This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, November 20 edition
Oh boy, where is this going?
No doubt, you have already received the following letter from your congressman:
As you know we have hit some tough economic times. Revenues are down and expenses are continuing to rise. It is a time for potentially painful cuts in services. These cuts will not only affect you, but also the breadwinners who have been employed delivering services to you. These decisions are so painful to even contemplate that I cannot make them. Therefore, I am calling for the formation of a Finance Committee, made up of concerned citizens like you to make these decisions for me. In the meanwhile I will keep my salary and benefits, and be available for peace-pole celebrations and farm festivals.
Okay, it's a joke.
What's not funny is that Woodstock may be in for a tough haul. Since June the town supervisor, Jeff Moran, has shouted that the revenues were drying up, but these warnings were lost in the din of several members of the town board handing out freebies to businesses that use town buildings, and to farm festivals that "require" tax funded traffic control. It has taken until now, on the very eve of adopting the 2009 budget for the message to sink in. Now those same members of the town board are shocked, shocked to find the taxpayer cupboard bare and a diminished opportunity to be NICE to everybody. It seems like just yesterday councilman Chris Collins was defending the proposition that the Town's buildings should be made available FREE to anybody. Fortunately, the Doctrine of Freebieism seems to be in retreat; unfortunately a Doctrine of Wishful Thinking seems to be hatching in the hopelessly nostalgic mind of councilman Jay Wenk, who recently made his second plea to make up revenue shortfalls with the sale of square inches of Woodstock. To give this splendid idea context, imagine President Obama in his first budget message to the congress offering up the idea of selling square inches of the United States as a revenue source!
There are some sane citizens among us, and I will quote sections from a very prescient letter sent by one to the town board. I'm going to keep his name out of this; it's hardly relevant.
Dear Town Board
The real impact of the evolving economic issues will not be felt until next year where it will significantly impact the 2010 budget. If 2009 turns out to be as difficult a year as many predict we may not have an unexpended balance to carry over into 2010. Using 2009 revenue and increase in expenditures without an unexpended balance, the town will have a revenue shortfall of $550,000, which would require at 19% increase in the tax rate.
The pension issue could potentially be huge. A shortfall in the state retirement fund brought on by the unprecedented fall in the stock market and other investments could result in a large increase on the town's pension costs. I urge you to look into this matter further since it may impact the town budgets for years to come starting in 2010.
We also know that energy prices though currently low will not stay down forever and may again be significantly up in 2010 or 2011.
Given the current uncertainties I ask you to consider carefully before adding any permanent positions to the town payroll. Plan not only for next year, but for the coming years. Here are some steps that could be taken
1.Institute a hiring freeze.
2.Place limits on PT and OT expenditures.
3.Take a sharp pencil to every line item and work to contain expenses in 2009.
4.Ask our employees and department heads where they feel we can reduce expenses and or which activities should be cut back or expanded.
5.Work with the town departments to develop a contingency budget of even deeper cuts to be instituted if the current economic conditions deepen and worsen.
6.Start a discussion as to where the town feels we can make changes and or what are the appropriate levels of town services. What services are essential and which are not.
7.Form a Financial Committee to implement the above and report periodically on the status of the town finances.
This thoughtful letter evoked the response from a town board member; I'll let you guess who:
"I believe that [the above letter] brings up some very pertinent points about long term financial oversight. I would personally like to serve on this team for the beginning and then if someone else wants to jump in and take my place that would be fine. I would love to have [the letter writer] help us if he is willing. I also have been approached by others who may be available."
Now then, dear reader, dare we ask; if the Woodstock town board is not the "financial committee" of the Town, what is? What does it mean when a town board member offers "to serve on this [financial committee] team for the beginning and then if someone else wants to jump in and take my place that would be fine?" We might also despair to find out that this town board member "approached by others who may be available" does not perceive this as an obvious, HUGE vote of no-confidence on that member's ability to rectify the Town's finances. If indeed the sole function of the town board is to dream of square inches and dispense freebies, and to avoid making hard decisions by fobbing them off on others, why do we even bother having local elections?
Think of the money we'd save if we didn't.