No school windfall after all
After the first school budget referendum crashed and burned, Town and School leaders quickly came back with a somewhat reduced version. (Some have said, “minimally reduced.”) The new proposal “only” requires a 6.8% increase in taxpayer funding of the schools this year – compared to the 7.4% increase in the soundly trounced first version. We’re not sure taxpayers will greet the new version with much more enthusiasm than the first one.
The Town Council and School Board were clinging to one final hope for saving the school budget that will be going to the voters on July 25 – a big infusion of cash as a result of the recently-settled State budget. At the Town Council meeting on July 5, one Councilor suggested we could receive additional State education aid this year of between $500,000 and $1,200,000. Another Councilor had previously dangled up to an additional $2 million of State aid before us.
But, alas, this windfall was not to be. After the additional $48 million of funding the Legislature added to the State-wide education aid budget for Fiscal 2018 percolated through the State’s town-by-town allocation formula, Scarborough ended up with an increase of $0. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
Bottom line: the July 25 school budget vote still calls for a 6.8% increase in taxes raised for the schools and a 3% overall tax rate increase.
(Don’t get us wrong…we would have been thrilled if the State had sent along a nice check. We all have things we would rather be doing this summer.)
We wonder how some elected officials could have been so far off in estimating Scarborough’s take in the State budget sweepstakes. It seems like a shame to raise folks’ expectations so high, only to have them come crashing down.
Why did the first referendum fail?
Degree in rocket science not required…
Some of our elected officials professed shock and surprise that the first school budget went down in flames. Especially after, as Councilor Caiazzo noted, they had done everything right.
Take a quick look at the following chart provided by Town officials. It compares Scarborough’s school budget to those of a bunch of other Cumberland/York County municipalities. The blue bars are increase percentages in school operating expenditures (i.e., salaries/benefits, utilities, etc.). The orangy bars are the percent increase in the “net school budget,” which is accounting-speak for “the amount taxpayers need to come up with for the schools.”
As you can see from the blue bars, Scarborough is in the lower middle range for operating expenditure increases. Pretty good. But that orangy bar kind of stands out for us, doesn’t it? Again, that bar is the percent increase in tax dollars raised for the schools. As you can easily see, Scarborough’s orangy line at 7.4% is the highest of all the municipalities and more or less double the average of everyone else’s. Do you think that that may possibly have had something to do with the voters not passing the school budget?
Pickleball as a metaphor
Back in our May 16, 2016 blog, we highlighted the proposed “senior recreation area” that appeared in the Town’s capital budget in the amount of $100,000. At the time, we suggested that was a lot of money for an undefined need that had absolutely no planning behind it. The $100,000 was essentially a placeholder (or blank check) for some undefined future project.
Fast forward to May, 2017: the Town issued $2.9 million of bonds, which included $100,000 for a senior recreation area. OK, so now it’s a done deal. There’s now $100,000 sitting in a Town bank account waiting to be spent on this project.
One might hope that there were some plans associated with the project. Something that would give us a warm and fuzzy feeling that we knew what we were going to be doing with that $100k of taxpayers’ money. Or, even more basically, that there was a real need for the $100k expenditure.
But then the following survey popped up on the Town webpage recently:
[Notice that the reference to “seniors” is gone; now it’s an “outdoor gaming area.”]
So it’s quite apparent that no one has the faintest idea of what’s involved in a “senior recreation area,” other than it includes some outdoor games. And how the heck was the $100,000 amount arrived at??? Perhaps $50,000, or even $10,000, could have satisfied the need?
This just strikes us as clear example of the Town’s penchant for undisciplined capital spending – borrow some money (preferably a nice, round number) and then define a project at your leisure. How does this happen? Is this the way Scarborough residents plan their own home improvements? We don’t think so. And we don’t think it’s an appropriate way for the town to spend our tax dollars, either.
What is particularly frightening about this project and this approach to capital planning in general is that we are currently in the late planning stages for a new police/fire station (or “public safety facility”). That project is currently on the drawing board for $20 million plus. While the amount may be uncertain, the need to replace the existing building is quite clear.
And $20 million of additional borrowing by the Town may be a hard sell for many voters. That’s $20 million on top of the more than $90 million of debt we currently have outstanding. When we issue $100,000 of debt for things like an undefined senior recreation/gaming area, it just makes it that much harder for voters to go for a $20 million project, no matter how necessary it may be.
By the way, we couldn’t help but notice that one of our all-time favorite outdoor games – shuffleboard – was not on the list of choices in the survey. And if the Town is really serious about a community gaming area, make sure it includes slot machines! Perhaps Scarborough Downs would fund the entire project…
Too often we find ourselves writing about negative things. But, hey, we’re just reacting to what’s out there. So when the opportunity comes along to highlight some positive news, we want to jump on it and set off joyful fireworks… within the limits of the new Town fireworks ordinance, of course.
Here are a couple of recent examples of developments that should put a smile on taxpayers’ faces:
>>>>> At the most recent School Board meeting, Superintendent Kukenberger announced that one of the local banks is planning to offer a free “Red Storm” debit card to its customers. Every use of the card will earn a 5-cent donation by the bank to the Scarborough school lunch program. While this program will probably not generate huge dollars, it represents a major step forward in the schools’ willingness to tap into alternative revenue sources. Kudos to the Superintendent and School Board for implementing this program!
>>>>> In recent public remarks (link here), Town Manager Hall acknowledged “legitimate concerns around three central topics: 1) the need for multi-year forecasting, 2) structural changes to the fundamentals of the School and Town organizations and 3) management of long-term debt.” While he noted that there are not quick fixes for these issues, we applaud the Town Manager’s leadership in this regard and hope that town and school officials will make a serious, results-oriented effort to address these issues now… so that we can avoid another painful budget development process for Fiscal 2019. Taxpayers will definitely have reason to celebrate if these concerns are addressed.
Last Call — Early Voting through July 20 — Referendum on July 25
That’s all for now except for one final reminder (plea) to vote on the second school budget referendum. Early voting is at Town Hall through Thursday, July 20. The official voting day is Tuesday, July 25, with voting at Town Hall. If you believe a 6.8% increase in taxpayer funding of the schools is still too much, please vote NO.
The lazy, hazy days of summer are not really conducive to voting, so please make sure voting is a top priority in your plans for the next few days. And try to bring a family member or friend or two along with you when you vote. Thank you!
So long until next time. And happy trails until we meet again.