Friends who have met my mother all have one thing in common; they say she looks like Paula Deen. Being from the South, she sure sounds like her too, and no doubt a cookout between the two of them would be a feast worth shaking a stick at! (And that is a good thing in “Southern-speak!”)
Alas, most folks don’t find financial matters all that delicious. That’s what makes me a bit of a geek, a numbers geek that is. I can’t wait for Middlefield to serve up a salient budget so I can bite into it, one morsel at a time!
So if all we had was just Paula’s stick of butter added into the mix, what do you think things would be like?
For starters, we'd need to:
- Butter it up: A reminder of all of the fabulous things the Town of Middlefield has accomplished over the past several years. Name a few and let’s congratulate ourselves on a job well done!
- Marinade it: A nod to Hartford, or a tip of the hat, because now that we see where the state budget is headed, it’s easier for us to plan for where we need to go with this year’s budget. Whether or not we soak up $ here.
- Measure it carefully: A look at the present budget, to see where there are shortfalls in our processes and making some adjustments to accommodate unbudgeted items that are coming in higher such as the BAN payments and what I’ve heard could be a $300,000 bill for snow removal.
- Grill it: An openness to challenging assumptions, opening up to accept change, and striving to keep tax burdens down in light of tax burdens increasing at the state level so that citizen’s budgets remain neutral.
- Time it: A look forward to a future that includes Alpine reopening Powder Ridge and hopefully enjoying some skiing in 2013, or thereabouts.
- Check on it: And lastly, to hold folks accountable for some mistakes that have been made, so we can correct bad habits and cook up something that tastes great (and passes the smell test.)
I don't know about you but that sounds to me like a recipe for success!
When I say butter, I’m not talking about fat. I don’t think we need any more bloated spending right now, and certainly no tax increases.
What we need is some good ole fashioned flavorful discussions thrown into the mix! Here is a nugget to savor for starters:
“We all find comfort applying familiar solutions to problems, sticking to what we know best… if the solution were easy to see or obvious to everyone, it probably already would have been found. Pushing harder and harder on familiar solutions, while fundamental problems persist or worsen, is a reliable indicator of nonsystematic thinking – what we often call the ‘what we need is a bigger hammer’ syndrome.” - Peter Senge from his book The Fifth Disciple
What Senge seems to be saying is that sometimes it takes a lot of digging and mulling over a problem, as well as debating and revising potential solutions, in order to achieve dynamic success.
Think about how often you have seen legislation in Washington and Hartford address one problem only to create another. That is the kind of nonsystematic thinking to which Senge is referring.
Remember the junk food tax idea Mike Bloomberg had a while ago? It’s the idea that we hear radio commercials blasting, “should government be telling me what food I should buy?” Well I’m sure Paula Deen probably isn’t a fan of this either, for obvious reasons!
But here is the argument he used: a tax should be applied to cheap junk food because it isn’t good for us. This is an example of nonsystematic thinking.
Why, you may ask? Bloomberg’s solution was applied to the finished product, so it would affect consumers, shoppers, moms, college students cramming for exams, etc. People are still up in arms about what seemed to a billionare like the right thing to do.
Maybe he didn't understand that to really change the cost of junk food, price increases would have to occur much sooner than the finished products hit store shelves, possibly by eliminating Federal subsidies on corn syrup.
If corn syrup was less abundant, the price of it would rise for the manufacturers of the junk food, and they would either make less of it or raise the prices of the finished product to cover costs. Kids wouldn't be able to afford it, cost-conscious moms would buy broccoli because it's cheaper than candy, problem solved!
From the perspective of a new resident, I find myself confounded by examples of this in Middlefield too. As tasty as open space land purchases are, they have both the benefits and the consequences I’ve described. Open space can be overly subsidized and feel like something we’re overly entitled to have more of because it’s cheaply available (for “free” if the town buys it.)
I would argue that too much open space purchased becomes a burden on the town to maintain. Extra labor expenses may be needed to bush-hog it, plow it, and protect it from vandalism, dumping, and pollution. Open space land also is not a property tax revenue source. So although less of the town’s resources may be used for its upkeep, as compared to other taxable property, having too much open space can negatively affect the budget because no tax revenues are available to pay for the costs.
I am not saying there is no benefit to open land, on the contrary, I think if it is effectively managed it becomes even more valueable. But the real question is: are we managing it?
At the most recent Conservation Commission meeting (Feb. 15) I learned that they are creating a listing of all Town owned land and making maps of it. Jon Brayshaw had actually told me that himself many weeks earlier in a telephone conversation. He said that the town is frequently asked, especially during hunting season, for maps of the open land areas, and he wanted the Conservation Commission to put these maps together so that they could be given to hunters.
Having maps available is one thing, but it takes hours upon hours to research and develop maps. And if the maps contain intellectual property, such as little known facts about some obscure landmark, land boundary, scenic vista, and so on, they could be sold at a minimum to cover the expenses of producing them. As a new resident, I would also be interested in purchasing such a map, so that I could find my way around better. And in discussions with the folks in the meeting who would love to do mountain biking or hiking on the open land, they would too!
We just need to think differently about the open space. There are so many other wonderful ways that it can be enjoyed, besides for hunting, and a few of those ways can help us cover the costs to maintain it. Having a community garden somewhere would be another way. My old town of Wethersfield did this. It cost about a $40 fee for each resident who wanted a small garden plot. The town used those funds to pay for a rototiller, covering the Town’s expenses to plow those gardens.
I know I’m throwing a lot at you, but my focus as an outsider is to share the benefits of us all getting together as a Town, and helping each other out by sharing our opinions so in the end we have more robust solutions, rather than leaving everything up to Jon to decide.
The actions of our own town government have been very similar to this. Let’s look at it through the eyes of Paula Deen: pouring butter on the budget process may not be easy, but we have to start somewhere.
The more people we have participating, and the more information the public can start to review in advance of the Town Meeting, the better prepared we (as the legislative body of this town) will be.
We need to have an intelligent discussion and debates on the issues. Heck, if it comes down to it, I'll invite Mom up here and we'll have a barbeque!
Like Paula Deen would say, “we’re fixin’ up a tasty budget, y’all!”