Thursday, April 26, 2012

Local Politics, Town Budget, and the Harvard Town Hall

Big surprise, our local budget is a hot topic in our current local elections. I listened to neighbors from both sides (pun intended, one lives to the left, and the other lives to the right) tell me about what was going on. Our local newspaper had a good article about the fuss. But, one official interviewed really got my attention! They said that our local real estate tax had been going up, and would continue to go up in the future, at the MAXIMUM legal rate, every year! Doesn't that get your attention?

I have updated my numbers, and I have come to some conclusions. First - the increase in costs has been very significant. Revenue has had to increase to match it. If you look at those graphs alone, you might be right to feel a little panic. I know I did. But I still wanted to know what this meant to me. So, I translated all the numbers that are being tossed around into something I can grasp - what it will cost me. Last year my taxes were close to 1.5% of my property value. For every 100,000 of my house value, that means I paid $1,547. Since my house is valued at $300K, I paid 3 times that, or about $4600. In another ten years, at the maximum rate of increase, I will be paying about $6,000 dollars.  Assuming my house value does not go up, which today seems to be a reasonable assumption. I do not believe you will find many residents of Harvard who will be hurt by paying out another 1500 dollars.  Still, the dramatic rise in costs is more than worthy of attention.

Another conclusion I have reached is that the Selectmen who are groaning loudest about what we are spending are also the most responsible for the position we find ourselves in today. This is also true for the candidate who is groaning right along with those Selectmen. Remember, this group has been in the majority for many years. You know the saying "Penny-wise, and pound foolish". After having looked at 30 years of annual reports, it looks to me like that is a good description of this group. They are postponing necessary maintenance, "nickle and diming" legitimate spending, when they would be getting better return in the long run by showing more concern for long-term thinking.


Initially, I wondered what the numbers really were. I figured they might tell me something. I went down to the library, and pulled out town records. Let's take a look at what I saw.

Ok - so here are the tax rates for the last 25 years (orange line). We only this year got back to the previously highest rate - from more than 10 years ago. The blue line is property valuations. Note that these have gone stagnant over the past few years. This is important to pay attention to. {On 17 May I updated these graphs. They now read left-to-right, just as we are accustomed to!}

Now let's look at our spending. The next two graphs only go back 10 years, but we get the idea.

General fund spending is all the stuff we want our city to do. Police, fire, trash, water, roads, building maintenance, town government, etc. Schools are our biggest expense category. Notice that general expenses and school expenses continue to rise. Payments on borrowed money have been very stable, and very low. Schools, as a percent of the total, have not changed much. Historically, I found a chart in the annual report from 1986 that listed schools as about 52% of our spending, which would fit right in with this. In 2009, schools were 58%, loan payments 6%, and general expenses 37%. In 2011, schools were 54% of expenditures.

Here you see our revenue by source - property tax, local fees and licenses (the biggest contributor to this is car tags), and money received from the state.

I had been told one reason we were having money trouble was because we were getting less from the state. The numbers I see make me think this isn't a very big part of the problem. Relative to total income, what we get from the state is pretty stable. The local revenue is from town car tags, trash fees, fines, tickets, licenses - stuff like that. It is also pretty stable.

Now I can see why the town official said what they did. The graphs tells us a lot. Cost is going up. Income from fees and licenses is stable. Income from the state is stable. Property values have gone stagnant. Which means there are only two ways to pay for the increasing cost. One is to borrow more, and the second is to continue to raise property taxes. 

What does this really mean to me? Remember the numbers that showed how much I would pay? Here they are in a graph. {This graph still reads right-to-left. But see my next post. I think that is more useful to understand what we are looking at.}

Since 1960, the town of Harvard has completely changed. In 1960, there were about 1,000 people in our village. Today there are more than 5,000. New properties have been built, and values have increased. In the chart above, we can see the affect of that - a relatively constant growth in value.

One of the reasons I got involved in this was because our Town Hall has become a point of contention in this debate. People are disagreeing on how much should be spent to renovate the town hall. Over the past 50 years, some temporary measures have been taken to accomodate our growth. Some of them were meant to be - or should have been meant to be - temporary. Some were short-sighted.

Our town hall has some extremely critical condition issues. These are serious problems which could result in loss of the town hall altogether if they are not taken care of. The exterior envelope has major issues. Moisture is getting in to the frame of the building. One can not tell the extent of the current damage from these conditions until after work will have started. I think most people are already aware of this. The Town Hall has been subject to deferred maintenance for more than 50 years. How else can you explain that, in this day, the walls are not insulated! I do not think you can find a single standing house in our town that you could say the same thing about. It has also been the object of temporary measures that have begun to take on an air of permanence, because of the simple fact that they have been in place for so long. One example of this is the temporary office structures on the 2nd floor of the town hall. The town hall has also been the subject of some bad spending decisions. I refer here to the addition put on some years ago, that is now the cause of greater maintenance issues.

