You’d be forgiven for having missed it, but as quiet summer days are upon us, the city of Waterville is in the throes of a budget crisis.
The city council overrode Mayor Nick Isgro’s veto of the original budget, then backed down and agreed to reopen it after intense public pressure. This may seem like a purely local issue, but there are common elements to it that may offer broader lessons for municipalities across the state.
Much of the Waterville city budget is driven by school spending, as is the case in cities and towns across the state. After the furor erupted over the budget, school board members protested that there were no cuts left to be made. This might be believable were it not for the fact that this is the standard-issue response from local officials all over the state whenever residents complain about high property taxes. They follow it up quickly by trying to shift blame to the state.
While it’s easy for local officials to try to shift blame, this song and dance bears about as much resemblance to actual responsibility as the student blaming his dog for eating his homework. Fortunately, in Waterville, residents not only have a fiscally conservative mayor who is willing to take responsibility in Nick Isgro, they also have a city charter that gives him the authority to veto the budget. In doing so, he’s created a revolution from above, forcing other elected officials in the city to recognize that many local residents are frustrated with the high taxes in the city.
Rather than being bemoaned as dysfunctional, the current debate over the budget in Waterville should be lauded as an example. The initial discussion has led to the consideration of a new budget, one that will hopefully result in lower government spending and a reduced mill rate. If so, it is a positive step, and one that resulted from a strong leader being willing to take a principled stand.
In your town or city, you may not have such a voice leading from above — or if you do, they may not have the authority to do much about it. In many smaller towns, there is no mayor. In most of the state’s cities, the mayor is no more than a glorified, at-large city councilor. Moreover, in many municipalities, local officials operate under a go-along-to-get-along mentality. While many bemoan the partisanship paralyzing Washington, D.C., a status quo mindset locally can be just as destructive. In either case, it ends up being all too easy for elected officials to ignore the real problems facing them.
If none of your local officials are willing to take a stand, it may be up to you. Attend your city council and school board meetings, and take a look at the budget. If, after careful examination, you feel that your taxes aren’t too high and that money is being spent only on vital, necessary services, then congratulations — you’re one of the lucky ones.
However, if after taking a look at things you realize that your tax money isn’t being spent wisely, speak up. Talk to your friends and neighbors, and start asking questions of your local officials. Ultimately, it’s up to all of us to ensure our elected officials are accountable for their decisions. We do that by getting involved, rather than standing back and hoping for the best. We need more tax revolts in this state.
Then, maybe we’ll get more local officials who are fiscally responsible.