EDITORIAL: Let’s Stop ‘Silo Approach’ to Town Spending
Selectmen Pease, Petropoulos and Degen voted to recommend returning $400,000 of unused tax receipts to taxpayers. Selectmen are able to recommend returning these funds to taxpayers because Groton spent only 95% of budgeted expenditures this past FY’16 fiscal year. While departmental savings generated some of this surplus, a majority came from windfall revenue from unanticipated motor vehicle excise taxes, building permits, fees, and additional lottery-share money from the state. Due to these greater-than-expected revenues, there is now a tempting pile of cash sitting in the Free Cash Account waiting to be spent by vote of Town Meeting on October 17. How should this money be used?
There is a natural human tendency to see tax money already collected as tax money needing to be spent, like finding a loose $100 bill on the street - spending without consequence or pain. But these dollars are just the same as the dollars that fund vital public safety and educational services and should be treated with thought and care.
Everybody has spending priorities they consider vital. For us, additional school funding is a high priority. Yet, proposing additional school funding from these excess funds is virtually impossible because it would require Dunstable’s assent and contribution in advance, making directing unused tax receipts to the schools a difficult and complicated task. So, the only proposals that can be reasonably considered are for municipal spending, spending that represents less than half the total town budget.
A proposal to spend $300,000 for design work for a new Senior Center is the kind of project that might get funded by these windfall funds, especially if driven by emotional appeals to help ‘our seniors.’ Such emotion-driven decision-making often leads to bad fiscal planning, as we have seen in recent years.
Greg Sheldon, former Chairman of the Prescott School Re-use committee got to the heart of the matter when he said that the town needs a comprehensive process for prioritizing spending. He said - and we agree - that a major obstacle to good town fiscal planning is relying on the ‘silo approach’ to evaluating fiscal priorities. Emotional appeals on Town Meeting floor for spending benefiting narrow interests distorts this process because such requests are made outside the normal budgeting process where they cannot be evaluated against competing needs or options.
Hypothetical spending on a new Senior Center, needs to be evaluated in the context of all other possible sites – including Prescott School - and should be fully vetted by FinCom, Sustainable Budget Committee and public hearings - just like all other spending. Senior Center funding should be considered at regular Spring Town meeting, like any other major spending proposal.
Many suggestions for changes to the Groton Charter involved reforming the process of budgeting, giving FinCom a much larger role in setting policy and decision-making in the budgeting process. People have been concerned that the process of setting budget priorities had been partially abdicated by Selectmen, granting too much authority to the Town Manager.
Town Meeting has the right to spend this money as it sees fit. But, past experience has shown that spending that is not carefully vetted by Selectmen and FinCom, along with healthy doses of public comment, can lead to unfortunate, politically-influenced spending that proves to be wasteful. We encourage voters to approve Selectmen’s recommendation to use $400,000 from the Free Cash account to reduce the tax rate, affirming the principle of fiscal responsibility and restraint.