Yes, the FY 2016 budget is now out there, all 281 pages of it. Although it’s not for the faint of heart, we can’t let the size and complexity of the budget prevent us from understanding what’s in it. So let’s all try to channel our inner-accountant and dive in with both feet!
Remember that on Wednesday, April 29, we’ll be able to ask questions about the budget at a public forum at the High School. Not only that, but we’ve been promised the questions will be answered.
But now, to provide some inspiration for possible questions that might be interesting to ask on April 29, we highlight a few potential budget concerns we’ve identified…
School salary & benefit increases — very generous or just misunderstood?
Salaries and benefits account for 75% of the Schools’ operating expense. And most of these salaries and benefits are governed by contracts with the various unions — teachers, bus drivers, custodians, etc. Those contracts, of course, were negotiated and approved by the School Board. So don’t be misled when you hear salaries and benefits referred to as “contractual obligations.” As if they are beyond anyone’s control or just happened out of the blue. They are indeed contractual obligations that were put in place by the School Board.
In a document released last week, we got our first glimpse at the increase in salaries and benefits in the FY 2016 school budget… 5.73%. Yikes! That increase apparently is in the “level services” scenario, i.e., with no new programs or personnel added. With medical and dental insurance premiums staying mostly flat, one assumes that a good chunk of that 5.73% increase in combined salaries/benefits must be attributable just to salary increases. So just how much is salary expense increasing in the Fiscal 2016 budget? Sounds like quite a bit more than the 2% increase we’ve heard about in various contracts.
Questionable comparison alert: Note that the above four numbers are the increases in school salaries and benefits. They are just raw numbers. They certainly don’t tell the whole story, but they should at least lead to some thoughtful questions as to why Scarborough schools are in “first place” in salary/benefit increases. How can our increase be more than double those of Portland and Cape Elizabeth schools?
So here are our questions:
Trashing the Trash Tax?
The proposed Fiscal 2016 municipal budget includes $400,000 of new revenue from the plastic trash bags that each of us will now be required to buy at $2 per bag or so and put our trash in before we put it in the curbside bin. (That extra plastic bag doesn’t sound that green, does it?) So if you’re like most folks who wheel the green-topped trash bin out to the curb once a week, you’ll now be paying an extra $104 per year for the privilege.
Also included in the budget is a savings of about $140,000 of reduced “tipping fees”; these are the fees the Town has to pay to dispose of the trash after it is collected. This new program is known as “Pay As You Throw” (or, “PAYT”) although we prefer to call it “Sneaky Hidden Incremental Trash Tax!” (or… well, never mind).
The reason for the program? To encourage more recycling, certainly an admirable goal. But wait. You and I, dear taxpayer, will be shelling out $400,000 in order to save the Town $140,000 in tipping fees. When you come right come down to it, all PAYT does is shift about a hundred bucks a year from your tax bill to a new payment to Hannaford or wherever you buy your newly-required trash bags. So your tax bill appears to get a bit smaller, while you’re really just paying the tax via Hannaford instead of in your tax bill. If and when we see the detailed financial analysis of this program, we’ll see if it adds up somehow. In the meantime, here’s our assessment of PAYT:
And don’t you think there has to be a cheaper way to encourage recycling? How about a little public education to start with?
What we also find very frustrating is the manner in which this program was introduced. All it took was one slick PowerPoint presentation — with absolutely no details of the alleged savings and costs and with minimal public input — and whammo, it’s incorporated into the proposed budget. When things get rushed like this, one has to wonder what’s being hidden?
So here are our questions:
What the heck is an “allocation”?
Here’s a little item tucked away inconspicuously in the budget package. And without a whit of explanation.
What the heck is this? It certainly looks like a list of donations the Town is making — to the tune of more than $79,000 next year. (It’s hard to read that bottom line request number, but it’s $79,415.) Please don’t misunderstand, this looks like a list of eminently worthwhile charities. And presumably the Town is receiving some sort of direct or indirect benefit from each charity.
But let’s have some clarity here: If a charity is providing the Town a service, then there should be a contractual relationship between the Town and the charity specifying the terms. If there is not a contract, should the Town essentially be making a donation in the name of the taxpayers to various charities? Answer: No, most of us feel quite comfortable making our own decisions on charitable giving. (And, no, the excuse that it’s only $79,000 will not fly… even if it’s only the price of a cup of coffee once a month.)
So here are our questions:
The Credit-where-credit-is-due Department
We have a good backlog of questions to cover in future issues of this blog. But if there’s one that’s been bothering you, please feel to suggest it in the Leave a Reply box below and we’ll try to highlight it in a future issue. In the meantime…
Please mark your calendar now for Wednesday, April 29, 7pm at the High School for the public budget forum. There needs to be a grand turnout for this event. You don’t have to speak, just be there. Of course, if you have a question, so much the better. If there’s a weak turnout, that will be the perfect excuse to never repeat it. Come join friends and neighbors and let Town leaders know your questions and concerns.
Thanks for reading and sharing this blog.
Happy trails until we meet again!