What If Rhode Islanders Really Had a Say on Budgets, Like Tiverton?

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In this video, I wonder what would happen if the people of the Ocean State had a say in the budgeting process. In Tiverton, electors in town have the ability to submit budgets directly to voters. For the third year in a row, a budget that I submitted for the financial town referendum to set Tiverton’s upcoming budget won a strong majority of votes. That makes three years with tax increases under 1%.

By design, Rhode Island politicians at the state level leave the public no time to digest the budget and express their preferences to their representatives, and most of their representatives have no intention of bucking legislative leaders anyway.

Imagine, though, if Rhode Islanders really did have a say, like we do in Tiverton. What do you suppose the result would be?

Watch this new video to learn more now.



  • OceanStateCurrent

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Maureen. I do have to suggest, though, that you present a glossy picture of the Budget Committee. Other than random meetings here and there, the committee meets from January through March, not “the better part of a year,” and attendance at the meetings is typically horrible; members therefore are mostly a rubber stamp.

    The Budget Committee’s unique role in our town is to consider the ability of the taxpayers to pay for the requested budget, yet its members spend no time discussing that aspect, even after years of losing the referendum to lower-tax budgets. After all that supposedly careful deliberation, this year, appointed (not elected) member Louise Durfee panicked at the high tax increase and wanted to do a quick dash for reductions at the last minute.

    Again this year, the taxpayers very predictably required a lower tax bill; if your assessment of the Budget Committee’s deep inquiry were correct, wouldn’t that make it the ideal body to respond to the taxpayers’ stated preference?

    Unfortunately, we learned a few weeks ago that the reality is nothing like that. After the referendum, the Budget Committee was 84% of the way to responsibly addressing the vote results when it blocked a request from member Nancy Driggs (who actually had attended all or most of the meetings) to review her list of more than enough suggestions to get the rest of the way to a solution. Led by appointed (not elected) member Louise Durfee, the committee then abruptly cut the budget for trash pickup. The committee did this:

    * Despite the fact that it would require the town to break a contract.
    * Disregarding, without explanation, the fact that the town administrator had estimated that eliminating trash would save much less than the Budget Committee assumed.
    * Without actually balancing the budget.

    You may be friendly with these people, but please understand how, to those who are not, the town government’s budgeting doesn’t exactly look like a cool and reasonable process to seek the balance that you want, but rather an attempt to make people pay more in taxes than they voluntarily would fueled by the anger of the vicious political group Tiverton 1st.

  • Justin Katz

    The question wasn’t so much to propose the same system for the state. A $9 billion budget is a bit much to have citizens proposing alternative line items. The suggestion is some sort of direct say in the level of taxation… a bottom line for increases or decreases.

    To answer your questions directly:

    1. I don’t agree that there are problems with our current way of creating budgets in town.
    A. For one thing, 50 signatures do not pass the budget; that requires over 1,000 people to win a vote. You wouldn’t say that 50 people put our current town council members in charge of the town, because they didn’t; each of them had to win an election. Same thing. I think the problem, from your perspective, is that a large number of residents feel like they’ve been abused by town government for nearly two decades, so you feel like you have to find a way to force them to pay more for the abusive system than they want to.
    B. I also do not agree that the Budget Committee “vets” the budget. It’s mostly a rubber stamp, applied with almost no consideration of the burden on taxpayers.
    2. The voters had a choice of budgets. This year, there was a third that provided line numbers and a mid-way increase. Unless you think your neighbors are incapable of thinking for themselves, the only rational conclusion is that they are so confident that there’s waste that they don’t especially care to see line items. Of course, this year, many probably did not count on the Budget Committee and Town Council setting out to hurt taxpayers by unnecessarily attacking a core service.
    3. My goal is to get taxes to a reasonable level and a reasonable rate of increase, in large part because I think too-high taxes — and a government big enough to spend all that money — is the biggest problem facing Tiverton, right now. Did you know that taxes increased so much in Tiverton, between the turn of the century and the FTR, that we would have to have a 0.9% tax increase every year until 2038 in order to get back to a 2.5% average, like Massachusetts has as a cap? That’s insane. Unfortunately, many of the same people who think their neighbors have to be bullied into paying more for government than they want also think government ought to grow by leaps and bounds.

    As for Tiverton 1st, their viciousness IS a key issue in Tiverton. What you are encouraging me to do is to simply let your friends continue to slander and libel my friends, saying some of the most disgusting things imaginable about them in public, and simply move on. I wonder where else you would encourage that. Donald Trump, for example: Should we all move on from the things he’s said about people? Is that a distraction, or is it core to the question of whether people ought to follow his lead?

    If my friends were doing the same in return, would you be writing that off simply as part of the political process? I seriously doubt it. If you’re telling me that it’s a distraction to object when Tiverton 1st behaves like it does, I suspect your reaction would be much stronger if I were behaving in like manner.

    These are important questions, because with just 50 signatures each, these people can get back on the ballot and then crank up their vicious rumor machine to get themselves back in office, and there they are, making decisions for 16,000 people and looking for ways to make it difficult for anybody who disagrees to affect the process.

