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Status Quo Budgeting

Although everyone in Longmeadow town government would tell you otherwise, the yearly budgeting process is an exercise in maintaining the status quo. That is not to say there is anything scandalous about keeping things as they are. It is just that for all the words you have heard and will hear at the annual Town Meeting about the sophisticated and thoughtful processes involved in producing a budget, the end result is something that looks remarkably like last year’s budget.

During my three years on the Select Board, we spent a lot of time on the budget. Sometimes we would meet three or four times a week, going through line items, hearing from the town manager and the CFO, talking to the department heads. We would have a hearing with the capital planning committee and debate the merits of one type of plow versus another. For all that work, and all that talk, very little changed from year to year.

During all of these budget hearings, the town manager and some members of the Select Board would wax eloquent about their philosophies of budgeting. The budget, it was said, “reflected our priorities” as a community. We had the concept of “level service,” i.e., keeping the department’s services at last year’s level, and the close analogue, “level funding,” keeping the department’s funding the same. Others spoke of a more rigorous process of “zero budgeting,” where a department would, conceptually speaking, start from zero and have to justify every bit of funding above zero. Some spoke of budgeting as a process of discerning “wants” from “needs” – as if that distinction helped to resolve anything.

All of this high-minded language obfuscated the strong hold the status quo has over budgeting.

First, there is the inertia over laying off an employee or even changing somebody’s job, and keep in mind that almost all town government jobs are subject to union contracts with a bevy of restrictive work rules.

Second, last year’s budget is seen, at least implicitly, as the starting point of the number crunching process. Indeed, departments and programs have, in practice, a presumptive right to the budget they had last year.

Of course, nobody would admit to this because it would make the budgeting process sound mechanical and lacking in thoughtfulness. In a well-run organization, new programs should be considered on an equal footing with existing programs. Existing programs should not continue simply because they exist. Everything should be judged on its merits, and there should be no sacred cows.

A recent budget battle illustrates the hold the status quo has over Longmeadow town budgeting. One of the big fights we had for years was instituting full day, universal kindergarten. The town manager and the majority of the Select Board fought it tooth and nail, and even the School Committee was unwilling to embrace it until 2016.

From an educational or even a financial standpoint, full day, universal kindergarten is a no-brainer. It is an investment, studies show, that pays off on a 3:1 ratio. Surely a savvy municipal policymaker would support something like that, as there is virtually nothing else in municipal government that pays off so handsomely. And yet, in 2016, when the School Committee finally got behind full day, universal kindergarten and included it in its budget, that item became the town manager’s whipping boy. The problem with the school budget and the overall town budget was supposedly that particular item. After all, it was new. That’s all it had going against it. Nobody questioned its merits. Nobody argued that it had less merit than other items in the school budget, or other items in the town budget. Nobody could justify why Longmeadow was one of the very last towns or cities in the entire state of Massachusetts to adopt full day, universal kindergarten. The only knock against it was that it deviated from the status quo.

The town manager and other members of the Select Board also objected because they knew that once it was in the budget, full day, universal kindergarten would stay in the budget in subsequent years. It would acquire a presumptive right to funding and would be almost impossible to dislodge. In subsequent years it would receive the benefit of being part of the status quo.

Because of all this opposition, the passage of full day, universal kindergarten was a close-run thing. Initially, I was the only person on the Select Board who voiced support for funding it. After lots of sturm and drang and much gnashing of teeth, Marie Angelides and Thomas Lachiusa came over at the very end to supporting it so we would not have a floor fight at Town Meeting with the School Committee. It passed on a 3-2 vote.

Status quo budgeting leaves much to be desired, but it is not the worst outcome for a town budget. It circumscribes the bounds of innovation, but it also limits how much havoc town officials can cause. If town officials really were evaluating everything from the ground up, year after year, there would be a lot of room for implementing bad ideas. Just remember that as Longmeadow residents vote on this year’s budget.

– Article by Alex J. Grant, a lawyer living in Longmeadow. His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.