Town Meeting Matters

In America today one often hears complaints (or perhaps even complains oneself) about what ‘they’ are doing. Here ‘they’ refers to politicians and government at various levels. It is as if ‘we’ as in “we the people” no longer have any say in things; as if we are entirely at the mercy of whatever ‘they’ want. It is as if the government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” that Abraham Lincoln spoke of in his Gettysburg Address has been replaced by government “of the politicians, by the politicians, and for the special interests.”

It need not be so. For it not to be so, however, “we the people” must step up to our responsibilities as citizens and take an active interest in our government. If we do not, we ensure that not we but ‘they’ will decide how we are to live, what we may or may not do, how much our lives will be constrained, and how many of our liberties lost.

If local, state, and national government in the United States of America is permanently hi-jacked by politicians and special interests it will only be because we, you and I, as ordinary citizens, let it happen. We need to step up to our duties as citizens. We need to take an active interest and play an active part in the process. For citizens of Duxbury, Massachusetts, USA, Duxbury’s Annual Town Meeting at 9:00 AM on Saturday, March 8, 2014 in the auditorium of the Performing Arts Center is our best opportunity to turn that around.

This year’s Annual Town Meeting (and the Special Town Meeting within it on the same day) is especially crucial. Decisions by citizens on matters before it will have profound impact on the future of Duxbury, the conduct of its government, and the ability of its citizens to keep it a government of “we the people” rather than one that a ‘they’ comprised of a small circle of insiders uses as an instrument of its own interests.

Substantive matters include yet another attempt to eliminate the elected independent office of Town Clerk, a developer-friendly ‘affordable’ housing plan fraught with serious negative implications for Duxbury’s school population and tax rate, and a number of Town Meeting ‘innovations’ including electronic balloting (which will be put before the voters to decide) and various changes to the conduct of town meeting (such as requiring that amendments from the floor be submitted in writing – in quadruplicate) which will not.

We will discuss these matters in detail in further columns prior to Town Meeting. For the present, the aim is simply to note that matters before Town Meeting 2014 matter more even than they usually do. They will have profound implications for the future of Duxbury and Duxbury’s Town Government.

So even if you have never attended Town Meeting, if you care at all about what ‘they’ are doing and have even the slightest interest in keeping Duxbury’s government in the hands of “we the people”, you need to clear your schedule for Saturday, March 8, 2014 and be sure you are at the Duxbury Performing Arts Center by 9:00 AM, ready to debate the issues and make your votes on the floor count in favor of the Duxbury that you want to live in in the future.

Getting there by 9:00 AM is crucial this year because, contrary to precedent and for no obvious reason other than to get them through with minimal discussion or dissent, some of the most critical matters have been slipped into the Special Town Meeting warrant, rather than placed on the Annual Town Meeting Warrant where they belong. More on that shortly!

Laptop Lessons

Contemporary theories of education and instruction are only just beginning, once again, fully to understand and to appreciate the power of teaching by example. The examples that educators, by their own behavior, set for students are often more influential than the information they attempt to convey. What they do, in other words, has a greater impact than what they say.

This raises some troubling questions about the examples the Duxbury School Department is setting for students with its plan, in next year’s budget, to spend something like a million dollars to pay for 1200 Apple MacBook Air laptops, one for each and every student in grades 9-12, at a cost of $900 to $1000 each. What sort of lessons does this example teach to our students?

It teaches them to spend at least twice as much as really is necessary, even assuming that purchasing laptop computers for every student makes sense in the first place. In today’s market very capable laptop computers can readily be purchased at retail for no more than $400 or so.

A Hewlett Packard 2000-2d19WM laptop with a 15.6” screen, 4 gigabytes of memory, and a 320GB hard drive can be purchased today for $298. For $398 you can get a Dell Inspiron i15RV1333BLK, also with a 15.6” screen, with 6 gig of memory, a 500GB hard drive, and a built-in webcam.

An Apple MacBook Air, on the other hand, with only an 11” screen, 4GB of memory, and just 128GB of secondary storage costs $999 – $1,199 if you want a 256GB hard-drive equivalent. For a 13” screen, you must pay $100 more ($1,099 and 1299.00 respectively). This is primarily because Apple is, by far, the premium high-priced computer brand. Apple is comparable BMW or Mercedes-Benz while HP, Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo and the rest are more like Ford or Chevy.

There is nothing, however, an Apple computer does that the rest cannot do – other than cost more and maybe look a little fancier. Like Brooks Brothers with shirts, Apple charges as much for its prestige label as for the actual product. You must pay more for an Apple than for almost any other computer brand. That is why Apple’s market share is small (currently about 13%) and (is again) shrinking.

