On the evening of April 29, 2015 the Scarborough High School Auditorium was the site of a first attempt at restoring some citizen input into the budget process. It was a public “Budget Forum,” similar, we are told, to events that took place routinely up until about 15 years ago. As first attempts go, it was probably what one would expect. We must commend the organizers on two counts: First, they showed up and actually fielded citizen questions (with varying degrees of success). Second, it appears that every question that was submitted, either in advance or at forum, was asked essentially as it had been submitted. Kudos on those counts! The Budget Forum was a big step forward.
However, there is a long way to go before anything near transparency and full public disclosure are attained. Yes, dear reader, we are sad to report that Lady Truth did not fare well at the Budget Forum. She was alternatively skirted, evaded and sidestepped. At times, she was swirled in irrelevant and diversionary detail. She was obscured and obfuscated. She was roughed up, pummeled and trampled upon. Finally, she was struck by a blunt instrument (an ossified rubric?) and taken by ambulance to a hospital where she remains on life support.
A few things we did get full answers to:
- There are 6 Town employees whose gross pay exceeded $100,000 last year according to the Town Manager. (And when we say “gross” pay, we’re not suggesting that is in any way inappropriate. And we do appreciate the Town Manager’s straightforward answer.)
- The taxpayers are still on the hook for about $15,700 of that nice glass sculpture at the Wentworth School. You know, the one we were originally told no taxpayer dollars were used for.
- Taxpayer funding of additional debt service costs (principal and interest payments) of $472,000 will be required in FY 2017 due to the debt financing of the $4.4 million of capital projects in FY 2016 (road construction projects, laptop program at the High School, etc.). That’s right, the FY 2017 operating budget will have an $472,000 increase as a direct result of the debt associated with the FY 2016 capital budget. (Remember this next year when we’re told about how debt service costs are “locked in.”)
A few of the many questions that were not answered at all
(or that received only the barest hint of a legitimate answer):
- Does the School Board consider affordability in preparing the School budget? It was very clear they have no intention of paying anything but lip-service to the affordability of the School Budget. Even the lip-service may be hard to come by.
- Does the Town Council have any standard by which to judge the affordability of the Town or School budgets? If there is a standard, any mention of it was carefully avoided at the Budget Forum.
- What is the average percentage raise teachers are to receive in 2015? For a reason that is not clear to us, School officials will not answer this question in a straightforward manner. A cost-of-living increase of 2.5% is mentioned and then a reference to a table of steps. Huh? Rather unhelpful. In fact, the real answer is about 4%, with a range of about 2.5% to 7.5%. (But you already knew this answer from two blog posts ago.)
- How does the cost of our proposed 1:1 program at the High School compare to that of other local districts? We still do not have a clue whether an initial “investment” of $1,000 per student is reasonable or not.
If you ever have some spare time and want to read the “official” questions and answers from the Budget Forum, click here for the link. There’s really good data — some of it new — in some of the responses and really bogus attempted-explanations in others.
The School Lunch Deficit Mystery
As you may have noted from School budget question # 12 asked at the Budget Forum, the School Lunch Program (more formally known as the “School Nutrition Program”) runs a large deficit every year. In FY 2014, the last year for which audited amounts are available, the school lunch program lost about $280,000. In FY 2016, the best estimate is that it will lose about $175,000. Yet the FY 2016 budgeted amount of the loss is only $75,000. That’s right, we know the school lunch program is going to lose about $175,000, but we budget that loss at only $75,000.
How is this possible? How can we budget an amount other than what the best estimate is? The explanations for this bizarre (and, quite frankly, misleading) practice are: (1) We’ve always done it that way and (2) It’s okay because we make up for the unfavorable budget variance we know we’ll have in the school lunch program with favorable budget variances in other areas. Wait. What?
If we followed this approach in our household budgeting, it would be like budgeting $60/week for groceries when you know you always spend $100 or so each week at Hannaford or Shaw’s. But it’s okay because you usually spend less than you plan to on gas or meals out. What’s the sense in having a budget at all if you’re not using the best estimates of the various components?
In accounting, there’s a concept known as “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles,” or “GAAP” for short. Those principles are designed to assure that financial statements are as meaningful and fairly presented as possible. The treatment of the school lunch program doesn’t sound like it’s in accordance with GAAP to us. It’s more like the Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge (“WWNN”) accounting principles promulgated by the noted CPA firm of Monty Python, LLC.
(And this doesn’t even raise the question of why the school lunch program is losing $200,000 or so a year!)
Limited understanding AND black hearts?
The Chair of the Board of Education, Donna Beeley, had this to say at the May 4 joint Town/School Finance Committee meeting about the possibility of the high school 1:1 laptop program going to the voters as a referendum item:
… if you were to put it out to a referendum, are people going to have the knowledge that we have here – two years of Jenn working on this to try to figure this out? Will people go to the polls with any knowledge about a decision other than: “I don’t want it?. No, I don’t care. I don’t have any kids. I’m not going to give them a computer.” … That’s why we sit. That’s why we’re here to be able to analyze all this stuff and discuss it.
[To view this, go to the video link on the Town’s website here and advance the video to 1:00:20.]
Unfortunately, fellow taxpayers, we’re apparently considered too uninformed and too selfish to make a wise decision on the laptop issue. Geez, what about the overall $40 million in the School budget? Do we have, as Hercule Poirot would say, enough of the “little gray cells” to render a good judgment on that?
And the winner is…
Actually, two winners have been selected in our “Best Question” contest for the Budget Forum. In addition, our thanks to all the Scarborough citizens who submitted questions! There were many great questions, As a result, we were all winners in hearing the responses of Town and School officials and making our own evaluations of how those answers stacked up against experience and common sense.
The judges were unanimous in selecting Susan Hamill and Liam Somers for submitting a number of well-framed and insightful questions into Town and School financial matters. Congratulations to Susan and Liam! And a hearty thank you to all who asked questions or attended the Budget Forum!
Correction: “Donations to outside agencies”
In our last post, we stated “…the Town really doesn’t have any procedures in place for making donations of our tax dollars to public charities.” The Town Manager has pointed out that the Town does indeed have a formal administrative procedure for outside agencies to request a donation from the Town. What is less clear is how the Town Council evaluates and approves those requests. We apologize for an overly broad characterization of the Town’s lack of policies and procedures. (And we remain steadfast in our belief that NO taxpayer funds should be donated to any charity, no matter how worthy. How taxpayers choose to support charities is an individual matter, not a municipal one.)
I really like the title…so true. Like I said: I didn’t know which part I liked better…the dog or the pony. Thank you, TT
You’re welcome. And thank you for suggesting the title! Even though the presentations at the Budget Forum were quite predictable, at least the Town and School officials recognized some need for better communications with the humble citizenry. Hopefully we can build on it going forward. But the immediate task is to awaken folks to the looming 7% tax increase — the School portion of which is increasing by 9.6%. Apparently the message of fiscal responsibility has not quite gotten through.
Well done. Enjoyed the “mystery” theme.
Thanks. This budget stuff — though important — can be excruciatingly boring. So a big part of the challenge is to inject a bit of entertainment into it, no matter how feeble. The School Department has a ready-made audience and a direct pipeline to the local press. We (those who want the full story of the School budget and the ability to make an informed judgment on it) need our own communications/organization network. Two good sources: SMARTaxes (at http://www.ScarboroughTaxes.com) and the Facebook page of Concerned Taxpayers of Scarborough Maine. Thanks again. And please stay informed and spread the word!