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Letter: Wayland Should Elect the Finance Committee

The letter below is related to Article 4 in the 2012 Annual Town Meeting Warrant.

There are two well-established myths in our town. One is that voters at town meeting are responsible for our astronomically high tax rate, not the Finance Committee (FinCom). The other is that the FinCom is an independent, apolitical board that makes the best financial decisions for taxpayers.

The Board of Selectmen claims that Wayland has achieved truly extraordinary financial results, but the only extraordinary result achieved is an astronomical tax rate. The current approach is not sustainable, as evidenced by our declining real estate values.

Truly extraordinary financial management would support outstanding schools and town services without driving our tax rates through the ceiling and our property valuations through the floor. Several of our neighboring communities have in fact accomplished the financial excellence that continues to elude Wayland.

FinCom, not town meeting, defines the Town’s financial strategy

Yes, town meeting does vote the budget. But it really has little choice in the matter. You see, the FinCom prepares the only budget that appears in the warrant. Each year it submits a financial strategy report (23 pages this year) and the Town budget (22 pages). Town meeting can ask lots of questions and chip away at various budget items (there are 82 line items), but it is effectively powerless to materially alter a $73 million budget, even if it would like to.

Currently, there is only one "flavor" strategy offered to voters at town meeting— vanilla. If you like vanilla, you're in luck! But what if you like chocolate, strawberry or black raspberry? Sorry, Wayland only budgets one way — the FinCom way.

We are not arguing that there should be multiple budgets presented to town meeting. We are stating that the FinCom’s explanation, “it’s a good budget because town meeting adopted it,” is simplistic and out of touch with reality.

The FinCom’s financial strategy based on level funding, debt neutrality, huge cash reserves, and excessively prepaying unfunded liabilities is misguided. With level funding, every department is given the same amount of money it was budgeted to receive the year before, except for raises due to contractual obligations. A much better approach would be to review actual spending and require each department to justify all of its proposed expenditures every year, rather than only justifying additions to the previous year’s baseline. That would achieve both effectiveness and efficiency.

Debt neutrality means that when debt is paid off, it's replaced with new debt. The Town’s debt load never declines; Wayland just keeps spending.

The FinCom maintains huge cash surpluses to give us their key "long-term-planning" component—Moody's Aaa bond rating (that saves the typical taxpayer far less than $100 per year).

Lastly, no other town in the Commonwealth, to our knowledge, prepays its unfunded liabilities by millions of dollars in excess of that required by the state, to the detriment of its taxpayers.

The FinCom has shown little understanding of or interest in the need to consider a different approach. Must we only use the same approach, year after year, that has resulted in a tax rate that will soon cross the $20 per thousand threshold?

FinCom is accountable only to the selectmen, not to town meeting

The second myth is that the FinCom is an independent, apolitical board. It is appointed by and joined at the hip with the Board of Selectmen. Indeed, the relationship has become incestuous, with a majority of the selectmen having recently served on the FinCom. Three former FinComers now appoint and reappoint the FinCom. It never used to be this way. The selectmen tell us that this is preferable to electing them.

Although a few members of the FinCom occasionally push back and ask thoughtful, probing and intelligent questions when vetting the budget or articles submitted for inclusion in the warrant, it's not at all uncommon to see unanimous votes of 7-0 or 0-7 when deliberations conclude. The current appointment process is flawed because it is not only possible, but probable, that only like-minded individuals—and not necessarily the most qualified—will be chosen (or worse, predetermined) for appointment. This has already happened with stunning consequences.

The Attorney General found that the selectmen intentionally violated the Open Meeting Law when “they came to an agreement on the slate of candidates they would approve – in hushed voices and in an empty room – outside of public view. This is not a mere technical violation, but a violation of a bedrock principle of government transparency.” The risk of any further biased appointments is avoided with elections. 

FinComers do not often listen to alternative views. When petitioners presented them with the idea of reducing taxes by utilizing the huge positive revenue variance ($4.1M) that was realized at the close of FY11, petitioners were told, "Please, not now… we're planning to address taxes in FY13. We can't go back and change FY12 now." Of course FY12 couldn't be changed. Reducing the tax rate with free cash surplus was never part of the vanilla recipe! 

It was apparently better fiscal policy to sit on the money that was collected through overtaxation than put it to use and give taxpayers a much needed break. FinComers could only focus on their duty to churn out yet another tunnel-vision, level-funded, debt-neutral, Moody's-Aaa, long-term-planning budget for FY13.   

Policy makers should be elected, not appointed

The FinCom is a very important policy making board. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue has advised that “the prevailing theory of government practice [is] that policy makers should be elected, but operational positions, where a certain skill set is required, such as the treasurer, collector, accountant, assistant assessor, etc., should be appointed.”

Indeed, more than twice as many towns in Massachusetts elect the finance committee than use Wayland’s method (selectmen appointed). (Source: Finance Committee Handbook, Association of Town Finance Committees, Revised October 2010, page 3-1).