So, recently, our Town Selectmen got various possible plans evaluated about how to manage the cost of the town hall. I was raised in the tradition of: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." One took care of their tools. It is not a throw-away position. The Town Hall is one of the town's tools. It needs to be appropriately taken care of.

Now, if my memory serves me, we had basically three or four scenarios brought to us. One was cheaper - but not by much. Two were in the middle, and the last was more expensive. Our town voted already for one of the two plans in the middle. Maybe we should change our minds, maybe we shouldn't - but if that cheap plan does not take care of the maintenance issues, it is false economy! The people who are saying we should stick to the renovation we already voted to do, are saying that the cost difference, between the cheap plan and the plan our town voted in, is not significant in the big picture. Frankly, the numbers back them up.

The town has other needs that are being stuck, today, on the town hall, too - with predictably bad results. Records storage is a major problem. Our town is 5 times the size it was 50 years ago - and our space needs reflect that. If we do not exercise foresight now, we will pay a greater price 10 years down the road! We are seeing this today because maintenance was deferred in years past.

I think the folks who are shouting about the tax levy are right to be worried about it. But from talking to both sides, I also think BOTH sides are worried about this. I don't think we have anyone in the public discussion who is NOT worried about it - although the shouting people would like us to believe that there are people in the public debate who are not worried about these financial issues. We know that school costs will continue to rise, year by year. Increasing insurance rates, medical costs, and fuel costs are examples of pressures that keep general costs rising. Nobody is predicting that house values will increase again in at least the next 5 years. Still, we in Harvard are lucky - our values have decreased very little, if at all. We might even beat the general trend, and see some growth in value. But, we can also see that our property tax rates must go up for the foreseeable future.

You might conclude from what I have said, that I would be looking forward to voting for those in our town who are shouting the loudest against (among other things) spending money on the town hall renovation. You would be wrong. In going through all the annual reports to gather the information I have here, it seemed clear to me that some of the same people who are complaining about the Town Hall cost now were complaining about that cost in past years, and voting against spending on maintenance. Those votes are now costing us more money to repair, expensively, what could have been maintained, relatively cheaply, then. I am sure nobody intended for it to end this way - but sometimes a longer vision is the wiser course. It is a good thing to be wary of spending money - it is a bad thing to forego changing the oil on your car to save money. 

We are in a pickle now. And it will take us at least 5 years to change our course. But, if we plan wisely today, we can work it all out.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Thoughts on growing younger

I got a letter today, from a friend who is my age. Having watched this friend go through some personal gyrations recently, it became clear to me that they were deep in a period of self-realization. Now, I am still learning about myself, ways that I can improve what I do, techniques to make me more successful in life. What amazes me, a little, is the depth of the self-searching and realization that we are going through. But we are not the only ones. I see it in other people of my generation. I see it in our age - from Hemingway to Kerouac.

Forty years ago, when we were young, this was no surprise. But now? It seems odd. Are we peculiar? Or, are we just a sign of our times?

I look at the example of my grandparents, and I can not find this depth of self-analysis, self-realization in my memories of them. Grandpa W- my mother's side - by this age had married his last wife (of about 4, if I recall) and he seemed happy enough with it. Grandpa B: there was a little more that I witnessed there. He was a bit rocked when Dad died (Dad was 60). His comment was you didn't expect to outlive your kids. Somehow, I think that experience opened him up a little. He changed a little when he had his strokes, and lost the ability to speak, not once but several times. He had to relearn how to speak each time. I remember after the first round or so, he made a comment about the words were there - but he could not grasp them. Grandma B was always generous, to the end, and I do not remember her ever changing much from that. Grandma W was always tough and thorny. I do not recall her ever changing that much either, although I understand from others in the family that she did grow a shade more tolerant in her later years.

But I do not recall any of them going through basic self-realization at this late age. I do not recall seeing them in deep thought about who they were, or their place in the world, or the place of mankind in the universe. There were certainly reminiscences. Grandpa B remarked more than once on how he was the last one left, both of his immediate family, and his boyhood friends.

