From the Heights

Last night the Town Commission held a budget workshop to try, in part, to work out what the millage rate will be for next year (Check the property tax statement you received in the mail. These are the numbers the commission was discussing.) as well as to decide on some options for where the proposed town budget could be cut. Our town has been operating from a relatively lofty place financially, in many regards, for such a small town, and our commission must make some crucial decisions in order to set things right.

The Gehring Group presented some new health insurance plan options for the town in order to reduce costs because the current premiums were set to rise by 13% next year if they were to remain as is. Under the current plan employees and their spouses have 100% of premiums paid by us residents, and we pay 50% of the rest of their family’s premiums. They’ve had no deductible or copay from what I understand. Is that right? If so, that’s quite a sweetheart deal. New plan options were discussed, ranging from minimal changes to a more realistic plan (#5) whereby the employees would actually contribute something by having a deductible and having a small copay. The 5th option was hardly burdensome (after all it is still quite a large chunk of change the citizens would be paying to fund this). This plan would save us, I believe, $32,000 next year, and would save the employees $7,000. Sounds good to me. I would be quite happy to have such a plan myself.

The problem is, Town employees have had it very good and of course they don’t want that to change. You can’t blame them for trying to hang on to what they’ve grown accustomed to. This option (#5) was presented as the less-than-ideal-plan, but that just shows what happens when you give people sweet deals. You set a standard and from there you are always working from “the ideal”, and no one wants to take a step down. (I’m not sure, but I don’t remember hearing mention of the employees having to contribute to their premiums under option #5. It could have been said and I missed it. If someone knows differently, please enlighten me. I was taking notes and see no mention there about them having to contribute to their premiums. How could such a plan be considered a negative? Seriously. They should be contributing something.)

By the time the ridiculousness of government handouts becomes apparent to all, they have become a way of life, a baseline, and everyone is stricken with hand-wringing anxiety over making the slightest changes. Any change is perceived as a hardship, and heartstrings are pulled and violins play.

Break out the puppy dog eyes!

Our town created this entitlement mindset. It’s been typical for the town to give the residents’ money generously to government employees, but citizens are waking up to the reality of what that means to THEIR wallets. If you look at what the employees have now, you can see why they defend their full benefits. They would have to come down from lofty places, and frankly, they have grown accustomed to the view from those heights and they kinda like it up there.

Any reduction would be considered a dangerous fall because of how high up they have been led by town administration. From down here where my own personal reality is one of having NO INSURANCE, option 5 sure looks enticing to me, and since I’m one of the ones paying for all these people’s goodies, I say, let’s take THAT deal if it’s the best we can do. I suggest going further and requiring employees to contribute to their and their spouses premiums if that is not a part of this option. Why isn’t this being suggested? What is it about government employees that deems them so valuable that they deserve free insurance and tax payer funded gifts on top of their nice salaries and job security? It’s one thing for an employer generating income to choose to spend their own money in this way, but government does not create wealth. They merely take money from the citizens and spend it as they see fit. Perhaps a new mindset is in order.

Let this be a lesson to our town…be VERY CAREFUL with what plans, procedures and benefits you implement. People show zero-tolerance towards going back or reducing anything once they have it, despite the fact that life and reality prove we must. Cuts are agonized over, but this shouldn’t be heartwrenching emotional decision, it’s a matter of taking care of business. It’s also political. The one who hands out the money liberally secures the favor and/or the votes of those on the receiving end. Be careful what you allow your Town administration and commission to dole out. Our town is now teetering from it’s perch up there in its lofty places. The heyday is over, especially for the rest of us who pay the  bill. Reducing gifts, benefits, excessive salaries and unnecessary positions is a must.

Another item of discussion at the meeting was the idea of creating a decal system for parking to alleviate the burden on residents for use of the meters. The meters are another thorn in our town’s side. I went to go eat at Southern Kitchen the other day at lunchtime and would have had to pay to park. I refuse to pay to park my car in my own little town. I can see where the meter’s cause at least some loss in business revenue. A few weeks ago, I wanted to take photos over by Kelsey Park at the water and realized when I got there that there was no where I could park without having to pay. I went home. So I pay taxes to live here and then have to pay a meter to park and enjoy the town I “own”. Ridiculous. Of course, there were only a few individuals even dotted here and there enjoying the park and waterfront of our town because face it, who wants to pay money to do so? I would not personally buy a decal either; if I won’t let go of a dollar or so to park, I am definitely not going to let go of $45 – $90 for a pass. Perhaps those who play tennis or use the marina would, but as the town manager mentioned, those who play tennis are the ones who bring in the most money for the meters because they have to pay into them to park there; that revenue would be lost. All in all, there is a bit of debate over whether the meters actually make any profit due to the operating costs and debt service attached to them. I’m not sure adding another layer of bureaucracy for this would be a solution or more of a problem. After it’s implemented, will someone be requesting a cost evaluation? I suggest the town evaluate first and use some common sense before adding another program.

