Monday, March 10, 1997

Opinion: Selectboard acts properly

Published in the Mountainview

At Town Meeting, the voters of Middlebury were given the chance to have more control of the way their tax dollars are spent. An advisory vote was taken to assist the Selectboard in deciding whether to continue to fund health and social service agencies from the town's general budget, or to separate the budget and the funding to subject them to separate votes by the residents.

Selectman Fred Copeland suggested that we take advantage of the opportunity to review for ourselves the way we spend those tax dollars. He posed several questions for discussion. I will answer them here.

Would it be a threat to the funding of these organizations? From the experience of neighboring towns which approve their agency funding by other means, the answer is no.

Do the voters want more of a say about their tax burden and the town expenditures? In all likelihood, the funding from the town would be the same. Therefore, the expenditures and taxes would be the same. It would be a different method of getting to the same place.

Would it be too much trouble or too much work for town residents to analyze the budgets of these agencies and decide on our own how they should be funded? Yes. We elect our public officials specifically for the purpose of evaluating large amounts of information and making sensible decisions based on that information and their own experience. The Selectboard are experienced at evaluating budgets of social services agencies; I am not. The Selectboard has paid assistants to help them understand material they receive, and they speak with the voice of the whole town when they ask for information from, or make recommendations to, these agencies. As an individual, even were I to give a large amount of my income to one or more of these agencies. I could not speak with the voice of a powerful legal entity with a large budget.

The Selectboard, as attested by members of the board and by officers of various area health and social services agencies, scrutinizes the annual budgets of each of the agencies which request municipal funding. The Selectboard concerns itself largely with the services provided by that agency to residents of the Town of Middlebury. The Selectboard can suggest, as they did this year, that all agencies only request level funding, rather than increases, due to additional expenses borne by the Town this year. Every agency respected that request.

We have the opportunity to take upon ourselves a greater portion of the burden of self-government. We must commend the Selectboard for offering us that opportunity. We must also know when these issues must be decided as individuals, and when we can delegate that authority to our elected representatives. This time it is the latter. We must encourage the Selectboard to continue to offer us the opportunity to govern ourselves more directly; we must also support them in their efforts to perform the tasks we delegate to them.
In this instance, voters' time would be largely wasted by debating each of the agencies'  funding requests each year at Town Meeting. Most of us would be arguing from positions of anecdotal information, largely unsupported by facts. We would not have read, even once, the annual reports of these organizations whose line-item budgets are examined carefully by our Selectboard. Funding to these organizations would not be threatened substantially, and the democratic process would be subverted by discussion which would change little.

The Selectboard are the proper body to consider funding requests from health and social service agencies. The body politic must support them in their effort. We must also offer our input at every opportunity, so that they may know our opinions when they include the funding for these agencies in the general town budget.
We also must recognize that municipal funding is a small portion of the budgets of these organizations, and we, as members of the public, must support them with our own charitable contributions as well. Kudos to the agencies for their hard work, and to the Selectboard for so ably representing and remaining mindful of the public interest.