Maybe it is like the knights of medieval days, spending most of their life pillaging, cheating, fighting, bullying, and otherwise trying their best to be financially successful in medieval knight terms, all of them pretty reprehensible by our standards. Until late in their life, at a time when they felt the hand of Death on their shoulder, then they seemed to get religion. That was when the chapel got built, the cathedral funded. Then they started asking for forgiveness. But was that self-discovery, or just the fashion of the times? When you had a God you could spurn during your life when he was inconvenient, but call upon when you needed that little extra oomph in a battle? Then finally to ask and be given forgiveness when you were essentially past the days when you had the energy or need to commit atrocious acts? Nah, I don't think that was so much "self-discovery".

Later in time, during the days after the Renaissance, when the great thinkers were abroad (Hobbes, Pope, Locke,  Newton, Descartes, etc.) we see people thinking, learning, and examining life later in years. I think I can see, in history, this current of intellectual accumulation and activity throughout one's lifespan, continue into and through the end of the 19th century, fading as the 20th century bloomed.

It faded, I think, with the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution produced men and women of action, more than thought. I don't have numbers, but I would bet the Industrial Revolution, in spite of its promise, initially led to a weakening of the middle classes. And, thus, less opportunity for cogitation as casual entertainment, and more reason that people inclined to action became a dominant trend.

The financial crises at the end of the 19th century, and the waves of emigration, followed by the 1st World War, the Great Depression, the Weimar Republic, and the death of the Chinese imperial world, these were trends that led to people who did what they did young - and they kept going at it. The 2nd World War - or the Great Patriotic War if you are Russian, seems to have put a cap on that, with a feather in it. Then, we had a period of greatly improved economies around the world, a strengthening of the middle classes, around the world, and this was topped by the computer age. Today, the computer barons are a throw-back to the industrial barons of the late 19 century - but that is a function of a new technology in an economic system that is not expecting the changes wrought. While history has not yet had its final say, it does seem that our computers are a leveling influence in the long run. Like the rest of the Industrial Revolution, perhaps eventually it will empower the middle classes. I say it has not YET done so - because look at the growing disparity of income in the 1st world countries (the industrialized world). There is a growing body of service workers - low pay, and a growing sector of highly paid specialists. You can't have both sectors growing faster than the population, unless you are losing members of the middle classes. Maybe it is just a temporary labor displacement, the kind of thing we learn about in economics in college. But keep in mind, my guess is that "temporary" here would be a couple of generations, or at least 30 years. I think it  took that long, or longer, for labor unions (and government regulation and intervention) to catch up to labor management to protect and defend the middle classes.

I can place the character of my most accomplished grandparents (Grandpa B and Grandma W) squarely in the influence of the changes wrought by the industrial revolution. They were definitely in the mold of the day. Grandpa B did his self-discovery young, and went on to become a pioneer in his field. Grandma W was a trailblazer of her time - a young divorcee and single mother goes to college, gets a professional degree, and goes on to success. They found whatever it was in themselves that they needed at a young age.

By the way, I only use my grandparents as a reference point. They represent the most distant point in time that I personally have a remembered and significant connection to. While I remember one of my great-aunts, the rest of that generation passed away before I had any significant memories of them. And that great-aunt passed away when I was quite young - so I have little idea of who or what she was as a person.

So, what conclusion can I draw from this? Maybe we just had a higher concentration of lost souls than is common. I think we were part of a rare time, or an eddy in the current of history,  Maybe I have already explained why it could be - we are part of a period in history when growing up was relatively comfortable. We had more options, more alternatives, and less need to remain with our original choices than was true in other periods of history. Top that off with a wide-spread attitude that intellectual activity had some benefit, and you have the prerequisites for a thinking population, yes? Top that off with a better access to whatever knowledge earlier generations left behind. Or, just better access to the knowledge our own generation has gathered and left behind.

Worker bees go through a fixed pattern of duties as they get older. In a pattern more rigid than our school systems current performance-based testing, a worker bee will move from one set of duties to another as they grow older. When a beehive loses bees, the worker bees go into a state of flux. The worker bee can regress in age - and becomes younger (true!) - when the hive needs the resource. In the beehive - there is a mutual imperative that causes the bees to grow younger in body as they still grow older in time.

Today, the world is in flux - like the beehive after it has lost bees. We are in a day and time where we can grow and think at a later date in our personal timeline than is historically normal.  In my grandparents' day, that would only have come as late regrets of things that might have been. For us, unlike the bees, the imperative is self-powered, our own choice of action while dealing with the world. We look around us, and we can find ways to deal with the world in better ways. We also know that we can still change what we do in the world, and that we can change how the world responds to us. And for us, because we are in a time of flux, and a time of knowledge, it is more likely that our thoughts and explorations at a later time in our lives can impact either our own lives, or the lives of those around us.