Editorial : No good choices, but information helps
There are no good choices for Oak Bluffs voters, or for the town finance committee members, or the selectmen. Revenues continue to decline, particularly contributions from the state. Costs continue to rise. Tax and fee hikes, or new taxes and fees, will bolster the town treasury, but they will wound taxpayers, town residents, and business operators.
Town government, especially in the three down-Island towns, is big business. Municipal payrolls dwarf most private payrolls on the Island. Municipal employees generally have good pay, solid benefits, and relative security. They are unusually well taken care of among the run of workaday Islanders.
Families, and generations among families, have made their lives here on the foundation of steady municipal, or public, employment. As we've seen recently in the Up-Island Regional School District, budget cutting implicates long-standing social and community relationships. It's hard to manage public budgets, and the decision-making requirements can confuse public officials, who may lose track of where their core responsibilities lie.
Of course, neither the Up-Island school committee nor the town of Oak Bluffs is unique. The towns of Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Aquinnnah must do battle with distressed economic conditions, sharply increasing costs, and difficult business conditions for taxpaying segments of their communities on which their revenue streams depend heavily. Chilmark and Edgartown find themselves somewhat more comfortable in these difficult times, either because they are small and rich, or large and rich in real estate value. That is not to say that Chilmark and Edgartown are indifferent to good financial management. Indeed, the opposite is true.
But this morning we salute the Oak Bluffs finance committee. We're happy to report that Oak Bluffs voters and taxpayers will benefit from the extensive effort by the town finance committee to acquaint voters with the difficult budget-building job that is theirs to do. We've often argued here that voters need complete and transparent information to make good decisions. They need the information in detail before town meeting, and acquainting voters with the dimensions of the problems, line item by line item, is worthwhile too. That's what the Oak Bluffs finance committee has been doing, and it is an approach that would serve other towns well.
This is not to suggest that voter comments must dictate the budget planning work. That's the job for the elected. They must choose what goes to the voters. It is not enough to say that whatever voters decide will be the right decision. But, voters make the right decisions when they understand what is at issue. The obligation of town leaders is to make the issues clear.
The Oak Bluffs finance committee will host two public hearings, to discuss the proposed town operating budget for the 2011 fiscal year. The town's proposed operating budget will be discussed with folks who attend these meetings. Comments will be received, which is important. More important still is the opportunity for the finance committee members - who, after all, are responsible for preparing the budget - to discuss why they have made the funding decisions they have. The Oak Bluffs finance committee's commendable efforts over the past few weeks and next month to inform voters of what lies ahead at the annual meeting are a model for other towns to follow.
Further, this page has often argued, and we do so here, that finance committees ought to have budgets adequate to the job of communicating with voters. Quarterly newsletters from the finance committee illuminating budget issues and forecasting problems certain to arise would be wise. And a budget discussion in written form, mailed to voters immediately in advance of town meeting, would be valuable as well, especially as it discussed the finance committee's recommendations on non-budget expenditures. Finally, there should be sufficient funding to allow budget analysis that can identify trends, good or ill, and recommend steps to be taken before unpromising circumstances become crises.