The 2016-2017 city budget process is in full swing and it is clear to most people that our city faces a budget crisis. The recently approved School District budget to be submitted to the City Council represents over $1.64 million in reductions from existing programs and no money to fund new programs aimed at implementing the district's strategic plan. The city side of the budget, including police, public works, fire, and other city departments, also face substantial budget pressures. Laconia faces difficult choices in the coming months and the decisions that are made are going to have long lasting impacts on the future of our city. As the City Council prepares to make these important decisions, it is my hope that the council members and the city at large ask two important questions. What is it that we want Laconia to become and how do we get there?
Over the past few weeks, I have noted that fingers have been pointed in many directions seeking to place blame for the budget situation that the city now faces. Some point to the increase in low-income housing that the city has been experiencing as the reason for our problems. Others point to government out-of-control and unfunded mandates from the federal and state governments that have resulted in excessive spending by both the city and the schools. Others, myself included, point the structure of the tax cap as an impediment to our investing in the city's future. Still others maintain that there is no crisis and point to the School Board for somehow manufacturing this situation. Ironically, none of the finger pointers is addressing the fundamental issue, which is how we deal with the situation that we now face.
I recently had a conversation with my best friend, who is an executive at a large local employer and a staunch conservative who favors limited government. I told him about the results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Laconia students, which indicated that almost half of our students have lived with someone with alcohol or drug problem, nearly one in five had a family member in jail, and more than one in five were dealing with domestic violence at home. He was extremely surprised and concerned about these results and commented on the fact that the new executives that his company has hired have chosen to purchase homes in other towns rather than in Laconia due to their negative perceptions of Laconia as a place to raise their children. We then discussed the impacts of the budget crisis, the impact of an override of the current tax cap on future budgets, and my belief that the override provision needs to be amended in order to prevent this from being an annual occurrence. He commented that Laconia's issues will take 10 years to address and then said something that I never expected to hear. He said "I would be willing to spend more money in taxes to invest in the future of this city if I knew what the city wanted to become, I understood what obstacles were keeping us from getting there, I believed that the city had a workable plan for overcoming those obstacles, and I knew that the money would be spent towards implementing its plan."
My friend's statement had a profound impact on my thinking about this issue. After much thought, I developed the following vision of what I would like Laconia to be in 10 years:
Laconia is a vibrant, growing and economically diverse community with a strong middle class population. Laconia's citizens are invested in their community and are proud to tell others that they live in Laconia. Laconia is viewed by the business community as an attractive place to do business. Finally, Laconia is known as a community that thoughtfully plans for the future, has a growing tax base and shrinking tax rate, and consistently provides a superior level of city services to its residents.
Other people are sure to have other visions. Further, there is sure to be disagreement about how we would achieve any such a vision. However, if we do not open a dialogue over the direction of the city, work together to develop and prioritize goals, and agree on what actions need to be taken to ensure that the city gets to where we want it to go, we will be unconsciously deciding upon a course of action that may or may not obtain the results that most people want.
The City Council, School Board and so many of our citizens share at least one thing in common. We all love the city of Laconia. We may not always agree on what that city should look like in the future or how to we should get there, but we all can agree that we want what is best for our city. We will never get anywhere if people continue to sit in their camps and point fingers elsewhere. We will only get there by coming together to openly and honestly discuss what is important to the city's future, determine what we need to do to fix the issues that we face, and figure out how we invest in those actions in order to ensure that we are successful.
Our city is at a crossroads and we can choose to focus solely on this year's budget cycle or to think about our future and plan for it. The City Council has been forward thinking in the past and has demonstrated their willingness to invest in our future by supporting such things as the Laconia Police Department's PET Officer, needed improvements to city facilities, and the financing of the purchase and redevelopment of the Colonial Theater, to name just a few. I am hopeful that the council will continue this trend and look forward to working with them to plan for Laconia's future. I believe in the wisdom of the old saying that "those who fail to plan are planning to fail". In my opinion, our city's future is too important to be left to chance.
(Attorney Michael Persson is a member of the Laconia School Board.)
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