Open Letter to Acton's Finance Committee

Dear Chairman Majors and the Acton Finance Committee:

Welcome to the new members and a new fiscal year.

The concept of having a town Finance Committee is to give taxpayers some indirect influence over public spending. This is an important (albeit an advisory) role but it has not been followed properly in Acton for several years. With new members can perhaps come a new outlook that would review what the role of a town finance committee should be, how it is needed to perform a check and balance on the spending boards (the School Committee and Board of Selectmen), and why a perverse FinCom role has been cultivated and encouraged by town leaders in the past.

The guiding light for your role can be seen in the Association of Town Finance Committee’s handbook, which is available to members of a finance committee whose town has joined the Mass Municipal Association (MMA). You can also gain insight if you attend the MMA annual convention which has breakout sessions for town Finance committees.

The proper role of a Finance Committee is to act as a watchdog over public spending. This means there should be a certain amount of tension between the spending boards and the FinCom, because spending boards have projects and proposals they wish to advance which often cost money, and FinCom needs to review such proposals to see if they make financial sense, both in the short term and the long term. Both costs are reflected in Acton’s property tax rate and FinCom is the only board that is primarily concerned with the burden on taxpayers (the other boards have other concerns, like the delivery of services or the quality of the workforce.)

One of the mistakes FinCom has been making for over ten years now is to substitute its thinking for the taxpayers. This has been a dreadful misunderstanding with terrible consequences for our property tax rate. How has this happened?

FinCom’s role is clearly advisory. It considers ideas and proposals and is supposed to bring its recommendations to Town Meeting. Before every warrant article, FinCom is given the microphone to give its recommendation, and members of the audience often ask FinCom to respond during debate.

FinCom’s power, therefore, is and should be in the form of persuasion, and that should take place on Town Meeting floor. Let me give an example.

Should spending go up 3% or 5%? What is the impact on services and the tax rate of this choice? FinCom can examine this question, debate whatever the spending boards are proposing, and give a recommendation. Town Meeting voters can then decide which increase makes more sense. This allows engaged and educated voters to make fundamental decisions, which is what Town Meeting is all about.

Instead, what has been happening is FinCom meets with the other boards through the Acton Leadership Group (ALG) process and they agree to raise spending 4%. FinCom seems this as a “compromise” and voters see this translated as a large tax increase. At Town Meeting, there is no debate and no choice, just a confirmation vote which is often unanimous. This takes away voters' voice.

This isn’t how to control spending, to engage voters, or to have a democratic system. It has rendered Town Meeting superfluous for almost all spending decisions. Town Meeting debates, when they do occur, revolve around non-spending matters like Pay As You Throw or peripheral budget issues like the Nursing Service. The “big ideas”—overall spending levels, the school assessment, and property tax rates—are never directly debated because there is never any conflict between the spending boards and the watchdog board.

As FinCom has receded from its designed role, another phenomenon has occurred, which you are probably all aware of, and that is the dwindling number of Town Meeting voters. The Pay As You Throw ‘debate’ at the last Town Meeting was approved by about 120 voters. That means about 200 voters were in the audience at the time of the vote. That is, frankly, pathetic.

People are busy and maybe busier now than in the past. But I believe this is happening because most voters have given up on a fair process at Town Meeting and know that their only function is to rubber-stamp what the three major boards have already agreed on. It is sort of like voting in an election with no contested races. (Our most recent election with just one contested race had a 4% voter turnout, or 600 voters. Town Meeting isn’t even close to hitting this number with 324 TM voters on Night One and 381 on Night Two.)

The strength of a properly functioning FinCom isn’t how many other meetings your members attend, or whether the other boards come to your meetings. It is having a structure with a robust and well-attended Town Meeting where your recommendations are persuasive and empowering to the Town Meeting voters so they can make good decisions. It is not to make decisions for them and announce them as fait accompli at poorly attended Town Meetings.

The spending boards like this cooperative ALG arrangement because they only need to convince five FinCom members to agree to whatever compromise is worked out, and getting five votes is almost always easier than getting 300 or 400, especially when voters are properly educated about the pros and cons of alternative options, something that rarely happens at Acton's Town Meeting these days. But that can be unilaterally changed if your Committee plays the role in town government that was envisioned by state law and our Town Charter and By-Laws.

Thanks for your service and have a great year,

Allen Nitschelm
Publisher, Acton Forum

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