In looking at the conversations that surround our selectmen and school board elections here in Farmington, there are several points that consistently seem to be missing from our conversations. This concerns me because, as a person of reason and local taxpayer, it would seem we won’t be able to find solutions if we aren’t stepping back and looking at everything we are doing. I know being an elected official is hard. I know it is thankless and frustrating, but we need people in office who not only can deal with those inevitabilities, but implement new strategies if we not only want the town to survive, but also to thrive.
Here are four things we don’t talk about or don’t talk about enough:
1)Discussions surrounding the budget process revolve around budget cuts, not generating new revenue or replacing revenue lost, with alternatives. I know this is one of the hardest things for a struggling town to deal with, but if we do not find new revenue, new marketing plans, and attract families and new businesses our town won’t have a future. Period. The cycle we are currently locked in only leads to less public service, less possibilities for paying for items, less of an ability to weather a financial crisis or launch bold initiatives. I don’t mind cutting costs if they are unnecessary, but our budget is quite tight as it is. It is rare to come across something so egregious in the budget as the expense to pay the library director a five percent raise. I support our library. I really think libraries are important and think some of the staff is grand. I was a Trustee and I’m a lifetime friend of the library. I was also glad this expense caused discussion and was not taken lightly. Ingenuity, creativity, and growth take investment, investment takes money. I think many townspeople would like to see more time spent on finding revenue sources. You can cut and cut and cut, but many of the largest town expenses will stay as they are, with more expense added on the next year due to inflation of cost or service prices. Buying down the tax rate and a tax cap are good short term solutions sometimes, but ultimately with both you are borrowing from our future to create stability now and both should be used sparingly if at all, because of that. In my opinion tax caps work best paired with strong, established revenue streams. They help to keep waste down when waste and avarice have lots of places to hide. Our budget doesn’t really have many places to hide. We need specific action plans around new revenues not grandstanding talk about it.
2) Officials often publicly ask for more involvement from others as they end conversations. They ask for more people to attend meetings. They ask more people to come to town meeting. They ask for more people to run for positions throughout the town. They ask for more people to run for office. This would help our town, but those very people know the town and how difficult it is to get people involved. Not having enough involved people is not a new problem and it is hardly restricted to our community. Townspeople can add to the conversation and add ideas, but it is the elected official who is responsible for translating that into measurable progress. I’ve seen people step up to the plate and try to be a part of the solution only to be battered by fellow board members, stifled by their inflated egos, stalled by opposing personalities, or bullied into not speaking up. It’s one of the drawbacks to the system we have in place and unfortunately it keeps many people from donating time and energy to serving on boards. I don’t know how some of the board members can stand to sit on the boards they serve on. After townspeople come home from working several jobs, or working thankless jobs, like those in the service industry, I would think they would have to have very compelling reasons to help. I’m not sure they see compelling reasons. They watch the meetings on TV, read the minutes, or attend a meeting and are left wondering why they would want to be a part of that process. I’ll tell you a story. I was at town meeting one year. I was behind a person who sits on a town board. They were bragging to another person how they enjoyed using the silent ballot(a perfectly legal option for any townsperson), because it held people longer, beleaguered the process, and forced people to get up and vote instead of voting while seated. I wasn’t surprised, but what if I was a person new to the process? What if I considered serving on boards and was on the fence? That’s the impression I’d have of a public servant in our town. In the future I will serve on other boards I’m sure. I can tell you honestly though that I would not choose to serve on the three most important boards in town for the reasons listed above. Actually, if I’m being completely honest you could pay me three times what my corporate salary was and I wouldn’t be interested.
3) Our PR issue. Yes, I feel we have one and I feel it is enormously underestimated. To make this matter worse we really don’t have anyone dedicated to trying to change how our town is perceived, presented, and reported on. There is no one to spin the negative Fosters article or better yet make sure the twelve great things that happened that day are out where everyone can see them. How people in our town view it and how other people view our town plays into everything from revenue generation, to community spirit, to being the deciding factor on whether someone wants to move here from somewhere else or wants to come back home after college. Since we really want people to move here and we obviously would like more revenue sources why aren’t we putting more effort into this arena? Planning how a building will be replaced or how a new one is built and how that will look is just as important as banks and landlords owning so many buildings in town and not caring about how they fair or who lives in them, if anyone lives in them at all. Again, these are problems that didn’t creep up overnight, the situations that led to them happened over decades, so they won’t be solved quickly, but we do need to be working on them if we are to stabilize our public persona. We’ve had two town surveys while I’ve lived here, asking what townsfolk would like to see. I know I’m not the only one finding it hard to match up what we put in the surveys and what we see going on around town. Our elected officials are dropping the ball somewhere or the message we are sending is being mistranslated. In either case I think it makes townspeople feel like they aren’t being listened to or worse that they are just being treated as irrelevant. I wouldn’t feel I could say that if we had high turn over on our boards, but we don’t. Same people different day. Just like town meeting. Same people different day. Or voting day. Same people different day. Very few new faces. I think our own town folk have begun to believe what everyone else says about our town. We need someone working on changing that too.
4) The last thing that weighs on my mind in this conversation is that sometimes decisions seem to be made by passing on the buck to another time or place or issue. I looks like we’ve been doing that collectively as a town for some time. The transfer from an industrial town to a bedroom community was not kind or without long term consequences. Many of the old families are gone and the wealth that once was standard in our community has left with those families. It would have taken a gigantic effort to replace those investors and benefactors and that just didn’t happen. Maybe people didn’t see it coming. Maybe people just didn’t care. That’s what I’m most concerned about. I’m approaching my mid forties now, almost half way through the cycle of life, if I live as long as my grandparents did. I’m particularly concerned that some of the board decisions that push off action, commitment, and revenue generation into the future, endanger the twilight years of people my age and younger by creating situations where we will not be able or even want to live here, as if every person really has that choice. I wonder sometimes after seeing decisions at meetings if my future here is being pulled from under me. Enacting cuts or not pursuing revenue now, will have serious consequences in thirty or forty years as the problems compound. Whether by death or affluence, many won’t be here, so it doesn’t matter to them. It is great to save the day this year, but I have to look out for forty or fifty more years.
I’m glad we have people that are willing to donate their time and energy toward board positions and I’m even more grateful to those that really seem to care about their neighbors and the town’s future. I’m happy we have many public employees who are very dedicated and committed to our town. Some of them strive for excellence. Some surprise me with what they can do with so little. With that being said, what I’ve outlined above, from what I have observed since I moved here, seems to show we are far beyond the times of easy answers or short Facebook quips to get to the heart of our real issues or to find meaningful solutions to our problems.