Sunday, March 31, 2019

Fiscal Responsibility versus Austerity in Groton

The North Stonington Road Bridge... at least what used to be.
You go to a nice restaurant and you order a fancy meal that costs $24.17. The food comes out, but it's a little slow to get to your table. Your silverware isn't quite clean. The vegetables are okay, but clearly not fresh, probably frozen. Your experience is not terrible, but it's mediocre.

The vegetables were frozen because that cost a little less than fresh. They laid off the more experienced dishwasher and hired a less expensive one to save money. They are also short one guy in the kitchen, again to save money, and that's why your food was slow.

They made the cuts so they could reduce their prices. Had they not done so, the price would have been $24.74.

I suspect that if you were given the choice of the $24.17 mediocre experience or the $24.74 excellent experience, you'd pick the excellent one.

One Town's Fiscal Choice

That is the choice that the town of Groton, Connecticut faces in this year's budget cycle. The current intention is to hold the mill rate the same as last year's at 24.17. (The mill rate is the rate per thousand that a property owner pays in taxes.)

But there is a cost to this conservation:

  • $1.5 million will be drawn from the general fund
  • The North Stonington Road Bridge will not be repaired
  • The Bill Memorial Library and Mystic & Noank Library will be cut, and, in later year, be completely unsupported by the town
  • The new community center will continue to have unusable water and a leaky roof.

A Town In Decline

A sign of decline.
When a movie director is trying to show that the world the story takes place in is in decline, they will show broken things. They will show the once nice things that the society could not longer afford to maintain. "We have to take the stairs. This building used to have an elevator, but it broke years ago and no one can fix it." OR "We'll have to go the long way around. There used to be a bridge, but it was washed out in a storm years ago and we can't afford to fix it."

Every "Bridge Out" sign, every closed library, every "park closed" sign is a monument to the decline of a community. It is a celebration of past greatness and present failure.

For Groton to fail to repair it's bridge, to underfund the libraries, to not have a properly maintained community center, it is saying "we used to have nice things, but we can no longer afford them."

That is a town in decline. Perhaps the town really is so poor that austerity is the only option, and visible decline the necessary cost of this, but I'm not sure everyone would agree.

Austerity Versus Investment

The cost to fund the libraries is 0.1% of the total town budget, so let's focus more on the larger maintenance issues.

The argument for holding the mill rate level is that a half mill increase this year could lead to one the next year and the year after that. After 20 years, the mill rate goes from 24 to 34, and that's not a good thing.

This sidewalk on 184 has been closed for some time.
On the other hand, Groton has a bridge out, an unusable sidewalk, etc. If the mill rate is held level at the cost of failing to fix our infrastructure as it wears out, then there is another danger. What if the mill rate stays the same but the number of highly visible infrastructure failures increases by one every year. Twenty years from now, you'd have a low tax rate and 20 unusable bridges and sidewalks and parks throughout the town.

When you have 20 "bridge out" and "park closed" signs around town, people notice. Home buyers notice. Property values fall. Tax revenues fall. Mill rates must be increased to compensate.

Under austerity, you still have to raise the mill rate and you end up with a town full of signs of neglect and decay.

What's the Cost

One mill point converts to $3,686,117 of revenue. The proposed cut to the library is about $38,000. Other cuts to agencies which provide services to Groton residents come to about $30,000. Groton's share of repairing the North Stonington Road Bridge would be $300,000. Substantial improvements could be made to the community center for $250,000.

The total cost to fully staff the kitchen, to use our example above, would be $618,000 or 0.17 mills. If we want to do it without taking money from the general fund balance, it would be 0.57 mills.

$550,000 of this would be one time capital costs. $1,500,000 would remain in the general fund to use in future years when we have harder times. Only $68,000 of this is recurring budget items.

For an owner of an average $200,000 house, the property tax based on these rates would be:

Austerity: $4,834
Fully Funded: $4,868
Fully Funded without using town savings: $4,948

Under the proposed austerity, defunding the libraries, the supporting agencies, failing to repair a failed bridge, and leaving the community center in need to improvements, the average homeowner would save $114 per year.

One hundred and fourteen dollars. To the average family.

