Letter: Options exist for an altered FTM in Barrington

Posted 5/27/20

To the editor:

How different will the Financial Town Meeting look this year?

Taxpayers always get the final say on our town’s annual appropriations and tax rate. The Financial Town …

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Letter: Options exist for an altered FTM in Barrington

Posted

To the editor:

How different will the Financial Town Meeting look this year?

Taxpayers always get the final say on our town’s annual appropriations and tax rate. The Financial Town Meeting convenes every year in May for this purpose. Taxpayers gather in the high school auditorium. The Committee on Appropriations presents its proposed budget developed by a process involving the Town’s Budget Committee, School Committee and Town Council. Taxpayers discuss, debate, amend and vote on a final version. 

With COVID-19 concerns, this year will look different. The question is how to achieve the same purpose, maximize participation and keep people safe. Several options are available. None are perfect. But all deserve your consideration.

Mail-in balloting would be an option. In this scenario, taxpayers would receive a paper ballot at their address of record. It could have one or more questions about proposed amendments and final approval with or without amendments. Taxpayers would be encouraged to engage each other for discussion via phone, email, and an on-line forum. Then participants would return their ballots by mail or to a drive-through drop box. This has zero health risk, but lacks the face-to-face decision making of past meetings.

Closer to the original concept, is an online version of the meeting. Organizations conduct large virtual meetings just like this every day. Several platforms are available, but most folks know Zoom. In this version, our moderator hosts the meeting on Zoom. Only certified taxpayers are admitted to vote. Others observe but cannot speak. Votes can be taken anonymously and counted automatically. Tech-challenged folks dial a pre-set number to participate by phone. While Zoom is limited to 1,000 participants, this exceeds attendance in recent memory. This option requires more planning and public education. Like mail-in balloting, it lacks risk, lacks face-to-face engagement, but does occur in real time.

An even closer option to the traditional Financial Town Meeting would simply require a larger venue. Some have suggested the Barrington High School football field. Chairs set six-feet apart and a 12-foot center aisle for speakers to approach the microphone would be suitably safe. Disadvantages include a requirement for daylight and good weather. However, in June, “civil twilight” occurs around nine o’clock, and a rain date would be pre-set. Combined with an on-line option to accommodate those who are at high risk for COVID makes this perhaps the best option. 

A final option is least like the traditional meeting. This option would skip a taxpayer vote altogether, instead letting the town council or some designated group decide. With this option, taxpayers might be offered an opportunity to comment. But that’s it. Some might argue that other Rhode Island towns allow a council vote to decide every year. But a complete departure from our long established process without proper deliberation is unnecessary and inappropriate at this time.

Barrington’s budget of over $70 million exceeds the per capita amount of most towns its size. Our substantial budget determines how much property tax each of us pays on our vehicles, homes, businesses, and other property. It also determines the type and quality of services our local government provides. The decision on how to balance those considerations resides ultimately with the taxpayers. Even with COVID considerations, the principles and process involved can remain the same.

Charlie Payne, Barrington Citizens for Taxation Integrity

Barrington

 

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