February 14, 2009

A Cut Above, in Multiple Senses

Justin Katz

In Portsmouth, they're debating whether a 5% reduction in town spending should be a "goal" or a "mandate":

After a freeze in discretionary spending for what remains of this fiscal year, Portsmouth will try to cut spending by 5 percent in the next fiscal year.

The Portsmouth Town Council voted 6-0 Monday evening to make next year's 5 percent reduction a "goal" rather than the mandate sought by Republican Councilor Jeffrey Plumb who had called for the budget action.

"Welcome to an emergency," Mr. Plumb said, adding that strapped taxpayers cannot afford business as usual from their town government — "We should have cut our spending three years ago."

Town Administrator Robert Driscoll agreed that spending must be tightened but asked the council to make the 5 percent reduction a townwide goal. He said that while managers will do their best to "embrace" the challenge of identifying savings, departments in Portsmouth have less leeway than other places since they are already more lightly staffed than most towns.

In Tiverton, meanwhile, the Budget Committee has concluded that the only way (PDF) not to raise taxes on a struggling citizenry will be to institute the maximum reduction in school funding (enabled by declining enrollment) and to cut every expenditure that can legally be cut by 16.5%. As it is, the budgets currently submitted by the school committee and town council will result in a 13% tax increase (PDF).

A request from the Budget Committee, which is currently dominated by members of Tiverton Citizens for Change, for department heads to give the town a sense of what it might look like to cut 15% from their budgets has stirred up all kinds of resistance. Town Administrator Jim Goncalo has intervened to insist on a process of moving that request through him and the Town Council (with some ambiguity about whether he'll actually follow through). In a very interesting exchange, Fire Chief Robert Lloyd insisted that he simply cannot cut the budget 15%, called the committee a "kangaroo court," and stormed out of the meeting (audio: stream, download).

The line from town officials appears to be that expense accounts are already bare-bones, and everything else is mandated by law or by contract. Oddly, our elected and appointed negotiators (as it were) appear reluctant to acknowledge that every labor contract that is relevant to next year's budget is currently open. Perhaps they intend to accede to the unwritten law that union deals can only advance or, during real calamities, level off.

Further along in the meeting, Budget Committee member Rob Coulter noted that committee documents show the school department's budget growing from $16,504,785 to $25,156,129 (52.4%) from FY01 to FY09, even as enrollment fell from 2,201 to 1,965 (-10.7%); per-student expenditures therefore grew from $7,799 to $12,802 (64.1%). For some perspective, I calculated what the per-student expenditures would have been if they had only increased along with inflation and found that, rather than $12,032 in FY08, the number would have been $9,120, which works out to a total appropriation of $18,642,027. In other words, from 2001 to 2008, the school department's budget increased 31.9% more quickly than inflation — or $5,952,360.

One gets the impression that the primary goal of municipal government is to transfer money from residents to union members.

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good for you Chief

Posted by: j at February 14, 2009 1:58 PM

Yeah, disrespecting an elected body as its members act in their official capacity within the walls of town hall. Fantastic performance from a paid municipal employee and ostensible leader! And so likely to help the town through difficult times...

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 14, 2009 2:12 PM

This man is responsible for the safety of 17,000 people and billons of dollers werth of property thats all he cares about,this elected body is disrespecting him ,cut 15% my god the liabilaty

Posted by: j at February 14, 2009 3:30 PM

I think you let the Budget Committee (and other elected bodies) off too easy. They are no less responsible for the safety and well-being of the people of Tiverton. The fire chief's responsibility is a targeted one, concerning which he his paid for his expertise, but praise and blame fall as directly on those who control budgets and so forth.

Why is there no liability, by the way, for depriving struggling families of more of their necessary funds? A hundred dollars a month (or whatever the tax increase works out to be for a family) is money not heating the house, not available for medicine, not available for appropriate clothing, not available for necessary home repairs.

Whether the house burns down or my family can no longer afford to live in it, we're out on the street.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 14, 2009 7:33 PM

The Chief’s job is to be an advocate for public safety and an honest and open source of information. He is there to provide the committee with as much information as he possible can so they can make informed decisions. The Chief’s job is not to sit there and be a whipping boy for the “honorable” members of the committee.

Understand this; there is not a single member of the budget committee, town council, or poster on this site (myself included) who understands the state of Tiverton Fire Department better then Chief Loyd. ANYONE who disregards the opinion of the smartest guy in the room, in this case the Chief, is a complete fool.

Katz in his crew treats all public employees and all union members with contempt. If you listen to them there isn’t a single municipal employee worth a dime.

Hmmm, making generalizations about people based on the type of job they have. Since when is not considered completely ignorant to make blanket statements about a large and diverse group of people.