There is a line between fiscal responsibility and dangerous austerity. I think we can see where that line is.

What You Can Do

The Town Council of Groton is a group of tremendously hard working and dedicated volunteers. They work with the best interests of the town in mind and want to be accountable to the taxpayers. They are pushing down this path of austerity because that is what they believe that the residents want. The loudest cries they hear are from those who want taxes cut no matter what the cost, and if that is what you want then you are being heard.

On the other hand, if you would like to see the bridges fixed, the community center improved to the level a town like Groton deserves, the libraries and agencies funded to provide great services to you and your neighbors and you understand it may cost a few dollars more in taxes to get these benefits, please contact you Town Councilors and let them know that you believe that 0.57 mills is a small price to keep all the nice things in Groton.

Their contact information can be found here.

Closing Thought on Outside Agencies

The Mystic & Noank Library, the Bill Memorial Library, and other organizations called "outside agencies" are being cut by 25%. The argument is that the money should stay in the town. This is misguided argument.

The two association libraries cost the town a mere $125,000 combined and offer tremendous services funded by donors, other towns, and a variety of other sources. Groton receives millions of dollars of value for tens of thousands of dollars of expense.

These so called outside agencies are simply agencies that are not operated by the town but provide town services. The town gives them money because the services they provide would be profoundly more expensive for the town to provide internally.

When a cut of $100,000 of expense runs the risk of losing $1,000,000 of value, it should be very closely considered. This money does not leave the town. It stays in the town and it brings friends.

Michael Whitehouse is member of the Representative Town Meeting representing the 4th District of Groton, Connecticut.


Saturday, December 1, 2018

Solution Oriented Mindset

I am presently working on a new book, tentatively named "Solve Any Problem." This is the first chapter on the Solution Oriented Mindset. I'm curious to get some feedback and suggestions for points I should be sure to address in the rest of the book.

Chapter 1. Solution Oriented Mindset

“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right.”
-Henry Ford


 The first step to solving a problem is believing you can solve a problem. In fact, I would venture to say that as many as 90% of the problems in your life can be solved by what you will find in this very chapter.

 Among my many careers, I was a driving instructor for a number of years. One of the most important things that you teach in driving is to point your eyes where you want to go. Your hands follow your eyes. If you are skidding on the ice, you want to keep your eyes pointed down the road because that will give you the best chance to recover the vehicle. The tendency is to look at the thing you’re worried about: the guard rail, the other cars, etc, but if you do, that’s where you’ll go.

 With a problem it is the same way. The right thing to do is to fixate on the solution to the problem, the desired outcome. If you fixate on the problem, you’ll hit the problem, you’ll stay in the problem. The longer you live in the problem, the easier it will be to tell yourself that the problem is insoluble.

 Hopelessness is a very seductive state. Doing nothing is easy, and when there is no solution to a problem, then the right answer is to do nothing. Why waste energy fighting something that cannot be fixed? Why not just resign yourself to your fate and make the most of it?

 I’ll tell you why not. That form of resignation is the definition of depression.

There is a difference between resignation and acceptance. Resignation is defeat, embracing the negative. Acceptance is recognizing the negative, but embracing the positive. It can be understood in cinematic terms. When the hero sacrifices himself for the good of the many, standing tall on the bridge of the ship as it falls into the sun with inspiring music, he has weighed the choices and accepted his decision. He will live (or die) with the consequences.

Resignation, on the other hand, is living in an unacceptable situation, crushed by the failure to remedy it.

If you are poor because you have taken a vow of poverty or chosen to dedicate your life to your art with the recognition of the lack of financial opportunities, then the challenges that you encounter from a lack of money are a test of your faith that strengthens your spirit and will. It is the concept behind the deprivations of Lent. If you give up TV for Lent, then every time you walk by the TV, you are reminded of the strength of your faith and why you choose to deprive yourself. If you fast for a religious observance, each hunger pang reminds you of your love for God.

In these forms of acceptance, you would build your life to accommodate them. If you have chosen the life of a starving artist, then you will find inexpensive places to live, learn economical ways to feed yourself, find forms of fulfillment that don’t require money. In doing so, the deprivations of the wallet will not lead to a depression of the spirit.

