As the 250th anniversary of our charter approaches, we are entering a time that will, for a long time to come, determine, who we are and what we stand for. We face serious challenges to our way of life, but with simple, commonsense courage and a willingness to work together we can look those challenges in the eye, fight for our way of life, and preserve it, not just for ourselves, but for our children and their children. Tonight, we come together as Town Meeting, and while the fate of our town is not at stake, our decisions, like every decision, affect our future. In times like these, it is easy to come apart. Those who take pleasure in complaining will find plenty to complain about. Those who enjoy criticism will find it easy to find fault. Those who enjoy creating divisions will find plenty to divide us. Disagreement is inevitable, and constructive criticism is always welcome. We are, after all, a democracy. But we cannot afford to wallow in pessimism. As Theodore Roosevelt warned, “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer.” Now is the time for us to embrace who and what we are: the citizens of a small town who want to preserve it. We may disagree on the means for doing so, but we are, I think, united in our goal.
Doing more with less has been the Granby way of doing things for a long time. You could credit our Yankee ethic or our farming heritage or our being a small town, but we do not spend beyond our means. This has been made relatively easy because previous select boards negotiated lucrative contracts with the company that owned the landfill. As we all know, however, the landfill has finally closed. Our transition to this brave new world will be easier because the finance committee and select board decided years ago that we would stop using landfill revenue for operating expenses. Taxes, fees, and state aid are about equal to the amount we are spending on operating expenses. However, we have been financing capital expenses—things we need to purchase—from landfill revenue. Now those expenses must be met through tax revenue and state aid. If we had been using dump revenue to operate the Town, we’d now be looking at draconian cuts and a lot of chaos.
Because the landfill featured so prominently in our lives, we tend to regard its closing as the sole cause of our fiscal problems. Unfortunately, cuts in state aid are also a major cause of our troubles. Like every other municipality, Granby depends on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for millions of dollars a year in state aid for revenue. This aid is more than helpful. It’s essential. About 30% of our $20 million budget is paid for by some form of state aid. Between FY 2008 and FY 2013, local aid to Granby dropped by 38%. We aren’t alone in experiencing this reduction, but other communities may be in a better place to weather it.
On the eve of Fiscal Year 2015, we face a significant shortfall in income with both major and minor expenses on the horizon. We are in a tough situation, but we have some alternatives, none of which is guaranteed. Each of these areas comes with if’s, and’s, but’s, and or’s, but they are alternatives and opportunities for action.
Our first opportunity for action is local aid. There are a number of reasons for the decrease in local aid, but the amount of money, as I’ve said, is sizable. When state aid drops by hundreds or even tens of thousands of dollars, we are in pain. Quite simply, state aid must increase if we are going to thrive. Local aid is distributed by a formula, and Beacon Hill can’t just throw a little extra in there for Granby. But every community is feeling the pinch. We must add our voice and help our representatives pressure the leadership on Beacon Hill. Other communities are feeling the same pain. We must lobby our state representatives and state senator for more local aid.
Our second opportunity is saving money. Granby squeezed the excess out of the budget a long time ago, but we will continue to squeeze. Discretionary spending may be insignificant, and duplication of services may be minimal, but we must continue to look for ways to save. The select board and the school department, for example, have been working on combining services, and expect to bring forward a plan for combining some services. Town meeting will need to approve these changes. As a Town, we are obligated to try to save as much money as we can. We can’t save enough to money to make up for landfill revenue, but we can help.
A third opportunity, though the least appealing, and potentially the most self-defeating, is cutting spending. Because we’ve been making small cuts for many years, new cuts will likely be large cuts. When the fat has been trimmed, what’s left are muscle and bone. Some of our departments—such as the Council on Aging and library–are so small and constrained by regulations that a major cut to them would mean closing them all together. Other departments—such as police and fire—are running well enough, but cuts would mean a loss of services and efficiencies. Continued major cuts to our schools, I might add, are likely to be self-defeating making our small town education less appealing not only to the parents of Granby but to the parents of school choice children. If cuts lead to fewer students, Granby also receives less state aid. We may eventually end up making large spending cuts, but doing so is close to a last resort.
Our final opportunity is bringing in more revenue. Fees and taxes are the simplest way to raise revenue, but certainly the least popular. I completely agree with the finance committee that tax increases should be saved for necessities. One of these necessities will be addressing the deficiencies at West Street School. Whether we end up renovating or building new, improvements will definitely require a tax increase. The feasibility study, incidentally, is progressing. We have hired a project manager and will soon have an architect. We may also need to raise taxes to keep existing services or pay for capital expenses.
A more popular way to raise revenue is by broadening our tax base. Because of the planning board’s good work on rezoning parts of town, Granby is now in a better position to accept business development. One obstacle to new business, however, is our lack of infrastructure. Many of you will have heard that the select board is now looking at a sewer project on the Route 202 corridor. Both the scope and the financing of the project need to be worked out before it is presented to the Town. This project could jumpstart new business development. However, it should be noted that it would take an incredible amount of development to make up for the closing of the landfill and it’s not too difficult to picture. Here’s how:
1) Our tax rate is between $16 and $17 per thousand dollars of property value.
2) One million dollars is 1000 thousands.
3) One million dollars in in property brings in between $16,000 and $17,000 a year.
What does $1 million in property look like? It looks like CVS. Every year our CVS brings in less than $17,000 in tax revenue. It would take the equivalent of ten CVS’s—$10 million dollars in property value—to bring in between $160,000 and $170,000 a year. That $170,000 a year would certainly be helpful—even $50,000 a year would help—but given the economy and Granby’s demographics and location, it’s unlikely that we’ll see $10 million business development any time soon.
So when it’s time to consider a sewer project, we need to consider the potential benefits along with the inevitable costs. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to develop a sewer project, but we want to be sure our investment doesn’t exceed our return.
Tonight I’ve focused more on our general situation and less on specific plans. The select board, however, does have some specific plans. I have proposed the formation of Financial Forecast Committee composed of Town Administrator Chris Martin, me, two representatives from the schools, and a member of the finance committee. The purpose of this committee will be to analyze the financial state of our affairs, determine the extent of our structural deficit, and produce a report to inform our budgeting. My colleague Lou Barry has also proposed a committee to guide and promote Granby’s economic development.
Our future is not going to be easy. There will be missteps. And at times we will fall short, as Teddy Roosevelt once said, “there is no effort without error and shortcoming.” And at times we will succumb to pessimism and cynicism, but as long as we persevere, our future is not bleak. And as long as we stick together, we will not fail.