It’s budget season in Berlin. I’ve been putting in my nights at city hall, listening to the discussions and pouring over my binder. The budget is the most important thing the city council does, and this year councilors a tough choice: increase taxes or cut services.
Berlin doesn’t have money to spare, largely because of contractually agreed-upon salary and benefit increases. It seems likely municipal employees will come to the table to negotiate, but those negotiations still won’t make the difference. The city needs more cuts if it is going to keep taxes flat.
Enter Councilor Robert Danderson, the city’s most effective budget scrutinizer.
When it comes to city dollars, no one is as meticulous as Councilor Danderson. He asks tough questions, examines line items and cross-references communities, all to see if he can squeeze water out of a stone.
His approach is rough, almost bullyish, and he asks the questions everyone else is too tactful to ask.
Councilor Danderson is a political lightning rod. He doesn’t stop talking, even when other people are talking, and he barges his way into conversations with controversial views. He asks whether specific services or agencies are needed at all or if the city could do without them. Such direct questioning seems harsh, but it forces departments to justify their expenses. It ensures the money is going somewhere useful. Right now, when the city is struggling, his approach becomes an asset.
It’s an asset because he doesn’t have any real power. He is only one of nine, and he plays bad cop while the rest of the council is good cop. Last night, at the police department budget review, Chief Peter Morency got ridden up one side and down the other by Councilor Danderson. But Chief Morency was well prepared, and his answers showed the department is working to control costs. The rest of the council enjoys the benefit hearing wide-ranging explanations about expenditures, without getting into political battles with the departments. The city, meanwhile, gets a well-vetted budget.
Although last night looked like it was about more than just fiscal responsibility: as I understand it, Councilor Danderson and the police commission have some history. It was before my time, but it explains the fevered pitch of his questions.
But he did the same thing with the outside agencies, without the distasteful sneer. (Actually, the sneer came back when Northern Forest Heritage Park came up.) He did the same thing with administration, and with the school department, and with every department that has come before the council. The owner of the ambulance service, which is a private entity the city contracts with, said he’d been warned about Councilor Danderson.
If his reputation as a budget hawk engenders a little fear in departments it might be a good thing. It may convince them to do their homework, to make sure all the fat is trimmed before they come to the council. It may, in the long run, save the city money, something everyone in Berlin is desperately trying to do.
While political tension builds around other issues, one thing every councilor can agree on is the need to trim budgets. Councilor Danderson is a divisive figure. His tenure as Berlin’s mayor and the political moves that won him his council seat have proved distasteful for some, but over the next three months he may be invaluable. The city needs to figure out how to save several million dollars, and Councilor Danderson is the city’s best tool for doing that. Sometimes it’s good to be needed.