Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Collective Bargaining and the Town Budget

The first two nights of Town Meeting have been rather perfunctory, but for the somewhat overwrought reaction to the not unreasonable suggestion by the School Committee that the Blue Hills Budget be sent back for a little trimming. Diane Agostino’s charge of “mean-spiritedness” was, as they say, rich-- coming from someone who has routinely and mistakenly attacked the public school budget, even in years in which wage increases were not funded, such as this year, while the Blue Hills budget includes wage increases of 4%. Which brings me to my topic.

Warrant Committee Chair Katie Conlon made an excellent presentation on the state of our finances at the beginning of Town Meeting. She correctly pointed out the need for efforts to both slow cost increases and find new sources of revenue. This year’s fiscal dilemma led the Warrant Committee to look even at wage adjustments. The following appears in the report of the Warrant Committee in the Town Warrant .

“First, any recommendation against funding salary adjustments would impact only the non-school departments. Town Meeting appropriates separate amounts for salary expenses and general expenses for all departments except the School Department. Under State law, the Town Meeting is authorized to appropriate only a total amount for the School Department. Therefore, Town Meeting could decide not to appropriate funds for salary adjustments only for employees other than school employees. This difference raises issues of fairness and equity. The problem caused by wage adjustments exceeding available revenue is Town-wide and, we believe, requires a Town-wide solution.”

Some points.

1. The decision to not fund salary adjustments affects all departments when judged from the perspective of town residents who expect services, as well as employees.

2. While the Town Meeting cannot dictate how the public schools spend any increase they receive, that does not prevent the Warrant Committee and Town Meeting from appropriating sufficient funds for them to pay for salary adjustments. Indeed, providing significantly less than what is needed to do so makes the point entirely moot.

3. The Town Meeting obviously can decide to not appropriate money for salary increases for the Milton schools as well as other town departments. They have so decided with respect to the schools on a number of occasions.

4. Viewing not funding raises for departments as being unfair to the non school departments assumes that the primary group to be considered is town employees, when it is the services provided residents that should be paramount.

Let me try to clarify this issue, since it appears many do not understand the overarching problem.

Under state law, collective bargaining with non-school personnel is undertaken by the Board of Selectmen and designated personnel. When an agreement has been reached, the only body who can ratify it is Town Meeting, and that ratification must be done in the form of an article which simultaneously funds the agreed upon increase. No funding increase, no contract. In contrast, state law calls for the School Department and Administration to negotiate a contract and when agreement is reached, the vote of the School Committee alone finalizes the contract and obligates the School Department to pay that increase, whether the town meeting provides the funding for it or not.

So here are the potential consequences. If town side contract proposals are not funded, employees in those departments do not receive raises. But the services the town receives from them is unaffected. If the School Department’s contractual raises are not funded, the raises must still be paid. Without funding, this is done by cutting enough staff to free up the necessary funds to provide the raises. The remaining employees get raises, but the residents get sharply reduced educational services. No one is to blame for this fact. All involved are merely operating under the rules dictated by state law. However, it is somewhat disconcerting that the Warrant Committee seems to be missing this important point.

The existence of a state law which was probably intended to protect school systems has been detrimental to them because it divorces the binding approval of a contract from any funding source. The consequences are significant. Currently the Police and Fire departments are without a contract. The Warrant Committee indicated last night it would cost $300,000 to fund a 2 ½% increase for FY08. It is likely an agreement will be reached during the next 12 months and an article will be placed on the Warrant next year to accept, and retroactively fund, the raises. That will mean that all raises for all town departments for FY08 will have been funded, with the exception of the school department.

Sadly, this fact is not an aberration. It will represent the third time since 2000 that this has occurred. Our recent history as a town has been to protect positions in non school departments while the schools absorb significant loses. This year 20+ lost positions in the schools, 2 in the Fire department and 1 in the Police department is another example of that. When you consider that school personnel represent approximately 2/3 of town employees, you can see that a disproportionate burden of lost positions falls on the schools, and the youngsters in our schools will pay the price.

