In tough times, government has responsibilities, opportunities

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

All across the country, including here on the Vineyard, people are struggling in these very hard economic times. So is government, at all levels, and most clearly to us at the local level. The town budget is the last stop in the revenue flow from federal and state sources (currently a mere trickle) — and all that really stands between a property taxpayer and her battered little purse.

Looking back on the old and forward to the new, as we do this time of the year, it is fair to consider a few key questions: What can local leaders do to help mitigate these harsh economic realities, generally help to maintain an even fiscal keel, and represent — as we should — to taxpayers that the municipal house is in order? What power or control do we as selectmen really have? Are there opportunities for efficiencies and innovations?

Happily, the short answers ( in order) are: Plenty. A lot. Most definitely.

In more detail, there are short-term mitigation measures we can take, longer-term planning capacity we can build and sustain, regional innovations we can pursue, and important formal and informal roles for selectmen to perform.

Near-term measures

In West Tisbury, it has become a tradition to apply as much as possible of the “free cash” balance from the prior fiscal year (defined as the positive difference between revenues and expenditures, an amount annually certified by the state) to reduce the coming year’s tax rate, which has the direct effect of reducing the property tax burden on taxpayers. It is their money after all, and if we didn’t need it, returning at least some of it seems like the right thing to do, particularly at a time when the need for relief is so great.

A number of categorical property tax exemptions exist (elderly, veterans, etc.), some of which are already in place in most towns, but virtually all can be placed on town meeting warrants for consideration and adoption by the voters. The board of assessors is the resource for information on these types of exemptions.

From time to time, tax amnesty (interest forgiveness on properties under town lien) options are offered for brief windows of time — there is currently one opportunity ending June 30, 2011 [Sept. 22 issue: West Tisbury considers tax interest amnesty to boost payments] — that require town meeting approval. The savings to owners already in trouble can be considerable, maybe even making the difference between keeping and losing their property.

Long-term planning

An incoming West Tisbury selectman in 2002 campaigned on formalizing a “financial team” to strengthen communication and encourage planning among financial departments (treasurer, accountant, assessors, tax collector, selectmen/town administrator). The team was created and has been in place for eight years, and has come to play a key part in all fiscal planning. Among their accomplishments are the collection and/or disposition of many years of back taxes, and the building of “levy capacity” (flexibility in the budget, a buffer between current and future need).

Couple the financial team approach with a comprehensive capital improvement program (all purchases over $25,000, including building and road projects) that is keyed to maintaining a level, affordable debt service expense year after year (expressed as a percentage of the operating budget) while phasing in all major planning and building expenditures, and the fiscal waterfront is pretty much covered from a management perspective — and a good, strong base to have in tough times.

Innovations and efficiencies

Perhaps the most exciting opportunity to come along in a while has resulted from the state’s Department of Revenue recent review of county government. The report’s recommendation to consider a regional “council of governments” in some combination with, or in place of, the current county structure has gained immediate traction, and voters and taxpayers should be optimistic about where this might lead. The county’s organizational structure has bound it too tight and starved it so that it is dying on the vine. The formal inclusion of front line elected leaders (selectmen) from the towns in a regional council promises at least a proper and regular forum to consider and push for collaborative innovations and efficiencies.

Selectmen’s role

Voters are right to hold their selectmen accountable for the management of all town affairs, including the budget and taxes. While it is true that often there are extenuating circumstances (general economic downturn leading to lower state funding) and big budgets over which selectmen have minimal control (schools), it remains incumbent upon town leaders to frame, explain, and justify all expenditures to their constituents.

Formally, the board of selectmen (as all good boards do) needs to periodically assess the fiscal and political environment — local, regional and beyond; provide the leadership and support for cross-department and cross-community teamwork, including the development of short and long-term goals; and both require and value individual employee performance.

Less formally, but of equal importance, a selectman’s job is to consistently provide an ear to townspeople, individuals and groups, taking and retaking the pulse, and carrying their messages back to town hall, to those who serve them.

Leadership and good town management are about — and in — the balance.