Smithfield Councilmen Perry Harris was concerned. In our reporting on the town’s newly adopted budget, we had noted that spending in the year ahead would fall about 1 percent, much less than the 5 percent councilmen had ordered. But Mr. Harris said the town manager had showed the council that spending would plummet 8.4 percent in the fiscal year that began July 1.
We take the accuracy of our reporting seriously, so we began pouring over a budget summary that Town Manager Paul Sabiston gave council members. It clearly showed that spending would fall 8.4 percent.
The summary noted that spending would drop from $15.8 million to $14.5. But a closer look at Sabiston’s numbers reveals that in the year ahead, spending in Smithfield will actually fall from $39.2 million to $38.7 million. The budget summary shows that, but we had to do the math ourselves because the town manager did not.
So how, in the town manager’s thinking, is spending in the year ahead $14.5 million instead of $38.7 million? Because the town manager excludes what he calls “flow-through” spending, or money that goes right back out door as soon as it comes. That includes spending on water, sewer, electricity, street repairs and debt on the recreation center and other capital projects.
What the town manager is left with is discretionary spending, though he doesn’t use that term, and he does a yeoman’s job of cutting it – 8.4 percent in all.
But 8.4 percent of discretionary spending is not 5 percent of overall spending, and it remains to be seen whether the town council will accept the town manager’s contention that some spending cannot be cut.
Our thinking is that it’s possible to save money by, for example, refinancing debt and consuming less water and electricity. True, the town will still pay for what it consumes, but the council’s directive was to cut spending.
What we have instead is, in the words of one councilman, a status quo budget that does not address the real drivers of unsustainable spending. For that, councilmen have not only their manager to blame but also themselves. The real losers, of course, as always are Smithfield taxpayers.