February 11, 2016: Belmont Finances: Ready, aim-aim-aim-aim?

Belmont Citizen-Herald: February 11, 2016

Back in the days when I taught Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa, we talked on occasion about the “ready-aim-aim-aim-aim” syndrome. The concept, of course, refers to communities who constantly plan what they’re going to do without ever actually doing it. At some point, we told our students, you need to “fire.”

Belmont’s leadership is now beginning the process of developing next year’s budget to present to Town Meeting. Even though Town Meeting is still more than two months away, as part of that budget process, let’s briefly review some of the financial goals set by the Board of Selectmen for 2015 to inquire whether they were actually done.

The questions that follow are truly questions. Asking the questions should not be read as implying the lack of performance. These questions instead simply express the belief that the Belmont community has a reasonable interest in hearing whether the BOS, in fact, did last year what it said it was going to do.

In the Town’s Annual Report, released in early 2015, the BOS articulated its “goals for 2015.” Those goals included to “implement the recommendations of the Financial Task Force.” The Task Force was the work group that was charged with developing a long-term financial plan for Belmont. The Task Force’s January 2015 recommendations largely served as the foundation for last spring’s successful override.

Many of the Task Force recommendations are not subject to ready accountability after-the-fact. For example, it is difficult to determine whether the recommendation that specific sources of additional revenues be “considered” actually occurred. As parents, we’ve all probably responded to the kids’ plea for a Disneyland trip by saying, “I’ll consider it.” Nonetheless, the community deserves to hear a reporting out of the results of such “consideration.” Which new revenue sources were adopted; which were not, and why?

Other Task Force recommendations were quite explicit. The question “was that task completed” is easily answered “yes” or “no.” One recommendation was to “hire a new full-time professional Recreation Director to manage recreation facilities.” That was accompanied by the recommendation to “consolidate the management of Town and School recreation assets under experienced recreation management.” Were those tasks accomplished?

The Task Force recommended creation of “a Field Management task force of all stakeholders to determine usage, prioritization, fees, maintenance and upgrades and to coordinate improvements for both Town and School fields.” Does this new group to oversee the use, funding and maintenance of our fields now exist?

One recommendation was to “explore opportunities for collaboration and/or regionalization with surrounding communities in the delivery of Town services.” A commitment to “explore” something is somewhat akin to committing to “consider” something. Nonetheless, a report of the results of such “exploration” is merited. What possible regionalization opportunities were identified; which were accepted or rejected?

The Task Force recommended that Belmont “establish a working group of town administrators/managers with comparable communities to enable the sharing of innovative ideas and solutions to the common challenges we face in the delivery of town services, effective management of our increasing cost infrastructure and the generation of additional non-property tax revenues.” That’s a specific task. Does that working group now exist?

Developing a long-term financial plan can be of great value if used to direct decisionmaking. Such a plan can be of little value if written and then left to gather dust. As we enter Belmont’s budget season, both the community as a whole, and Town Meeting in particular, have an interest in hearing the extent to which the Financial Task Force’s recommendations have been acted upon. Without such implementation, Belmont is simply another example of the “ready-aim-aim-aim-aim” syndrome.

 

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