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.