Friday, June 12, 2009

Budget Basics, Part 1

On Monday Town Meeting will start talking about the budget. It's going to be ugly; everybody's pet Town program will be getting less money than last year. I just hope we don't get buried in a flurry of amendments from people trying to give their favorite program a little extra. We'll have at least two-- the Library folks are asking for a little more, and there's a petition article asking that we restore $66,000 in funding to private charities.

If the past is any guide, I expect to see lots of "spaghetti-against-the-wall" logic in the next week or two-- people giving lots of plausible-sounding reasons on why THIS part of the budget deserves more money than proposed by the Finance Committee, and hoping that one of their arguments sticks. Does anybody listen to that type of logorrhea* and think "Hmmm, four of their six arguments sound like BS, but the other two are pretty plausible, so I'm convinced!"

There'll also be all sort of comparisons of proposed budgets to "level services" budgets. I'm skeptical of "level services" budgets; why does it always seem to cost more to provide "level services" than inflation? (most likely suspect: because health care spending here in Massachusetts is rising faster than in the rest of the country, even since passing health care reform)

Shouldn't our local government be getting more efficient at providing services over time, as better technology becomes available and they get more experience?

My favorite measure for looking at budgets is inflation-adjusted per-capita spending. Inflation-adjusted because dollars become cheaper over time; a dollar bought more stuff in 1970 than in 2009. Per-capita because if there are more people to serve then you obviously need more money.

There's a nice graph of inflation-adjusted per-capita Federal spending here. I'll see if I can dig up the numbers for Amherst over the last (say) 25 years and make a similar chart...

* We just watched the movie Akeelah and the Bee. GREAT family movie, highly recommended!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is the right mindset going into the inevitable hand-wringing over the budget tomorrow night, i.e. a healthy skepticism.

We have TM members who are perfectly capable of making contradictory arguments on behalf of the same policy position.

One level-headed member had the temerity to say recently on the Yahoo discussion group, "Let's just vote the budget and get out of there." Politically incorrect in our talk-it-to-death political culture, but wise.

Rich Morse