Fiscal watchdogs and other citizens critical of the continued expansion of town government must have been gobsmacked by the recommendations of a consulting firm hired to identify prospective deficiencies in the police and fire departments. Released publicly Tuesday night, the $30,000 study urges local taxpayers to create six new administrative public safety positions and fund construction of a fire department substation.
No doubt intended to help build public support for those objectives, the findings instead validate lingering concerns about unchecked municipal spending which resurfaced just 10 days ago at the fall special town meeting.
Those concerns, forcefully articulated last spring by advisory committee members, convinced town meeting voters to withhold approximately $213,000 from a $79.1 million budget proposal — more than $78,000 of which was recently reinstated at the Nov. 4 fall session.
In the big scheme of things these relatively small expenditures amounted to quibbling over pennies, with sums overshadowed by a series of contentious exchanges exposing ongoing tension between those who see the growth of local government as inherently hazardous and those who view it as the inevitable outcome of good policy and management.
Given that context, Tuesday night’s presentation by Municipal Resources, Inc. (MRI) was poorly timed, remarkably tone deaf and will likely feed alarmist conjecture about those entrusted with the public’s business. And with budget season looming, we further suspect it will ratchet up budgetary passions by reinforcing the long-standing suspicion, dearly held in some quarters, that town employees rather than taxpayers set the agenda and determine the size, scope and cost of municipal government.
That’s not to say the concept itself is without merit. By introducing civilian specialists into the police and fire departments, the consultants argued, uniformed personnel can focus on what’s most important — providing law enforcement and fire and rescue services — while enhancing internal support roles at lower cost. And in select, limited cases the logic makes good sense.
Furthermore, Foxboro’s police and fire departments both drew high marks for flexibility, leadership and innovation.
Unfortunately, this particular proposal overreaches. For one thing, it uncritically presumes in advance that Foxboro’s public safety departments will continue to grow organically — in this forecast, by a half-dozen new positions — and that civilian hires represent a salve to mitigate budget impacts. Yet with Foxboro’s population relatively flat, there is no reason to accept such a narrative at face value.
Equally troubling was the tone of Tuesday night’s remarks by three members of the consulting firm, all either present or former police or fire chiefs with extensive experience in public safety and municipal government. By rights, this background should have lent credibility to their findings. But rather than objective fact-finding, the presentation came off as objectionable cheerleading for an expansionist public safety agenda. Perhaps well intentioned, such transparent advocacy was disquieting, to say the least.
Not surprisingly, selectmen seemed to sense the likely reaction to the MRI report, with Chairman Mark Elfman referring to the fire substation issue as a “hornet’s nest,” and board members David Feldman and Leah Gibson both pointing out that human resources and IT services are already provided by specialists working in central administration.
Even Town Manager William Keegan, who has been at the center of the ongoing budget contretemps, took pains to paint the report as a responsible effort to identify long-term public safety trends and a realistic agenda for addressing them.
How this will all play out in the court of public opinion remains to be seen. But with the holiday season just around the corner, we’re betting that those arguing for a more tempered fiscal policy must be delighted by what amounts to a gift-wrapped invitation to declare, “I told you so.”