Editorial: Overlooking a vital piece of the budget puzzle

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The first meeting of the new City Council last Tuesday evening included a spirited debate over a motion made by Councilor at-large Michael T. Gaffney.

Gaffney, who said he introduced the motion to affect the process as the budget takes shape, called for a pledge to not increase property taxes, or to use the money from any property tax increase to reduce the city’s unfunded pension liability.

The subjects of the budget, the size and scope of municipal government and the delivery of services to residents are complex. It is still too early in the process to have a truly meaningful dialogue on the specifics of the next budget.

We believe, however, there’s a vital piece of the puzzle that was glossed over last Tuesday night, and had it not been for District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen, it would not have been mentioned at all.

Lost in the debate over property taxes and the municipal budget is the fact that property taxes account for 45 percent of Worcester’s budget. State aid for education, municipal operations and school construction, on the other hand, account for a greater share: 48 percent.

Gary Rosen

City of Worcester

District 5 City Councilor Gary Rosen

On Tuesday night, Rosen said calls for additional state aid have been rejected, in part because the city has $10 million in additional tax levy capacity. In other words, Rosen suggested, because the city is not taxing its residents enough it is not in line for additional state aid.

We believe this represents an antiquated view of how government should operate.

We live in the era of data-driven analysis in which results are measured and analyzed, and the best results are rewarded. Private enterprise was the first to embrace this, but this thinking is now prevalent among nonprofit entities, as well.

Worcester’s public schools outperform or compare favorably to other Massachusetts cities in nearly every statistic, and the city was recently rated 18th nationally in return on investment on police spending.

Combined, education and police spending account for roughly 65 percent of Worcester’s $598 million municipal budget.

In a forward-thinking environment, one should look at those results and the $10 million in tax levy capacity as a virtue rather than a vice.

Results-oriented thinking should lead one to believe that the city administration, Worcester Public Schools and elected officials are on to something, and that increased investment in the city will yield results that would benefit both the city and the commonwealth.

Rosen, in a conversation with the Sun, agreed. “All cities and towns should strive” to produce the results Worcester does “without taxing to the max. … Worcester is a good role model for all cities.”

Moreover, we believe these results should resonate with Gov. Charlie Baker, who has experience in the private/nonprofit sector with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and whose motto has been “do more of what works and less of what doesn’t,” a private-sector sensibility that has been trumpeted a number of times, such as here, here, here and here.

Ultimately, we believe the municipal and state economies that will produce the best results are those in which the public and private sectors are most closely aligned. Having a common measurement of success is an important step in that direction.

None of this is meant to understate the seriousness of the City Council’s ongoing discussion and debate of taxes, the size of government and the services it provides. This is needed and healthy.

What it is meant to do is to provide a reminder that the city has a more than effective argument for additional state aid and it should continue to make that argument.

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