Town Financial Meeting --  04/26/06

Last night was the annual Town Financial Meeting.

There's a good chance we might not have many more.

The Town Council is waiting for a report from a committee it formed to study the question of continuing to hold an annual Town Meeting to discuss, debate, and vote on the town budget for the coming fiscal year or to do the voting as a special election day, giving people all day to get to the polls and vote. The idea is that South Kingstown is just getting to be too large to handle its financial affairs the old-fashioned way. They also say it isn't fair to make people come out at night and spend two or three or four hours listening to (and participating in) debate about the budget after they have already put in a hard day's work. That requires too much committment compared to just stopping by a polling place sometime during a fifteen hour span of time and spending a few minutes voting. They say it would be more democratic because more people would actually vote. Also, they say it isn't fair to seniors because they shouldn't have to go out at night.

As if it is somehow more difficult to turn off the television and drive to town than it was for people in earlier times (after working a ten or twelve hour day of physical labor) to travel to town for the town meeting. The actual impetus, I fear, is being pushed by those who are against spending money on the school system. That is the real issue. In most of Rhode Island the schools systems are not independent units with the power to levy and collect taxes. They are attached to the town governments; the town school committee sets its budget, argues about it with the town council, arrives at a budget that both the school committee and the town council can agree upon and then it is up to the town council to raise the money. But first, of course, the voters have to approve the town budget -- either at the polls in a special voting day or at a town meeting -- and the school budget makes up the major portion of the town budget. (When a budget cut proposal does get enough support in the town meeting to go to a special ballot, the total number of people voting has tended to be about twice as high as the number who had attended the town meeting that had voted to call for the special election day.)

This year the main tax cut group made numerous public statements that they were not targeting the school budget this year, but then with just a few days to go before the meeting, they began to complain about the school committee's plans to have full day kindergarten and started to whip up their followers to come to the town meeting and cut the half million dollar cost of full day kindergarten from the budget.

The debate went on for a couple of hours. The budget opponents had four main points: schools cost too much money; there was no absolute scientific proof that full day kindergarten was more effective than half day kindergarten; if you wanted to have full-day kindergarten then just move existing staff around to cover it; and (if you wanted full day kindergarten) the money wouldn't have to come from kindergarten, it could come from any part of the school budget. The supporters of the budget spoke about keeping this one of the best school systems in the state, the value of full day kindergarten, the high quality and dedication of the teaching staff, etc.

The budget-cutters moved to vote on the cut using paper ballots. (My guess is that people would be more likely to vote for a cut in the school budget if they didn't have to stand up in public.) Under the town rules if twenty percent of those attending voted for paper ballots, then the paper ballots would have to be used. There were 686 voters in the high school auditorium at the time -- so the moderator asked if anyone was pregnant because twenty percent of 686 came out to 137.2. Only 123 people stood up in favor of paper ballot. A few minutes later the vote to cut the budget failed. There was no count taken because the difference in number was quite clear between those standing in favor of the cut and then those standing to oppose the cut.

The school budget makes up a single line item in the town budget (although it is far larger than all the other line items combined) and is always taken care of first. For most of the rest of the budget, the information would be read and large sections of the budget would be passed unanimously. There were brief delays at a few items ("Could you please explain what is covered by 'Contractual Services' under the heading of 'Tree Management Program.'") and they were explained and then also approved unanimously.

Until we came to the Boy Scouts.

There was a $500 item to go towards enabling some boys from low income families to attend a week of summer camp at Boy Scout camp.

A woman rose to speak against this item on behalf of all who might be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning. Another woman rose to speak on behalf of her gay son. An elderly gentleman said that he had been a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout and that he had news for the Boy Scouts, some of those kids who had been scouts with him sixty years ago had been gay. The college aged daughter of the first woman rose to say that she was in full agreement with her mother. A man asked if the town wasn't legally obligated to avoid discrimination, including not supporting groups that discriminated. Another speaker prompted a town council member to question the town manager about exactly how this request for money had come to the council and was it to support the Boy Scouts or was it strictly a low income camper "scholarship" program. Another member of the audience rose to say that he thought the scouts did fine things and he hoped people would support things like scholarships to for low income kids but that the town had no business taxing its citizens -- including gay taxpayers -- to in any way support a group that discriminated against gays. Another speaker rose to ask what the town council would do if a group that discriminated against blacks were to ask for money.

I think there were about ten or eleven people speaking against the grant to the Boy Scouts. The only person who rose to speak in favor of the $500 was a frustrated budget cutter who complained that people had rejected cutting five hundred thousand dollars because "it was for the kids" so how could people now want to cut a item that was just five hundred dollars; after all, wasn't that "for the kids" also?

When the moderator asked for all those in favor of the motion to cut the $500 from the budget more than three quarters of the people in the auditorium stood.

It seems to me that our old-fashioned New England style Town Financial Meeting still works pretty well.
Norman Rockwell's painting "Freedom of Speech"
from his Four Freedoms series.

Proposed 2006/2007 town budget: $68,495,293.00 Approved 2006/2007 town budget: $68,494,793.00

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