The truth is there are some real knuckle heads that draw a paycheck from the town. There are also some real productive individuals. The average employee in the Tiverton Fire Department will contribute more to the greater good of the community in a week than Katz will in his lifetime.

Posted by: Amazed at February 15, 2009 4:10 PM

I've never said anything close to what you accuse me of. Municipal employees work at least as hard as the society as a whole, and most have a sincere sense of dedication to the town. That doesn't mean that we can afford to conduct our handling of them as we have.

Your assessment of the chief's performance likewise misses the mark. "I can't do that" is under no circumstances a sufficient answer to the question of a budget committee about what would go and how. The committee, and ultimately the voters, are charged with determining what trade-offs we as a community wish to make.

We the people are certainly empowered to cut the fire department's budget by 15%, and Chief Lloyd's behavior suggests to me that he refused to explain, in advance, what that would mean to his department, because he's afraid that the people of Tiverton will find it palatable.

He was flatly irresponsible, and no insults that you and your fellow firemen might level at me will mitigate that fact.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 15, 2009 4:30 PM

Justin, two perspectives are missed in this statement:

"Whether the house burns down or my family can no longer afford to live in it, we're out on the street."

I understand the logic in this statement but it only takes in to account monetary and material considerations, not lives. If your family has problems affording your house it does not cost an individual his or her life. This is what also is at stake. Justin please take into consideration this statement, t is from someone who almost lost his life in a fire. In 1979, I jumped out a 3rd story window into a tree after someone committed arson on the house I was living in. I lost everything I owned and spent one week in the hospital. When I burped and smoke came out of my mouth I know I had a problem! But, I was lucky compared to the women in the apartment nest to me. She lost her life. The stakes, in fire protection are far greater than your tax bill!

Also, the main task of the fire fighters is not fires it is rescues. The impact of this service affects our elderly the most. The speed of their response time is critical to saving lives. And calls do not always happen at separate times. Often emergencies happen at the same time and this is when minimum staffing levels are important.

Last, but certainly the least important of my points, our homeowners rates are directly tied to the level of protection the town offers. I do not know the exact figures, but if we go below a certain level of protection, any monies saved could be offset by increases in homeowner’s insurance.

Posted by: Ed Davis at February 15, 2009 5:02 PM

The correct term is firefighter, fireman is disrespectful to female responders…there you go again treating us with a complete lack of respect.

Public employees do not create budget problems, misinformed voters who elect incompetent officials do.

I’d love to sit and exchange with you but I have to go to work and actually serve the community. We can’t all hide behind a computer screen all day. You should really get out and contribute a little.

Posted by: amazed at February 15, 2009 5:11 PM

I am on the Tiverton Budget Committee and can tell you that the Chief's reaction was inappropriate and I was personally very insulted.

I agree he was the smartest guy in the room when it comes to the town fire department, which is exactly why he should have explained what would happen if his budget is not funded. That would have been important information to know for when other departments and the schools also ask for more funding.

The Committee is under extraordinary pressure from competing demands during a horrible economic crisis. We are trying to do the best job we can and we would have appreciated constructive input. The Chief's heart is in the right place and so is ours. Let's all work together to manage this crisis as best we can.

Posted by: Rob Coulter at February 15, 2009 5:17 PM


Well, certainly fire and rescue dangers are more acute. "Amazed" mentioned property value, and I ran with it. I'd also note, however, that I mentioned other factors than the loss of a house. Annual double-digit tax increases are surely driving more folks than me, and more families than mine, to begin putting off health-related expenses. As a carpenter, I've been putting of purchases of the appropriate clothing and health-and-safety-related equipment. Other folks may be letting things slide with their automobiles. The incremental damage is immeasurable.

As for homeowners' insurance, I've done some superficial research, and it looks like the rates are tied to a scale from 1 to 10. Speaking strictly in terms of money, my impression, from preliminary investigation, is that the loss of a few firefighters or the closing of a station would not cause a per capita insurance increase anywhere near the amount of tax savings.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 15, 2009 5:22 PM


To my knowledge, every firefighter who has made an effort to prove how worthy of respect they are by insulting and belittling me has been a man. If you were offended by my lumping you among males of your profession, I apologize.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 15, 2009 5:26 PM

I hear you Justin. My son is an electrician's apprentice. He was laid off for a few weeks last Friday because work is slow. As far as his tools, boots, etc. You know who's credit card those bills are on! Us unionist are not immune to the economy's shortcomings. I'm sure both sides wish there was an easy answer out there.
Like yourself, my research into the homeowners issue was not very torough. I have heard different information, that it could be a lot more costly, but I can not verify it which makes the subject not worth arguing over. If I find out more, I will post it. I’m sure, if it is an important factor in this issue, the fire department will, or should, make it known to the public.

Posted by: Ed Davis at February 15, 2009 5:42 PM
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