Due to the time-sensitive nature of this information, we have taken the unusual step of amending and reissuing this blog post…
Tax rate increase goes from 2.9% to 3.6%. Voters left in the dark.
At a Finance Committee meeting last evening (August 31), Town Manager Tom Hall announced a revised tax calculation for Fiscal 2018 based on the final Town valuation from the Assessor’s Office. Using the school budget that voters will consider at the September 5 referendum, the overall tax rate increase goes up from 2.91% to 3.58%.
The reason for the significant increase in the tax rate was a dramatic decrease in the Town’s projected valuation. It had been projected to increase by about $50 million over last year, but instead increased by only $9 million. We will leave the explanation for that decrease, why it was not anticipated and the timing of its announcement to Town officials.
The increase of the tax rate by 3.6% completely deflates the argument consistently used by Town and School officials that – even with a 6.7% increase in taxes raised for the schools – the overall tax rate increase will be less than 3%. Not any more.
The 3.6% increase is also more than the 3.5% overall tax rate increase associated with the school budget that voters overwhelmingly rejected on June 13. So when we vote at the third school budget referendum on September 5, we will be considering a budget that results in an overall tax rate increase that is larger than that of the school budget we rejected on June 13. Unfortunately, the 1,800 or so citizens who already cast absentee votes will not have the benefit of that information.
And since there is only a holiday weekend between now and the September 5 vote, it will be extremely difficult to inform those who haven’t yet voted about the tax rate increase. Please spread the word in any way that you can.
Now back to the original blog post…
Well, here we are again, folks… battle lines drawn, facts unsheathed, talking points finely sharpened and ready to pummel each other at the ballot box. (The American way, after all!) Some of those outside of Scarborough apparently marvel at the seriousness with which we take the school budget approval process each year.
It is rumored that medical and sociological researchers are even now submitting grant applications to study this phenomenon, tentatively named School Budget Compulsion Disorder (SBCD).
We are hopeful that some enterprising therapists will soon develop a program to help those afflicted by SBCD. If they do, probably the first step will be to admit that we have a problem. And that, friends, is where we need to begin.
The Town Council just can’t be convinced that the taxpayers of Scarborough are not okay with a 6.7% increase in taxes for the schools or an annual 3% increase in the overall tax rate year after year. The root cause of our financial problem is that school expenses have continued to be inflated with new positions and programs over the last few years at the same time as State education aid has declined. Bottom line: school expenses are out of balance with tax revenues. Until this is acknowledged, nothing will change. Unfortunately, more NO votes appear to loom on the horizon.
So how do we “get to yes”?
We realize that making a significant reduction to school expenses for the current budget could be disruptive and counterproductive. On the other hand, if we do nothing now, we are doomed to repeat this exact same budget struggle next year.
How do we know next year will be a repeat performance? Here’s an excerpt from the Budget Forum responses from this spring:
“Though the process is very much in process, the expected tax rate increase for FY18 will likely be less than 4%. We expect to see a significant decrease in the amount of fund balance available to offset taxation in FY19 so we may reasonably expect a similar increase that year.”
Notice that the overall tax rate for Fiscal 2019 is described as a “similar increase” to that of “likely less than 4%” in Fiscal 2018. This is another ugly picture for Fiscal 2019. (LookOutScarborough’s own projection for Fiscal 2019, which we shared with Town and School officials, suggested an increase of more than 7% in taxpayer funding of the schools and a 4.2% overall tax rate increase.)
So the path to YES seems to be less about a further reduction for Fiscal 2018 and more about an honest commitment to beginning right now to reduce school expenses for Fiscal 2019.
It is more of the same for next year’s budget unless the schools take meaningful action during Fiscal 2018 to reduce the expense base to a level that matches our current tax revenue. We believe Superintendent Kukenberger can make such reductions in a creative and prudent fashion that will result in no or minimal impact on student learning. The only possible path we see to YES is a genuine commitment from the Town Council and School Board to get expenses and tax revenues back in balance prior to the Fiscal 2019 budget process. Unless that happens, we see a continuing stalemate. And will be forced to VOTE NO!
Time for Town and School leaders to really lead!
Is he back?
We must say we have been impressed by the new superintendent’s calming and level-headed approach to this year’s version of the school budget drama. It’s a refreshing change from prior years when scare tactics were one of the School Department’s go-to approaches.
But then we saw a couple of recent Facebook posts by Supporters of Scarborough Schools and we wondered if they had engaged Dr. Entwistle as a consultant. Take a look at this one:
Yikes! Doom and gloom! No money for teachers! “No more cuts!” (That one slays us!) Overcrowded classrooms! How can this be?
Well, friends, we think there may be just a tad bit of exaggeration going on here. No, make that a ton of exaggeration on top of a boatload of hyperbole. Please take a look at this handy little chart on targeted and projected class sizes that appeared in the School Department-prepared responses to the Budget Forum questions back in April:
As you can plainly see, projected class sizes for the just-beginning year are at the low end of the targeted ranges. In fact, the average class size for the high school (17 students/class) is well below the targeted level (20-24 students/class). Just how these numbers translate into the hysterics of the Facebook post we do not know. But it does make us wonder if Dr. George is back in the house.
Gee, we have so much more material that we weren’t able to get to this time due to the early holiday posting deadline…
- Jackie Perry’s quote at the end of a recent Forecaster article saying that it’s just not true that enrollment has declined and expenses have increased.
- The Town Council chairman’s instructions to the public that he be referred to by his title, rather than his name.
- Another Facebook post by the Supporters of Scarborough Schools insisting that we currently don’t have a school budget (which, of course, we do, albeit a temporary one as provided for in State law).
So much material and so little time!
Plus, with all the emphasis on the school budget this summer, a couple of other extremely important projects haven’t been getting as much attention as they deserve:
- Proposed new public safety building – This $21.5 million project has significant implications for our tax rate. So far, Town officials have remained silent on that aspect of the project.
- New comprehensive plan – This project will help decide what Scarborough will be like ten or twenty years from now. So far, we’ve seen little evidence that those directing this project are interested in getting broad public input on Scarborough’s future.
Much more on these critical topics and more in future posts.
But for now, have a wonderful Labor Day weekend!
And, as always, be neighborly!
(who is solely responsible for the contents of this blog and the opinions expressed therein)
How can the Town project a $50+million increase in the tax base and not notice during the course of the year it’s not happening? We have building permits drawn on every new building or addition; tax exempt or not. This provides a very good measure on what and how much new value is added to the community.
It’s not like new tax exempt buildings are invisible and some how just magically appear in late summer. The taxpayer deserves a better explaination.
I believe a significant part of the problem was a change in the State Homestead Exemption amount, as opposed to new buildings being tax-exempt.. But presumably this change in the Homestead Exemption was not a secret. And presumably our Assessor (whether an employee or a contractor) knew about it. And presumably the Assessor discussed it and its impact with the Town Manager. So how in the world could it have been a surprise on the very day the valuation was finalized?
I completely agree that the taxpayers deserve to know who knew what and when, especially since it appears quite clear that there had to be awareness among some Town leaders of a significant issue about the amount of the tax rate increase even while early voting on the budget was taking place.
Transparency, come home to us!
It’s ironic you mentioned classroom size. I spoke with a person this week who works at the high school, and without prompting or asking about the subject, volunteered “they were looking for classrooms to put teachers” at the beginning of the 2016 school year.
If there is any crowding at the HS, looks like it’s in the number of teachers.