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Scarborough Community Center Controversy

Happy summer, Scarborough friends and neighbors!  It won’t last long, so enjoy it to the fullest.

After a six month sabbatical, your editor is back – rested, relaxed and raring to go.  And how thoughtful of Town leaders to provide a huge controversy as a welcome back gift!  We refer, of course, to the new “Community Center” that is barreling down the familiar tracks of “behind the scenes” activities and “informal” negotiations.

What, you didn’t even know there was a controversy?  Well that’s precisely the idea!  Certain Town leaders (the usual suspects)  would much prefer to keep us ordinary citizens in the dark about these crucial decisions until after their plans have been finalized and the propaganda campaign has been fine tuned. 

So just what is going on with the new “Community Center” and why should you be scared out of your taxpaying wits?   Here’s a quick summary of what’s happening…

You may recall that the $80 million-plus tax break that the Town gave to the Risbara/Michaud brothers for the Scarborough Downs development included very vague language about a community center being built – potentially – on the Downs property. We were assured that there would be a robust process of public consideration of any potential community center, including its components and its costs.  That was less than a year ago.

But now – with no public input – it has become clear that those rascals at Town Hall have been up to their old tricks.  The community center seems to have now morphed into an athletic venue/sports complex, and the developer/contractor/operator of the new facility has been chosen.   (Not officially chosen, of course. Why sign anything when an understanding among the boys will do?)

Scarborough residents Rocco Risbara and Peter Michaud

In retrospect, we should have seen this coming back in April when Risbara/Michaud (“local boys,” you know) signed an agreement with Edge Sports Group (Massachusetts boys) “to pursue an athletic venue at The Downs.”  Edge Sports Group (ESG) develops and manages high-end athletic facilities.  Their April 23, 2019 press release notes:  “The Scarborough facility could include pools, ice rinks, indoor and outdoor fields, spectator areas, and other activity space.”  The press release also provides a timeline: “ESG intends to complete its due diligence this summer, with design and permitting immediately following.”

And The Downs’ website currently announces:  “Construction will begin this summer and the complex will open in Spring of 2021.”  As far as we know, the Planning Board hasn’t seen even a drawing on the back of a napkin of this facility.  But construction will start this summer!  Now that is a fast-track project if we’ve ever seen one!  Perhaps they’re participating in a special Xpress-Approval instead of that usual pesky review and approval process.


So, right off the top of our head, here are a few basic and troubling questions:

  • Where’s the promised public process?
  • What do we mean by a “community center?” What does it include?  Isn’t that different from an “athletic venue” or “sports complex?”
  • When did the residents of Scarborough decide that a community center/athletic facility was a priority over a new primary school and library expansion?  [This is a biggie!]

  • How has Risbara/Michaud’s selection of a developer for an athletic facility been turned into the Town’s selection of a developer for a community center? How did that happen with no public discussion?
  • Why is Risbara/Michaud’s developer, Edge Sports Group, “conducting a feasibility study to determine what type of amenities should be included within The Downs facility”?   Shouldn’t the Town determine what sort of “amenities” are part of the Town’s community center?
  • Why is the athletic facility developer setting the timeline?  Did they do that without consulting the Town?  It’s hard to believe that could happen, unless the project is totally private with no expected Town financial participation.

There are obviously a host of other questions that need to be answered.  We’ll tackle some of them next time.  But for now, here are a couple of relevant considerations Scarborough citizens need to be immediately aware of:

How do Scarborough residents feel about a community center?

Sure, having a community center sounds like a great idea – especially when cost considerations are ignored.   Who could object to a facility to which the following terms can be applied: friendly, welcoming, gathering place, multipurpose, multigenerational, amenities, centrally located, creative, sustainable? 

Actually, though, when Scarborough residents were asked less than a year ago about their desire for a community center, the results didn’t indicate a burning desire for a community center, even without considering what would be included in it or how much it would cost taxpayers.

This is an except from last summer’s Comprehensive Plan survey which was completed by more than 500 residents.

In a fairly well-publicized resident survey conducted in late summer 2018 in connection with the Comprehensive Plan (where is that Plan, anyway?), only 40% agreed with the idea of  “develop[ing] a community center facility, attracting all ages to a central location.”  About 27% thought “maybe” it was a good idea, while about 32% disagreed with the idea.  So the very basic question “do we want a community center?” has not even been answered.  But why would a little detail like that get in the way of the “vision” of certain Town leaders?  Full speed ahead!

Is a community center a priority for the residents of Scarborough?

Like beauty, a community center may be in the eye of the beholder. The concept of community center can mean very different things to different people – from a simple gathering place to a high-end athletic venue with pools, hockey rinks, basketball courts, indoor fields and a fitness center.  As a result, the costs of a community center can vary widely.

The number bandied about in previous discussions of a Scarborough community center has been $20 million.  However given the scope of other Edge Sports Group facilities, perhaps $25 to $30 million is a more likely price tag.

So the question is – as it has been for a couple of years now – does it make sense to build a $25-30 million high-end sports complex now when we have active proposals for a $60-ish million primary (K-2) school solution and an $8 million library expansion?  Remember, our current debt level of around $100 million is among the highest on a per-person basis in southern Maine.

And to anticipate one of the phony arguments that will surely be presented when this proposal finally sees the light of day:  We will be told that this deal will be structured so there is no Town debt issued in connection with this project.  Undoubtedly the “deal” will be complex and difficult to understand.  But do not be fooled… we, dear taxpayers, will be paying for this project, even if there is no debt involvedThe no-free-lunch principle remains stubbornly in effect.

And remember, whenever you hear the phrase “public/private partnership,” grab your wallet and hold on tight!