This plan also teaches our students to stay with yesterday’s technology rather than use newer, better, and less expensive alternatives now readily available. Traditional desktop and laptop computers are just so very 20th Century! Their sales are falling due to a proliferation of increasingly powerful low cost tablet computers able to do everything that traditional desktops and laptops do.

Apple’s own iPad Air tablet sells for about half the price of a MacBook Air.  Other vendors sell equivalent tablets for less (and more capable models at comparable prices). Tablet vendors, including Microsoft, have recently been slashing prices in response to an increasingly competitive, price-sensitive market. Even quite cheap tablets today provide the Wi-Fi access, web browser, programmability, and other essential capabilities required for educational use of computers in the schools.

The plan also teaches our students to go out and buy another one, even if you already have one – especially if you can pay for it with somebody else’s money. Many, perhaps most, teenagers in Duxbury already have laptops or tablets. Why should Duxbury’s taxpayers buy them another one?

Why not limit taxpayer subsidized computers to students whose families really cannot afford to buy them one? Why should hard-pressed taxpayers be required to buy additional computers for students who already have them? Does this really make sense? What sort of example is this? Do you think?

Paying the Piper

If you are a property owner and so a taxpayer in Duxbury, do not forget that your quarterly real estate tax bill is due next Monday (February 3, 2014). If your have not already opened and read your recent notice of how much you must pay in your quarterly payments this year, be prepared for some serious sticker shock. The time has come to pay the piper for Duxbury’s recent capital spending binge.

More precisely, the time has come to start paying the piper. The whopping increase in real estate taxes this year is just a first installment on the $100 plus million dollars of debt we’ve put ourselves into in order to pay for our new fire station, police station, schools and so forth. We will be paying off that debt for at least another twenty years.

“But wait,” as they say on the TV infomercials, “there’s more!” Unfortunately, in this case, “more” means more tax increases and very likely more debt as well. Now, if you are a member of the fortunate one percent, if you enjoy a nice middle six figure income, are the beneficiary of a large and generous trust fund, or have received a great big inheritance from some deceased relative, the recent increases in your Duxbury real estate tax payments may seem like little more than chump change.

But for those who struggle to pay for their children’s college tuition; for retired people on fixed incomes, incomes that do not increase anywhere near as fast as prices and taxes do; for folks who do not want to leave the homes they have lived in for decades but may no longer be able to afford; for people who turn down their thermostats on cold days to keep their gas or oil bills within their budgets; tax increases of the sort that next Monday’s tax payments require are no trivial matter.

Now one could, of course, just say: “Tough!” If you cannot afford to pay Duxbury’s taxes, you obviously don’t belong here! So what if your family has lived here for generations! So what if medical bills have eroded your savings! So what if that money you spent raising your children and paying for them to get a good college education means you do not now have enough to pay your bills comfortably! This is just the capitalist free enterprise system at work, bud! You can probably find a cheaper place to live –somewhere! Just move on and make room for someone who can cut the mustard!

After all, not only must the piper be paid for what we’ve already borrowed and spent, but we must spend even more to keep all this stuff running! We’ve got buildings to be maintain, salaries and pensions to pay, supplies to purchase, materials to buy, and unfunded mandates to spend, spend, spend on!

Then, too, we did just spend over a hundred million bucks to build new middle and high schools less than two fathoms above mean high water in a swampy area on the edge of a marsh – because we were afraid that if we put them in a sensible location in the middle of Train Field we might not have been able to persuade sports-oriented voters to approve the project! So if Global Warming is really happening, we are obviously going to have to spend lots more money to “remediate” the inevitable flooding of our new schools even before we finish paying off the debt we took on to build them!

Or, we could just step back and take a serious, realistic look at where we are, where we have been, and where we are going. We could learn from our past, from our inattention, from our readiness to accept the most obvious, most heavily promoted overly costly options. We could start to insist on getting maximum value from the money we do spend.

True, most of these cows have already left the barn. We have no alternative but to pay the piper for them. But we can, at least, resolve more carefully, more diligently to scrutinize new spending proposals brought before us, to see if they really are necessary, and to keep future increases in spending as low as possible. Duxbury’s Annual Town Meeting this March might be a good place to start!

2014: Be It Resolved!

It requires no deep political or statistical insight to see that dissatisfaction with government in the USA today is pervasive and deep. At the national level a recent CNN poll reported two out of every three respondents felt that the present Congress is “the worst in their lifetime” and nearly three out of four (73%) saying that Congress has “done nothing to address the country’s problems.” President Obama’s recent poll ratings are little better.

Dissatisfaction with government is widespread today, not only at the national, but at state and local levels as well. A still-difficult economic environment, rising prices, and even more rapidly rising taxes combine with various state and local problems to create a widespread climate of economic and political malaise. A recent CNN/ORC poll reported “nearly 70% said the economy is in generally poor shape.”

