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Public involvement needed in the budget process

As I have worked my way past a sixth-month anniversary as town manager, I have had the opportunity to learn a few things about the town. Most of what I have learned is to be expected: the residents are friendly, they express both enthusiasm and concern for the town, and they enjoy sharing their histories and favorite aspects of the town.

Let me share with you the biggest secret that I have learned: our roads are terrible. Every week, I get a message, call, or visit from someone claiming that their road is the worst in town. I have driven over nearly every road in town and, with so many in poor condition, it really would be difficult to give the “Worst Road Award” to any one street. I simply have to agree that the state of the roads is unacceptable.

From a management perspective, my questions are why has the town let the roads deteriorate so much? Why has routine maintenance been neglected for so long? How can we develop a long-term plan to redevelop the roads?

The answer to the first two questions can be traced to money: sufficient appropriations for road maintenance have not been included in the budget adopted by the residents. To fix the roads, it will take money (and time). Where can we get that money?

Locally is the answer. The Sirens cry of “no more taxes” has us crashing upon the rocks of disrepair. I, too, deplore sending my tax dollars to the black holes of Hartford and Washington, D.C., funding who-knows-what pet projects or inefficiencies. It is easier to see how local taxes are utilized, and, town government should be more responsive than the other levels of government.

A critical factor in Winchester to consider on additional local funding is an apparent lack of confidence in town government. This has perhaps developed as a result of frequent changes of the town manager, the strong partisan atmosphere on the Board of Selectmen, or perhaps the general cynicism toward government in general. If I am to recommend additional funding for any project, I will first have to rebuild and develop that trust.

To build that trust, I want to involve the public more in the budget preparation process. I hope to have an introductory forum to discuss the organization of the town budget, the source of town funds, and restrictions (if any) on those funds. I would then schedule a goals and objectives workshop to receive the priorities of the Board of Selectmen. After those meetings, I will work with the department supervisors to craft a preliminary budget. I will then present the draft budget to the Board of Selectmen for initial review and comments. After final revisions, I will present the budget to the Board of Selectmen for approval before offering the budget to the residents for adoption. All of the budget-related forums, workshops, and meetings will be open to the public, and I hope that many of you come to listen and participate.

I am also working with department supervisors to craft strategic plans for their department. The Public Works Department is responsible for the roads, and, working together, we need to evaluate all of the roads in town and prepare a plan to address the overwhelming need for road maintenance and reconstruction. The roads should be designed and built with proper cross-sections and drainage, aspects of road construction that appear to be lacking in our current roads: too many quick fixes or (at the time) inexpensive shortcuts. We need to build the roads the right way to ensure that such a significant investment in our community is a good value. Sidewalks throughout the town should receive similar attention, especially if we are trying to promote the “walkability” of the town.

We need to develop IT plans, transition plans, vehicle replacement plans, recreational plans, and building needs: all of which have not been a previous focus, but, I believe, are crucial to developing a culture of professional government. We need to convey to the residents that Town Hall is here to serve the residents and promote the town.

I look forward to crafting my first Winchester budget with the staff, the Board of Selectmen, and with the residents. The participation of everyone will help us to develop a better community.

Dale L. Martin is the town manager of Winchester.

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