On the other hand, if you are merely broke because there is too much month at the end of the money, and you have resigned yourself to the idea that you’re poor because your family has alway been poor and your friends are poor and that’s just the crappy hand you were dealt, then every deprivation will be another dagger into your spirit.

The person who has accepted poverty sees a social media post of friends at a fancy dinner and can feel happy for the friends, knowing that they themselves find their joy elsewhere. The person who is resigned to poverty sees the same post and can feel only envy and resentment.



In later chapters, we will discuss the importance of properly framing the problem for finding the solution. “I don’t have any money” is a statement, not an actionable problem. When I was a younger man, I owned a board and role playing game store which was the center of a beautiful and vibrant community. I had very little money, but I had accepted that fact and built my life to accommodate it. My lack of money rarely bothered me except when it affected what was truly important to me at the time which was my ability to build and maintain institutions which served our community.

Later in life, as a family man, not having money at certain times would become more of a problem in and unto itself because I had obligations to support my family which required money.

In that earlier phase, problems which seemed to be a lack of cash could be solved by reframing the situation, shifting or reducing expenditures. In the later phase, the problems of lack of money needed to be solved with finding more money because there were restrictions on how the situation could be restructured.



The opposite of being resigned to a problem is the faith that a solution always exists. The first step in this faith is to understand that the problem is rarely something as concrete as “I don’t have money” or “my company is failing.” Most problems can be broken down to some element of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

“I don’t have money” is most likely really a problem of safety as in “I need financial security,” or in more severe cases physiological as in “I need to be able to acquire food and shelter.”

Most people fixate on the problem. “I don’t have money.” What they should do is focus on the solution. “How can I acquire financial security?” When the problem is “I don’t have money,” then the only solution can be “get more money.” If the question is one of financial security, a panoply of other solutions come into view. They could find someone who is willing to provide room and board in exchange for being a governess or housekeeper. They could live in a cabin in the woods with no rent or electricity. They could work for a restaurant and get free meals. None of these would create more money, and some might even mean less, but that is not important because it would solve the real problem.

The important thing, regardless of the particular problem, is to first embrace the idea that there is a solution. You just have to find it.

Why do you search your house for your lost keys, but you don’t search your house for a pot of leprechaun gold? You believe that your lost keys are somewhere in your house. You do not believe there is a pot of gold in the house. Why would you waste time searching for something that does not exist.

It is the same way with solutions. Why would you search for a solution that you do not believe exists? When you are searching for your keys, you first search the obvious places: the counter, the couch, the mud room where you take off your boots, etc. Once the obvious places are exhausted you search the less obvious. Are they in the medicine cabinet? Did you put them in the freezer for some reason? The fireplace? The mulch around the bushes out front?

But you will only search the most unexpected locations if your faith that your keys are somewhere in your house is strong. If you are absolutely confident that you brought them into the house.

It is the same way with solutions. If you have a weak belief in a solution to your problem, then you will make a weak search for the solution. In the no money example, maybe you check the job listings once or twice, don’t see anything and give up. On the other hand, if you have an absolute confidence that there is a solution, then you will search high and low. You will never stop looking and trying and experimenting until you find that solution. You will research it. You will ask your friends. You will pray on it. You’ll never stop until you find it.

The best part is that, in many cases, this dedication to finding a solution can lead you to find one in less time than it would have taken to make a cursory search and give up. Why? If you are planning to give up, then you make a plodding and perfunctory search. You don’t try that hard. You have already decided to fail, which perversely means that success would mean you were wrong. On the other hand, if you have decided to succeed, you will seek the most aggressively effective solutions first.

Dave Durand, who has made a study of what he calls legacy achievers, says that one of the most powerful forces in the world is that of self justification. If you believe that you will fail, you want to justify that belief. You will want to justify your resignation. It’s not laziness, it’s prudence. Why waste energy on something that is doomed to fail? See, I tried this, that, and the other, and nothing worked. I put in an effort.