    • Maureen

      Mr Katz,
      Thank you for your response. I really appreciate you taking the time to respond to each of my questions.
      We can agree on the importance of keeping taxes low and also voter input. However, we don’t agree on the methods for each of these goals.

      1- a-I am glad to hear that you do not think the 50 signature rule could be used on a state level. I am surprised that you do not find any concerns in utilizing it on a town level. There are so many scenarios that could happen that could negatively affect a town. In one scenario, if what you suggest is true: that the Tiverton citizens “..are so confident that there’s waste that they don’t especially care to see line items” then citizens could vote for any budget simply because it has the lowest taxes regardless of knowing whether it could hurt the town or endanger its citizens.

      b-Whether you believe the budget committee member vets the budget or not, vetting is supposed to be part of the process. The 50 signature citizen submitted budget currently has no required vetting process which I think is concerning. I think most people would agree a vetting process is better than no vetting process.

      2- The reality is that I think that voters can and do think for themselves. That is why it was so surprising to me that people would vote for budget with just a number without any line items. I doubt those same people would purchase a home or car with only knowing the cost and only later finding out what they were purchasing. Also, the reality is the cheaper item is not always the best item. I have in the past purchased a particular named brand of clothing. I do not purchase that name brand anymore because 2x the shirts actually ripped at the seams shortly after purchase. I thought I was getting a “good deal” because they were inexpensive. However, my attempt to save money actually cost me more down the road.

      Similarly, I believe a budget isn’t just about finding the cheapest taxes…it’s finding what will be beneficial for the town and its citizens in the long term in a financial responsible way.

      3- I agree getting “ taxes to a reasonable level and a reasonable rate of increase” is a good goal. We seem to disagree on priorities and methods of doing this. I could be wrong, but It seems from your answer that your highest goal is keeping taxes down. You do not seem to agree with the idea of finding a balanced focus on getting taxes down while maintaining services that benefit the town. If that is the case, I am disappointed and surprised by that. But we will have to agree to disagree.

      When I said, “Attacks and negative names often go flying during political discussion. How about we stick to the issues?” I was not condoning name calling or suggesting anyone accept personal attacks. I don’t believe it’s helpful in any discussion and have asked this in conversations with other people as well. Fighting fire with fire results in everyone getting burned, including our town.

      Ultimately, I’d rather focus my energy on building up our town rather than tearing down the citizens in it.

      Thank you for your comments about Trump. I am so happy to hear you have a disregard for his personal attacks. He is a great example of what I’m talking about regarding detracting from the issues. When asked a question he doesn’t want to answer he uses misdirection by either attacking the person questioning him or attacking someone else. I don’t think dropping to his level of name calling is helpful because of this and other reasons as well. Senator Rubio comes to mind when I think of dropping to Trumps level. I was curious if I could find an article that indicated if he had any regret about his statements toward Trump. I found one. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/mar/09/marco-rubio-attacks-donald-trump-regrets-republicans . He said he wasn’t proud of it and “that’s not who I am”.

      Let’s not be like Trump either.

      The reason I commented on your article was to try to challenge your perspectives, share my perspectives, as well as try to understand your perspectives and discover where we might agree. I think those are the best debates. Instead of having a goal of just winning and leaving with the same perspective…each person can leave learning something and having a broader perspective.

      I think in simplistic terms: you have a primary concern regarding regarding “losing money” (and wanting taxes decreased). Others have a primary concern of “losing services” (which can happen when the budget does not allocate enough money for those services which can put the town and its citizens at risk in many ways).

      There has to be some middle ground approaches of seeking ways to meet both of those concerns.

      • Justin Katz

        Here’s the key point of difference between our views, I think: I agree that there has to be balance between services and taxes. The difference is that I think that we are currently well out of balance, with taxes too high. Having not researched town politics back beyond the beginning of the century, I can only start from there, but it has seemed to me that many of the people currently involved in Tiverton 1st and the Tiverton Democratic Town Committee took office around that time.

        First, they began spending and using the town reserves (beyond just the excess that I’ve been using) to raise spending without taxation. That game ended pretty quickly, because the town hit deficit. Then, by a vote margin of less than 75 people, they voted to buy three brand new elementary schools on debt (despite falling enrollment) and next borrowed for a giant library (despite the increasing digitization of media).

        Altogether, these actions put the service-tax scales way out of balance, and left to their own, the people in government never submitted a budget that offered a tax increase lower than moderately high. Before the FTR, the lowest increase was 2.6% in 2010, and that might be nearly reasonable, but it was sandwiched between 11.2% and 8.1%.

        Just as I’d argue it’s inappropriate only to chastise one side of an argument for name-calling, it doesn’t work to spend like crazy and then only return to reasonable increases. That’s just a ratchet. People have been losing their homes and having to make major life decisions because of the increased level of taxation in Tiverton.

        As for the notion of budget vetting, I guess we learned a lesson with the remand this year. The Budget Committee whose work you laud killed trash pickup as a nakedly political move without public hearing and without any substantial review of the consequences, even pretending the move would save more than the town administrator had estimated it would. I have to admit that I didn’t think they’d be that irresponsible.

