A lot of ‘splainin’ to do — Budget Review, Part 1

los-ricky-ricardo

Fred, we got a lot of ‘splainin’ to do on this budget!

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.

los-sal incr charts

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:

los-salary quests


 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:

los-payt image

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:

los-payt quests


What the heck is an “allocation”?

Here’s a little item tucked away inconspicuously in the budget package.  And without a whit of explanation.

los-alloc to outsideWhat 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.

los-community chestBut 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:

los-alloc quests


 

The Credit-where-credit-is-due Department

los-cert apprec


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…

los-rockwell-town mtg..

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!

 

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17 thoughts on “A lot of ‘splainin’ to do — Budget Review, Part 1

  1. Mille

    The trash thing is complete crap. More plastic when other towns are striving towards less? What’s the point? To counter balance Portland ‘s new initiative? Maybe we should demand more recyclable packaging! I yell at people in my house all the time for throwing non recyclable items in the trash. .. NO MORE! Who thought of this gem? Ridiculous!

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    1. tthannah Post author

      There are just so many things about this proposal that are unknown or unexplained. It is really disturbing that other, less costly approaches to encouraging more recycling haven’t been considered. (Or at least we haven’t heard about them.)

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  2. Mille

    I think that ipads make more sense. Other school departments have found that ipads are cheaper as a whole, ,easier to maintain.

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    1. tthannah Post author

      I think this is a really tricky issue. iPads definitely have a good chunk of the education market, but I think it’s eroding these days. And, especially at the high school level where the kids are expected to produce long reports, I can see a definite advantage to a keyboard. In any event, I believe the whole program should be re-looked at with cost as one of the primary considerations. When the current recommendation was generated, the starting point was “what would the ideal program look like?” After the specs were decided for what we “needed,” then cost was considered. Something tells me that Chromebooks would probably meet 90% of our “needs” at 60% of the cost. (That’s just a hunch, but I think we deserve to see the numbers.)

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      1. Mille

        All very valid points. I’d love to hear all these numbers. Kids are expected to know Word formatting, especially for college.

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  3. Catherine

    Do you remember a couple of years back they spent over $10,000 to tag all of our trash and recycling barrels so they they could monitor who was using them? There was supposed to be equipment on each truck (that the Town paid for) that would record when each persons barrel was used. Town employees spent a lot of time on trash day tagging everyone’s barrel. (Employee time = $) The point was so that they could track recycling and come up with a plan to encourage people to recycle more. After it was done, I never heard anything about the results of this expensive study and what new efforts they were putting into place to get people to recycle more as a result of this study. Money down the drain perhaps?

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    1. tthannah Post author

      I do remember that tagging process. Must have proved to be complex. Not surprisingly! It does seem like we should be able to come up with a reasonably simple and workable plan to boost the use of recycling. Perhaps an ad hoc recycling committee???

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      1. P LaRou

        TT and Catherine, I do recall SoPo having a similar problem with their disposal plan. They use the process similar to Scarborough but found that recycling was not being done in certain areas of the city. The Public Works Dept. did an extensive investigation and found the people who were not complying. Letters went out to the people stating that if they didn’t not start recycling then they would be taken off the program (no trash pick-up) and would have to personally pay for the removal. The City kept tabs on these people and the problem was solved. Compliance was meet! Scarborough is approaching the trash issue the same way they approached the dog issue…heavy handed!

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      2. tthannah Post author

        Good point! Let’s identify the “problem trash users” and encourage them to change their ways, gently at first and then more firmly if necessary. And what about some sort of composting alternative… I keep reading that 40% of trash is compostable. (Like turnips, for instance.)

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      1. tthannah Post author

        If you haven’t seen it, the School Department has a very detailed write-up of the high school laptop proposal at http://www.scarboroughschools.org/news/technologyinvestmentproposalforhighschool/Technology%20Investment%20Proposal%20for%20High%20School%202016.pdf. In it, you’ll see the specifications for the device they “need.” It turns out to be a Lenovo Thinkpad at $459 apiece. Various Chromebooks are currently available for $200 to $300 retail… and presumably less when you buy a thousand of them. So the question becomes: did we really need all those features (including touchscreen, stylus and convert to a tablet feature)? Or could we have given the kids a quality 1:1 program at $300 or $350 per device? It would be interesting to see how our selected device compares to those used by other districts in terms of cost and functionality.

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  4. TUDOR, JONATHAN E.

    Ha! Almost fell out of my chair on the turnip truck analogy. Unfortunately, this would be much more humorous if it wasn’t true…

    Keep up the good work and let’s get a big turnout for 4/29.

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  5. Jan Love

    Nicely done! The current sham being perpetrated on the taxpayers of Scarborough is that the million dollar purchase of computers for the high school students doesn’t require a town wide referendum because it is not one purchase, but many small purchases.

    Any procurement officer worth their weight in salt should be buying those at a volume discount, i.e. One large purchase. Or are we just being duped again? (rhetorical question, I know)

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    1. tthannah Post author

      Thanks! I agree that it is unfortunate that the laptop purchase is not subject to referendum because of the wording of the charter. (That should be on the list of corrections for the next charter update.) I am still torn on the laptop program. On the one hand, I think some sort of 1:1 computing program makes sense in today’s world. On the other hand, I have no confidence whatsoever that the currently proposed laptop program is the most sensible option for the Schools. And on yet another hand, even if it is the most sensible option, I would like to see at least a substantial portion of the cost offset by savings elsewhere. It’s called “prioritization.”

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