No matter what side of the political fence you sit on, you’ve got to give a hat tip to the president for coining the phrase ‘Beer Summit’, don’t you?. It just resonates. Maybe because it’s the way we’ve always negotiated settlement to human conflict, and we have some fundamental memory of that locked somewhere deep in our minds. Perhaps more significantly for us right now is that it’s the very reason we’re here at the pub, sitting together! So ‘cheers’ to Beer Summits, friends.
I’m not too happy that we ended up with the council on one side of the table and the mayor on the other, but I think we should all pick our battles appropriately – we’ll let that slide for now.
I have a question, and wanted to start with the council. I was wondering how the township has adapted to the changing economic climate - what have we reduced in our budget since 2007? Okay, I admit that’s a trick question – I already knew the answer, because I read through all the budgets archives from that year til today to prepare for our little summit. And I brought printouts for all of you. They are multi-purpose - we can use them as beer coasters, but they’ll also help us stick to the facts.
We haven’t reduced anything at all, have we? While we’ve done a good job at containing growth in the past five years, we’ve achieved that by slowly eating away at our budget surplus. From $7.6 million in 2007 to $5.9 million last year. This means the budget is actually up $1.7 million a year over that span, which in-effect is a 5% spending increase. In my home, we call that using the savings account to pay the bills. Which is exactly what’s going on in a lot of homes in town right now. The plain fact is we’re increasing spending, year after year, right at a time when it’s hardest for people to afford it.
Now, let’s switch gears and talk about the mayor’s plan to reduce the budget by outsourcing the employees that are doing recycling work for us. Looking at the budget again, recycling salaries account for about $439,000 a year. It’s about the same amount we annually spend on police detectives. It’s a LOT of money. Just for recycling. Every year. You know, if at my job in the private sector I had to go into my boss’s office to defend that expense for that function, I’d walk out with my head in my hands.
Now what was it you said at the town meeting, Councilman? I believe it was, ‘I don’t want to lose any of the township employees’. Well, when did that become the guiding principle for budgeting and running a municipality? I think for many citizens in many towns across the country, it’s this very idea that frustrates and disappoints them the most. How can we ever hope to control the size of our government at any level if salaries – the single biggest expense – are off the table? As if it’s some sort of club where once membership is obtained it is never revoked. Consider how a family in town dealing with private sector economic realities, maybe even ex-employees themselves, would react to reading that quote in the newspaper. It’s an old-fashioned eye-roller, that’s what it is. Speaking of old-fashioned – Waitress, another round please?
Couldn’t we look at this a little differently? If we agree that $439,000 a year is a bit steep for the type of service we’re getting, aren’t there grey-area options we could consider? Does it have to be all or nothing? The potential for savings for the town is so great, surely there’s some middle ground on the issue.
And Mr. Mayor, this is where I wanted to talk to you. You were elected to be a leader. Being a leader is more than having a good idea and expecting everyone to fall over and go along with it. You correctly perceive that you have a mandate to install some fiscal controls in town because that’s what you campaigned on and you won the election. But your colleagues here on the other side of table, they won elections, too. And they rightly perceive that they too should attempt to govern as advertised. So where do we go from here? How do we get things done?
What is going on right now is surely not going to work. Outbursts about opponent meetings, investing time in tangential things like political advertising rules and regulations, and picking a public fight with the very people you need to persuade to your way of thinking will get nothing done. In the end, what’s the point of having you there if nothing actually changes?
Dale Carnegie once wrote that you can never win an argument. By then, it’s too late. The key is to avoid the argument in the first place – persuasion and consensus building is the only way to implement new ideas. You have some strong facts on your side, but honestly have you spent any time with the folks here who voted against you, attempting to bring them along, understanding their point of view while you help them to understand yours? They feel strongly about their constituency in town, but they also know that a checkbook must be balanced. You should not disregard their instincts – blend their thoughts with yours.
Maybe a better outsourcing plan would involve a hybrid approach, with transitional features. Perhaps we look at this as a much smaller save for this year, outsourcing one position to gain some 2012 benefit, but then forecast a plan and target for gradual cutover to greater outsourcing over the next few years. Build in milestones and checkpoints where progress is evaluated. If it’s not working, we stop. If it IS working – hey let’s expand the idea to other areas!
This is fairer and much less severe to all the people involved – the present and future workers. It helps the town now and down the road. After all it’s what happens over the long haul that really counts. Consider the model you’d have created – a sensible, measurable approach that the majority of people can get behind and support. How many council votes could you swing over with this?
You are not a back-bencher, Mr. Mayor. Don’t act like one. You’ve convinced the town that you should be a leader. For all the reasons you wanted to do this in the first place, we need you to figure out how to govern this town with the council you have and achieve results. The noise must stop, and success must become paramount. It’s the hard work that must be done.
It’s the hard work you all need to do together.
So folks, that’s pretty much what I wanted to talk to you about this afternoon. Thanks for accepting my invitation, and in particular coming a little early so we could get the Happy Hour prices. It may not seem like much, but when you add up everything here on the table, it was much easier for me to pay when it was all half-priced.
Going back to presidential quotes once more, if you’ll forgive me, this is the little “teachable moment” punch line I wanted to leave you with. Money’s tight. It’s tight everywhere. You need to deeply understand that, with every decision you make that involves spending your neighbors’ money. It’s tremendously important.