        And a final point on the level of services: Tiverton government — and government generally, particularly in this area — is insisting on providing a large number of services that people don’t want it to (and providing them poorly). It should be for the people to decide what level of services they want to fund through government. And when they decide that the cost of services is too high, government officials should strive to safeguard the basic services that serve everybody (like trash pickup), not hold those basic services hostage in order to protect more-discretionary services and personal perks. Not surprisingly, the people who try to harm taxpayers who seek smaller budgets are the same people who engage in vile personal attacks.

  • Justin Katz

    Good morning, Maureen.
    To take your last point first, I also wish the political climate weren’t so negative in Tiverton. Having watched that climate carefully over the past 15 years or so, I can say without reserve that the blame falls mainly on Tiverton 1st, with their combination of abusing the FTM to push through budgets and then a vicious, personal, rumor-mongering response when that behavior led to the growth of an opposition group (TCC). Note the tone even today and the clear dishonesty among Tiverton 1st’s core organizers.
    Or just consider that the town continues coming back to taxpayers for large tax increases despite years of voters’ rejecting them. At a certain point, it stops looking like representative government. Look, too, at the very effort to take away voters’ say through the referendum. Many meetings and much public discussion, from both sides of the divide, went into the development of the FTR. Now that it’s not working, Tiverton 1st and its sympathizers are trying to neuter it, even going so far as to propose eliminating the Budget Committee because people they don’t like are running for office, all on the fly, with a single hearing. That’s not how one acts when one respects the rights of one’s neighbors.
    Tiverton 1st likes to claim to be “for the community,” but it’s clear to the naked eye that they only include people who agree with them in that term. At one FTM, one even called the seniors in Tiverton a “cancer on the community.” More than a decade of that attitude is what has fostered such division.
    The trash scheme is a great example, not only pushing a scare tactic, but also rejecting a vote of the people and renaming a tax as a fee so that the town doesn’t have to reduce its spending.
    In that regard, I used the word “services” very broadly. I’d include, for example, the “service” of providing a large premium in pay for government employees and coming up with excuses to hire more. Voters explicitly rejected a full-time planner in the budget a couple of years ago, but the Town Council went ahead and hired him anyway. To extend the example, my understanding is that the planner has spent a great deal of time working on the gas station at Grinnell’s beach, which the Town Council decided to purchase in executive session, removing another property from the tax rolls (about $11,000 in taxes the rest of us have to cover each year). These are services that the town government believes are more important than picking up our garbage.
    As for the remand option, I explained my reasoning from the beginning. People keep claiming the Budget Committee has great insight into the budget, and last year, the council didn’t follow the line items that I provided, so it seemed reasonable to let the voters provide the town with a bottom line. (In that regard, frankly, the Budget Committee should do that as its very first step.) I did not expect the people in office (again, mainly Tiverton 1st) to be so vindictive and irresponsible. As I’ve written in a letter to the editor, the problem with this year’s budget process wasn’t the FTR, but the people whom voters mistakenly put in office.

    • maureen

      Mr Katz,
      I had hoped this debate would focus on the topic of your article which was to discuss the benefits/deficits of having Tiverton’s budget process on a state level. I challenged whether it would be helpful on a state level. I also challenged whether it was even effective for Tiverton. I was curious regarding your point of view, particularly regarding the 50 signature citizen submitted budget and the ability for citizens to submit a budget with no line items. While I was really surprised you could see no problem with either method, I tried to focus on where we agreed and disagreed (so we could see each other’s point of view) and maybe even brainstorm some ideas about the budget process.

      Thank you for taking the time to respond to some of my questions. However, I am disappointed by the focus of much of your responses. Instead of focusing on the debate and solutions you have focused a lot on blaming and demonizing Tiverton 1st, particularly in this last response. I did not come her to debate Tiverton 1st or its members. The people who know them, know their mission and the character of individual members. If you or others have questions you can ask them directly instead of making assumptions about character and motives.

      I simply asked that you and I try to focus on this debate without attacks. I am disappointed you could not do that. But that is your prerogative. Maybe that is just the norm of political discussion but I do not think that is an effective way to debate.

      You seem to have a general distrust for government which is your prerogative. In fact, I think there is a benefit to the watch dogs in our society who try to “keep the government in check”. Also, as I’ve said your goal of “decreasing taxes” is a good one. I just challenge some of your methods in both regards. Wish we were able to debate more about that.

      However, I bid you adieu. Sadly, I don’t feel this debate is productive anymore and life is busy I’m sure for both of us.

      I liked a particular quote from Obama’s DNC speech which is relevant here. I would take out the “she knows that” to generalize it. Regardless of someone’s politics, wouldn’t you agree it’s wise advice?

      “[She knows that] this is a big, diverse country, and that most issues are rarely black and white. That even when you’re 100 percent right, getting things done requires compromise. That democracy doesn’t work if we constantly demonize each other. [She knows that] for progress to happen, we have to listen to each other, see ourselves in each other, fight for our principles but also fight to find common ground, no matter how elusive that may seem.”

      I hope the next elected budget committee members will agree with this view.

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