Closing the Gap

Such is the unpredictability of the season: last Saturday’s sunshine prompted a Tisbury man to shed his shirt and go bare-chested at the task at hand: shovelling snow from the sidewalk. The season’s economic climate has been likewise unpredictable, the only regularity being bad news piling up in drifts. Between the diving Dow and the rising unemployment lines, most of us on the Island try simply to forge ahead as steadily as we can, trying to keep the shirts on our backs.

Most of us have become increasingly tight-fisted, anxious about our personal spending and financial security. Town leaders, well aware of this, have been wringing their towns for any savings they can find. They are properly eking out money already in hand from this year’s budget to spend next year, trying to cut energy costs by ordering energy audits and putting up solar panels and wind turbines. Selectmen have cut their own stipends, while some town employees are cutting their work weeks and foregoing their already-approved cost of living increases. In West Tisbury, officials even discussed the prospect of replacing landscaping crews with grass-munching sheep.

Still, most towns will face a question of what to do about a growing gap on the balance sheets between what they are promising those town employees in post-retirement health care and benefits and what they are stashing away to pay for those promises. In Tisbury, the finance committee’s Jonathan Snyder has calculated the potential obligations across the Island at $89 million. His analysis, flagged in last week’s Gazette, appears in edited form on these pages. It makes clear that no town has been squirrelling away enough in the good times for these seemingly long-off obligations, so now voters will have to face the bad news, whatever the bad times.

These looming liabilities won’t go away; indeed, with interests rates now so low the gap between town savings and liabilities will only expand. Thanks to Mr. Snyder’s glaring report, voters across the Island will likely be asked to budget much more than they have been for this line-item that brings us no bridge or beautification. It aims rather to bring professionals into town positions, something as important if less tangible than a shiny new project.

It is not an easy thing to approve. But it is as predictable as a hangover; we enjoy the benefits of town professionals, so we have to take the medicine. Otherwise, our future debts will pile up faster than we can shovel in funds.