In summary, folks, here we go again.  Down that well-worn path where a few Town leaders have their way and the public be damned.  Please keep your eyes wide open and your (metaphoric) pitchforks within easy reach.  We’re hoping the Town will soon let the residents in on the “behind the scenes” discussions that have been going on for the past four months.  Please stay tuned!  Yes, these are those lazy, hazy days of summer, but this one can’t be allowed to sneak through!

 Coming Attractions

We will definitely keep you informed as the Community Center/Sports Complex story unfolds in all its sordid glory.  And there’s lots more good stuff that wouldn’t fit into this issue.  Among the features coming very soon are:

***  A tribute to long-time Town Councilor Shawn Babine including details of a “Councilor Crawl” event that’s being talked about for the Labor Day weekend.

***  A new feature dedicated to Scarborough’s arts and literary scene, showcasing new and forthcoming works by Scarborough authors.

A Personal Note

My sincere thanks to the loyal readers who emailed me during the winter/spring hiatus.  Your encouragement and thoughtfulness were much appreciated!

It’s great to be back in the saddle!  From which location I now wish you all…

Happy trails until we meet again!

TT Hannah


 


Santa Trapped in Community Center Chimney and other Scarborough Christmas Tales

Ho, ho, ho and other politically-marginal seasonal greetings!  It’s been a while since the last blog update, which means there’s lots to cover.  So let’s get right to it…

Christmas came early for the developers of Scarborough Downs – a nice commitment of more than $80 million of future Scarborough tax dollars in a sweet Credit Enhancement Agreement all wrapped up with a bow.  On November 28 the Town Council voted 4 to 3 to approve the deal.  The ayes were Donovan, Caterina, Babine and Foley… names that will go down in history, one way or the other.

The signing of the Agreement effectively ends the first chapter of what will be a 30-year saga of the Scarborough Downs development.  Just how and when the saga began will likely remain shrouded in mystery.  We know that the developers closed on the sale of the property in January, 2018.  What we don’t know is what discussions took place between Town officials and the developers prior to the sale of the property with regard to Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and Credit Enhancement Agreement (CEA).  We doubt that the developers plunked down $7 million-ish for the property without having a fairly clear understanding of what the Town was willing to kick in.  We’re not suggesting anything nefarious here… just highlighting the reality of how this deal very likely occurred.

How many times during the discussion of the deal did we hear that mournful story of how more than a dozen previous attempts to develop Scarborough Downs – probably the best piece of developable property in all of southern Maine — fell through because the other developers hadn’t been able to come up with a financially viable plan?  Of course, if those previous developers had gotten the ear of the right people in Town and discovered that $80 – $100 million of taxpayer subsidy was available, probably a deal would have happened years ago.    Knowing the right people, apparently, is the big advantage of being “local boys.”

The End of Chapter One

As noted, chapter one of the Downs Deal ended with the Town Council vote on November 28.  A vivid image that encapsulates the entire cozy relationship between the Town and developers came just as the vote was completed.  Immediately after the vote, former Council Chair Donovan looked out at his developer buddies in the audience and gave them a robust thumbs-up. 

Some taxpayer Whos saw an altogether different hand gesture.

Now this wasn’t a standard “job well done” thumbs-up.  But a triple-pump “we’re going to Disneyland!” thumbs-up.  It really tells a story.  It’s amazing to see a public official that excited at giving away $80 million of taxpayer funds.  See for yourself by going to the 1:48:45 mark of the Town Council meeting video [link here] Some of us taxpayer Whos couldn’t help but see an entirely different hand gesture involving a different finger as chapter one came to an end.

 

Santa Gets Trapped in the Community Center Chimney

So, about Santa getting stuck in the chimney of the new Donovan-Hall Community Center:   Yes, we admit it… it’s fake news!  But it has a legitimate purpose.  Just as Santa is an imaginary character, so too is the Community Center an imaginary building, at least as far as the current deal with the developers is concerned.  The impression has been left that part of what we’re getting for those $80 million of tax dollars we’re paying to Risbara/Michaud is a shiny, spanking new Community Center where we can all meet, dine, swim, hold graduations, recreate and otherwise improve our communityness. 

But it just ain’t so!  All this deal provides is that the developer will sell/lease the Town a piece of land somewhere in the Downs property that he deems appropriate for a community center.  The parcel size, its cost and its location are all unspecified.  And the cost of the building itself – maybe $20 million or morewill all be funded by the Town.  That’s over and above the $80 million the developers are getting.  Such a deal!

A Final Christmas Note

Speaking of the Jolly Old Elf…  If Santa has read the Credit Enhancement Agreement (and we hear he looks closely at such things when making the naughty/nice decision on attorneys), we’re afraid that the Town attorney will be waking up to a big lump of coal in her stocking on Christmas morn.   Sure, she had to give the client what he wanted.  He is paying the bills, after all.  But letting the Town enter into a CEA that was so loosey-goosey with so little specificity and such large financial exposure was going a bit too far.


 

One final comment on the Downs Deal.   For the Town’s sake, we hope all the rosy assumptions that are baked into the Credit Enhancement Agreement come true.  We’ll keep you posted on the project’s twists and turns over the next 30 years.  [Wait!  30 years!?  Well, we’ll keep you posted for as long as we can.]


Coming Soon:  Listening Tour 2019 Edition!

As longtime readers know, irony is one of LookOutScarborough’s favorite things (right after schnitzel with noodles).   So the Town’s decision to reprise the “Listen to Learn” sessions with Town Manager Hall and outgoing School Superintendent Kukenberger made us smile.  The stated purpose of these four public sessions is to get citizen input for the budget process.  Last year’s sessions were all over the place in terms of citizen input, some of which was budget related.

