Here are some thoughts on a few of the news items of the week:
Other than the Big Dig, Barre is finding itself in another kind of hole. And this, a fiscal “tearing up” also has far-reaching implications for citizens.
When voters rejected the proposed city budget on Town Meeting Day, the message was clear: Don’t saddle the taxpayers with a budget that would represent a 10-cent increase on the tax rate.
But while City Manager Steve Mackenzie struggles to come up with a spending plan under $10.2 million — the amount rejected in March — the target keeps moving, and that’s bad for a host of reasons.
First, the City Council, which has been working Saturdays with city departments, Mackenzie and Mayor Thomas Lauzon, keep coming up with different target figures based on pressure they are getting within their wards. And some wards are more conservative than others. That is politicizing the target before the hard discussions about cuts can even prove worthwhile.
Second, if the council is divided, say on a split vote on any proposal, that signals indecision, as well. And the voters will see that signal and vote the budget down again. Their plan has to be unanimous.
In that case, the problem is compounded, because if Mackenzie has to come back with an even smaller budget, the cuts will have to go even deeper. Already, the city is eyeballing all departments and contracts. That has generated widespread posturing and hot tempers. In fact, some would argue this has become personal for some members of the city, and that kind of divisiveness does not always make the decision-making process easier. (But, sometimes it does, too.)
Regardless, the City Council needs to come up with a realistic-but-hard series of specific cuts that does not later lead to further damage to personnel or services. Mackenzie and Lauzon need to look under every stone, whether it comes down to merging departments, shift changes to trim $750,000 in overtime budgets or, perhaps, worse, make to-the-bone cuts. Yes, there are people’s jobs and lives on the line. No, no one wants to put anyone in jeopardy; no one wants to be the ones who made that decision. It is not the Vermont way. But neither is skirting your fiscal obligation to constituents.
It is a big dig the council is undertaking, but like the one going on outside the council chambers, it appears necessary and good for the city in the long-run.
A nice job by Spaulding High School’s administration and faculty in helping Barre police to catch the 15-year-old student who made several bomb threats in recent weeks. The teenager, who police have not identified, caused major disruptions to both the school and the community at large. The Times Argus has a policy of not reporting on bomb threats to avoid giving any credibility to knuckleheads and pranksters. This week, the story grew legs, however, and genuine fear and despair started to circulate among households. This only a week after many parents were having hard discussions at the dinner table about the murder of a St. Johnsbury Academy teacher.
This “cry wolf” behavior has no place. It is wrong, and as such, the 15-year-old should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, including paying thousands of dollars in fines, hours and hours of community services, and even pay the $1,000 per call it cost to send area public safety crews to the school. Let that be the lesson everyone learns from such shameful, dangerous pranks. Because someday, it will be a real threat. And that is the only time any alarm should ever be sounded.
As for the proposal that the city has promised to give a hearing to — making part of downtown Barre a smoke-free zone — we submit the plan does not go far enough. Why not make all of downtown smokeless, and not restrict the hours to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. There are 2 percent of the Barre smokers who will passionately fight against the idea; about 2 percent of those against smoking will be equally passionate on the other side. The other 96 percent will have an opinion, but won’t really care.
The greater issue is the one that played out in Burlington when it was proposed there: selective enforcement. Until the students can explain how the smoking ban can be enforced, the issue is moot. Once those details are worked out, we can all really breathe easier.
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