Although many grumble about it, most assume government as like the weather: Something you can complain about it all you want but that you cannot really do anything about. It is something “they” (politicians, special interests, and so forth) do and that “we” have but little hope of being able to affect or to change in any meaningful way.

Few, in effect, take very seriously Abraham Lincoln’s characterization of government as being “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It is, rather, a government of, by, and for politicians and the special interests that back them. The rest of us might as well devote our time and effort to figuring out how to make the best of circumstances we can little influence and certainly not control.

That attitude is, however, a sure way to make matters worse. History records numerous instances in which resolute determination and bold action by citizens, even in places ruled by autocratic governments without even the pretense of democracy and minimal protections for the rights of individual citizens, have brought about useful and constructive change.

We are privileged to live in a country that, despite its problems today, is far from autocratic. It is, at least arguably, one of the most successful efforts in recorded human history to put the ideals of democratic government into practice. And here in Duxbury, we are privileged to live in a local community governed by the traditional New England town meeting in which every adult resident can freely participate directly in directing the course of our local government.

Sadly, few do. Typically only a small proportion of the registered voters in the Town of Duxbury bother to inform themselves about the issues and to put aside a Saturday and a few evenings each year to attend the Annual Town Meeting in March. Sure, many like to complain about something or other that Duxbury’s town government is or is not doing (or about how it is being done). But only a relatively small number actually bother to participate in it.

How about we try to change that in 2014? How about we each of us, every citizen, every taxpayer, every voter, and every resident in the Town of Duxbury make just a little bit of extra effort to pay a bit more attention to the issues in town government and come to town meeting in March ready to participate in resolving them? How about we fill out those town talent bank forms and volunteer to serve on town committees; or maybe even take out nomination petitions and run for some town office?

How about we all think about what we might be able to contribute to improving our Duxbury town government? What better item could one add to one’s list of New Year’s resolutions for 2014?

Wishing the Grinch Away

While good little girls and boys may be wishing for candy canes and sugar plums (which are, of course, really code words for new iPhones5s, Playstation4s and such), many town departments are obviously and publicly dreaming on some numbers of their own this holiday season. These include numbers like 5% budget increases, $200,000 increases in beach lease costs (a 50% increase), and expensive new goodies like Apples (Apple laptops that is) for students and electronic voting thingies for town meeting.

All that, on top of the whopping tax increases already underway to pay for Duxbury’s biggest capital spending spree ever over the past few years, adds up to conditions that will make most of Duxbury’s taxpayers feel not merely like cash-strapped parents working hard to have enough to buy presents for the kids, but struggling to keep up with steep college tuition and living costs as well – which, of course, many Duxbury parents in fact are already doing.

All of which makes this a particularly critical time of testing for René Reed, our new (as of last spring) Duxbury Town Manager. His predecessor, Richard MacDonald, did a very good job keeping a lid on at least the most outrageous demands for lots more money from one department or another. Sure, spending and taxes went up well over 2 1/2 % each year on his watch, but it would have been much worse had MacDonald and Finance Director John Madden not imposed some reasonable discipline on departmental spending requests within the normal annual budget process.

That happy fiscal restraint in town spending did not break down there, but with the choices of voters who rather abruptly, a few years ago, went from “just say no” to “of course, let’s build it and worry about how to pay for it later” in approving the biggest spurt of capital spending Duxbury’s ever seen, piling on loads of new debt to create whopping real estate tax increases for at least the next 20 years.

Perhaps based on the notion that compared to $130 million plus in capital spending an extra $200,000 or so – and maybe another million or two here or there as well – just doesn’t seem like very much, a number of would-be claimants to Duxbury taxpayers’ dollars appear to be lining up for their cut, looking to “get while the getting’s good”, as it were.

Reed has, commendably, at least tried to put the brakes on a little before handing over another $200,000 for Pipingploverville, but it remains to be seen what, if any, long-term effect that will have. The real test will come in the operating and capital budgets that come before town meeting in March. It will be Reed’s first real fiscal test ‘under fire’, and under much tougher conditions than MacDonald faced.

At the end of the day, though, one person can only do so much, even if he is town manager, without firm support and backing from concerned citizens. Those who want to spend money on something or other are always vocal on behalf of their projects and budgets. Those who want to spend your money for you will always try to label you as the grumpy Grinch who stole Christmas if you oppose them.

But the real Grinch is a government that grows faster than the economy, faster than the incomes of its citizens, and faster than the real rate of inflation. That is why it is so very important for those who want to see some reasonable fiscal restraint, those do not want to see their real estate taxes erode their disposable income every year, to make their own voices heard in town hall and on the floor of town meeting. Duxbury’s over-burdened taxpayers need to speak up for fiscal restraint. Will we? Will you?

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