The irony is that Dr. Kukenberger – a highly intelligent and personable individual – is in the “listening” role again.  After listening at length to public concerns last year, she and the School Board managed to incite an unprecedented recall of three School Board members.  So much for effective listening.

Which leads us to a theory about why Scarborough appears to be in a constant state of public discord.  Our take: it’s not a failure of Town officials to listen to the public; they do plenty of listening.  And it’s not even a communications issue.  What’s at the heart of the public consternation is the failure of Town and School officials to process what they hear from the public and fashion that into workable solutions.  Too often our officials – elected and salaried – dismiss the concerns expressed by groups of citizens as those of a “vocal minority.”  Like the two-thirds of voters who recalled the School Board members.

The challenge, then, is for Town and School officials to accurately gauge community sentiment and identify steps that can be reasonably be taken to respond to that sentiment.  It’s much more than listening… it’s acting reasonably in response to community sentiment.  We think the newly-constituted Town Council and School Board get this.  Let’s hope so!

Here’s the schedule of the “Listen to Learn” sessions.  If you have a question about the Town or School budget or a suggestion on a way to save a few bucks, bundle up and come out to join the fun!

 


Survey says…

Name your favorite cannabis strain…

What if they did a public opinion survey… and forgot to tell the public about it?  That’s more or less the story of the Town’s survey on the public attitude toward allowing marijuana-based businesses in Scarborough.  In July the Town Council put a 180-day moratorium on retail pot sales in Town to allow for time to develop an appropriate ordinance to govern the processing and sale of both medicinal and recreational marijuana.  Part of the plan was to do a public survey to see where our collective heads are vis-à-vis commercial pot.  (In the State referendum on legalizing pot two years ago, Scarborough voted 6,673 to 6,061 against legalizing marijuana.)

So that survey has now been completed.   Sort of under the cover of darkness.  A far as we can tell, there was no or minimal mention of the survey’s availability on the Town website or newsletter or in the Leader (which now seems to be mostly concerned with local theatrical productions).  In fact, the only way you could learn of the survey was if you happened to stumble upon the two laptops that were the only way to access the survey.  The laptops were available – under the watchful eyes of Town leaders who sat there while you completed the survey – at early voting at Town Hall or at the Town table at the High School on election day.  So you will be excused if this is the first you have heard of the pot survey.

Now that the survey has been completed, stay tuned for the results, such as they are, at the next Ordinance Committee meeting, currently scheduled for January 17.  Feel left out of the loop in sharing your opinion?  Let the Town Council know.

(Interesting bonus fact:  There are at least 11 currently known pot-growing locations in Scarborough.  But no one seems to have a clue what the real total is.)

Another Survey… Improving Route 1

Speaking of surveys… There has been much better publicity and accessibility for a survey that is part of yet another study of improving Route 1.  According to the Town website, “[t]he purpose of this study is to make the Route 1 corridor safe and accessible for all travel modes.”  The key words here are “for all travel modes.”  In transportation consultant lingo that means for pedestrians and bicyclists. 

Route 1 with Walgreen’s at lower left. (Photo from SEDCO.)

While safety for all is obviously a worthwhile goal, some transportation planners can get carried away with their anti-automobile zeal.  Route 1 serves many purposes.  Improving it will be a difficult balancing act.  We fully support a study of Route 1 that results in reality-based recommendations that improve its use for all users – walkers, bikers and drivers.

The survey is short and to the point. Please consider taking a couple of minutes to complete it.  Here’s the link or access it through the Town website.

 


Just in Time for Holiday Giving…

The Scarborough Real Estate Taxes Gift Card!

The perfect gift for that person who doesn’t have everything!

(No, this isn’t for real.  But perhaps it should be.)


That’s all for now.  Look for our Year In Review issue coming soon!

Once again, a sincere thank you to all the readers who have encouraged this blog.  (And also to those who have tolerated it.)

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and/or Best Wishes of the Season!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

(Nom de blog of Steve Hanly who is solely responsible for its contents.)

The biggest bet ever placed at Scarborough Downs… and it’s our tax dollars!

Pour yourself a kale spritzer, sit back and hear all the latest about the massive tax break our Town Council is considering for the Risbara and Michaud brothers.  First, let’s review what we’ve learned about “the Downs,” as the new development is now called, in the three weeks since our last update…

Well, that’s an easy one: absolutely nothing.  Lips are sealed all around about what the project really will include.   There’s still no information about how many single family homes and apartment units will be built.  And what that will mean for increased population, increased school enrollment and increased traffic.  All we know is that those things are all going to increase a lot.  That’s not very comforting.

Here’s an example of a recent Risbara multi-family project (i.e., apartments) in Westbrook.  It has the idyllic name “Blue Spruce Farm Apartments”  (link here).  How many great box-like apartment buildings will be sprouting up at Scarborough Downs?

Blue Spruce Farm Apartments, Westbrook. (Image: Zillow)

And where are all the people coming from to fill these apartments?   You may have noticed lots of new apartment construction in Scarborough, Westbrook, SoPo, Falmouth and Portland during the last 12-18 months.  That fact, coupled with projections for very modest long-term population growth in Scarborough, should be a cause for concern.  Are town leaders familiar with the phrase “boom and bust cycle?”  Have they reconciled current and planned area-wide apartment construction with population projections?  If they have, we hope they’ll share that information with those of us who have limited fathoming ability.

So we don’t know what the project looks like or what its impact will be, but we’re willing to kick in a hefty chunk of future town tax revenues over the next 30 years — $150 million or more apparently — to help pay for this undefined project.  The largest financial commitment the town has ever made.  And then a seven-person Town Council is going to use their judgment to decide whether this is a “good deal” or not for the town.  Sorry, but we want the details!  Is that too much to ask?  And then we want the voters to decide if this is in the best interests of the townThe voters should have the final say on any TIF/CEA, not the Council.


