When I think of a budget, I think of a bunch of numbers that either do or don't add up. Each of those numbers has a value, meaning they correspond to a "magnitude; quantity; number represented by a figure, symbol, or the like" (dictionary.com). Budget numbers are represented by this symbol $$$.
But as the Tompkins County Legislature moves into budget season, I'm coming to understand the phrase a government's budget is a statement of its values. A budget is a bunch of $$$ indeed, but it's not the symbols that matter. It's what underlies them that defines the principles, the "the quality (positive or negative) that renders something desirable" (vocabulary.com), the values that we want to live by.
But we start with the numbers. Over the past few months, Tompkins County Administrator, Jason Molino and his staff spent much time talking with the 45+ departments and agencies in the County about what they need to keep their operations going, and what they need or want to enhance their department. The result of this work was a presentation to last Tuesday to the Legislature of the draft 2019 budget.
What we're working with is, (to borrow from the County's press release) "total expenditures of $186.5 million (an increase of 2.57%) and local dollar spending of $89.9 million (an increase of 2.05%). The budget is balanced with a 1.43% increase in the County property tax levy, which is less than the Legislature’s 2.2% levy goal, and well below the County’s tax cap."
Scroll down all those lists of numbers and you'll see that the bottom line for the property owner is an increase on their tax bill of about $15 (for the median assessed property of $185,000).
Last year at this time, I was sitting in the audience of the Legislature with my knitting, watching the Legislators with their giant budget books filled with page after page of numbers, trying to decipher the process. This year, I get to participate every step of the way (and still intend to bring my knitting).
Thursday evening, we had our first Expanded Budget Committee Meeting, which equaled three hours of presentations by some of the department and agency heads. They each took a turn explaining their budget and the extras they are asking for - called Over Target Requests (OTRs). We heard from the County Clerk, The History Center, Transportation Planning, the Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District, Board of Elections, Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources (OAR), Animal Control/SPCA, the County Historian, and the Legislative Clerk. Each was followed by a chance for Legislators to ask questions.
For the next month, we'll meet six times to listen to such presentations and weigh the importance of each department and each OTR. We'll look at their quantitative value along with their qualitative value. Eventually, in October, we'll move to voting meetings, where any Legislator can move to add an OTR or other amendment to the budget. If the item gets eight votes, the majority, it will be added to the full budget. Then, when all that is done, we'll need to get eight votes on the entire budget to make it official for 2019.
I ran into a neighbor and constituent the other day at the grocery store and mentioned budget season. When I told him we're working with $186 million, he reminded me that "That's a huge responsibility!" Indeed, and not something I take lightly.
From the past eight months of work on the Legislature, I have an understanding of what each department does, but listening to each presentation, I got a better sense of who each department is, what population they serve, and what their values are. And it's that last one that is most important. The budget process won't be simple, but when I hear the numbers, the principles, the positive qualities that align with my own, raising my hand to vote for those values will be easy.
Yesterday I had the huge honor to participate in a Naturalization ceremony. The County Clerk, Maureen Reynolds, runs these ceremonies four times a year, and this month, 33 applicants from 20 different countries became American citizens. The packed courtroom was alive with color and children and smiles and so much hope.
I can't claim to know how people feel or why they decided to become American citizens, but it was so inspiring that these people have chosen to renounce their country of origin and claim allegiance to America. It's hard to imagine for those of us who grew up in a place that, at the core of its being, celebrates the freedom to speak your mind, freedom to make your own choices, freedom to pursue your own brand of happiness. We assume that the rest of the world is like ours, because we don't know any differently. But other governments do not necessarily holds the same views. And the reality is that we who were born here take it for granted.
I recently saw a sign that went something like this:
There are only four ways people arrived in America-
-You were Native American
-You were a slave
-You were a refugee
-You were an immigrant.
It's a huge risk when we forget that all our ancestors, except for the native peoples', came here from somewhere else. When it wasn't our parents, or our grandparents who immigrated to America, but ancestors farther back who we never knew, we lose sight of what this country is all about. When we forget that this country was built with diversity, hope, suffering, community, love, and hardship by people from elsewhere, we tend to forget what who we are and what we stand for.
We're in a period of history when I am constantly questioning America, worrying about our future, wondering how Democracy will survive the horrors I am seeing. The core of our country, the Constitution, is in crisis. And yet, today I saw 33 people of all colors and creeds raise their rights hands and pledge to honor and protect the Constitution of the United States. There is something that America stands for that people around the world still want. Maybe we haven't totally f'ed it up yet. And indeed, there's something that America stands for that I still want.
That's why I ran for office. To be a part of protecting that core freedom and justice. America is great already. But we need to reinvest in our ethics, in our community, in our respect for each and every person. Yesterday's ceremony reminded me that now more than ever we need to celebrate our differences, find ways to talk, and to listen, listen, listen to each other.
Here's what I said yesterday:
"Thank you for this asking me to be a part of this wonderful ceremony. And congratulations to our newest Americans!
America was built by immigrants. Our founding fathers and mothers were all immigrants. My own ancestors came from England, Poland, Germany, and only a few generations ago, my great grandfather came here to escape war in Austria. Except the native people who were here for many centuries before we were, all Americans came here from somewhere else. This history is now your history too.
You come from 20 different countries, from large cities and small villages, from different climates and landscapes, and you bring all your past experiences and stories with you. This is one thing I love about America- the variety of backgrounds, the differences in cultures and beliefs, the wide range of experiences we each have. When we come together and celebrate and respect our diversity we become stronger, more resilient, more powerful. When we honor each of our individual stories, we build a community that is vibrant and thriving.
Your path to becoming an American citizen has no doubt been a learning process. You’ve probably had some challenging experiences along the way. That is also the story of this country. America is certainly not perfect. We’ve faced many challenges, we’ve made mistakes, we’ve struggled again and again as we’ve tried to figure out Democracy through trial and error. But I think what keeps us moving forward, what keeps America united, is our belief in the same ideals: freedom to be who you are and speak your mind, opportunity to work hard and create happiness, love of community, commitment to supporting those who need help, and a desire to build a better world for our children.
Being a part of a Democracy is hard. It is not a form of government where people can just sit back and let things happen. Democracy only works when the people are engaged. This means that now, as citizens, you are responsible to be informed and to vote, to voice your opinions to your elected officials, and to teach your children to get involved. Maybe you’ll even run for office yourself.
Like all the immigrants who came before you, America needs your inspiration, your ideas, your energy to make her strong. Honor your past, but as you go forward into your new country I hope you will celebrate our diversity, protect our Democracy, and love and embrace America as your own. Welcome."