Street Talk: A most unbalanced budget

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Someday, at a town hall near you, my head is going to pop clean off my neck.

It will make a pleasing sound, I reckon, like a cork departing a bottle of cheap champagne. Days later, after the autopsy and a respectable period of mourning and restrained amusement, the death certificate will contain just two words.

“Budget meeting.”

That’s my prediction. Someday, the frustration and fury of mill rates, applied revenues and general funds is going to kill me in a manner that’s both violent and hilarious. YouTube is going to love it.

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It won’t be boredom that gets me. Not JUST boredom, anyway. While a budget meeting in Lewiston or Auburn is eye-throbbingly dull, the wee little towns are a different ball game.

In the wee little towns, the people are engaged, my friend. They are keeping track of every sweaty dime that gets spent on town business, whether it’s rat control at the dump, playground equipment for the tykes, God bless their hearts, or the cost of that new-age goo they’re using to fill pot holes these days.

In towns like Sabattus, Leeds or Bog Hoot, a budget meeting is an almost guarantee of flaring tempers and spittle-flying disagreements that occasionally get personal, since everybody seems to know a little something about everybody else. You might even see a bit of name-calling here and there, which is great fun for me. Way more fun than trying to calculate taxable values, whatever the hell those are.

At a recent budget meeting (I didn’t die, but I sort of wanted to) you had people banging their fists on rickety tables as they argued a blue streak over the matter of a pellet boiler and whether it was zoned correctly. There were moments when I thought the town skinflint was going to overturn a table and challenge the resident spendthrift to a fistfight.

The problem for me is that when such drama begins to unfold, I start thinking about the scene in a cinematic way, with cool camera angles, voice-overs and everything.

In a world where a small town’s darkest secret threatens to tear the community apart, one man and his faithful pellet stove can save the day – but only if he can keep his own skeletons buried at the town landfill, which is looking at a $15,000 cut in the next fiscal year …

Wait, what? While my thoughts are drifting off into cool movie landscapes, the townsfolk have resumed talking about money matters, with actual figures being spouted and everything. By the time I drift back, there’s suddenly $70,000 on the table that wasn’t there before. I have no idea where it came from or what it’s in reference to. All I know is that everyone in the room but me is nodding with deep understanding of this 70 grand that just might save the budget.

“So we’re agreed,” says the vice chair of this committee or that one, “that this adjustment to the applied westward spasmodic fund is the best course of action?”

Murmurs of agreement all around. And now, instead of enjoying fantastically entertaining skirmishes over dump matters, I’m suddenly listening to a group of people who seem to be speaking in a language comprised exclusively of numbers. That mysterious 70 grand somehow morphs into $170,000, with an ancillary adjustment to the net change, which may or may not be related to the mystical figure of $106,470 which is all at once being batted around like a beach ball.

“One hundred six thousand, four hundred seventy,” the entire room mutters at once. It’s like a chant; a mantra, a malignant spell being cast. “One hundred six thousand, four hundred seventy. One hundred six thousand, four hundred seventy!”

Completely lost now, I start to boil first with annoyance, then frustration, then desperation and then, finally, utter panic. How can I possibly write a coherent news story about numbers that have become so deformed and misshapen, they won’t even fit inside my head, let alone make sense of themselves.

I silently cursed the editor who had sent me here (you know who you are). I ponder whether the copydesk might be willing to accept an epic poem or perhaps an interpretive dance in place of a budget story. I wonder if the math would start to make sense if I ran headfirst into a wall for an hour or so.

When a story feels sincerely beyond my grasp, it’s bewildering. Humiliating. Maddening. And here is where I suspect that one day my head will blast away from my frame, much like a dandelion flicked off its stem. It will go PLIP, or possibly KA-TOINK, and then it will be over. Let somebody else clean up the mess, both mine and that of the Hell’s Stew that is the town budget.

Fortunately — for me and for the guy who has to clean those town offices — a hero almost always emerges from the chaos and carnage. In this case, it was Mechanic Falls budget committee saint and heroine Bonnie Payette, a woman whom I now adore so intensely, I might someday invade a small country just so I can name it after her.

At the end of the meeting, I took my distress to Queen Payette, and she solved the issue for me so quickly and with such ease, I might have laughed if I hadn’t already been sobbing.

“You take this number and add it here,” she said, jabbing at my notebook with a pencil. “Then you add the total of those numbers to the figure in the very last line. See?”

I did! I did see! Still don’t have any stinking idea what a mill is or why it has a rate named after it, but I had enough working knowledge of the night’s proceedings to write a story and to avoid performing an interpretive dance for the copydesk.

Although, I might perform the dance anyway, just for fun.

I call this piece “The Pellet Boiler.”

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