Downtown Lowdown

As we mentioned in our last issue, the town’s and developer’s big selling point for the TIF/CEA is that Scarborough will finally get its much-longed-for downtown or town center.  We’re not certain exactly who has been pining for this downtown, or why.  Is it a Disney thing?  Or a nostalgia thing?  Will there be a 5 & 10?  A general store, perhaps with Sam Drucker and Uncle Joe playing checkers in the back?

And we’re not sure of the purpose of this downtown.  Is it to provide a place for neighborly interaction?  If so, isn’t that what now happens at the post office, Memorial Park, Hannaford or Shaw’s, the hardware store, the Big 20 and Ken’s?  Do all those facilities have to be within walking distance for it to count?  Is it reasonable to think that a supermarket, a post office, a bowling alley and a range of restaurants are all going to be within walking distance in any town, let alone one that has 20,000 residents and covers about 70 square miles?

As one long-time Pine Point resident pointed out recently, the town has gotten along quite well for 360 years without a town center.  Perhaps we could go a little longer…


“One of the fastest growing communities in Maine”

Whizzing cars are definitely not a common sight at Dunstan Corner during the summer months. (Photo: Keep Me Current.)

That’s one of the first things you see when you go to the town website.  Frankly, we’re not sure if that’s something to boast about or be concerned about.  Up until very recently, there seemed to be a moderate concern for limiting the town’s growth in a manner that would be steady and measured.  This approach would prevent sudden significant demands on school and municipal budgets.  It would also keep quality of life issues – like traffic – from getting out of hand. 

In fact, until the Scarborough Downs project came up, the town had a fairly rigorous “Growth Ordinance” that had its origin in the 2006 Comprehensive Plan.  The ordinance was designed to keep housing growth at a manageable level.  Whatever happened to that growth ordinance?

And, if the town is already growing at a fairly rapid clip, why the heck are we incentivizing a developer to provide even faster growth?   Think about that very basic question for a moment.


TIF Flashback – The Circle is Complete

Real Scarborough old-timers (who remember, for instance, when Len Libby’s was on Spurwink Road) may get a scary sense of déjà vu when hearing about the currently proposed TIF.  Why?  Well, back in the mid-1980s voters twice rejected construction of a new town hall (aka “The Town Mahal”), only to have a new town hall constructed in spite of their rejections.  How did that happen, you may well ask?  Believe it or not, the new town hall was funded through a “Town Center TIF,” which, of course, the voters had no say on. 

So history is currently slated to repeat itself if Tom Hall and Bill Donovan have their ways.  This time, though, it will be a new community center instead of a town hall that gets built with a TIF in spite of what town residents may think.  Everything old is new again!

By the way, many of those old-timers will also tell you that the town’s storied tradition of having Town Councils that ignore what the residents want began with those town hall TIF shenanigans in the 80s.  And the lack of transparency and unwillingness to consider the desires of the residents continue to feed the beast of public unrest even today.  The establishment of a new “Downtown TIF” in the waning days of this Council would secure their legacy in town history as the group that completed the Circle of Mistrust.


 

On a positive note, voters will actually have a chance to make their feelings known about three of the current Council members in the November election.  Councilor Rowan is running for reelection to the Council, and Councilors Babine and Caiazzo are running for State representative seats.  This presents a golden opportunity for folks to express their dismay with the we-know-better attitude of several of the Council members.

The 2017-18 Town Council has their class picture taken by a member of the Scarborough Police Department. (Note: This image was NOT Photoshopped in any way.)

It’s Scarborough’s future… let the voters decide!

Here’s the bottom line: Whatever happens at Scarborough Downs has the clear potential to radically alter Scarborough as we know it.  And the financial implications of the town being a “partner” or “investor” in the development are completely unknown at this point.  To the extent that great gobs of future tax dollars ($150 million or more) are siphoned off for development/infrastructure purposes, this has the very real prospect of putting extreme pressure on the school and municipal budgets… for which all taxpayers will end up paying the price.

Is it too much to ask for the town’s residents to have a clear understanding of what all this means, both in terms of finances and quality of life?  And once the town has negotiated its best deal with the developers for a TIF/CEA, shouldn’t the residents have a chance to vote on it… like we did on the new fire engine and the new public safety building?  Please, Town Council, let the citizens have a direct voice in deciding the most important question the town has faced in decades.

[For a more temperate discussion of the TIF/CEA issue, please see the “Maine Voices” op-ed in the September 10 Portland Press Herald: “Scarborough, hold your horses when it comes to tax increment financing.”]


Until next time…

Well, that’s all for now, folks.  More drama is certain to come.  We’ll do our best to follow the twists and turns.  In the meantime, don’t be bashful about spreading the word and letting the Council know how you feel.  Silence to them equals approval.  So make a God-awful racket!

Happy trails until we meet again, pardner!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

 

 

 

Tax Break Travesty in Scarborough… $150 million!

Well, folks, this is the BIG ONE.  From those same wacky guys who brought you the Amazon headquarters proposal, here comes an only slightly less outlandish proposal.  But a much more serious one.  Indeed, deadly serious in terms of Scarborough’s financial future, not to mention our quality of life.

Mega-Boondoggle!

Artist’s rendition of Scarborough’s new “downtown”

Yes, Town Manager Tom Hall and Council Chair Bill Donovan are at it again.  This time Messrs. Hall and Donovan have put their heads (and egos) together and come up with a scheme to create a new “downtown” for Scarborough… and all for a mere $150 million of future tax dollars being paid to the developers.  This is the mother of all tax breaks.