If you only learn one thing from this entire book, let it be the importance of a solution oriented mindset. If you believe that there is a solution, you will find it. You will find it because there is always a solution, so if you never stop looking, you’ll eventually find it. If you can embrace absolute confidence in the existence of a solution, you will eventually intuit everything else I can teach you about problem solving.

That doesn’t mean you should stop reading and figure everything out on your own. While you will intuit it all eventually, it is always more efficient to learn from the mistakes of others rather than making every single one yourself.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Gratitude in Difficult Times

Image may contain: 1 person, text that says "HAPPY THANKSGIVING"
This has been a very difficult year for me and my family. I have seen communities torn apart by people who placed their personal grudges, agendas, and insecurities above the good of the society of which they are a part. I have watched people we thought were friends turn against us. I have dealt with people whose word is worthless.

As we come to the close of such a year, it might be easy to say that it is not a time for gratitude but bitterness. The temptation to do so is quite strong. Too often, when there is bad and good together, it is too easy to fixate on the bad. To let the evil overshadow the good.

This year has seen a lot of destruction in our world, but looked at another way, we could call it creative destruction.

When those whom you believe are your friends turn on you, at first, you begin to doubt all of your friends. Who will turn next? Then you begin to doubt yourself. What did I do to drive them away? Then your true friends reveal themselves. Not necessarily in some great action, but simply in their continued presence. When the deceivers have all left, those who remain are the true friends, and there are many of them. So many.
The Groton Rotary club is a wonderful group of people, and
I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to
share my time, energy, and resources with the great
projects they do for our community and the world.

During the darkest time, I had blocked or unfriended dozens of people on Facebook. I was fixated on what was lost until I noticed a curious thing. After so many had been purged from my connections, I looked at my list of friends and discovered that, not only was it not lower, it was in fact higher. Much higher. I have connected with hundreds of good people in the last year.

Furthermore, as the groups that we had built our lives around and contributed our support to proved to be rotten shells destined to
collapse, we found ourselves freed to find new communities, new groups, new good people to surround ourselves with, new true causes to give our support to.

From the first meeting I visited my new Toastmasters Club,
I treated as a member of the group, and I am deeply grateful
for their fast and sincere friendship.
As it turns out, they are not new. They have been here all along, but we had been dedicating our attention, our energy, our support elsewhere. Now, as things have become clearer, we have been able refocus our energy to places where it can do real good, where it will be appreciated, and where it will make us part of a community of good people who will make our lives richer for knowing them.

Some of the amazing local people I had the pleasure to work
with. Even the folks on the Yes side we're great people. We
may have disagreed, but we all agreed that we wanted what
was best for our town. It was refreshing for everyone to care
about the common good.
In the same way that you pull weeds from a garden to allow the beautiful flowers to grow, the trials and tribulations of 2018 have allowed us to weed out the places and people who sapped out energy and our strength and allowed us to grow and develop relationships with amazing, wonderful people who will make our lives so much richer.

I have so much to be grateful for. I am grateful for the wonderful community I have found at my church over the past year. I am grateful for the chance to become more involved in the good work of Rotary. I am grateful for the chance to have worked along so many of the best and brightest in local politics. I am grateful for the new friends I have met throughout this year.

My wonderful church family at Noank Baptist Church that I
have been blessed to become a part of this year. While I am
relatively new, they have welcomed me like a long lost
relative and I am eternally grateful.
So, I suppose I should also be grateful to one more group of people. I am grateful to the liars, the schemers, and the people with evil in their hearts who brought all this upon us. They allowed me to really appreciate all the good people who are around me. They allowed me to refocus my efforts onto communities that deserve the love of myself and my family. They have allowed me to find the flowers among the weeds.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, and take a moment between the turkey and the pie to be grateful for all the blessings that are around us.

P.S. I usually add the photos after I write an article. As I went to add the photos to this article, I realized that I didn't have room for all the wonderful groups. I am deeply thankful to the great folks at BVM that I work with, to various individuals I have met along the way, people in the fandom communities who are still doing the good work to bring fellowship and good times to those who wear the gears and dream of the rocket ships. I'm sure I'm leaving out someone, but, as A Halo Called Fred sings, "We Love You All!"