This discrepancy in non-override years is why a disproportionate amount of override dollars are directed to the schools in override years. Without it the Milton public schools would be a shambles. Unfortunately, this provides fodder for those who really don’t care if the schools are properly funded, and who perennially blame the need for overrides on the schools. Next time you hear that line, you’ll know what to say.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Jeff Stone said...

One of the definitions of a Hobson’s Choice is “the necessity of accepting one of two or more equally objectionable alternatives.” That is the kind of choice we faced at Town Meeting on May 10th with Article 39 concerning the School Budget for Fiscal Year 2008. Town Meeting Members were forced to choose between two things the town treasures, educational excellence and fiscal prudence. Fiscal prudence won. There will be less for Milton students next year, pure and simple.

First, a last-ditch proposal was made to take $300,000 from the town’s Stabilization Fund to partially shore up the depleted School Budget recommendation and avoid some of the inevitable staffing and programmatic cuts. The prudent decision, almost all agreed, was to reject the proposal because raiding the Stabilization Fund for an annual operational budget is bad precedent and would jeopardize our already jittery bond rating.

But raiding the Stabilization Fund was exactly what I was prepared to do. Not because I thought it fiscally prudent – heck, no! But because I think it has become necessary for this town to give ourselves a swift kick in the posterior about our fiscal condition and get working on some remedies. In that sense, raiding the Stabilization Fund might actually have been fiscally prudent in a backdoor sort of way if it shocked us into doing the serious economic planning process we’ve neglected. We’ve got to get beyond the annual budget crises and override campaigns. We need a dope slap to face our real situation, which the experts call “Structural Deficiency.” Raiding the Stabilization Fund and seeing our bond rating lowered might have been just the shock we needed to get motivated.

On the first day of Town Meeting, the Warrant Committee had given a sobering report on the gathering fiscal storm. The storm seemed offshore but three days later it arrived. The schools will now make cuts in many areas. Eventually the same will happen to police, fire, DPW and other budget areas. We will see gradual - and maybe abrupt - drop-offs in the quality of the services we appreciate.

When it comes to broadening the town’s tax base, Milton’s been acting for years like a snoozing old dog with flies buzzing around its head. We’re going nowhere fast. I don’t have an explanation for this. We have way too much talent, brains, money and influential people in our town to justify the glacial pace in this area. And now we even have a Governor as someone reminded us at Town Meeting. Let’s hope that will help.

Not counting on Deval to rescue us, however, Marion McEttrick talked about several tacks we can take, like reducing town health insurance costs, applying for more state aid and exploring both residential and commercial development. I’d like us to do the latter and do more than explore it. We’ve done enough exploring.

It’s time we take action steps necessary to put out RFPs for developing potential commercial locations scattered throughout town. We need to develop a can-do attitude about this. Milton may wind up looking a bit different with business along Rt. 138, Randolph Ave., Granite Ave and other spots but developments can be sensibly controlled and Milton will still be Milton.

We can’t sell off our chunk of the Blue Hills for revenue, nor should we, but it’s high time to get real and add some commercial tax revenue. I suggest our three selectmen take the lead.

1:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe Milton sees value and meaning in that lazy old dog, maybe Milton prefers that to your version of progressiveness. Maybe progressive isn't all that you think it is - maybe you could learn to love the old dog.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:38 PM  
Anonymous jeff stone said...

to anonymous: What makes you think I don't love the "old dog?" That's why I'm concerned. If we love her, we'd better look out for her health. That means getting serious about the Structural Deficiency, i.e. the increasing mismatch between revenues and desired + required expenditures. Do you have ideas on how we can deal with this mismatch?

9:56 AM  
Blogger Philip Mathews said...

Anonymous,

I'm afraid the evidence does not support your view.

Burying your head in the sand is not what makes the old dog lovable. We've failed to adequately address our financial problems for some time. In the area of land use planning we suffer from decisions made decades ago that seemed to be predicated on the notion that we could have an idyllic, largely commercial free oasis in the greater Boston suburbs while many other communities were thinking ahead and diversifying their tax base.

The overwhelming success of overrides in this community demonstrates that town residents are not willing to allow the steady erosion of services that would be necessary without them.

As an understanding of the systemic nature of the problem grows, the call for more strategic approaches will be heard. Otherwise, many residents will simply be priced out of the community.

4:39 PM  

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