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Being Smart on Town Priorities

A recent discussion on the Arlington Mailing list really got me fired up about spending priorities. The original topic wasn't a big deal, but it spawned a great secondary discussion. One correspondent suggested that during the Proposition 2 1/2 override "Arlington voters did NOT put students or teachers first." I disagreed.

Arlington voters said that they weren't willing to pay more in taxes than they already had agreed to. (I mean that in the broad sense, not that each individual had agreed to the level of taxation). The voters of Arlington were not asked to prioritize their spending and could not possibly put teachers first, even if they had wanted to. They could only increase their taxes or decline to do so.

When it comes to prioritization, you have to look to the School Committee, the Board of Selectmen, and the Town Manager for the first pass, the Finance Committee for second pass, and ultimately Town Meeting. The town has bought a hospital, declined to charge for excessive trash generation, declined to charge for use of public fields, extended disability payments to employees who hurt themselves at home, agreed to build a fire station without studying whether we need it, rebuilt a larger number of smaller schools rather than fewer ones at a lesser cost, and spent $30,000 annually on "discretionary" mailings. In my opinion, THESE decisions are the ones that hurt our students. As others have suggested: This isn't a revenue problem, it's a spending problem. And, I'd add, it isn't a spending problem: It's a prioritization problem.

For the foreseeable future, Arlington's revenue stream will grow at a limited pace. Any time the town considers spending money, it needs to ask some hard questions. Is that more important than a policeman? A fireman? A teacher? I think that too often we don't ask these questions and prioritize our spending.