This proposed mega-boondoggle uses two taxpayer fleecing vehicles: a tax increment financing agreement (“TIF”) and a credit enhancement agreement (“CEA”).

Please do not panic!  TIFs and CEAs sound intimidating but they just boil down to tax breaks for the developers.  At the most basic level, TIFs and CEAs just divert negotiated amounts of future property tax collections to a developer.    And when the developer gets a chunk of those future tax collections, those tax dollars aren’t available to support the schools, police/fire and other Town services.  And guess who makes up that future shortfall?  Bingo!  That would be you and me, dear Taxpayer!

Yes, the mechanics of TIFs/CEAs can get kind of hairy and complex, but don’t get lost trying to follow all the ins and outs.  That’s what they’re hoping for… that we’ll say to ourselves “Oh, gosh, this is too complex for me” and then decide to leave it to the “experts” on the Town Council.  Just stay focused on the basic premise: every future tax dollar that ends up in a developer’s pocket has to be replaced by another one from your pocket.


What we know at this point

The August 15 Town Council workshop that was supposed to unveil the Scarborough Downs development plan and the related taxpayer fleecing was a complete bust in terms of providing usable information about the project and the related TIF/CEA.  Only the vaguest information was presented.

But here are three important things we do now know:

  • This is the largest development project in the Town’s history – it is projected to add $600 million of real estate (apartments building, single family homes, retail/office space, etc.) to the Town’s total valuation.
  • The proposed tax breaks stretch over the next 20-30 years.  Its tax impact will last for a generation.
  • Bill and Tom are planning to ram the TIF/CEA tax breaks through the approval process during October, come hell or high water.  That’s right, we’ll have about a month to understand and evaluate the largest financial transaction the Town has ever entered.  (Remember how long we spent discussing the animal control ordinance a couple years back?)

What we don’t know

There are so many critical things that we don’t know.  Like the real total of the proposed tax break.  They won’t tell.  The $150 million amount is only a rumor.  No one has any idea of the projected budget or tax impact of the proposal. (Or if they do, they’re not telling.)  And then there are basic things like:

  • How many apartment units are planned?
  • How many single-family homes?
  • What’s the projected population increase?
  • What’s the projected school enrollment increase? (And will existing facilities accommodate it?)
  • What type and volume of retail activity is projected?
  • What type and square footage of “light industrial” activity is projected?
  • What are the projected traffic impacts on Route 1, Payne Road, etc.?

No – incredibly – the fact that those questions have not been answered doesn’t appear to bother most Town Council members.  As of now, we are absolutely clueless about the impact of the project on the Town over the next 10-20 years, but that doesn’t matter to them.  Let’s sign that agreement for a $150 million tax break to the developers for a project that no one really understands.  And let’s do it in the next 30 days!  (They are local developers, after all.)  Ahh, the joy of public/private partnerships!


Hardball Negotiating 101, Chapter 6

Don’t you love it when someone tells you that you have to “act in the next 20 minutes or this incredible deal is off.”  This hardball negotiating tactic – setting an artificial and unreasonable time deadline – actually has a name: “the exploding offer.”

Here’s how one negotiator describes the tactic:

Exploding Offers (artificial deadlines) – an exploding offer contains an extremely tight deadline creating pressure on the other party to conclude quickly.  The purpose of the exploding offer is to limit the time the other party has to consider alternatives.  (Andrew Boughton in Hard Bargaining, Negotiation Basics.

So here we have an exploding offer from the Scarborough Downs developers who maintain that if the TIF isn’t approved asap, the deal can’t happen.  They maintain that the commercial tenants they have lined up need to know right now that this project is happening; otherwise the prospective tenants will walk.  As the old saying goes: “I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.”

Bottom line: this 30-year deal that provides the developer with a $150 million tax break has to be approved at the October 3 Town Council meeting or the whole deal is off.  If there were ever a bluff to be called, this would be it.

But wait, the Town Council is actually supporting this absurd schedule.  And of course, you and I, simple-minded rubes that we are, are not supposed to figure out the real reason that the TIF has to be finalized in October.  The real reason is that the current 5-2 Council voting bloc may well disappear in the November election, making it uncertain that the TIF deal will fly with a new Town Council in place.  Thus the headlong rush to approval with an irresponsible lack of regard for the financial implications of the agreement, let alone public understanding and concurrence with the deal.  (Fiduciary responsibility, anyone?  Anyone?)


Who promised what and when?

Speaking of how naïve we dimwitted taxpayers are… they think we don’t realize that this deal has been in the works for many months.  The developers closed on the property in January.  We would be astounded if the basics of the deal between the Town and the developer hadn’t been agreed to well before the property was purchased.  Nothing in writing, of course.  More like a gentlemen’s understanding, probably.

Who in their right mind would purchase a property that was going to require a $150 million tax break from a town in order to be successful without first having a very high degree of certainty that such a tax break would be forthcoming?  Only a very dumb developer would buy the property without knowing that a tax break was pretty much in the bag.  And the Five Brothers are not dumb developers.

Apparently the numerous previous prospective buyers of the Downs couldn’t arrive at a similar understanding with Town officials.  It pays to shop locally!


A Lesson Not Learned – Is It Just Blinding Arrogance?

You would think that after three School Board members were recalled (by a lopsided margin) that it might occur to the remaining Town leaders that they’re doing something wrong.  But, nooooooo, not our Town leaders!  They have an amazing gift of avoiding introspection.  So the bad behavior – lack of transparency, lack of respect for the public’s wishes, failure of processes – continues. And in the case of this TIF, with potentially devastating consequences to the Town in terms of both finances and quality of life.



