This is a difficult and dangerous time for local cities and towns, as well as the nation. Voters must pay careful attention to what’s happening, because it is going to affect their pocketbooks in the short-term and the security of their children and grandchildren in the long run.
We are all aware of the pandemic and its threat to our health, though some take it more seriously than others. But the less obvious danger is to our communities, our local services, our educational and public safety systems, and maintaining a quality of life considered acceptable.
You hear a lot about the national debt and the exploding deficit we are running these days in Washington. Local communities are not allowed to deficit spend like the federal government. But many are draining their already low reserve funds to sustain a level of services and funding they may not be able to support going forward. Without new funding or a shifting of responsibilities, local communities are going to face either huge tax increases or a dismantling of basic services.
Most city councils or town meetings will dip deep into their reserve funds just to remain afloat. Local government and budgets have not been high on people’s priority lists given the overwhelming economic and health disasters brought on by COVID-19 and the nation’s scattered and often unfocused response. It’s hard to think about your town’s budget when you are out of work and choosing between buying groceries and paying the mortgage or rent.
But city and town governments still have to function whether we pay close attention or not. And while drastic measures and spending are not questioned under current conditions, months from now — when tax bills start increasing and services decreasing — everyone will be looking with a much sharper eye.
The new rules will be different. Schools and public safety departments have to change from the way they have done things. The days of placing 30 kids in a classroom are over, but we haven’t added more classrooms or more teachers. If schools and childcare businesses can’t open, families with two working parents have a serious problem. Local costs of virtually everything are going to soar, while at the same time local revenues from things like meal taxes, excise taxes, and state aid are plummeting.
Municipalities are going to have to pay a lot more money just to provide the same services they were operating pre-pandemic. And it seems unlikely much extra money will be coming from the state or federal government. So that leaves one basic source of additional revenue: Local taxes. From all of us.
Plainville is already having an override election. They will not be the only community to do that in the next year or so. Cities and towns are going to bear the brunt of this huge financial disaster, and unlike their elected federal counterparts — they have to present a balanced budget.
There are tough choices coming up. None of them are going to make everyone happy or satisfied. None of them are going to be easy or enjoyable.
Stay informed on the local level, folks. It’s going to get messy.