EDITORIAL: Reform the budget process

IF CASTING YOUR VOTE is the most important obligation you have in a democracy, what’s No. 2 on your citizen’s to-do list? Adding a shredder to your mailbox so you never see another supersized candidate postcard? Installing a device that automatically deletes commercials containing the words” …I approved this…”? What about attending a town meeting where board members mumble and grouse about numbers for hours on end?

That last one about the numbers happens this time of year throughout the county as town boards adopt annual budgets ahead of a deadline later this month. Unlike school district budgets, residents of a town can’t vote on the town’s spending plans. When we elect a supervisor and members of the board, we depend on them to decide how much to spend maintaining basic town services.

Now and then, somebody screws up, as Stockport discovered recently with the revelation that the town has a about a quarter million dollars less than officials thought. Ouch! The county had a smaller scale problem with its mastery of arithmetic a few years back, and Kinderhook and Greenport discovered recently that a bookkeeper had ripped them off for thousands of dollars. And these are only a few of the higher profile cases. There may not be any local studies to support the contention, but it sure seems like the number of cases involving bungled or mismanaged municipal finances has mushroomed around here over the last few years.

When boards gripe and moan about budget numbers they’re doing the most important task many of them will undertake as town officials. They’re minding our money. If they miss something and it turns out there’s a big bill to pay as a result, then towns have few options; they generally have to stick taxpayers with the cost by adding it to the property tax levy.

Towns can’t indulge in deficit spending, which is a good thing. Imagine the temptation facing even the most upright boards if local governments could simply borrow to cover the costs of sloppiness and graft… or take out loans to please groups of citizens like you and me who demand services the town can’t afford.

This county has 18 towns ranging from Taghkanic, the smallest by population, to Kinderhook, the largest municipality, with roughly eight times more residents than Taghkanic. But each offers its citizens many of the same types of services, as do the other 16 towns. And yet not one of them can afford to employ a staff equipped with the types of skills needed to fend off financial disasters.

That’s partly a legacy of this state’s unreasonable attachment to the mythic powers of home rule. In New York the principle of home rule gives local governments extraordinary powers. This in turn encourages the notion that in an age when money can disappear with the speed of a keystroke we still need to construct and manage town budgets individually in isolation, the way they did in the era of candlelight and quill pens.

Local government at the town level is an essential component of democracy and it still has plenty of life left in it. But that does not mean all boards are created equal when it comes to preparing budgets. At the very least the county must begin to assume a more active role, providing professional guidance and oversight of the budget process. Town boards don’t have to surrender their autonomy to make this happen, but they do have to adapt to current reality. It is unreasonable to assume that towns can go it alone when it comes to drafting and managing budgets that spend millions of taxpayer dollars.

No perfect system exists, and the painful process of inventing a better approach to municipal budgeting will take time. Among other things it must include guarantees of the power town boards have now to establish budget priorities.

At present the county lacks the tools and personnel to assume this kind of leadership role. But that’s no excuse for ignoring the issue, especially at a time when state and federal resources will continue shrinking.

This budget season is almost over. Town boards, most of them, have done the best they can to keep taxes low and services in place. They deserve credit for a job well done. But now’s time to ask what help we can give them in the hopes they can achieve similar results in the years to come.



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