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Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


The point of much of life is accountability, in public matters and in private matters.  You do things, those things have consequences, you accept responsibility for the consequences when the consequences are things you could have been expected reasonably to know would occur.  It's a simple concept, but not one of which we any longer seem to have intimate knowledge.

Going to the Fire District Meetings provides a ready reminder of how people seek to avoid accountability in the instant.  For example, last night the Commissioners approved their 2013 budget for the Fire District.  For a change (and to their great credit), they had copies of the budget available to those of us in attendance.  This was scarcely a speculative move insofar as there are about a dozen people who nowadays attend every meeting and mostly bringing a critical eye, but this is the first time they've supplied us with any information.

What of course the Commissioners did not provide was a copy of last year's budget so those of us attending and on the watch for the taxpayers could see where there were differences.  Thus, we were significantly limited in how we could respond (when Ringmaster Meursing allowed us to speak) to budget items.

In addition, we were significantly limited in other ways.  When I arrived at the meeting, I sat at one of the 8 or so tables that face the Commissioners' chairs.  On that table was a piece of paper that had a few names on it.  I glanced at it and thought it was asking for a list of attendees (which are sometimes posted in the minutes).  I signed it.  A friend sitting nearby who had not signed it corrected my thinking: it was to say whether you wanted to speak during the meeting.  She wasn't signing it because she didn't know whether she wanted to speak: would have to wait to see what they said or did.

As it turned out, Meursing's view was that if you didn't sign the paper, you're not allowed to say a word.  Later in the meeting, Arthur Reber, e.g., a member of the Board of the Taxpayers' Association and the Chair of the Community Advisory Committee was told by Meursing that Reber's failure to sign the paper was too bad for him.  And though Reber pursued a brief comment, Meursing cut him down.  The 'Little People' were not to speak when Meursing says, "NO!"

As it turned out, only four of the 12-14 attendees signed the paper, and two of them had come to congratulate the Commissioners on the sterling manner in which they had bravely--even heroically- led the Fire District during the Times of Trouble.  The other two were Mr. Gott (who is very critical of the Commissioners usually) and me (I'm not acutely critical at the meetings: more like faintly disbelieving of what they are saying).  And we both spoke.  Mr. Gott wished for some clarification on a couple of line items as to what they meant.

I, alas, wanted something more.  Meursing gave me four minutes  Although I have access to last year's budget, I did not bring a copy of it with me to the meeting.  So, depending on my memory, I noted that this year's budget involved a 135% increase in legal fees and inquired about it.

Me: Why, e.g., is there such an increase in legal fees?  Do you expect lots more legal need?
Meursing: I don't know whether it's going to rain next week.
Me:  Well, yes, I understand that these are estimates, but what do you base them on.
Meursing: This is a budget, Mrs. Ross.  You put numbers in.
Me: Yes, I understand what a budget is.  What do you base the numbers on? Presumably you don't just draw them out of a hat.
Meursing: It's an educated guess.
Me: Yes, I understand that.  What I am asking is what educated you with respect to this $7,000 number, this 135% increase.
Meursing: I've never been an educator.

This is what it's like talking to Bill about anything specific.  I can never tell whether he doesn't want to let you know anything or whether he, himself, actually doesn't know anything.  In this case, the Financial Manager of the District intervened in Meursing's failure to know anything, and explained that she and the Fire Chief had come up with the figure.  It was based on the fact that they had overshot last year's budgeted $3,000 legal costs by several thousand because of the "difficulties" of this past summer and to be on the safe side added a bit more to 2012's actual costs in case more was needed next year.  Good response.

Unfortunately, that was about the only specific number I could remember from last year's budget.  However, now that I am home and can compare the two budgets, I am able to see that the 2012 total budget for the Fire District was $375,000 (rounded) and the projected 2013 budget is $445,000, a $70,000 (19%) increase. The state allows the districts, according to Meursing, to increase their levy each year by 1% to cover increasing costs (to keep up with inflation, essentially).  But the District's increased costs are closer to 19% than 1%.

What to do?  The Commissioners boldly moved to reject the 1% levy increase and to accommodate their 19% spending increase from the mighty capital and reserve funds generated by their 2010 excessive levy increase.  These two funds (money that the district is holding in reserve for a rainy day, as we say) currently total over $358,000.  (By the end of next year, it will be over $450,000.)  So to make up for their increased $70,000 of spending, they'll have to cut back a little on their contributions to the capital/reserve funds next year from $169,000/year to $95,000/year.

Not clear at all what is being gained from that extra spending that will improve the services we receive.  But it doesn't matter what we understand because as Mr. Meursing will doubtless say if anyone complains, 'You had the opportunity to speak on this issue at the meeting but you failed to say anything persuasive or you failed to take that opportunity."  So, it's the public's fault that they do these things...That's the Chairman's idea of accountability.

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