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Drink More Bad Coffee

What comes out of this is hot,
brown, caffeinated, and strong.
Today, I had the pleasure of volunteering with the wonderful people at my church as we hosted a fantastic Holiday Bazaar. I was helping out in the kitchen, and there was one of those coffee urns that you often find at church events. These coffee urns are excellent devices for creating coffee when quantity is paramount and quality is irrelevant. What comes out of it is a powerful concoction which is good for keeping you going, although there are differing opinions as to whether it is due to the caffeine or the bitterness.

As I tasted the distinctive flavor of urn coffee, I realized that I have very positive associations with bad coffee. Convention staff dens, all night game parties, intense campaigns, and other memorable events are often powered by the dark fuel that comes from these arcane machines.

Some of my best times have been working long and late running a convention or another event, working on an intense project with a team, or something else which brings people together, and the coffee urn has been a part of many such events.

The best times are naturally times spent with others, and the coffee urn, by its very nature, is a tool that only comes out for groups. Most people don't need a 55 cup coffee maker for personal home use.

So I suppose it makes sense that I would have such positive associations with the strong, bitter, slightly burned flavor of cheap beans brewed into a strong and bitter concoction.

As I drank the coffee, I came to realize that I should seek more opportunities to drink such bad coffee, because the bad coffee comes with good people, exciting times, and good causes.

I'm going to try to find some more places to drink bad coffee while doing good things.

At least it's not as bad as the pale
brown water that issues from this
machine.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Will Your Vote Count on the Budget Referendum?

In a recent article, I discussed some fundamental and serious flaws with the proposed charter for Groton, CT. Today, I'm going to explain how the referendum in the new charter does not actually give voters any control over the budget and can and will be completely ignored.

The proponents of this new charter believe that the budget referendum will somehow be the cure for every problem that Groton has. Groton certainly has it's challenges, and reasonable people can differ on the efficacy of a budget referendum to fix them, but to do that the referendum must have the power to control the budget, and due to a flaw in 9.12.6.6 of the proposed referendum, the referendum does not actually control the budget.

9.12.6.6 Interim Budget and Fixing the Tax Rate In case a Budget is not approved by June 30, the budget submitted by the Town Council per Section 9.10.3 shall be utilized as an interim budget until a new Budget is approved by referendum. Within three (3) business days after an interim budget is approved goes in to effect, the Town Council will set a mill rate that shall be sufficient, with the income from other sources, to meet the estimated expenses of the Town for the next fiscal year.

So there's an interim budget. That's a good solution to the budget chaos that neighboring towns have, right?

Well, yes, it does prevent budget chaos, but it also removes the teeth from the referendum. Let's look at an example.

Image result for useless
Whatever the charter was supposed to do, it doesn't do it.
Since the budget referendum must be held every two weeks after the initial vote fails, 9.12.6.6 effectively says that there can be up to three referendums before the interim budget takes effect.

Let us imagine that the Town Council puts up a budget of $45,000,000 for an initial vote. The referendum fails, and the Town Council makes a good faith effort to offer a new budget with deep cuts, this time $43,000,000. It fails as well. So, the Town Council makes a third effort with a $41,000,000 budget. A $4,000,000 cut means a lot of cuts in services, but the people are speaking and they are trying to listen.

The people vote no again. June 30th comes around and 9.12.6.6 comes into effect. The first, $45,000,000 budget goes into effect and the Town Council sets a mill rate accordingly.

If your car keeps breaking down, you fix the car.
You don't throw away your tool box.
The initial budget that the Town Council wanted is now in effect. Why would they ever put forth another budget for vote that was lower? If no budget ever passes, the $45,000,000 sticks, and the Town Council has all the power to determine what gets voted on.

After the Town Council offers $45,000,000 a couple more times, the referendum will either pass when people realize it is already in effect, or it will keep failing... until it passes because people realize it's already in effect.

The following year, there's no reason for the Council to mess around. They'll just put forward the budget they want in the first place, and it doesn't matter if it passes or fails because after three votes it goes into effect anyway.

Of course, this exercise in fake democracy costs taxpayers about $100,000 every year, or $400,000 over the course of a Town Council's four year term. That's the same amount it cost to get the Fitch Community Center up and running. That's a lot of money to waste to pretend the public can influence the budget.