Why must we continue to support an appointed versus an elected FinCom? Because it's been Wayland's tradition for 100 years? One hundred years ago women were not even allowed to vote. That tradition was thankfully terminated and resulted in a better and more equitable electorate. The tradition to appoint the FinCom must end as well, to yield a better and more representative board to address our out-of-control taxes. 

Our president does not interview candidates and appoint Congress to approve his proposed budget. Our governor does not review resumes for finance qualifications and appoint the state Legislature to approve his proposed budget. Why is it that the Board of Selectmen must appoint the FinCom to approve Wayland's budget? Why, because it has always been done that way and we apparently do not flout tradition in Wayland? 

Something is decidedly wrong when a select few purport that voters are incapable of making intelligent decisions about who should serve on the FinCom. Why is it that Wayland voters are intelligent enough to participate in electing the next president of the United States but seemingly not smart enough to participate in electing the FinCom? Why should residents believe that our five elected selectmen are far and away more capable than all of us combined to decide who is best able to advise town meeting on the budget and all other matters considered there, financial or otherwise? Lastly, this bylaw change does not preclude any present FinCom member from running for election.

Please attend Town Meeting on April 9 and vote your support of Article 4 to elect the Finance Committee.

Donna Bouchard
Andrea Wagner
Lead Petitioners for Article 4

Jeff Dieffenbach April 01, 2012 at 07:06 PM
3. The writers are correct--Wayland's debt is typically replaced with new debt. To scoff at this result as they do is to ignore reality: capital items wear out. Replacing those items without raising taxes is sound strategy. 4. The writers bafflingly state, "The second myth is that the FinCom is an independent, apolitical board. It is appointed by and joined at the hip with the Board of Selectmen. Indeed, the relationship has become incestuous, with a majority of the selectmen having recently served on the FinCom." First, it is hard to see how making the Finance Committee elected by the voters (an approached used, and not well, by a tiny minority of MA towns) would decrease the political nature of the board. Second, how is it "incestuous" (I hope that I don't give the writers too much credit in assuming that they mean this figuratively) that members of the Finance Committee move on to become Selectmen and then appoint future Finance Committee members? The writers have done NOTHING to show why this is undesirable.
Jeff Dieffenbach April 01, 2012 at 07:07 PM
5. The writers state, "... it's not at all uncommon to see unanimous votes of 7-0 or 0-7 when deliberations conclude. The current appointment process is flawed because it is not only possible, but probable, that only like-minded individuals—and not necessarily the most qualified—will be chosen ... for appointment." As it happens, the Board of Selectmen are elected by the public. If the public doesn't like their decision-making, perhaps the public might change their composition. Unanimous votes aren't evidence of bad thinking.
Jeff Dieffenbach April 01, 2012 at 07:07 PM
6. The writers state, "The Massachusetts Department of Revenue has advised that “the prevailing theory of government practice [is] that policy makers should be elected, but operational positions, where a certain skill set is required, such as the treasurer, collector, accountant, assistant assessor, etc., should be appointed. ... Indeed, more than twice as many towns in Massachusetts elect the finance committee than use Wayland’s method (selectmen appointed)." First, the Finance Committee is clearly a board a certain skill set is required. Second, there is a big difference between policy (to which the DOR refers) and financial policy (which is such a narrow subset as to stand separate from the DOR, in my opinion). Third, the writers are disingenuous when they compare election to BOS appointment, in that (a) many of the towns who use election do not use POPULAR election but rather board election and (b) appointment in general is MUCH more common than election.
Ben Downs April 02, 2012 at 02:11 AM
Jeff Dieffenbach does a nice job pointing out a few of the issues but he did not touch on a few additional points that I believe have merit. The writers are explicit about the issue of unanimous votes but neglect that the school committee has supported its budget unanimously ever since Ms. Wagner's husband has been on the board. The writers discuss high taxes as being the reason for declining property values but they ignore the fact that over the last two years our property values have increased while we have had the highest tax rate in our history. It is this focus on tax rates that is misguided because as any home buyer knows it is the total monthly cost that is considered. If you took the median home in Wayland and the median home in Weston your tax and mortgage payments in Wayland would be $3700 per month while in Weston it would be almost $7000. This difference does not include additional monthly costs due to the much higher base price in Weston. The letter writers make a point that many of our Selectman have come from our FinCom. If they are doing such a terrible job why does the majority of the town elect them when they run?
Ben Downs April 02, 2012 at 02:14 AM
The authors take a very sneaky approach with the data when they try and make their point that we should elect the Finance Committee. Their argument is based on a very obvious playing with the numbers. What their letter points out but they choose to ignore is that they are not proposing the most common method to select a FinCom. Why not allow time to study our options and chose the best method? I am sure the letter writers just overlooked the fact that during the recent credit crisis nobody but a triple A credit could get any credit. So while the list the very low number of $100 in tax savings they forget that we went ahead and agreed to a new high school because we had the triple A rating and were assured we could sell our bonds even if the market was still frozen. Wayland has a better credit rating than the United States of America, please don't tell me our FinCom does not know what it is doing.

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