Sunday, December 1, 2019

On A More Effective RTM

The unique form of government in Groton, Connecticut provides unique opportunities for transparency and bringing forth the best ideas of the people. Over more than two decades of serving in numerous non profit and governmental organizations, I have seen all manner of government and governance structures. Our unique combination of a Town Council and a Representative Town Meeting (RTM) provides some very interesting benefits if the RTM takes advantage of them.

Most members of the RTM are simply citizens who have decided to become more involved in their community. They do not have particularly deep knowledge of the issues or structure of town government, and this is a beautiful thing. It is beautiful because it means that the average RTM member is asking the very same questions that their constituents have, and they are asking them on camera where that constituent can watch the questions and answers right there on TV (or Youtube). This is an amazing resource for transparency.

Bringing my outside experience to my time on the RTM, I have three thoughts on how the RTM can leverage its existing resources to serve as an even greater asset to our community: fact forward debate, embracing its role in transparency, and a creative engagement committee. I write them so that whoever is the next moderator of the RTM might consider putting them in place to create a more effective and efficient body.

Fact Forward Debate
Robert’s Rules of Order outlines a method for presenting, debating, and voting on motions which assumes that the person raising the motion is the first person advocating that motion. Because the RTM is more reactive on most issues, most main motions that the RTM votes on are initiated by the Town Council. The issue will be reviewed by the relevant committee, then the committee chair will report out the minutes of the meeting in which the motion was discussed. There is then an opportunity for questions from RTM members prior to voting.

While the minutes describe a vigorous discussion of the matter at hand, the nature of minutes can make it difficult for members to get a complete understanding of the issue, resulting in a lengthy set of questions from members as they try to understand the basic outline of the issue at hand.

A more efficient format would be to have either a member of town staff or a member of the Town Council, or even a member of the RTM, provide a clear, factual presentation of the effect of the proposed action and reasons why it should be adopted.

This is doubly important in the case of ordinances, which the RTM does not even formally discuss until a motion to veto is made. It makes little sense that a member has to rise to veto an ordinance simply to learn the background and reasoning behind the ordinance. A brief explanation of the ordinance and its reasoning could save 30-60 minutes of debating and voting on an ordinance that nobody actually wants to veto.

This initial presentation of only a few minutes could replace what is often a half hour or more of questions that are meant to simply clarify the issue. This will allow questions and debate that does occur to be more specifically directed and efficient. It will replace what is often a sense of confusion about the issues before the body with a sense of confidence.

Embracing the RTMs Role In Transparency
The Charter allows the Moderator to cancel any meetings at which there is not “business” to consider. But what is “business?”

Some suggest that business is anything that we are required to vote on, but if the voting is the only important part, why do we spend 60-90 minutes on reports from town staff and committee liaisons?

In an era of limited resources of local media to cover local government, the RTM’s ability to ask questions of our town staff and leadership and get insightful answers is one of the best resources to inform our citizens available to us. The reports portion of the meeting is every bit as vital to the value the RTM provides as any funds appropriation or ordinance review.

The RTM has the same power as a congressional hearing: the power to ask questions and get answers in a public forum. In many towns, decisions are made and nobody knows how they are made or what is happening. Groton’s RTM provides citizens a unique and wonderfully democratic mechanism to pull back the curtain of town government. But it only works if the RTM meets.

Depending on the way the Town Council’s activity falls, the RTM sometimes cancels a number of meetings. This past year, for example, we did not meet in July, August, or October. This made it difficult for members to get answers to key questions they were seeking. While staff is quite good about communicating with RTM members directly, the transparency of those answers being in a public forum is extremely valuable.

I would suggest that there is important business at any meeting where any member has an issue that they’d like to get answers on. Sure, this may mean that there are meetings at which nothing is voted on. That means that the RTM could fulfill its valuable duty of providing transparency in a meeting on an hour or so. Nothing wrong with that.

Creative Engagement Committee
The town of Groton is ably managed by a team of skillful and honest professional staff, and I believe that every department is run by leaders who absolutely seek to provide serve at the best of their abilities. Most of the issues before the town are not Right versus Left or otherwise ideological, but are more often simply a question of whether or not someone has looked closely enough to see if there’s a better way to do things.

The members of the Town Council are, by the nature of their duties, up to their elbows in the regular functioning of the town and tend not to have the time to dive into various elements of the town to find exciting new solutions to old problems.

On the other hand, RTM members, by their very outsider nature, have the ability to bring fresh perspectives. In the previous term, the RTM operated entirely reactively, but there is no reason it could not operate more proactively.

Naturally, some members are more interested in diving in and getting their hands dirty than others, so it would not make sense to ask the existing committees to take on additional work. I would suggest creating a Creative Engagement Committee. This committee would be comprised of volunteers interested in getting into the weeds to really see how things work and how they might work better.

This would not be an investigative committee to catch wrongdoing. Rather, it would be a resource for the town, bringing fresh ideas and perspectives. The very lack of legislative authority of this committee would be an asset. If one is not always thinking in terms of new legislation, one is often freer to have more creative ideas. Many solutions this committee might find could simply be executed by the department head.

Many of the greatest innovations have some from an outsider coming in and saying, “hey, why do we do it this way?” We have a pool to citizens who are interested in getting involved. Why not let them?

Three Ideas
Based on my considerable experience in other organizations and my two years on the RTM, I feel that these ideas would streamline meetings, improve the RTMs effectiveness at serving the people, and help make the town more efficient. All three ideas can be executed within the authority of the Moderator without any changes to the RTM rules or the Charter.

I look forward to working with the RTM for another two years as we serve our neighbors together in this wonderful and unique government institution.

Michael Whitehouse is a member of the Groton Representative Town Meeting serving the 4th district.

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.