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William Marvel: Last Gasp for Moderation?


Few can complain about the composition of Conway’s budget committee this year. Like last year, we had a couple of members who voted to spend every dollar administrators wanted, without a question, and there were a couple who supported the idea of sweeping budget cuts. The vast majority, however, consisted of moderate to liberal citizens who scrutinized the budgets and tried to address the limitations of middle-class taxpayers by targeting inefficiency and extravagance.
The role of the budget committee has changed since I first served on it, more than 30 years ago. Once upon a time, those who oversaw the various departments recognized their dual responsibility to balance optimum service with reasonable cost, so the budget committee less often disagreed materially. Now, elected officials cater to the special-interest portion of their dual constituency, claiming an obligation to offer the best education possible, the best library possible, or the most recreational amenities, without much regard to cost. That naturally brings the budget committee into opposition, unless those special interests can pack the committee — as the school lobby tried to do a couple of years ago.
The committee nevertheless showed remarkable restraint this year in the face of intimidating tax increases. If enough disinterested voters will sustain that moderation at the deliberative portions of the town and school meetings, perhaps we can gradually wrestle our budgets back under control, and avoid the accumulated frustration that exploded in backlash a couple of years ago.
Highlights for the town meeting of March 4 include Article 15, creating a $30,000 fund for “earned benefit payments” to retiring policemen. One officer can collect that much the day he retires, exclusive of retirement pay, for benefits like unused sick time. Police in Conway get far more sick time than most private employees — 15 days a year, or 12 days for newbies — and the huge payouts demonstrate how little they need it. The answer seemed to be for the police commissioners to negotiate something reasonable.
The $50,000 generator under Article 16 didn’t seem very sensible. The emergency shelter it is meant to serve at the Recreation Center will only accommodate 60 people, which would only be a fraction of the likely demand in any emergency widespread enough to knock out power along the main electrical corridor.
The committee also balked at giving $10,115 to Northern Human Services, under Article 29. That agency submitted the most incomplete application of all, forgetting to mention that Conway already grants them more than $12,000 in tax exemptions and failing to say whether they also receive money from any surrounding communities. The husband-and-wife executive director and area director draw $215,000 in salaries alone, so their organization can’t be suffering, and it has managed without town charity so far this century. The budget committee has always hesitated to recommend charitable donations to private corporations that pay exorbitant salaries.
All these items will be preceded by — and perhaps overshadowed by — an attempt by the library trustees to add money to their budget. The motion will probably be presented by some “friend” of the library who is not a trustee, to avoid bringing attention to the tarnished reputation of that board. If they don’t get their first request, they will likely ask for a little less, and then a little less still. How about now? Or now?
The current board of trustees is prone to throwing in appeals for additional funds at the last minute. They did it to the selectmen, which is one reason the selectmen rejected the increase. They came to the budget committee after the 11th hour, frantic to report that they might need $10,000 for a new boiler and $2000 for a light fixture on their flagpole — which only demonstrated their inability to distinguish between a dire emergency and a minor problem.
If that frantic report of collapsing infrastructure was not simply a ploy to surreptitiously obtain the extra money they wanted, then it showed both a tendency to panic and an inability to adjust. Closer inspection of the relatively new boiler suggests it is hardly terminal, while the solution to the broken flagpole light is to raise and lower the flag daily, as people used to do before they got lazy. Taking the flag in at dusk also prolongs its life, saving money in two ways at once instead of spending it at both ends, as some municipal managers seem to prefer.

William Marvel lives in South Conway.
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