Monday, July 09, 2007

Why Are Cities and Towns Struggling?

Much talk has been going on about the record rate voters are killing property tax overrides this year. David wrote about it at length today - and it's sparked some interesting comments. For some crazy reason, there are people who are blaming the voters. While I'd wish voters would see that most school budgets are trimmed to the bare bones already and vote yes, I understand exactly why so many people are voting no this year. The result is hundreds of layoffs throughout the state - and at least an half dozen school closings, with even more to follow next year. So, what's the big deal? Why are our cities and towns struggling so much? If we put it in perspective, maybe people will do something about it. While there are many reasons, there's one that's been more devastating than any: health insurance rates. It's the straw that's breaking Massachusetts's back.

If you pay attention, you'd know cities and towns struggle with dozens of expensive issues every year. The state isn't paying its fair share toward Special Education costs: when certain students require their own, private teacher it means less money and teachers for everyone else. Here's another problem: the state's formula. Suffice it to say, the Mystery Formula produces often arbitrary results. No one, outside of Beacon Hill halls, seems to know how it works - but the results are obvious. There are richer towns that receive more money per capita than poorer towns. My hometown, laying off more than 15 teachers and shutting down one of its elementary schools just to keep up, would probably be okay if it received the same aid, per capita, as Wellesley - who's median family income is tens of thousands more than where I live.

Still, though, doesn't everyone get the sense that all of these problems would be minor gripes we could work through - if it weren't for the fact that, on top of it all, cities and towns have to pay for their employees' health insurance costs? They have to pay those costs, which are rising upwards of 15% every year, despite the fact that they can't raise funds by more than 2.5%? Something's gotta give - and it isn't students who require special education funds, since that's an unfunded mandate towns have to provide.

There are lots of other problems too, but mostly the little kind that people can reasonably address. Heck, look at Dedham. They're so afraid of additional students entering their community because of affordable housing in the planning, they're considering giving a section of their town away to Boston. Maybe that's not the best solution, but it certainly shows that people can come up with creative ways to tackle local costs efficiently and effectively. Can't fund a teacher and an Althetic Director? Hire my Dad, a teacher and an AD at Lynnfield, who'll do both at about the same rate you'd find someone to do one or the other.

However, health insurance costs aren't a little problem that can be solved with a creative solution - at least at the local level. Certainly, cities and towns are trying. If all town employees got their insurance through the state, instead of the town, the rates would save municipalities thousands: subsequently, people are making efforts to do that. However, even if it were enough to save the Stonehams, Swampscotts and Dartmouths of the state this year, they'd be facing the same problems a year or two down the line. Cities and towns have to deal with rates rising 10-15% every year - which goes far beyond any creative solution. It goes far beyond trimming a few luxuries. Those kinds of expenses lead to a decline in the quality of education for everyone.

Everything comes down to the bottom line - the fact that, with the way we do health care in this country, we're at the mercy of private companies who are trying to maximize profits. They certainly don't care about public education costs - just look at how they treat their clients. It's all a profit to them. Consequently, we have the most expensive health care system in the world, yet dozens of other countries do a better job at actually giving care. Something seems amiss, yet nothing is being done about it. Maybe, if people can link their rising property taxes, health care expenses and declining quality of education their children receive, they'll actually stop trying to treat the symptoms of the problem and try to root out its cause.


Anonymous said...

One thing we need to do is put a cap on the liability payouts when mistakes are made. I'm not cynical enough to beleive that the people that built the big dig actually counted on a few ceiling collapses and figured in the cost of a few wrongful death suits. But watch what that will cost all of us. I'm sorry about that woman, it was horrible, but put a cap of 5 million on those types of settlements. Same with malpractice awards. Only the lawyers will really howl in protest.

DedhamBlog said...

While I appreciate the sentiment of your post on education issues, using Dedham as an example based on Bailey's hack-job editorial is way off base. I and others have discussed our issues concerning the piece here and you can learn more about what's really going on with the annexation here. The letter to the editor in the Globe by one of the members of the Dedham annexation committee and finance committee member referenced in the first thread can be found here. The reporting on the potential annexation and its supposed connections to education may be a Boston issue, but they shouldn't even be part of the discussion for Dedham. This incorrect framing of the annexation in the media has really hurt Dedham's reputation and confused the discussion with a special election coming up in the fall.

Ryan Adams said...

Thanks, but I actually didn't read the Bailey column. I read an editorial in the Globe, probably written by Renee Loth (but one never knows). I also agree, and should have mentioned in my blog, that the road issue is a major factor.

rtc said...

"Suffice it to say, the Mystery Formula produces often arbitrary results. No one, outside of Beacon Hill halls, seems to know how it works - but the results are obvious. There are richer towns that receive more money per capita than poorer towns"

This is so inaccurate. A lot of people fully understand how it works. It is not a "mystery formula." The info is all out there. Why don't you just go to the DOE website and read about it how it works?

Ryan Adams said...

So it's innacurate that rich towns often get more money than poorer towns? Wellsley recieves more state aid than Swampscott, despite the fact that median family income in Wellesley is at least 20,000 more than in Swampscott.

I clicked on your link and didn't see any revelations. There was a link linked to your link that looked rather promising, but it was in excel. Hence, Mystery Formula. Most people don't have excel.

Ryan Adams said...

The above is more state aid per capita, just to prevent it from being ambiguous.

About Ryan's Take