Town Meeting Proposal
For many, if not most, of the town meetings I have attended, I have left the meeting feeling very frustrated because I was unable to vote for an article that was not discussed or the item discussed did not include enough information to allow me to make an informed decision. I have spent considerable time trying to organize my thoughts into why I was feeling this frustration and what could be done to improve the experience.
The first area of frustration is the order of warrant articles presented. I am unable to determine any policy that has been developed to apply a consistent order that removes any question of political considerations. I would feel very comfortable if the policy were to present all items needed to pass the annual budget first, followed by all monetary articles presented in the highest dollar amount first and in descending order. The next grouping would be non-monetary articles, such as private ways acceptance into the town, submitted by the selectmen's office, and lastly any articles submitted by citizen of the town. Enabling this type of policy would put the critical items first. If there were associated articles that were dependent on each other, the largest tem would go first, with the second article included as part B of the article. Town meeting would be able to discuss the merits of each part and vote each separately by amendment.
The second area of my frustration is the lack of transparency for monetary articles requiring bonding. We are voting not only to authorize construction of the project, but the repayment of costs of the project as well. The debt expense should be included as part of the article.
The third area of my frustration is the current bias of access to the tax and other revenues of the town by the different service providers and special interest groups in town. There should be equal access by all identifiable entities. This idea is difficult for me to explain so I will use an example. We are about to vote on an article to deliver a new firehouse to the town. So far, all costs of the project have excluded debt expense. For this example, I will use round numbers, not to be considered actual budget costs. Repayment costs of this project could be in excess of $500,000 for 20 years. Under the current process, selectmen are prepared to allow town meeting alone to authorize the project without requiring ballot approval. At the last town meeting, repayment costs for the Surrenden Farms project were identified as $557,000 annually and it was stated that the 3% CPA tax levy limit did not cover the payment. I therefore assume that if the levy limit increases 2.5% and property values remain the same, the town has an additional $500,000 to spend next year to fund any school district or department increases. If the new firehouse requires $500,000, how much is left over to the rest of the town? If the district asks for an additional $200,000 and town meeting denies this amount and votes only a $100,000 increase, the district is required to go for an override, which requires ballot approval.
I believe this condition makes access to available revenue biased. A solution to this would require any monetary article requiring bonding to be subject to ballot approval after town meeting approval.
None of these suggestions should in any way diminish town meeting, but add transparency and a consistent policy which should help remove any fear of political bias. Building more confidence in the process may also empower more citizens to attend town meeting and become part of the process.