Ultimately, the check of the RTM and it's reduction of 1-2% every year from the budget is gone. The Board of Finance is powerless. The referendum is easily ignored. In any system with no checks and balances in place, the natural result is budgets slowly but inexorably growing.

Spending money on a referendum that doesn't matter.
Yeah, it's kind of like that.
Whatever this new charter was intended to do, it doesn't do it. The people of Groton trade away their representation through the RTM for a vote in a referendum that ultimately doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you like big government or small government, lower taxes or more services, there is no possible agenda you could have that is served by this poorly written and deeply flawed charter.

The only reasonable vote on the proposed Groton charter is NO.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Christmas Tree Scenario


I have been writing a series of articles about the proposed charter revision for Groton, Connecticut. This article gives a good understanding to start from if you are not familiar with the issue.

One of the great promises of Groton's proposed Charter Revision is that of better control of the budget, but is that promise really true? I'd like to discuss what I call The Christmas Tree Scenario.

Let us imagine a town called Charter Town. Charter Town is a town of 40,000 people that operates under the Charter as proposed.

We have been assured that the public will have sufficient knowledge of the budget to make an informed decision, and we're accepting that assumption for this scenario. In fact, we're going to assume that the public is not only fully knowledgeable but that the people of Charter Town are magically able to understand the importance of every aspect of the budget and know the motivations of the Town Councilors.

The optimum budget for Charter Town this year is $100,000,000, and everyone would agree to that budget because everyone knows it's the right number.

But Councilor A would really like to see the town dock renovated, which will cost $110,000.

Councilor B is okay with that, as long as she can get a new sound system into the high school auditorium for $110,000.

Councilor C really wants to see another police officer hired, which will cost $110,000.

Etc. Etc. With all 9 Councilors each adding their own $110,000 addition.

We call this the Christmas Tree Scenario because in certain situations, everyone will want to hang their own ornament on the Christmas tree.

None of these little additions are inappropriate, and some would be nice to have, but they are also not necessary. They are what is often referred to at the Groton RTM as "nice to haves." But each little Nice to Have adds up. In this case, to a million dollars.

9 councilors, each adding their own small pet project add $1,000,000 to the budget, turning an optimum $100 million budget into a $101 million budget: a modest 1% increase.

The well informed and rational voters are faced with a choice. Should they approve this budget, recognizing that the small additional expenditures are actually nice to have and don't cost that much, or should they vote to fail the budget, incurring the additional expense and uncertainty of one or more potential revotes?

If Charter Town had a Representative Town Meeting reviewing the budget line by line, it could excise the unneeded line items and bring the budget down to the $100 million optimum budget, but having only a referendum, they can either say yes or no to the whole thing.

Knowing that $100 million is perfect and $101 million is only a tiny bit more, a rational electorate can be expected to approve such a budget.

Let us assume a 2% rate of inflation. In that case, next year's budget in Charter Town should be $102 million, but with last year's budget being $101 million, the budget with inflation is $103.02 million. More importantly, in the next cycle, everyone gets to hang an ornament on the budget tree again. We'll assume that they never add more than a million dollars of special projects.

So, what does that do after a decade?


Charter Town Budgets
YearOptimumActual
2020$100,000,000.00$101,000,000.00
2021$102,000,000.00$104,020,000.00
2022$104,040,000.00$107,100,400.00
2023$106,120,800.00$110,242,408.00
2024$108,243,216.00$113,447,256.16
2025$110,408,080.32$116,716,201.28
2026$112,616,241.93$120,050,525.31
2027$114,868,566.76$123,451,535.82
2028$117,165,938.10$126,920,566.53
2029$119,509,256.86$130,458,977.86
2030$121,899,442.00$134,068,157.42

By 2030, Charter Town's budget is $12,168,715.42 higher than it would have been with a line item budget process, or 10%. By 2065, it's 30% higher than it should have been. All because of a tiny increase of less than one percent of great projects that are simply a little more than is strictly necessary.


A complaint of Groton's RTM is that it only trims a percentage point or two off of the budget. If Charter Town had an RTM that trimmed 1% from their budget, their taxes would be 10% lower in ten years.

