Sunday, January 18, 2009

Small Town Democracy In Action

It's that time of year again in New Hampshire, where budgets for towns, their schools, as well as the counties and state are being debated, gone over with a fine tooth comb by selectmen, school boards, budget committees, and legislators, and debated some more.

Next month town and school district meetings will start throughout the state, where the voters will once again have the opportunity to decide what their respective towns and schools will spend over the upcoming fiscal year.

In these hard economic times many towns are holding the line on spending, practicing austerity in order to lessen the tax burden on taxpayers, knowing many of them are having a tough time making ends meet.

While New Hampshire hasn't seen nearly as much economic disruption as other parts of the country, we're still seeing some. The only saving grace has been the fall of gas and heating fuel prices well below the prices paid last year. But still people are struggling.

One of the biggest issues in our small town is whether or not to spend the money necessary to renovate and expand our police station. While it is tempting to put it off another year or two, the department has been suffering with cramped quarters and insufficient storage space for over ten years now, and it's only going to get worse.

Does it make sense to commit to that kind of spending given the economic conditions? On the plus side is the lower cost of materials, lower construction costs (contractors are hurting for work with the collapse of the real estate market), and bond interest rates being quite low. The cost of the project may never be lower. On the negative side is the addition to the property tax rate to pay for the project. If the economy gets substantially worse it could hurt the taxpayers. (At least the town won't see the additional taxes to pay the bond until the fiscal year following this upcoming one.)

Our town is not the only one facing this dilemma. Plenty of others have to make similar decisions, putting off much needed work to roads and municipal buildings, cutting services and jobs in order to keep spending increases as low as possible, assuming they don't decrease it below their present budget.

All of this will be hotly debated at town and school meetings, with some going along with the austere budget proposals in order to keep spending in check and others fighting against budget cuts (or level spending) because they believe it will hurt their towns.

Part of the problem with some in the second group is they have a difficult time telling the difference between nice-to-haves and need-to-haves. When times get tough they have real problems cutting back or eliminating the nice-to-haves. It can make for heated discussions, side debates, and on occasion, hurt feelings. But in the end, the voters will decide what will be spent, what won't, and that will be that.

That's just the way it should be.

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