In the Arena: Council’s budget surprise
I guess if you hang around long enough, you get to see a little bit of everything.
I thought I had written every budget story possible — towns struggling on a yearly basis to balance budgets in the wake of shrinking state aid and communities torn apart by political infighting over budget-balancing overrides. I’ve even watched Greenfield once struggle to close a $2 million mid-year school budget gap, the exact origins of which are still something of a mystery.
But last Wednesday night’s Greenfield annual budget meeting was a new experience entirely. For the first time in recent memory, maybe ever, the Greenfield Town Council was presented with a budget that was on time, in balance, with no service interruptions or employee layoffs — which also happened to be $670,000 under the amount the town is legally allowed to levy under Proposition 2½.
Normally, a legislative body would be doing back hand-springs at the prospect of encountering such a hassle-free budget — but this is not “your grandfather’s” council.
“If I was a taxpayer, I’d think this is pretty good,” At-Large Town Councilor Dalton Athey said. “But the only way we get there is to ignore an $80 million problem which we should be setting aside a million dollars for.”
The problem, according to Athey, is an anticipation that Greenfield is soon going to be responsible for unfunded pension liabilities, the hit from which is estimated to total close to $80 million — that he clearly felt was serious enough of a threat to deep-six what may be the most tightly constructed, cost-effective Greenfield budget in recent memory.
“I cannot in good conscience support this budget because I feel this is such a major problem that we really are unstable and if we were doing all the things we should be doing, we’d have to go back and re-write this budget in serious ways,” Athey said.
A number of councilors suggested that the best course of action might be to tax up to the full levy amount, and bank the additional $670,000 — a concept that seemed to baffle the mayor.
“You are asking me to look for additional taxes over and above a budget that is currently balanced?” Martin asked. “The whole concept of taxing more than you need is something I simply can’t identify with. If you don’t need the money, you shouldn’t tax people.”
“If you just put that $670,000 aside, you’ve done nothing,” Martin said. “There’s no real plan, you’ve just put some money in a line item.”
Martin also went on to blast the council’s decision to reject his request to pursue the option of purchasing town health insurance benefits through the state’s Group Insurance Commission, a move that might have saved the town an additional $400,000 on health care this year. It was the first time I’d seen Martin really perturbed during a budget meeting and I have a tough time blaming him for feeling that way, especially when you consider that this “underride” wasn’t exactly a surprise.
When he presented the budget in January, Martin made a specific point of telling councilors that he would not be spending to the levy, and he recommended they review the spending plan and come to him with questions or concerns. But it was apparent from watching the meeting that certain councilors had no idea what was in the budget, and the ones that did waited until the 11th-hour to try to derail its passage for reasons that seemed more political than fiscal.
The debate also pointed out a clear difference in philosophy between Martin and the council regarding tax policy.
Almost since his election, Martin’s focus has been to reduce the burden on Greenfield’s taxpayers by any means necessary. A lot of the savings in this budget are the result of a number of government streamlining and consolidation efforts the mayor has spearheaded. He obviously thinks that just because a town has the power to levy taxes doesn’t mean it should when those taxes aren’t needed.
Some councilors clearly feel differently, but in the end, they voted to go along with Martin’s plan, but not before a receiving a small admonition from David Singer, council president, who did not seem thrilled with the way the council approached the process.
“I think we maybe were a little overwhelmed by what we were supposed to do, so now we do know what to do,” Singer said “So next year, when the mayor says ‘do you want to participate in the budget,’ we’re going to be able to say ‘hey, you left $670,000 on the table last year, let’s pump some money into this system.’”
Until it does, this council is going to have a hard time being taken seriously as an equal partner in Greenfield government.
Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.