But the Voters Won't Do That
Perhaps you believe that the voters in Groton are more like the voters in another very similar town called Budget Town. They also have 40,000 residents and they also follow our proposed charter. The difference is that their voters are strict. They will have none of this one percent shenanigans. To the Town Council they say, "You trim the fat or we vote your budget down. We have the ultimate power here!"

After all, the voters hold the final authority through the budget referendum... or do they.

What happens if the voters fail the budget? In the new proposed charter...

9.12.6 Should either budget fail to be approved by a majority of those voting thereon, the Council shall, within seven days after a failed referendum, recommend a revised budget for each rejected budget, which may be less or greater than the failed budget, as the Council shall deem appropriate based on the results of the referendum.

I bolded a key word in that section. It says "may" not "shall." That means that they Council can return the same budget in the next referendum, as Stonington did recently when they put up a budget that was rejected and then put up the same budget which was accepted.

But what happens if the budget fails three times?

9.12.6.6 Interim Budget and Fixing the Tax Rate In case a Budget is not approved by June 30, the budget submitted by the Town Council per Section 9.10.3 shall be utilized as an interim budget until a new Budget is approved by referendum. Within three (3) business days after an interim budget is approved goes in to effect, the Town Council will set a mill rate that shall be sufficient, with the income from other sources, to meet the estimated expenses of the Town for the next fiscal year. 

Back to our Budget Town scenario, the Town Council puts up a $101 million budget in May, and it fails. It puts up the same budget in June, and it fails. It then returns the budget to the voters a third time, and fails again.

It is now June 30th, the original budget which has failed in referendum three times now becomes the "interim budget," and the Town Council sets mill rates based on it. At this point, the Town Council can simply keep sending out the same budget every two weeks until either it becomes the next year or the voters give up an accept it.

The check on this is that the Town Council can be voted out in the next election... except that the terms are now four years, so if they do this early in their term, it is likely it will be long lost to memory when an election finally comes around.

Or the other way...
After the budget passes, the Town Council sets the mill rate. This means that, when the voters vote, they do not actually know what the budget will give them in terms of a tax rate. It also means that the Town Council could choose to add a small margin of safety into the mill rate to make sure it will cover all expected expenses. They could do something modest, say 1%. That's just prudent budgeting, right?

Oh, what's this?

9.15.2 The Council may make Emergency Appropriations not exceeding one-hundred thousand dollars ($100,000), by a vote of not less than seven (7) members of the Council, provided a public hearing, at which the public shall have an opportunity to be heard, shall be held prior to making such appropriations. The notice shall be made in accordance with Section 9.19. Such hearing and notice of hearing may be waived if the Council by an affirmative vote of not less than eight (8) of its members, shall decide that a delay in making the Emergency Appropriation would jeopardize the lives, health, or property of citizens.

Remember how Councilor A wanted to put money into the town dock? Well, now it's really falling apart. It could become dangerous before the next budget cycle. Better make an emergency appropriate. After all, we have a little more than expected in the general fund.

If the town dock repair is an emergency, that additional police officer that Councilor C wanted is definitely an emergency. The police force has been dangerously understaffed, and there is that unanticipated cash in the general fund.

As a side note, let's also hope there's never a real emergency that requires more than $100,000, because there's no provision for doing so.

Who's Empowered?
In summary, the Town Council, which now has 4 year terms, has the ability to force a budget around referendum objections, and gets to set the mill rate after the budget is passed.

This Charter Revision definitely empowers someone, but it's not the voters.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Three Great Loopholes In the Groton Charter Revision


I have been writing a series of articles about the proposed charter revision for Groton, Connecticut. This article gives a good understanding to start from if you are not familiar with the issue.

There are three crucial loopholes in the proposed charter for Groton, CT, which are exacerbated by the increase of their term from two years to four.
  • The Town Council can effectively ignore the referendum results
  • Mill rates are set after the budget is approved
  • Emergency allocations without check
Ignoring the Referendum
The voters hold the final authority through the budget referendum... or do they.

