OK, folks. With the big Public Budget Forum coming up on Wednesday evening, April 29 at 7pm at the High School, it’s time to go for broke. Hopefully you have submitted a question or two via the Town’s electronic submission form. If not, here’s the link. And here are three final, desperate, Hail-Mary, at-the-buzzer questions launched from the other team’s foul line:
1. To the Town Council: Since State law requires a vote on the School budget each spring, why not also have a vote on the municipal budget at the same time? No additional cost and more citizen participation – what’s not to like?
2. To the Board of Education: What responsibility, if any, does the Board of Education have in developing a school budget that is affordable for taxpayers in the community? If taxpayer affordability is one of the factors used in producing the school budget, what standards or criteria does the Board employ in evaluating whether the budget is affordable or not?
3. To the Town Manager: If all the capital items (projects and equipment) included in the budget are approved, what will be the approximate increase in debt service related to those items in FY 2017? (Remember, those capital budget items that get financed with debt – about $3.3 million this year – have to be paid back with interest by Scarborough taxpayers starting next year. So the new debt will automatically and unavoidably increase our tax rates in FY 2017 and beyond.)
Remember, questions don’t have to be about technical items in the budget. They can be more philosophical or even rhetorical… like “How the hell do you expect me to come up with another 8.5% for my taxes?” Click here and ask away!
Just complete this quick form to find out…
Beware of “the good news!”
[Cynicism alert! If you are easily offended by snark and cynicism, please skip this section.]
One of the first orders of business at the Public Budget Forum will very likely be the announcement of “good news on the budget front.” Yes, after a month of “hard work” and “difficult choices,” we expect that the Town fathers and mothers will have whittled down the proposed tax increase from the obscene 8.5% to something in the 4% to 5% range. Oh, hallelujah! Be still my beating heart!
Why, one may well ask, wasn’t the new budget increase the starting point on April 1?
And, please, we beg of you, do not refer to the reduction from 8.5% to whatever the new number is as a “cut!” Nothing has been cut! An inflated initial request has merely been reduced from the grotesque level to the merely obnoxious. Words matter!
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the tax increase associated with the new, slimmed-but-still-obese budget is a mere 4%. Remember that inflation, as measured by the CPI-U, for the twelve months ended March 31, 2015 was -0.1%. Compared to an inflation rate of essentially zero, even a 4% increase is huge. Especially when one considers that the property tax bill is the largest — or one of the largest — single expenses many families have. (And we don’t care how few cups of coffee a week this increase translates into!)
A Tale of Two Meetings
There are two significant meetings coming up this week: The first, on Wednesday, April 29, is the “Public Budget Forum” at the High School auditorium (which we hope is already in your calendar!). The other, the very next night, is the School Department’s “Community Dialogues” to be held at the Wentworth School. Hmmm…
Here’s a handy chart to compare and contrast the two meetings:
In short, the Budget Forum is being held in a much larger than necessary venue with less publicity than that of a bean and casserole supper at the Grange Hall. And the taxpayers won’t get to enjoy the comforts of the posh Wentworth cafeteria… or get to admire the $40,000 glass sculpture. (Yes, we admit to being cynical at times. Perhaps justifiably so?)
In our last issue you will recall that we announced a “Best Question” contest in conjunction with the Public Budget Forum. No sooner had we pushed the “send” button than our Director of Contests, Mark Goodson, burst into the office yelling: “Stop! Don’t send it! We used the wrong contest!” But, alas, the deed was done. As Mark explained, and we agreed, the contest should have identified the best answer given at the Budget Forum. Imagine the categories we could have had! (Most honest, most evasive, etc., etc.) We may make these awards after the Forum anyway.
Speaking of the contest… to say we have not been swamped with entries would be a gross understatement. At the current rate, your humble editor will be treating himself to a mess of clams at Ken’s Place later next week. So get those questions into the Town website and send us a copy to be eligible for the prize.
• The new trash tax, aka “Pay as You Throw,” has been consigned to the rubbish pile, at least for now. Let’s hope there is some genuine “community dialogue” before it reemerges. Well done to all who made their feelings known to Town officials! And thank you to the Town Council for listening to the citizens. (For the article in the Leader, click here.)
• The “allocations to outside agencies” (basically donations to various local charities) were budgeted at $60,000 in FY 2015. They were “only” budgeted for about $14,000 in FY 2016, not the $79,415 that appears as “2015-16 Requests” in the budget booklet. And even the $14,000 appears to be up in the air since the Town really doesn’t have any procedures in place for making donations of our tax dollars to public charities. Works for us – let’s all make donations to the charities of our choices, not those selected by the Town.
• In this week’s Current, a riveting article on: “Dispelling Scarborough School Budget Myths.” Please give it a look.
A tip of our cap to two Scarborough High School grads:
2011 graduate and valedictorian Alex Colville – Featured in the Current for co-authoring two research papers while still an undergrad at Northeastern University.
2015 graduate-to-be Nate Howard – Featured in the Leader as a talented lacrosse player who will be enrolling in the U.S. Naval Academy next year.
Congratulations to both!
That’s all folks! See you Wednesday evening at 7pm at the Public Budget Forum at the High School auditorium. (Bring your own munchies as no “light dinner” is anticipated.)
