Three things there are together in my eye…and one of them is a cell phone tower!

It’s budget time at Temple, and our finance committee is hard at work, crunching the numbers and creating the roadmap that will – with our discipline, generosity, and a little bit of good fortune – make Fiscal Year 2008 our eighth consecutive year with an operating surplus. It’s often noted that budgets are our real “moral documents.” That is to say, if you want to know what a house of worship, an organization, or a nation, really cares about, don’t read their high-minded mission statements: follow the money!

As strange as it may seem on a Shabbat evening, my text tonight is our moral document, the FY2008 TMS Budget, in its early draft form. And, as is the Rabbinic tradition, I will draw from two seemingly disparate parts of the sacred text and show how they’re actually tightly connected. One is line 60000.09, Social Action; the second is line 56000.06, Utilities.

If you’ve looked at your own current water bill, you know that a new fee is in place. The creation of a storm-water utility to invest in better flood controls and to manage their implementation is, in my opinion, a proper response to the catastrophic floods of 2006 and the more frequent flooding in many El Paso neighborhoods. Though in the current economy I’m not delighted to have to pay an extra $7 each month to local government, I am glad to know that storm water management is at long last being addressed.

The monthly fee is based on the amount of area on each property which is impervious to water. On the face of it, this makes some sense. If the water can’t enter the ground on my property, it’s going to find my downhill neighbor. To the extent that I’ve “improved my lot” with buildings or paved areas, I pool my money to fund drainage projects all over the region. Fair enough.

How does this affect our synagogue? Well, we’ve got a great parking lot, don’t we? And a nice big building, yes? Only a few times each year are they filled to capacity, and yet we are blessed with the resources to be able to maintain them year-round. If you get here late on Kol Nidrei and nevertheless have a place to park, say a quick blessing of thanks…and consider the fact that Temple Mount Sinai’s contribution to storm water management will be approximately $6,000 in the coming year.

Hold that thought. And now, let’s look at line 60000.09, our Social Action program budget. The lion’s share of that $6,000 line is invested in Border Interfaith. Temple, along with over a dozen other congregations, contributes approximately one percent of our operating budget to the organization, which pays the salary of our organizer and the expenses associated with training leaders and running the events – meetings, candidates forums, et. cetera – that are the organization’s purpose. Temple will enter its third year as a dues-paying member of the organization, and our operating budget is gradually picking up more of the costs as challenge grants won in the first year phase out. I am so proud that Temple is a member of Border Interfaith, and that we are paying our fair share.

How are these two budget lines connected? What link can be drawn between a utility bill and a broad-based community organization’s membership dues? It’s simple. One of Border Interfaith’s defining issues has been flooding, particularly in the outlying areas of the county. Through Border Interfaith, we are in relationship with the churches in Westway Colonia and in Canutillo whose members were devastated by the floods of 2006 and who are endangered on a regular basis when the monsoon rains land in the wrong place, with the wrong intensity. BI leaders have been deeply involved in the meetings of the PSB, local and Federal government officials. Just a few days ago BI was commended by several local officials for our positive contribution to these conversations.

I felt strongly about BI’s involvement in making sure that storm water is handled fairly and justly even before I saw our most recent water bill. I feel even more strongly now — $6,000 more strongly, to be exact! I would have liked to have spent those six thousand dollars in some other way. A scholar, a program, a concert, books, you name it. Almost anything would be better, at first glance, than a $6,000 jump in the utility bill. But, connecting the dots from line 56000.06 to line 60000.09, from a well-maintained, expansive parking lot on North Stanton Street to a flooded street in Central El Paso or Canutillo, I understand even more clearly how budgets are, indeed, moral documents. And I understand that our $6,000 utility hit is the moral high ground from which we are able to argue for fairness and justice in the implementation of new drainage projects all over El Paso, for ourselves, and for those downstream of us.

This sermon would not be complete without mention of a third line in our budget, the one which brings the fiscal conservatives among us a measure of comfort – what the Rabbis called the nechemta. It is line 41000.08, “cell phone tower rental.” It is $12,000 in the coming fiscal year, rent paid to us for the use of land to construct a cell phone tower on our property. The tower has been in place since late January, so well-disguised as a pine tree that most people don’t even know it’s there unless it’s pointed out to them. We owe a debt of gratitude to our staff and lay leaders who spent many hours insuring that the tower would be unobtrusive and would generate an appropriate amount of income, now and for many years to come. Their hard work makes it less likely that we’ll have to make harsh cuts anywhere in our budget to meet our obligations in the coming year.

What a happy coincidence it is that six plus six equals twelve. It allows me to say, “Three things there are together in my eye…” A cell phone tower. A gathering of Border Interfaith. An impervious parking lot. I hold them together in my eye, in my thoughts, grateful for this Temple’s resources and its commitment to using them to build a better world.

One thought on “Three things there are together in my eye…and one of them is a cell phone tower!

  1. Larry Bach

    A comment on my own entry…

    I am not surprised to learn that there is an effort to redistribute the pain a bit, or scale back the scope of the project. These are big bills, and the hit to pavement-intensive businesses is particularly rough.

    Having said that, I was surprised to see a clergy colleague quoted in news story protesting his church’s billing on the grounds that the property is non-taxable. A novel argument, and a nice try, but (obviously) I feel that congregations’ parking lots are no less impervious to water than car dealerships’, and it would be unjust to exempt us.

    What do you think?


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