The other major issue for the commission to decide is the tax rate and the manner by which they hope to get to whichever number they decide upon. Some want to cut salaries, others like the idea of more furlough days, although several were concerned that resident services are what suffer most when employees are forced to furlough. According to Commissioner Stevens’ research, between holidays, sick days, furlough days, vacation and personal days, town employees are only working 3.9 days a week as it is. Sheesh. Do the math on the salaries and benefits in light of what we get for all that, and perhaps you will start to share the frustration of so many other residents over the way this town is operating.

Also, please note that in the wage detail document I linked to yesterday, details are conspicuously absent. That breakdown doesn’t show the employees full wages including benefits. It shows a total at the bottom that says: Total wages and benefits, but it is not the total. This is VERY MISLEADING. The benefits aren’t shown there. Take the Town Manager for instance. According to last year’s budget, with benefits, she made nearly $185,000, but this detail break down merely shows her salary at $139,000. Add in her health insurance, disability insurance, life insurance, counseling, phone, car, vacation, pension, personal days, etc. and the number skyrockets. Why is this not shown on a document called Proposed Budget Wage Detail. This document must be viewed with a knowledge of the actual proposed budget, including all the added benefits. This goes for all the employees. The wage detail pdf shows furlough days but doesn’t show benefits. Hmmm. This is not a telling document for residents to go by if they want to gain any sort of accurate understanding of how much they are paying our town’s administrators and other employees.

Another very big concern is that when savings were proposed regarding insurance premiums, the town administrators immediately began offering scenarios for how to spend the money we could have avoided spending on the 13% increase.  This won’t be extra money. It will be money we are trying to avoid spending, will it not? Even if we go so far as to finally cut spending, why go out and spend that money on something else? What is the point? Right off the bat, they began to push to spend $20,000 to $25,000 or so to hire a consultant to do an analysis of non ad velorum taxes. Really? After suggesting this and saying it was just a thought, we saw that the administration had already factored the cost for this study into all the proposals they went on to present. If I misunderstood that, someone please correct me, but SERIOUSLY? They already have the cost for this consultant and analysis  factored into everything as if it is a done deal. Interesting. Are they merely trying to sway the commission or do they believe that they will get it merely because they say they want it. Please, Commissioners, consider this carefully.

After all, what is the point of preventing a rise in insurance premiums which the citizens pay for, if we are going to act as if the money we don’t spend is now money we have available to pay for consultants to do some fancy footwork with numbers. The whole thing looks like a switcheroo to make our tax rate look more pleasing to the public.

Thank goodness the commission was able to stop the steamroller from making this expense a done deal last night, but the assumption is that the deal will probably be done based on what the administration wants. The Mayor seems inclined to allow them to dictate the direction we take in a number of matters. Commissioners Longtin and Rumsey pushed to wait on this particular item. Thank you! Please, hold the line, and keep watch. This is apparently going to be treated as a basic need now by those who develop the proposed budget and those on the commission will need to watch how the administration tries to spend every dollar saved.

How about we not consider savings on insurance premiums as money in the town’s pockets.  Please, stop the spending and cut back, way back. Our property is now only worth about what it was in the 80’s or 90’s. At least mine is. Why don’t we try taking our town’s budget back to what it was in light of those numbers, rather than suggesting as one option has that we merely try to hold to last year’s rate if we can. Some in the commission aren’t even suggesting that. They want to spend more. These are lean times. We need to live within our means.

There is so much to cover. Please do your homework. September 7th will be the first public hearing on the budget. I suggest you look into the numbers and the ideas and the mindset of town officials. Get reading and thinking and come prepared to state YOUR case.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments. If any of what I have said here is inaccurate, please correct me. I have been following this for some time and have taken notes and read documents and believe I have this right, but it is possible I missed something or that my understanding of what was said at the meeting may have been wrong. There were a lot of numbers, figures and plans presented. I would love to hear from some of you on this as well.