New England Town Meetings -- 04/26/01
b I live in Rhode Island, an area where the New England concept of township government is still strong. There may be a town council and a town manager, etc., but the power to approve the budget is reserved to the people of the town. Tuesday night I went to our Town Financial Meeting. This is the Town Meeting that considers (and votes on) the town's annual budget.

The school system makes up not just the largest item in the budget; it is more than two-thirds of the total budget. Add up the fire department and the police department and emergency medical rescue and parks & recreation and the public libraries and the highway department and water and sewer and every other area of town government -- and the school department is more than twice that size.

Right now we have several elementary schools, a junior high school and a senior high school. The junior high is over-crowded and there has been a desire to change to a middle school format as being more educationally desirable. A new middle school has been built and when the new school opens this fall the junior high will also become a middle school, giving us two middle schools with around four hundred students each. Partly because of this, there has been a big increase in the proposed school budget which, if approved, will result in a hefty tax boost, almost ten percent. This naturally enough brings out the whiners and wailers who can't see why the budget can't be slashed, they don't have any kids in school anymore so why should they pay for other people's kids.

The meeting began at seven o'clock -- at which time I was still fixing dinner, and then we had to eat and then I had to do some shopping and then had to drive out to Matunuck (about ten miles) to pick up Sean at a friend's house (boy scout stuff, patrol leaders and assistant patrol leaders meeting) and bring him home and then I got to drive to the high school for the meeting. I got there about nine-thirty, by which time they were taking a vote on how to vote on the school portion of the budget. A request may be made to hold a public referendum on any budget item that is more than two percent of the budget, said referendum to be held within ten days of the town meeting. So this coming Monday we will be going to the polls to decide the fate of the school budget. Then (after an exodus of about half the people at the meeting) we got around to voting on all the other items in the budget.

Here's a budget of tens of millions of dollars, and someone will come down to the microphone to ask why the Real Estate Appraisal Appeals Board meeting budget went from $310 to $2050. (Because this is a ten-year reappraisal year and therefore a number of appeals are expected and appeals board members receive the princely sum of ten dollars to attend an appeals board meeting, as opposed to prior years when they only needed a few meetings to handle all appeals.) Why is the emergency rescue budget increasing by more than one hundred thousand dollars? (Because a second advanced life support rescue vehicle was going to be on duty 7am to 7pm and so we had to hire additonal EMTs to staff it.) Why had the town contribution to the seniors-helping-seniors volunteer program been cut to zero. (Because in the past the town averaged about a fifteen hundred dollar contribution to that organization but now they were being given free office space in the new senior center, something with a higher value to the group but which did not translate to a cash impact on the budget.) But eventually we got through the rest of the budget. (Everything was approved.) In fact, I was home by eleven p.m. I had expected that a vote on the school budget wouldn't actually happen until almost midnight and the discussion and debate on the rest of the budget would only be beginning then; putting it off to a public vote on Monday sure managed to shorten the debate... and this way thousands of people will get to decide instead of only hundreds.

So now on Monday I will have to be sure to cast my vote for the school budget.

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