Coming soon…

Well, that’s it for now.  Part 2 of this blog will follow in the next week or so.  Here are a few of the topics that will be covered:

  • More questions to ponder about the project and the deal
  • What the Enchanted Village (the new downtown) may look like, with exclusive New Urbanism  design features by a pricey Tennessee-based consultant
  • Into the Way-back Machine: how past TIFs/CEAs have worked out for Scarborough
  • Life in a banana republic (no, not the clothing chain)

All that and more.  Stay tuned.  If you’ve enjoyed this blog, please share it with friends.

Happy trails until we meet again!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

(nom de blog of Steve Hanly)

Pirates Plunder Scarborough as School Budget Vote Looms!

Arghhh, Mateys!  Just in time for the budget, the pirate ship Tax & Plunder was seen approaching the Co-op dock at Pine Point!  The black-hearted buccaneers are coming again for your hard-earned doubloons!   Fear not, though, LookOutScarborough is here to protect you from the scurvy wretches!

Well, now that we’ve gotten that out of system…

It’s time once again to vote on the school budget.  We had hoped that the Town Council would stick to their promise of producing a budget that would satisfy the majority of folks in town and pass on the first ballot.  Alas, they did not keep that promise, and we have no choice but to urge a NO vote on the school budget on June 12.

We have five really good reasons to VOTE NO on the budget.  As always, we’ll keep things brief and to the point.  So here are the highlights:

 

Yes, the amount of taxes to be raised for municipal and school purposes is $65.9 million, an increase of $3.5 million or 5.6% over last yearThat’s just not fiscally responsible.

 

 

The amount of taxes to be raised just for the schools is $44.7 million, an increase of $2.5 million or 5.9% over last year.  Again, not fiscally responsible and not affordable for many Scarborough residents.

 

Several Town Council members swore up and down that they wouldn’t approve a budget that increased the tax rate by more than 3%.  But guess what, the tax rate increase is 4.4% when you don’t consider the impact of the commercial revaluation!  And that revaluation impact was not part of the original pledge to keep the increase at less than 3%.  Councilors Babine, Caiazzo, Caterina, Donovan and Rowan – you’re busted!  Let’s hold their feet to the fire!

 

This year’s scam was the commercial property revaluation.   That revaluation process produces a significant automatic tax rate decrease.   The Town Council didn’t have to “work hard” to cause that decrease.  But they have used part of that automatic decrease to offset additional spending.  Councilors Babine, Caiazzo, Caterina, Donovan and Rowan – stop playing the residents of Scarborough for fools!

 

When the Town Council briefly toyed with the idea of legitimately meeting their target of a less than 3% tax rate increase, Town Manager Hall and Superintendent Kukenberger were asked to provide lists of proposed reductions from the submitted budgets.  While the Town Manager offered some reasonable proposals, the Superintendent was essentially defiant, insisting that the only way to make any reductions to her $48.5 million expense budget was by cutting teachers.  This did not pass the straight-face test.  Dr. Kukenberger, enough with the scare tactics! 

[By the way, don’t be surprised after the June 12 budget vote goes down in flames to hear one of the golden oldies of scare tactics make another appearance.  That’s right, 7th grade sports on the chopping block again!  Ahh, the good old days return! You heard it here first.]


Here are a few quick reports that you probably won’t see anywhere else:

Pirates’ Den?

The bar at O’Reilly’s Cure.

Is it true that more town and school business is being conducted these days at the bar at O’Reilly’s Cure than in the Council Chambers?  Perhaps that’s because O’Reilly’s has a more dependable audio-visual system…

We hear that one of the buccaneers often ventures further inland for his daily rations of grog, so be on the look out.


Survivor Scarborough

Apparently it escaped Superintendent Kukenberger’s notice, but the overwhelming recall vote applied to her as well the three School Board members.  Some have reported that she is waiting for the golden handshake.  (It could be a long wait.)  Dr. Kukenberger – you have been voted off the island.  It’s time for you to go!

 


Enrollment way up…

… at Cheverus,  Maine Girls’ Academy (formerly, McAuley) and Waynflete.   We’ve heard credible reports that admissions directors at those schools are all in line for nice performance bonuses based on the influx of kids from Scarborough.  (Let’s hope they do the right thing and share part of their bonuses with Dr. K.)

 

 


Scarborough High School marches up in the rankings!

Interestingly, the School Department seems to be giving this piece of positive news a good leaving alone.  Why would that be? 


A final thought…

Some have suggested that a NO vote is “holding the school budget hostage.”  We would argue that a NO vote is holding the Town Council accountable.  There will be no dire consequences to the school budget if it is voted down.  Please don’t believe that hype.  A NO vote is a clear message to the Town Council that modest adjustments need to be made to both the municipal and school budgets to arrive at a tax rate increase that at least meets their own goal of less than 3%.  Is that too much to ask?


Until next time

Well, mateys, that’s all for now.  Time for an appropriate summer beverage.  If you haven’t voted yet, please take advantage of the easy early voting at Town Hall through June 7.  Avoid the election day rush!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah


The Scarborough Budget Flim Flam of 2018

Well, friends, there’s probably one thing we can all agree on – it’s never boring in Scarborough! 

The May 8 School Board recall election has come and gone.  And in a few days, those three School Board members will be gone, too.   The margin favoring the recall was overwhelming… nearly two to one.  Perhaps that margin shouldn’t have been a surprise, though.

While most of the voters undoubtedly focused on the specific school issues in casting their votes, we are quite certain that a significant number of folks were actually voting on town and school leadership in generalThey’re not happy with it. 

And when the Town Council arranged the shotgun recall election, folks really got their dander up.  If they were capable of introspection, perhaps this would be a good time for the Town Council members to step back and reevaluate the way they conduct the public’s business.  The current approach isn’t working out too well – as demonstrated by the lopsided recall margin.

