Open letter to the RTM submitted by Mike Warner, May 13, 2018
The Town budget lands on your doorstep on May 14th. That’s when 70 new members will likely get their first look at RTM’s budget zealots in action. They will be fixated on any new program or headcount in the budget that might increase their property taxes, (already lowest in the state) no matter that the expense is needed just to maintain the quality of our Town services much less pay for improvements, like MISA, the Byram Pool and the New Lebanon School. In their view, the Town budget, produced by bureaucrats, is simply a wish list of expanding programs that needs to be exposed and then cut back by tough minded taxpayers.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. By the time the budget gets before the RTM it’s gone through multiple layers of bottoms-up examinations, not the least of which is, the BET’s rigorous line-by- line scrubbing of the budget with each Town department head closely questioned on every line-item expense. Typically, the result is a few well-defined budget issues that are then brought before the RTM, fully debated and resolved by a series votes, all well managed by RTM Moderator Tom Byrne.
However, there’s a catch: with the wide latitude afforded members by Roberts Rules, any budget zealot can question any budget line-item for any reason, then call for a vote to cut the budget, even if the information they present may be misleading or erroneous.
With this in mind, here are a few of the most common pitfalls new RTMers are likely to face when evaluating some of the unverified claims and subsequent motions that can arise from the floor.
JUST IN! NEW, INFORMATION NOW AVAILABLE!
Beware of this one. Take what happened last May, for example.
The Town has a simple, reliable system for replacing its fleet vehicles. When a vehicle reaches a mileage point where it costs more to maintain a vehicle than to replace it, the Town replaces it. Simple, right? But at last year’s May budget meeting, one militant member, intent on exposing Town waste, declared before the RTM – incorrectly – that the Town was replacing 3 police vehicles, each with only 29,000 miles. How could the Town engage in such a wasteful practice, this member decried? Because of this “new information,” the member proposed the Town vehicle program be cut by $970,000, which would have gutted the Town’s long-standing, successful vehicle replacement program. However, at the last-minute Police Chief Heavey stood and reported, that while the 3 vehicles each had 29,000 miles when the budget was prepared, they were not scheduled for replacement until later in the year when they would have accrued 95,000 miles each, plus additional hours of idling time.
Fortunately for us citizens, that motion was defeated.
In the case cited above, the sequence of events is instructive.
Did anyone from the BET – which knew the facts – speak up to correct the record? What we heard was, well…crickets. Did anyone from the assigned RTM committee speak up? More crickets. What about the Town? Did we hear anyone from the Town correct the record? Fortunately, yes, Police Chief Heavey did, but only at the very end of the discussion. So, when you hear new data in support of a cut, demand a full discussion from both sides of the issue.
Sadly, and this is important, town managers often will not speak to defend a line item affecting their budget, no matter how bogus the allegation. By that time, they have already explained in excruciating detail, the reasoning for every line item, so if the RTM cuts a line item at the May meeting, many Town managers don’t speak out. If the RTM cuts their budget, they will simply cut services to make up the shortfall. As was the case two years ago when the RTM cut the Public Works budget, forcing the Town to reduce the hours of the Holly Hill Transfer Station. So, it’s we citizens who pay the price.
BEWARE OF SHORT-TERM THINKING ABOUT LONG-TERM ISSUES
Today, corporations – large and small alike – engage in spirited debates regarding how much to spend each year on R&D. It’s a fair question because R&D is a long-term investment that reduces profits – with no short-term payoff.
So why do successful consumer corporations in the US invest almost 3% of their revenues on R&D? And why do US industrial companies average over 10%? They do this because spending on R&D is about the future. It’s about survival. It’s about understanding what future customers will want and need, and what a company will need to do now to define itself, to promote itself, to sell itself in the future and compete.
Greenwich, like any large corporation, is in competition too. It needs to sell itself. Town management needs to understand what our future customers want and need, how we’re perceived outside our small city cocoon, and what do we need to do now to attract businesses in the future.
Last May the town proposed to spend $30,000 a tiny fraction of 1% of its budget
on R&D, or what is sometimes called Economic Development or public relations campaigns. But as expected, RTM budget hawks objected strenuously because there was no immediate “need” for this expense. Even more short sighted, theyproposed we could accomplish any R&D study by ourselves, without using qualified independent outside professionals. We should be supporting and expanding economic development programs that fully analyze market trends and explore the best ways to promote our town and improve our economic health. Given what consumer businesses spend, Greenwich should be spending perhaps 2 or 3 times what we do now, if we want to be ready to take advantage of future trends and market ourselves to homeowners and businesses alike.
Listen hard RTM’ers, Greenwich is no longer a private enclave; we’re a small city competing with other cities that are no doubt working hard to define and improve their image and attract our customers.
So good luck Monday night. Make good, informed decisions. We’re counting on it.