One council member climbed into bed with the school board and bragged about how great it worked out . he gave the board every thing they wanted ??? check the council members facebook page and see how proud they are of themselves . why has jane leng moved ???
It was rather amazing to see how certain Council members thought this year’s budget process was a total success. Granted, it was better than last year in that there was an improvement in sharing information with the public. However, in terms of listening to public input, I would give three of the Councilors failing grades.
My guess is that it was NOT rising taxes that led to Ms. Leng’s departure from Scarborough.
Your right about Capital Improvements
Capital Improvements (borrowing money) is like a blank check to the town. This large amount of borrowing is hardly ever good for the taxpayer and will be reflected by a large increase in your tax bill next year, and maybe for the next 4 to 10 years and possibly longer.
To you the taxpayer it is like a credit card that the payments never end as you keep purchasing more and more and just keep up with the payments.
Thanks for your comment. Just like in our personal lives, the overuse of debt can be disastrous for a town. I believe there are times when debt is prudent — for major building replacements, for example. But it can easily get out of hand. And what we must not forget is the “tax hangover” that each new dollar of debt produces. As you note, new debt issued this year will be part of our tax bills for the next 4 to 10 years or more. Perhaps we should require all new debt over a certain amount ($500k ?) to get voter approval? Part of the referendum question could explain the projected costs of repaying the debt in future years. Why not give the voters a voice in the debt decision?
My wife and I plan to attend! To just give up and not attend this very important meeting is, well, giving in. Why send the wrong message by not being there. An I agree with you Betsy that they will be cherry-picking the questions and they also have ample time to address those question but to have to answer them in front of the public speaks volumes. Please plan to attend!
I’m with you! The fact that this event is happening at all is a major step toward transparency and accountability. If folks are genuinely interested in moving toward a more responsive local government, this will be a couple of hours well spent. Plus it promises to have great entertainment value! And don’t forget that 8.5% tax increase they put on the table less than a month ago. Ouch!
Not attending is pretty much like voting yes to the 12.82% school budget increase.
Yes, 12.82%. That on top of last year’s 6.82% and 5% the prior year. It’s hard to get your head around such increases. How many people in our community have received these increases in income; shall we say NONE.
My focus on control of the budget is with the Town Council and at this point in time the Council’s Finance Committee. Those three members hold the fate of our tax bills. Just two of those Councilors need to say NO to this budget; it only takes four Councilors to decide to set a reasonable increase.
The Councilor dropped the ball last year when it directed all departments to bring in budgets with very small increase; then the school department came in at about 7.9%; that budget should have been immediately rejected and sent back without any discussion.
Good luck to taxpayers Wednesday night.
Thanks for the comment!
If I did the math correctly, about 2.7% of the total increase of $4.8 million in taxpayer funding requested by the School Department is attributable to the $1.0 million decrease we received in State education funding. (Note that the funding reduction was the result of the formula used to allocate the State’s total school funding among the various districts. It was NOT the result of a cut in State aid to education.) In any event, the School Board can make an argument that that $1.0 million was “out of their control.” Does that mean that all of it necessarily has to get passed on to the Scarborough taxpayers? Absolutely not. All of us have to respond to many things that are “out of our control” in daily life. And simply passing on that entire $1.0 million reduction to the taxpayers is the easy way out.
So if 2.7% of the increase can be attributed to the State aid reduction, that still leaves an increase of more than 10% to explain. Let’s hope we hear good explanation’s tomorrow evening.
And I agree that the Council — which has the legal obligation to set the School Department’s bottom line budget — needs to step up to the plate. The two nay votes on the first reading of the School budget were really very significant… and courageous. If the School Board is unable or unwilling to balance the Schools’ needs with those of the tax-paying public, then the Town Council needs to do it.
See you tomorrow night.
When did I move to a big city? I did not, but yet our upcoming town q&a forum makes me feel like I have. Why are they asking for questions in advance and through a moderator? Why not just have a sign in, engage directly with the public, and allow 1 follow up question? Perhaps their intent is well-meaning, but this forum feels like it is designed to buffer public officials from the taxpayers that elect them and pay their salaries. I am 100% sure that the vast majority of people would interact respectfully, but it feels like they do not trust Scarborough residents and want to cherry-pick questions. Taxpayers deserve direct, unfiltered interaction with their officials. For pity sake, it is one reason many of us live in a small Maine town. This forum seems more appropriate for a large city, although even in that case, it would still give the appearance of cherry-picking. I am frustrated to say the least and feel this forum will be more for cover and propaganda value to push a large tax increase. I am questioning giving it validity by attending. Feedback welcome.
Thanks for your comments. I agree that it’s not the ideal “Town Meeting” sort of arrangement. But at least they’ve moved a step closer to real interaction with the citizens. Let’s see what works and what doesn’t work this time, and then work on improvements to the format for next year. I really think it’s important to be there. If attendance is sparse, it will just be an excuse to go back to “business as usual,” i.e., we get our 3-minute one-way communications opportunities. Besides, I really want to hear the answers! If they’re trying to spread fertilizer on us, it will show. Don’t miss it!