It's time to rethink "free cash" spending

May 12, 2018

To the Editor:

Much has been written and posted concerning the Marion Town House project.  Emotionally charged claims have been made on all sides, but probably the most important underlying issue is not getting the appropriate attention needed.

According to the pro and con arguments, a new building costs $5 million and the renovations cost $8 million (neither estimate accounts for debt service or cost overruns).   Both choices add up to a lot of money, and the simple fact is we shouldn’t borrow more money to do either project!

Marion is awash in spending and cash. Our town budget is already far beyond what a town with 2,500 homes should use (we are top-10 in the state for debt as it is now), and each year we participate in what I have come to call “the free cash gala."   Over one million dollars in funds left over from the previous year is called “free cash."  As the argument goes “free cash is used to spend on items that don’t fit into an annual budget." The claim is the town budget can only account for planned and regular expenses.

So maybe its time to rethink all of this.  Each year as we vote on free cash spending we should frame the question in the following ways.  Borrowing from the recently published warrant I offer the following suggestions (actual warrant language is edited for brevity):

Article 11: To see if the town will vote to raise and appropriate…$38,000 to be used for the Police….purchasing a new cruiser or ask the Police Department to wait a year, and spend the $38,000 on new windows for the Town House instead.

Article 22: To see is the town will vote to raise and appropriate…$45,000 to be used by the Water Department for a new truck or ask the Water Department to wait a year, and spend $45,000 on new siding for the Town House instead.

There are a number of other warrant article questions that could be framed this way.

The point is the town already has plenty of money available to expend on meaningful and lasting repairs to the town house without borrowing money.  All that is needed is to better allocate the money already in the system.  It might take a few years to complete the renovations, and along the way an engaged citizens' group could also chip in to handle costs for one aspect or another of the renovation plan.  But at the end of the project, we will all have a building that we all have a hand in renovating.  Instead of tearing the town apart, we will be working together on a meaningful symbol of the community.

The annual Town Meeting is coming up and I encourage all Marion citizens to voice their opinions at the meeting and in the voting booth.  I intend to speak on the the above suggestions at the meeting before the “Free Cash Gala” starts.  Please join me at town meeting, express your opinions, and vote!

Chris Collings