Budget hearings are a missed opportunity

One minute. Three minutes. An hour.

That’s how long it took the towns of Amenia, North East and Pine Plains to hold their public hearings on their municipal budgets, respectively.

In the audience, for each, was one person from the public, two people and four people, in that order.

In the town of Washington, no one participated in the hearing, so the board actually voted to keep it open for an additional week.

OK, this either means that almost every single citizen in these Harlem Valley towns is really, really satisfied with the way their local leaders govern and spend their tax dollars, or they suffer from a total sense of apathy.

Now, while we like to think it’s a show of support, we have to wonder. How often do you hear your friends and family, neighbors and colleagues complain about local government? Maybe not continually, of course, but certainly people take issue with the way their towns tax and provide services. There’s a whole litany of possibly sore subjects: EMS, roads, recreation, water, lighting, police, building and zoning.  

For the record: We think, by in large, that our local towns and villages are doing a sound job. They are careful with how much they spend, deliberate with where they direct funds and effective in how they plan for and deliver important services. 

They go through those budgets line by line, modifying and tweaking until they’re as palatable as possible. When drafting their fiscal plans and setting tax rates our council members and trustees are diligent and scrupulous. We are not criticizing how they budget.

In fact, towns have a formal, state-mandated process through which they create their budgets. Our Town Boards meet with department heads to talk about each department’s wants and needs. Then, in numerous meetings — all open to the public — they figure out how much of each wish list they can afford to grant. Next, draft and preliminary budgets are created before a final budget is adopted. During that process, a public hearing is held.

That’s your chance! That’s when you, as a local taxpayer, can weigh in on how much is spent where, who gets paid what and the amount to be raised in taxes.

But, lo and behold, year after year, practically no one attends these public hearings. They are swift, they yield no public comments and they are (typically) closed within minutes. After all, the boards have already done their due diligence. They’ve done their work. The hearings are designed for public participation. No public, no participation.

Yet, once we get our tax bills, we all complain. OK, maybe not all of us, but a good number of us. We grunt and groan about how much goods and services cost. We forget — conveniently — the hundreds of thousands it costs to have reliable emergency services or good road maintenance. We forget that many municipalities help fund local libraries. We forget that it costs money to light our downtowns. We forget many things — things that our local leaders must consider when drafting their budgets.

So, the next time you start to grumble about the budget, think instead of the missed opportunities we all had to let local government know our concerns and questions. It’s kind of like voting — if you don’t participate, do you really have a right to complain? If you do participate, you might actually make a difference. Why not take part — eitherway,  you’ll still have to pay those taxes.