In February of last year The New York Times reported, “Since the official recovery began after the recession’s June 2009 trough, labor market weakness has been most pronounced in the public sector (and particularly among state and local employment): 5 million jobs have been added in the private sector (a disappointingly low number), while the public sector has shed 721,000 jobs.”
In the course of this nationwide trend, Southbridge’s public employees have fared remarkably well. There have been no layoffs and wages have increased, albeit modestly. If only the same could be said for the population of the town for which they work.
Since 2007, just before the recession began, the town’s unemployment has substantially exceeded the statewide rate.
Simultaneously, the per capita income has stagnated and remains only little more than half of the state average.
However, over the same period the tax rate for the town has been on a steady upward climb.
In light of these observations, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Southbridge residents are taking seriously a proposal to change town government that, under other circumstances, would be considered a bad idea. Who can blame the people who have been footing the bills for coming to the conclusion that those they have elected are more concerned with looking out for town employees than taxpayers.
This has been compounded by the abysmal state of affairs exhibited by the school district with school choice costs the interim Town Manager has deemed a budget-buster coupled with outrageous costs for unemployment insurance as a result of terminations for non-budgetary reasons.
The reason that so many people feel that a town meeting would be a better option boils down most simply to dollars and cents. Despite the annual ritual of chest beating that occurs every December when the tax rate is set, the reality is that virtually nothing is done to control the budget in May, and this is what ultimately determines the tax rate.
It is time for the Council to exercise the kind of control that citizens feel a town meeting would. It is time for the taxpayers to stop being viewed as an ATM that will dispense whatever the town bureaucracy decides that it needs and have that amount rubber-stamped by the Town Council.
Mr. Reed has proposed a FY 2015 budget of $49,609,780. Included in that is a proposed increase in the tax rate of 4.52%. That amounts to a projected increase in revenues of $794,961 (including $150,000 in new growth).
The Council should approve a bottom line budget amount of $48,814,819 and direct the Town Manager to come back with a budget that conforms to that amount. This would eliminate the need for any increase in the current tax rate. It is time that the pain be shared by those on the taxpayer gravy train. Just as the town must live within the constraints of reduced state aid, it is time for the taxpayers to exercise the same kind of limits. What is the job of a manager if not to provide results with limited, not unlimited, resources?
It is time for the Council to stop playing with the trivialities of sign bylaws and graffiti bylaws and trash fines and roads to nowhere. It is time to buckle down to the real work of improving the town’s economy and encouraging local investment as well as investment from outside. And the first step is to stop bleeding the taxpayers who have gotten nothing more than what they have paid for in terms of public services. And, as a result of rising tax rates, declining property values.
If the town can’t find a way to live with a 1.6% reduction in its wish list rather than imposing another 4.52% increase on the taxpayers, then it may indeed be time to turn the budget back over to a town meeting.
Either way, after freezing the tax rate then we might turn our attention to controlling the skyrocketing water and sewer rates.