IT SOUNDED LIKE TEA PARTY sentiment: the calls for smaller, more efficient government, lower taxes, the elimination of waste and a call for elected representatives who listen to, instead of talk at, their constituents. But the participants didn’t fit the label.
Listening to national media these days, you’d think that the conservative Tea Party has a monopoly on demands for good government and the political muscle to achieve its goals. But the recent outcry in Chatham showed no particular ideological bias nor did the folks involved announce grander plans. People of all political stripes were just fed up.
A couple of weeks ago, the Village Board announced plans to impose a tax rate increase of over 12%. This got the attention of a lot of taxpayers, who turned out in unusually large numbers to question why the rate was going up when the recession still grips the nation and they have not received raises or bonuses that would offset the impact of higher taxes.
Miraculously, less than two days after a first budget meeting, the board came back with a new plan that cut the tax rate by a third. At a second budget meeting the mayor assured voters that the new 8.6% tax rate increase was low, suggesting that taxpayers should be happy with it. That seemed to some in the room like he and fellow board members were once again phoning this budget in from Mars. Earth to mayor, what is it about cutting taxes you don’t get?
A few days later the board shuffled revenue previously designated for water and sewer systems into the general fund and hastily adopted a spending plan with a mere 4.5% tax increase. In other times that might have ended the matter, with an energized citizenry feeling satisfied that local elected officials had responded, cutting the tax rate by nearly two-thirds. But for some in the audience, this episode represents not a victory but a symptom of a government out of touch with the electorate. They want fundamental changes in the way government arrives at its decisions as much as a change in the decisions themselves.
Many voiced dissatisfaction about the amount of money the village spends on its Police Department. Others recited incidents where police allegedly behaved inappropriately. The mayor reacted by suggesting that the public observe village court proceedings, where they would learn about the types of crimes the police confront. He also said that the board had reduced the police budget a decade ago, a move that unleashed more anger than the current budget, which leaves police expenditures untouched.
The trustees have taken a position that they cannot risk jeopardizing public safety by making across-the-board cuts to the police without first investigating what impact the cuts might take. That sounds reasonable. But then why not delay voting on the budget until that study is done?
That wasn’t possible this year, said the mayor, because if the board did not adopt a budget prior to the beginning of the village fiscal year June 1, the initial budget proposal with its 12% tax rate increase would automatically become the budget.
This situation brings to mind a popular bumper sticker aphorism: Your failure to plan is not my emergency. Most school boards learned long ago that a relentless airing of all budget discussions in public prior to adopting a final proposal allows taxpayers to see where their money will go and why. The Chatham Village Board missed that class. Its budget process remains hidden until a final document emerges, with no time for thoughtful amendments. It is such a secretive process that trustees appeared unfamiliar with the details of the spending plan.
Maybe voters will forget what happened this year, or maybe they’ll overlook the board’s flaws because somebody has to keep the village running, and who else wants their thankless job? Or maybe, if the economy gets better quickly, good times will divert public attention to other matters.
But those options seem less likely with the formation of a new group, as yet unnamed, whose members don’t identify themselves as partisan, left or right. They are taxpayers unable or unwilling to bear the current costs of running the village. And because they don’t constitute a party, they are something more potent–voters who, having gotten something done, now realize they can accomplish more.
Their power comes from organizing themselves around their shared self interest. If they remain true to that approach, then change will come to the Village of Chatham.
The group’s blog is http://chathamvillage.wordpress.com.