charlie Blair pointed out last week with one minute of well-chosen words, the just-say-no attitude of the town's Frugality Police doesn't always stand up when you weigh the facts. We need rodent control - perhaps not enough to have an Edgartown department exclusively dedicated to the pests, but enough to pay our share of a (gasp!) regional service. A myopic focus on the bottom line doesn't suffice when we're faced with choices like this. And whoever said you don't solve problems by throwing money at them never needed a new roof or transmission.
Certainly it's important to seek efficiencies wherever they can be found in town government. The guess here is that many of the most promising strategies will fall under the rubric of that dirty word, regionalism, and thus are politically problematic. But we need always to remember that the money we spend on our towns is an investment in the quality of our community life. Clean, safe streets; ponds with shellfish thriving in them; well-groomed public parks; protection of the water we drink and disposal of the garbage we generate - these are the stuff of municipal budgets, and they represent perhaps the most closely watched, most responsibly spent dollars we dish out all year. When you consider how blithely we enter into personal debt, the controls we place on town borrowing and bonding are positively Draconian. And if there were a counterpart in our home budgets to Proposition 2 1/2, how would we fill the tank now that the gas pump reads $4 per gallon?
We're too quick at this season, I believe, to view our town governments with suspicion, as adversaries bent on prodigality rather than as the instruments through which we invest in the Island we call home. The budget stringencies now facing Vineyard towns are serious, indeed; they demand creative solutions that can be found only when we begin our conversation by rejecting a future of private wealth and public squalor, by agreeing that well-funded and robust government services make the Vineyard a rich place for all of us.