At Large : Town meeting tuning
In their blustering, clumsy, confidence-attenuating way, Congress and the president are busy constructing a stimulus package. God help us all.
On Martha's Vineyard, our political leaders are not thinking stimulus, they're thinking survival. In Washington, they promise three million to four million jobs. Here, they want to save a few hundred jobs for town employees, or at least save as many as possible. To give the federal government its due, the job is of an unmanageable scale. At our level, the job is daunting but probably something we can get our arms around.
Saving jobs here is important. The town payrolls are among the biggest on the Vineyard, much bigger than at most Island businesses and, till recently, comforting, dependable redoubts against periodic economic wilt. But, tax receipts are dwindling, state and federal contributions, along with every other type of revenue stream, are drying up, and increasing the tax rate is politically horrifying. Holding the line is this year's town budget keynote.
Town meetings begin in about a month. Politicians, voters and taxpayers have had a hell of a run till now, happily agreeing to almost 40 years of increasing public spending, including many overrides, on the shoulders of steadily, even sharply, rising real estate values. We've built or remodeled schools, police stations, emergency service buildings, town halls, and more, and we've done it through several damaging national recessions, some worse than others, none terribly painful here. It's been a growth spurt that's changed the human, physical, political, and economic nature of the Vineyard.
You'll decide if it's been all good, all bad, or a mix. But, change has been the constant, its propulsive authority frightening at times. Latterly, some of us imagine that we can set the course and speed for the next 50 years, forgetting that we could not have foreseen the big boom of the past four decades and then today's big crash.
Apart from the budget line items and the articles, all this global chaos and alarming change is, in a background sense, the business of town meeting.
In the smallest towns, the annual meeting draws a big crowd, never as many as ought to be there, but big. As all town meetings do, leaders and voters meet on common ground, although both know that the balance of power shifts, from the politicians who are in charge 364 days each year to the voters who rule on just one. The big one.
In Chilmark, for instance, the chairs in the dim, plain, and chilly Community Center face the stage. The town officials sit in chairs on the floor with the voters. That makes it hard to see them, but it is more in keeping with the sense of humility expected of public servants in this old town. In other towns, new buildings, with new gymnasiums and performance centers, the lighting is better and the heat works. In Chilmark, which retains its aversion to the new and the grand, voters are gratified by their tightfisted discomfort. They bring penlights to see the articles printed in the town report. In Chilmark, the tax rate for the 2010 fiscal year will remain under $2 per thousand of the town's multi-thousands in real estate value. Voters say amen.
This spring, voters in all the towns will uniformly attempt to recall what cost consciousness requires, and implement it. Collectively, they will do what we all have been doing at home. In general, however, Vineyard political leaders - excepting of course the members and professionals of the Martha's Vineyard Commission - know what the traffic will bear. They intuit the attitude they must assume as they prepare the budget that will lead to the levy. Partly due to well-developed political instincts for self-preservation, and partly because they are of us, not apart from us, they compute what we will willingly pay, what we will grudgingly accept, and what we will reject. Whatever their math aptitude, they are Einstein-like in their ability to judge what voters will approve. Overrides are not in the cards.
Leaders here, insulated by zero degrees of separation from their constituents, are unlike national political leaders, even the so-called populists among them. Our homeys face the music daily. Their big time counterparts in Washington may never face the music their constituents make at all. Here, leaders are mostly of one mind with their constituents, many of whom will have settled the important questions before leaving the house to drive to the meeting hall, no matter how simple or extravagant. They will grumble but allow some speechifying from those whose tin ears guarantee they will be on the losing side of some expensive question. Then they will administer the deadly blow and move on.