And now on to the new issue of the day…

Well, it’s May so it must be time for a budget battle in Scarborough.  In fact, if there weren’t some sort of budget ruckus, you might think you had somehow moved to Buxton or Kennebunkport without realizing it. 

But the budget discussion is a bit different this year than in the past.  Yes, Town leaders have come up with a brand new way of fleecing the taxpayers!

This new method is more subtle than the usual approach, so some brief background information is needed.  [You can skip the next 4 paragraphs if the arithmetic doesn’t matter to you.]

1.   You may remember that in January the Town Council set a goal of achieving a tax rate increase of less than 3% this year.  Let’s assume for a minute that less than 3% was a reasonable goal for the coming year’s tax rate increase, especially in light of the recent tumult in town.

2.   This spring, the Town Council announced that the Town’s commercial/industrial properties would be reassessed in time for next year’s property taxes.  It turns out that those properties have been severely under-assessed for several years now.  Apparently at less than 70% of their actual value.  Which means that we residential property owners have been picking up more than our fair share of the real estate tax burden for a few years.  And should get tax relief from the revaluation.

3.   The revaluation of the commercial properties will add a significant amount – perhaps $100 million to $166 million or more – to the Town’s tax base of just over $3 billion.  When you increase the tax base while keeping the amount of taxes raised constant, you automatically reduce the tax rate.   The commercial revaluation significantly reduces the overall tax rate.

4.   So here’s the grift:  When you do a revaluation, it is supposed to be “revenue neutral.”  That means that the reduction in the tax rate should NOT be used to offset additional municipal/school spending.  The full impact of the revaluation should be used to reduce the tax rate.  And guess what the Council is doing in the Fiscal 2019 budget?  That’s right, you have correctly guessed that town leaders are using a good portion of the tax rate reduction to do what they’re not supposed to – funding  spending over and above the level of their original 3% goal.  Illegal?  No.  Sound financial policy? Nope.  Deceptive? Totally!

 


So what’s the bottom line impact here?

TAKE-AWAY #1The total net budget – i.e., total taxes to be raised – is up 5.6% compared to last year as shown here.

 That sort of increase in total taxes raised doesn’t exactly indicate fiscal restraint, does it?

TAKE-AWAY #2 The commercial property revaluation has a huge impact on the final tax rate.

If the full impact of the commercial revaluation were used to reduce the tax rate increase, it would reduce the rate by more than 4%.   So a tax rate increase that would have been 3% without the revaluation would actually produce a 1% decrease in the tax rate with the revaluation. 

TAKE-AWAY #3 The Town Council missed their goal of a less than 3% tax rate increase when you exclude the impact of the commercial revaluation… which you should.

The budget being presented on Wednesday evening includes a 4.4% tax rate increase before allowing for the revaluation impact.  The revaluation impact was not a factor when the Town Council set its tax rate increase goal of less than 3%.  Therefore, the proposed budget misses the Council’s goal by 1.4%.  Please, no back-patting and self-congratulations!  (Save that for over at O’Reilly’s if you must.)

TAKE-AWAY #4 – The proposed tax rate increase of 1.4% is actually nearly 2% higher than it should be if the Council had adhered to its original goal of less than a 3% increase.   

In the proposed budget, our taxes are estimated to increase by 1.4%   But if the amount of taxes raised to achieve the 3% goal had been met, the tax rate would have actually gone down by .5%.  The difference between the two tax rates is 1.9%   So the proposed budget is using a 1.9% increase in the tax rate to pay for expenditures over and above the originally set 3% tax rate increase target. 

Yes, a 1.4% tax rate increase is nice.  But if sticky fingers weren’t involve, the tax rate should actually have GONE DOWN one-half a percent.


The coyness factor…  or why we all should be fuming, infuriated and outraged… again

Budget cuts? What budget cuts?

All the recent hoopla about reducing the town and school budgets by $750,000 to get to the promised 3% goal was all an unnecessary farce.  Designed, apparently, to create community discord.  Town leaders knew from the start that they were going to have no trouble coming up with a tax rate increase of 1% to 2% (or less) while at the same time comfortably increasing town and school spending. 

Then why did we just go through the recent budget charade that raised the specter of eliminating ten teachers or ten municipal workers?  It was all theater.  Unpleasant theater at that.  And they wonder why there is such a high level of mistrust of town and school leaders. 

Even if you’re fine with the end result of this budget, are you happy with the way it was accomplished – with a complete lack of transparency or public disclosure of what was really happening?  Unfortunately, that’s “the Scarborough way.”  Remember this when it’s time to vote in November… or perhaps sooner.

So when that highly predictable wave of self-congratulations and back patting washes over the Council Chamber Wednesday evening, please resist the urge to stand and applaud.  And do not tear up when the tales of how hard the Council worked are told.  The hardest work they did was keeping the public in the dark about the true impact of the commercial revaluation until it leaked out this late in the budget process.  Why can’t they ever provide the public with the full story?

 


In view of recent developments, we thought this would be a good time to check in with LookOutScarborough’s official prognosticator, Swami Bob.   Here are his predictions:

First, at this coming Wednesday’s Town Council meeting, one Councilor will wag her finger at the assembled multitude and lecture them thusly: “Jeepers, aren’t you tax people ever happy?!” [Answer: We would have been very happy if the Council had done what they said they were going to do, on an honest and above-board basis.]

Second, next year’s revaluation of the Town’s residential properties (all our homes) will provide the exact same opportunity for budget sleight-of-hand all over again. More importantly, some large number of Scarborough homeowners are likely to see significant increases in their tax bills when the residential revaluation occurs.  It would have been nice to have had all of this year’s rate decrease to cushion the blow.

