I’ve seen the lights go down on Dartmouth

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It’s been a long summer in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. In a story that hasn’t been getting much play inside 128 (We have a south coast? Who knew?), but has all the elements of good drama (conflict and tragedy anyway), town administrators and residents have struggled for the better part of four months with a projected 2008 fiscal deficit of some $5 million. An irresolute climax was reached a month ago when the town’s residents narrowly voted down a Prop 2 1/2 override. Now, in a move that has about it just a hint of the hairshirt, town administrators have decided to shut off streetlights on secondary roads to save an estimated $114,000.

This latest budget cut is merely symbolic, designed, I’d guess, as metaphor. Civilization receding back into the Dark Ages, or some such thing, because pernicious property owners didn’t want to fork over $8.4 million – the amount requested in the override. The real cuts were announced earlier. Two elementary schools will be closed this year and their student bodies combined with a third to form a 1,000 student mega-elementary school.

I will not wade in on the debate about the override and I certainly don’t know enough to lay blame for the fiscal mess on anyone’s doorstep. I can only say that, taken as a whole, the story should be read as something of a canary in the coal mine.

The convenient narrative used to be that only failing cities like Chelsea and Springfield faced deficits beyond their powers to close and those due mostly to welfare rolls and “big-city” corruption. But, Dartmouth? Solidly middle class Dartmouth? How did this happen?

It turns out, though, 2 1/2 overrides are becoming the norm, not the exception. In a piece posted on South Coast Today leading up to the Dartmouth override vote, Steve Urbon determined that 122 such votes had been held across the state in just the past year.

The cost of government is high, and climbing higher; and the solutions to government budget crises appear to be tired. Certainly voters appear increasingly unwilling to foot the bill. (Of the 122 overrides, only 39 passed.) And if you’re a Select Board member or alderman in a fiscally struggling town or city, neither will sticking your head in the sand cut it any longer. The state, as cash strapped as its municipalities (one of the reasons the fall’s legislative session will be dominated by the debate over casino gambling), can no longer afford to step in and save you.

I think there are solutions, which I will posit in future posts, but I have already run on too long here. If you would like to read more about the story, you can visit www.southcoasttoday.com, which has devoted a whole page to the Dartmouth Budget Crisis and is to be commended for their coverage.