Archive 2008 - 2019

Unhealthy and Unneccesary Competition

by William Dowd


Unhealthy – and Unnecessary – Competition

  William Dowd (file photo)

 NOTE: The author is a candidate for Finance Committee

If you attend lots of local Town committee meetings like I do, you pick up themes in what’s going on. One of the big themes that’s been around a while, but got a lot more chatter this year is the notion of the “Town” departments being compared to, and competing with, the “Schools”. Several officials spoke openly of the “unfairness” of “Town” departments working hard to hold to the FinCom’s 1.5% “guideline” budget, while the “Schools” are always looking for more every year. The theory goes that these “Town” departments do the “right thing”, and yet the “Schools” consistently get more than a “guideline” budget. Implicit in these comments is that the “Town” is being realistic and responsible in its budget and the “Schools” are not. There was lots of talk about how many teachers will get a 3.5% pay increase this year, while “Town” employees only get 1%.

As a community, how did we end up with this internal tension? How is it that we have elected officials avoiding contact with each other, and using a FinCom “guideline” as the yardstick for fiscal responsibility? In today’s world, can we really keep governing as though there are two separate governments in Holliston? While it is natural and expected that elected officials will advocate for the departments and functions for which they are responsible, and these are statutory bodies with prescribed roles and authorities. But somehow, someway, eventually the community’s priorities have to be sorted out.

And that’s where the FinCom should be playing a much more pivotal role. The FinCom is not a “Town” department. It’s not a “School” department either. It is the one – and only - body whose job is it to figure out how much money our local government spends each year in ALL departments. Doing that job well requires not only keen financial insight, but also a real awareness of what “community” means in Holliston. Having watched the process and researched the operations of our government, I am convinced that “community” is NOT the application of a single, across-the-board “guideline” budget increase percent to all departments – built on an assumption of automatic 2.5% property tax increases every year, and then seeing how everybody does with that. If we had to cut our local spending, I can assure you it would not be some “across-the-board” percent to which all departments would be accountable. Much time and care would be taken to assure that the most important things get smaller or no cuts, and the less important things bear the brunt. We should expect no less when deciding how to allocate budget increases.

I submit to you that the preeminent identity of our Holliston “community” is education. It’s why we came here, it’s why we stay here and yes, for some, it’s why we leave here after our kids grow up. But there can be no doubt that our schools are – and should be – our highest priority. Jamming our schools through some across-the-board budget “guideline” and scolding them when they can’t do it ignores the fact that dismantling our schools to fit some “guideline” puts one of our community’s core values in danger. “Town” government leaders should spend less time looking enviously – or worse, derogatorily - over a fence at the “Schools” and remember the big picture.

Can the “schools” be more efficient? Yes. So can the “Town”. Do we have union contracts that create an optimal structure for pay and performance of our employees? No for both “Town” and “School” contracts. Should the Selectmen and School Committee be functioning more collaboratively and collegially on behalf of the community? Absolutely.

At the same time, it is essential that the FinCom become much more insightful, intuitive, disciplined and forceful so that the recommended annual budget becomes a descriptive extension of the community and its priorities, not a testament to procedural compliance with an indiscriminate “guideline”.

We heard a lot of talk about “sustainability” this year before and at Town Meeting. But talking about it only goes so far. We’ve got all of our union contracts coming up for negotiation this year, we’re still not doing anything substantive to change the state laws we complain about being bound to, we have a $30,000 compensation and benefits study sitting in inboxes without a scheduled meeting, and we have literally tens of millions of dollars in water infrastructure upgrades that wasn’t even mentioned while we debated the fate of the High School drama program.

I think it’s time to stop this internal competition and blame game, and get to work on making sure Holliston in 2020 will be an even better place to live than it was in 2000.

Comments (4)

Thanks Bill, I look forward to the idea's and solutions you will bring to the table. Change is needed and the discussion on many issues is healthy.

Sean | 2013-05-15 06:28:15

Iam very concerned that IF Mr. Dowd is able to be elected onto this committee that we all in Holliston are in for some very biased views on his part.. His articles are the same very time, Pick on the employees, take away from what was worked for and deserved and change what the teachers of this town need and work very very hard for.. The rest of the towns employees should be double concerned. .Please people open your eyes, see his "soapbox" attitude and DO NOT let him ruin our town government.. His views are one sided and mostly filled with untruths... wise up Holliston

worried | 2013-05-14 17:26:29

I would lke to very briefly clarify what I said at Town Meeting and explain how it is mischaracterized here. When I spoke of fairness and equity among the departments, I was specifically addressing the wages paid to town employees. It does not make any difference how guidelines are derived, I personally think that every single town employee, whether a teacher, highway employee, clerk (regardless of if they are a school employee or an employee of another department), inspector, etc should be treated equitably. I also take exception to the very idea that the guidelines given by the FinCom to the departments are "a testament to procedural compliance with indiscriminate 'guideline.'" I say that for three reasons. The first is that the majority of money spent by every department, including schools, is personnel. As I said earlier, all departments should be treated fairly when it comes to wages. The second is the the guidelines are based on the needs of each department and the history of each department's needs and history. The base of each department is a known, documented number. The guideline is based on those budgets. The third reason is that we do not accept each departments future budget requests without much discussion and deliberation. Each line item is justified and sometimes increased or decreased before we make a recommendation. I certainly think that this does not "Unhealthy and Unnecessary Competition" as your headline implies.

Michelle Zeamer | 2013-05-14 10:57:26

In a perfect world all problems are black and white and have easy solutions. This is not that world. It is one thing to point out problems, it is quite another to be able to make changes within the laws and to be able to solve them. A town government consists of hundreds of moving parts, each one a critical piece to certain members of the town. Be it a fire engine, the senior center, a drama teacher, the library, water pipes, OPED or that one guidence counsler with the one skill that was needed to change a child's life for the better. I hope that Mr. Dowd understands that being on the FinCom means that he serves the interests of ALL of the citizens. That his personal concerns may not be shared by everyone. Our town government has always been run fairly, trying to always take all the parts into consideration. It's not perfect. Yes the union contracts could be better, but negociations are conducted by 2 sides to reach an agreement. If one side seeks to impose their will without regard for the other, the process breaks down. In Holliston we have been lucky that most sides, whatever their differences try to work together for the common good. No one has all of the answers. Most often workable answers are arrived at by meeting in the middle. Unlike DC we have a functioning government. Do things need attention, you bet they do. We have been talking about water pipe problems for far too long without action. However, we elect members to the Water Department that see other priorities that they feel are more pressing. These are the choices we make. Once on the FinCom I hope Mr. Dowd keeps that in mind, as well as the primary function of the FinCom. Otherwise he will have a a very frustrating term and may run the risk of taking a board that has kept the town financially sound through impossible times and reducing it to nothing more than a group of people that can't agree on anything.

Mark Schultz | 2013-05-14 06:26:57