Third, the infamous letter about a School Department staff meeting gone horribly awry at a prominent Old Port establishment will become public soon. This will add a new plot line to the soap opera, “As the Scarborough School Department Turns.”

[Editor’s note: Longtime readers will recall that Madame Alakazam has been our go-to prognosticator from the beginning.  She recently communicated to us (by letter, not psychic means) that she has retired to West Palm Beach and sold her practice on the OOB Pier to Swami Bob, a fully-licensed and highly-experienced seer and medium.   We have seen samples of his work and are convinced we are in good hands going onto the future, as it were.  The Swami is offering a pre-season special of 40% off simple predictions to LookOutScarborough readers through May 31.]

 


Well, that’s all for now.  More excitement is sure to follow.  And probably sooner rather than later the way things are going these days.  Thanks for reading and sharing this blog.   I sincerely appreciate the many supportive comments. (And the others, too.  They help sharpen the issues.)

Happy trails until we meet again!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah


Scarborough’s Stealth Recall Election… Your Vote Needed!

As we predicted in our last blog post, the Town Council bulled ahead with a schedule for the recall election that is designed to minimize voter turnout and thereby cause the election to fail the minimum vote threshold specified in the Town charter.  Two Council members, Foley and Hayes, opposed this blatant attempt at voter suppression which is designed to protect the three School Board members who are facing recall on May 8.

First things first!

Before we once again mount our soap box and get carried away with exposing the slimy underbelly of current Town governance, here are the two take-aways from this blog:

1. Vote YES at the May 8 recall election and

2.  Do it sooner rather than later since we are dealing with a cynically-short early voting period.

Here’s the voting schedule:

If you take care of steps 1 & 2 above, you are excused from reading the rest of this blog.  And you have earned our sincere thanks.


Why ALL Scarborough residents should vote in this recall election

[Please bear with us for four paragraphs of serious stuff…]

Since the specific issues that propelled this recall effort are school-related, some have wondered why they should care about it and vote.  After all, unless you have kids in the Scarborough schools, you probably don’t have a direct link to or interest in the schools.

But step back and consider the flood of negative publicity about the Town that has accompanied all the numerous school controversies.  The pattern of mismanagement of the schools over the past year has rocked not only the schools but the entire community.  The failed leadership of the School Board is at the root of all this bad press.  All Town residents have a stake in the community’s reputation.  A YES vote will begin the process of bringing effective leadership to the School Board and restoring the Town’s reputation.

And the failure of leadership extends to the Town Council.   A majority of Town Council members are on record as opposing the recall effort.  Their unscrupulous scheduling of the recall election was a blatant and cynical attempt to cause the citizen-initiated recall process to fail.  Indeed, many Council members share the same characteristics that are at the heart of the School Board recall – arrogance, lack of transparency and unresponsiveness to community needs.   All Town residents have a stake in principled and responsive government.   A YES vote will remind some of the Councilors that their responsibility is to the broad community, not to their personal agendas.

Many citizens have lost trust in Town and School leaders.   All Town residents have a stake in having officials whom they trust to do the right thing in the best interests of the community as a whole.   A YES vote will let them know they need to work hard on regaining the public’s trust.

And now back to our regular programming…


Seeing is believing

The special Town Council meeting held on April 25 gave the three School Board members who are facing recall the opportunity to state their cases.  It was a long five hours.  But, as one would expect, there were a couple of moments for the highlights reel…

The first came very early in the proceedings as School Board Chair Donna Beeley called Steven Bailey, the Executive Director of the Maine School Boards Association, as an expert witness of sorts.  Mr. Bailey educated the assembled multitude on the finer points of Maine law as it relates to school boards. 

The gist of his presentation – school board members aren’t answerable to the public according to Maine law.  We’ve heard this refrain from our School Board members for years now.  Indeed, it is the reliance on this notion – and the arrogance it enables – that explains the frequent disconnects between the School Board and the public.

So, just to kick sand in the face of the public, the School Board trots out a legalistic defense of its actions.  Way to sway public opinion, guys!  This is what happens when lawyers are running the show.


Seeing is believing – Episode 2

You can always depend on Jackie Perry to liven things up.  She came through again big time last Wednesday evening.  Here’s an excerpt from her remarkable speech on the Creech affair: 

“And if you’re going to recall them, recall me… I said ‘Lock him out.  Send him home.  Put in an interim principal and do it now because we don’t need what’s coming down the road.’  And our lawyer said ‘Jackie, you can’t do that.’   I said: ‘We’ll pay whatever it takes.  Let him sue.  But get him out of town.’   I said that.  Nobody else on the Board said that.  Come after me!”

In about a minute, she:

  • Divulged confidential details of a personnel matter, apparently from a School Board executive session meeting.
  • Demonstrated her usual level of fiscal prudence, i.e., “pay whatever it takes.”
  • Exhibited statesmanship and grace by urging voters to “come after me!” (If there were a write-in option on the recall, we bet a bunch of voters would take her up on this.  But please don’t write her name in on your ballot!  If you do, it will be disqualified.)

Here’s a link to the snippet from the Council meeting.


Coming soon to a polling place near you?


Well, that’s all for now, folks. 

Please remember to vote.  Later today would be good, tomorrow at the latest. 

This is not just a school matter.  This is a community matter.   Some members of the Town Council don’t want you to vote.   Please make sure you let them know that this is not the way you want Scarborough to work.

Please vote YES on or before May 8 to start the Town on a new course of transparency, fairness and responsiveness.

Until next time, be neighborly,

TT Hannah


DISCLAIMER:  The author is solely responsible for the contents of this blog.  Opinions expressed herein are those of the author and not of any other individual(s) or group.