Painful Balancing

The Arlington Central School District is treating this budget planning a bit differently than the past few, because of the severe fiscal pressures. This is a good thing, and long overdue. Too bad they didn’t do this during the fat years. One of the improvements has been more and more frequent meetings where the administration presents budget scenarios to the citizens and the school budget, and solicits our opinions. It’s nice to be heard before we decline to approve the budget at the ballot box.

They do appear to making a genuine effort to reduce costs, and I appreciate that too. Unfortunately, most of the costs of the district are in the people. And the time to consider the consequences of those costs is during contract negotiations, when the union can be presented with the choice between lost jobs or lower wages. Instead, the voters are asked how much more we want to pay in taxes.

Well, at least they asked.

My personal preference is that there be no increase in taxes over last year. This does, however, entail a reduction in the overall budget from the current fiscal year’s. The district has provided a nice outline of some proposed cuts, in various tiers, so that we can see what would need to be cut. In order to keep the tax levy the same, approximately $1,840 per student needs to be trimmed. The district is presenting this in terms of “balancing sacrifices.”

I too need to balance my books. For each increase in taxes, by whatever entity, we will need to reduce our costs elsewhere. In anticipation of increases we’ve already taken steps to do so. The high fuel costs last summer helped start the ball rolling. We anticipated high fuel prices this winter, and installed a wood-burning fireplace capable of heating the house. We changed DirecTV packages to the minimal one, and are fully prepared to drop DirecTV entirely. The girls stopped their dance lessons. We eat out less often. When we eat out, we buy pizza — half the price of other options. The kids are starting to dislike pizza. We had leased a van in 2006; when the lease ended, we bought it at a favorable rate, more cheaply than we could have bought a new one, and reduced our monthly expenses by $50. We are refinancing the mortgage on our home, which we anticipate will save another $200 per month. Our total costs are not much lower, we’re not saving more, but we’re spending less on discretionary items.

Instead of working up from no increase, to see what we can afford, the district is working down from the existing budget, to see if we can reduce the increase. That’s backwards. It must be nice to be able to spend as much as you want and just take the money for it.