What happens if the voters fail the budget? In the new proposed charter...
9.12.6 Should either budget fail to be approved by a majority of those voting thereon, the Council shall, within seven days after a failed referendum, recommend a revised budget for each rejected budget, which may be less or greater than the failed budget, as the Council shall deem appropriate based on the results of the referendum.

Image result for ignore ballot
The Groton Town Council is normally comprised of
good, honest people looking to serve the people, but the
Charter must be written to prevent abuse by those who
might act poorly. Bad rules encourage bad behavior.
I bolded a key word in that section. It says "may" not "shall." That means that they Council can return the same budget in the next referendum, as Stonington did recently when they put up a budget that was rejected and then put up the same budget which was accepted.

But what happens if the budget fails three times?

9.12.6.6 Interim Budget and Fixing the Tax Rate In case a Budget is not approved by June 30, the budget submitted by the Town Council per Section 9.10.3 shall be utilized as an interim budget until a new Budget is approved by referendum. Within three (3) business days after an interim budget is approved goes in to effect, the Town Council will set a mill rate that shall be sufficient, with the income from other sources, to meet the estimated expenses of the Town for the next fiscal year. 

If the Town Council puts up a budget in May, and it fails, it can put up the same budget in June. When it fails, it can return the same budget to the voters a third time to be voted down a third time.

It is now June 30th, the original budget which has failed in referendum three times now becomes the "interim budget," and the Town Council sets mill rates based on it. At this point, the Town Council can simply keep sending out the same budget every two weeks until either it becomes the next year or the voters give up an accept it.

The check on this is that the Town Council can be voted out in the next election... except that the terms are now four years, so if they do this early in their term, it is likely it will be long lost to memory when an election finally comes around, meaning there is really no check at all.

The Mill Rate Is Set After the Referendum
The first thing that this means is that voters do not know what tax rate they are voting on. This is like buying a car knowing the sale price but not knowing your monthly payment. You're not paying $119,000,000, you're paying your share of taxes, but that's a mystery until the Town Council chooses it.

While there are guidelines to what they should do, they have quite a bit of latitude, which becomes important when you consider the power of Emergency Allocation, which was previously checked by the RTM, but will be checked by no one at all under the proposed revision.

Emergency Allocation Loophole
After the budget passes, the Town Council sets the mill rate. This means that, when the voters vote, they do not actually know what the budget will give them in terms of a tax rate. It also means that the Town Council could choose to add a small margin of safety into the mill rate to make sure it will cover all expected expenses. They could do something modest, say 1%. That's just prudent budgeting, right?

Oh, what's this?

9.15.2 The Council may make Emergency Appropriations not exceeding one-hundred thousand dollars ($100,000), by a vote of not less than seven (7) members of the Council, provided a public hearing, at which the public shall have an opportunity to be heard, shall be held prior to making such appropriations. The notice shall be made in accordance with Section 9.19. Such hearing and notice of hearing may be waived if the Council by an affirmative vote of not less than eight (8) of its members, shall decide that a delay in making the Emergency Appropriation would jeopardize the lives, health, or property of citizens.

Image result for emergency spending
Seven Councilors will have the power to determine any
emergency and act on it... unless it's over $100,000.
Then we're just out of luck.
With the agreement of 7 Councilors, they can agree that anything they like is an emergency, and many issues can be spun as emergencies. The police department is dangerously understaffed. Hiring another officer is an emergency. That road is a hazard, paving it is an emergency. That building is about to collapse. Fixing it is an emergency.

Under the present system, all such transfers must be approved by the RTM, requiring accountability and giving a check in which the transfer could be prevented.

Under the proposed charter, items that could not get approved in the referendum approved budget, could be slipped back in as "emergencies," and there's no one who can stop them.

On the other hand, let's also hope there's never a real emergency that requires more than $100,000, because there's no provision for doing so.

Who's Empowered?
In summary, the Town Council, which now has 4 year terms, has the ability to force a budget around referendum objections, and gets to set the mill rate after the budget is passed.

This Charter Revision definitely empowers someone, but it's not the voters. So, if you're planning to vote Yes on this revision because you think it will empower you as a voter, you may find yourself somewhat disappointed.