Override schemes: lies, damned lies and budgets

Without some change in direction, Brookline’s tax override for 2015 looks to have set course for a donnybrook. The community endured a long committee review, lasting from the middle of last year to the middle of this one. For every mystery that the recent override committee managed to unravel, it seemed to weave a new one.

Playing games: To most of the public, budget reviews are likely to look and sound like playing games. The 800-pound gorilla in the room this year has been the one-sided approach: big new tax revenue for school programs–combined with cutbacks, more fees or both for everything else. The gorilla is so huge it can’t really be hidden. At Board of Selectmen, two weeks ago, member Nancy Daly started to worry, asking Andrew Pappastergion, the public works director, “What can we offer people who don’t have kids in the schools?”

Mr. Pappastergion, rarely at a loss for ways to spend more money, ventured, “Snow fighting…sidewalk plows…commercial areas.” He has been with Brookline long enough to remember, during the 1970s and before, when the town plowed most sidewalks every snowstorm. Sidewalk snowplowing suffered one of many sharp cutbacks in the early 1980s–after Proposition 2-1/2 trimmed town spending–along with about 20 out of 25 curriculum coordinators for Public Schools of Brookline.

Those are useful examples of both short-term and long-term budget games. Over three decades, only a little sidewalk snowplowing has been restored–mostly around schools. However, curriculum jobs are back. This time around, most are not bundled into a core staff–a ready and proven target–but instead are labeled and paid as supervisors, salted through the school budget. School administrators turned out to be more skilled at budget games than some of their municipal counterparts.

Mr. Pappastergion’s sally for snow plowing did not go far. At Board of Selectmen, talk soon verged into raising money: bigger fines, of course, for homeowners who neglect to shovel sidewalks, but also higher rates at parking meters and collections for this year’s fashion model of public works, trash metering.

Talking in code: A key part of playing budget games has become talking in code: saying something sounding harmless while meaning something else. The Override Study Committee of 2013 became mavens of the art. Toward the end of their season, many people could not have understood much more from one of their meetings than from the calls of seagulls at a beach.

A striking example of talking in code came from Sean Cronin, the deputy town administrator, describing budget plans at Board of Selectmen this week on Wednesday, December 17–along with computer slides. The subtitle of his document, “What we’ve learned,” recalled the pro-forma apologies from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission after each disaster. “Lessons learned” is how they term it–a code-word meaning “how we messed up again.”

CroninPlan20141217b

Source: Town of Brookline, MA

Structural deficit: Maybe we can forget the “options,” the “scenarios,” the “plans” and the “groups” from the endless reviews. Mr. Cronin gave us straight poop–if we could decipher all the code-words scattered on every line. “They say the best things in life are free. You can give them to the bird and the bee. I want money.”

Now, what would make a deficit “structural”–not a mere shortfall? It sounds like another code-word, maybe meaning: “more money next year and more money a year later and then more money the year after that too.” If we were willing to part with the money, what would it buy? Mr. Cronin never said. Suppose a shlemiel comes along: “I’ve got a ‘structural deficit,’ Marty. Can you help me out a little?”

What does it buy? A question for almost every line: what does it buy? “One-Time Funds.” “Catch-Up.” “Enhancement.” “Info Tech.” What does it buy? At Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, December 9, William Lupini, the school superintendent, did make it clear that “Enrollment” (upper case) does not mean “enrollment” (lower case). Instead, he said, it means “a teacher in a classroom.”

Dr. Lupini complained that when “the town gives the schools credit” for Enrollment (upper case), it counts only “a teacher in a classroom.” Public Schools of Brookline, he complained, has to provide guidance counselors, math specialists, reading specialists, special education, psychologists, teaching aides, nurses and–of course–administrators. All neglected in Enrollment (upper case). Such tsouris.

Mr. Cronin advised, in a footnote, that Enrollment (upper case) also included “$680K for OLS.” It sounded likely that “OLS” meant “old Lincoln School” and that “$680K” meant $680,000 each and every year–not just one time. It was not even slightly clear what $680,000 would actually buy. Again, suppose that shlemiel comes along: “I’ve got OLS, Marty. Can you help me out a little?”

The numbers: Maybe it’s all in the numbers. What do the numbers mean? They look to be mixing continuing costs, including “Structural Deficit,” with expenses that happen once, purchases including “Info Tech.” On December 9, Dr. Lupini described the latter as buying “plumbing.” Maybe even he doesn’t change out the kitchen sink every year.

In Mr. Cronin’s plan, the numbers at the bottom seem to add–more or less. Sharp-eyed folk will have noticed that $6.21 plus $3.51 plus $2.60 equals $12.32, not $12.33 (probably meaning millions of dollars). Well–what’s ten thousand more dollars among friends? As long as taxpayers are footing the bill, of course!

Weirdness with numbers continues in strange arithmetic: adding “One-Time Funds” and single-year purchases for “Info Tech” to “Structural Deficit” and the other items that appear to continue year after year. They aren’t compatible, and they won’t add in any simple way. After the December 17 meeting, one of the board members was unable to explain parts of the arithmetic too.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, December 18, 2014


Sean Cronin, Expenditure plan as of 12/9/14, Town of Brookline, MA, December 17, 2014

Board of Selectmen: taxes and budgets for “insiders,” Brookline Beacon, December 3, 2014

Board of Selectmen: appointments, warrant articles, school spending, Brookline Beacon, October 8, 2014

Override Study Committee: $5 million tax override, plus Devotion School debt exclusion, Brookline Beacon, July 31, 2014

Craig Bolon, Recycling makes more progress without trash metering, Brookline Beacon, April 11, 2014

Berry Gordy, Janie Bradford and Barrett Strong, Money, Tamia (later Motown), 1959, as noted in New York Times, September 1, 2013

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