With more area nonprofits looking to join the March ballot for public funding measures, the question of the limits of civic responsibility have once again arisen -- through inclusion in town budgets of line items to support social programs.
This issue is not unique to Bennington. Municipalities all across our region, inculcated over centuries with the notion of decentralization and local control, have over time agreed to help finance services that do not wholly belong to them, but which still provide vital functions to the community as a whole.
Along with property value assessments which have increased geometrically in the last decade -- most notably since the real estate bubble burst few years back -- citizens in New England, unlike those in warmer climates, are also left with the prospect of heating fuel costs which have escalated at an even more frightening pace.
Of course, there are no quick answers, just as no one is sending aid to the middle class to assist with these payments. Between fuel and taxes, the resulting financial squeeze leads to dissatisfaction with government at all levels. This suggests not only funding streams in need of reform, but also a populace somewhat hindered in recognizing its own identity crisis by the endless tapping of its pocketbook.
At stake is an appreciation for defining the role of government, and for discerning between local politics - where ideology should have no place in the dispensing of municipal services - and national politics, which these days seem better left to demagogues.
Since most middle class checking accounts are not bottomless wells, the difficult decisions required of local elected officials -- often not unanimous -- create deep divisions within the public not unlike what we’ve experienced on the national level.
The media, especially small local newspapers which like their larger urban brethren can always create a good story out of very little, help feed this frenzy by playing the sympathy card repeatedly in whatever David and Goliath scenario they choose to conjure.
But while journalists are often easy and convenient targets, the real accountability lies with everyday citizens. Many refuse to consider a bottom line that can no longer be supported, while at the same time firing off letters to the editor blaming the town government for emptying their pockets when tax bills are paid, or big business and the federal government when they pump their next tank of gas.
These complaints can purportedly be settled on Election Day, but is there anyone who really believes that replacing an office holder changes a financial reality that is reaching the breaking point for so many families? Understanding some sacrifices must be made, however small they may seem and even at the expense of stalwarts, is always the first step in a process of economic austerity.
Which doesn’t mean anyone has to like it, or that the officials voting on it are in some way mean spirited. Their fiduciary responsibility requires them to make difficult choices in a world where not everyone is always going to get their favorite pie flavor. Above all, they are bound by a consideration of their constituents’ desire and their own conscience.
Ultimately, what this boils down to is priorities, which are always discretionary. We have them when we balance our checkbooks every month, and they have them when trying to sort out the municipal budget every year. Frivolous expenditures of all kinds -- pork projects and the like -- should always come under intense scrutiny. And of course, public officials who take things too far and others who have agendas contrary to civic welfare must be held accountable.
In that same vein, so should we all. Most of us receive countless solicitations from good causes, and it’s impossible to contribute to all of them while still putting dinner on the table. So if you are prone to critique your elected officials over such decisions, keep that in mind the next time you choose a loaf of bread over a Humane Society contribution or a gallon of milk over a check to Jerry’s Kids.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org