We all know it’s going to be a tough budget year. The signs are already abundantly clear. The decisions we make at town meeting will matter even more this year, but how as town meeting voters do we know the choices we’re making are the right ones?
It’s a question the Advisory Committee — and others — are giving much thought. In this letter, Advisory Committee member John Butler asks whether presenting multiple budget options to voters could help.
The Advisory Committee is at the beginning of the annual budget season again. For many years Advisory and Selectmen have gone through the budgets separately. We then meet together to try to present as much of a unified recommendation to Town Meeting as possible. Usually the two boards have agreed on 95% of the line items before Town Meeting.
Because of the complexity of the budgets this process has generally resulted in giving the average voter at Town Meeting very little practical choice about what to vote for. A voter sitting in the audience who wants a 10% cut in property taxes, for example, or who wants instead to ensure that services aren’t cut, has a difficult job, sometimes an impossible task, to ask for the right amendments to see that their position gets brought to a vote. For example, certain line items, such as debt repayment, cannot be legally cut, nor is there any point to over-funding them. Others, for example benefits, can only be cut if line item budgets result in proportional reductions in staff. With upwards of 90 line items subject to Town Meeting vote, this is too complex for anyone not involved at the Advisory Committee level to figure out. As a result of this complexity we have had a “one candidate” Town Meeting system for a long time, in which the voters at Town Meeting get to decide some minor items, but are powerless to effect major decisions.
When times are flush with money for the Town, as they were back in the 1990’s, this “one candidate” Town Meeting budget process may not have been much of a problem. On the other hand, this coming budget year is probably the toughest we’ve faced in 25 years. As a consequence of the fundamental questions facing the Town, Advisory Committee has been debating whether, in addition to presenting our usual recommendations, we should also prepare information that would give voters clear choices.
For example, Advisory Committee could prepare Town Meeting handouts that would give voters three clear alternatives: a column of numbers for level services, a column for no tax increase (which would entail some service reductions), and a column for a 10% property tax cut. As always we would have our recommendation, but voters would be free to vote for their preferred approach and would have the information they need to do so.
The preparation of such alternatives is more work for Advisory, so if there isn’t much interest in it, maybe we won’t do it. I am interested in hearing from My Southborough readers whether they would like to have such options available to them as they sit at Town Meeting? Secondly, if they knew such options would be available, would they be more likely to attend Town Meeting?
Southborough Advisory Committee
So, what do you think? Do you like the idea of more options to choose from? Or would it make things even more confusing? Would having more options make you feel like your vote matters more? For those of you who aren’t town meeting regulars, would it give you more reason to attend?