Chris’ rule: Money is always the excuse, never the reason

Greenwich-Voices-von-KeyserlingIt’s the season when red-blooded taxpayers watch their hard-earned tax dollars circling the drain of government spending. In Greenwich, frustrated by federal and state tax mills, these poor souls turn to the only outlet — the RTM’s annual budget meeting on May 12.

Everyone wants to somehow magically convert the lead of proposed spending to the gold of tax saving. Sadly, there is no magic, no miracle and no silver bullet relief. Good government (supplying quality public service at realistic cost) is a journeyman’s job. It’s slow, steady, thoughtful and objective, fueled by brains, dedication and some wisdom. Boring work for most living in our culture of instant results.

Greenwich’s budget system has been carefully developed and refined over a century of close scrutiny and wise leadership. We have a cadre of the best professional staff to research and advise this process and competent elected officials to balance reality with public desires. We have a several tiered vetting system which presents the RTM with an annual budget proposal. There’s little room for corruption, ego and empire building. There are conflicting constituencies but the RTM is there to balance the demands of the public.

Unfortunately, only sexy causes fueled by emotion get the commitment of our legislators and a public turnout. These are either narrowly focused  (like the GEMS uproar) or vague battle cries with no practical application in the real world. These efforts can become loose cannons, so out of lateral or horizontal context that they often create the very spending waste they so desperately want to curtail.

Yes, government programs are generally large and complicated and always have ripple effects on other programs. For an amateur, squeezing a department budget is as satisfying as squeezing a balloon. The air is not reduced, just moved around.

Proper budgets should be constructed by a disciplined process of development. Establish reality by discovering the truth developed from facts. Then apply that reality to established policy. Facts or factoids are not the truth, they’re simply established record. Truth is the result of boiling down all the facts to settle the meaning of the data. Reality is the acceptance of the field of truths. Once the reality of a situation is decided, it’s a matter of policy to devise an effective budget through sound fiscal strategy. Policy is developed from a set of goals totally of subjective choice.

But when personal politics get mixed in, the whole system goes off kilter. In politics, perception is reality. Facts go looking for a case to prove. Usually this starts with “It seems to me …” or “My intuition tells me that …” and this becomes the cart ramming the horse. The proper place for gut feelings is in the establishment of goals and policy.

These policies may include concepts like “outsourcing” government services to the commercial or not-for-profit vendors. The goal would be to avoid legal liability and lawsuits, “legacy costs” of retirement plans or union work rules.

In the end, the Greenwich annual budget is the collective choice, right and authority of the citizen. Where, what manner and how much is a reflection of their priorities, goals and desires. There is no singular, good choice. Better or worse choices flow from wisdom and disciplined objectivity.

Greenwich budgets are serious business. The RTM’s choices affect every resident and business in our town. Some directly, others by collateral results and unintended consequences. Some now and all later.

All one can ask of the RTM is to be responsible. This is hard work. If one is not willing to commit totally, then sit in the bleachers. Everyone loves a pep rally but few are willing to go to training camp. This is not a game.


Christopher von Keyserling is a Republican and a longtime member of the town’s Representative Town Meeting, though the opinions expressed in this column are his own. 

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