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Assessing Scarborough’s Assessing Fiasco… how much will it cost YOU?

Happy New Year, Friends and Neighbors! 

We’re going to start the year off with some fireworks courtesy of Scarborough’s Assessing Department.   Now before your eyes glaze over at the mere mention of the Assessing Department, be assured that this little tale is worth listening to.  In fact, so far it has cost more than $800,000 of our hard-earned tax dollars.  And another million bucks could easily follow them out of our collective tax-paying pockets in the near future.

This all has to do with a fairly complex and messy legal battle, but it’s our job to boil down the complicated stuff and leave you with the essence of it… which may make your hair stand on end.

Here’s the four-sentence summary of the current legal mess:  For many years, Scarborough’s tax assessor would sometimes reduce the assessed value on an empty lot a homeowner had that was adjacent to the lot with his or her home on it.  This practice was not publicized or “official,” but was available if you knew about it.  So if you happened to know about the discount “program” and you asked for it, you might get a nice reduction on the value of that vacant lot you owned next to your main property.  It was particularly valuable to homeowners of shorefront or “water-influenced” property, since getting a 40-70% reduction on the land value of an abutting $1 million undeveloped lot would produce a significant real estate tax savings.

(Note: this offer has expired!)

The trouble with this is… it’s illegal.  State law requires all similar lots be valued similarly.  And applying the discount on a selective basis obviously discriminates against other homeowners who are having their land valued at the appropriate, non-discounted value.

So a bunch of Scarborough property owners realized that they were paying full freight when a select few were getting a bargain rate and challenged the Town’s illegal and discriminatory valuation practice.

We don’t pretend to understand the nuances of the legal wrangling and various court cases that have been swirling around this issue for the past 2-3 years.  But here’s the payoff:  The courts have determined the Town’s discounted lot practice was illegal and the Town has had to refund some of the suing homeowners’ taxes.  Here’s the tab that we taxpayers have picked up so far:

Unfortunately, the above amounts may be only the beginning of the total that Scarborough taxpayers will ultimately pay for this assessing fiasco.  In December, 2017, the court essentially said that the $395,000 awarded to the suing homeowners so far was not appropriate compensation for the discrimination they experienced.  The suing homeowners have suggested that “fair” compensation for the assessment discrimination is another $1.2 million or more (plus interest).  And, of course, the Town’s legal fees continue to mount.  So don’t be surprised when the budget discussion for FY19 includes a substantial amount for a “tax abatement allowance” or similarly innocuously described item.

So that’s the gist of the sad tale.  Of course, there’s much more to it – like how this could possibly happen, who was responsible, was anyone held accountable and what’s being done to prevent similar costly problems going forward?  (You can probably guess the answer to at least one of those questions.)  We’ll get into those matters in a subsequent blog… unless there’s a great outcry of “please, no more assessing stories!”

 

Pine Point Beachfront Lot – Yours for a Song 

(Well, not YOURS…)

You may recall, back in May, 2017 we reported on the Town’s proposed giveaway of Avenue 2 at Pine Point.  (Here’s the link to that blog.)  This is the one where a developer is claiming he owns half of Avenue 2, which is a “paper street” leading to Pine Point Beach.  Avenue 2 has been used by the public as a path to the beach for generations.  And although public access will still be maintained via a permanent public easement included in this almost-done deal, there’s still reason for public concern, or perhaps even outrage.

First of all, it’s further evidence of the Town’s unwillingness to protect historic public beach access against the lawyered-up acquisitiveness of private interests.  How many bad land deals does the Town need to make at Pine Point before citizens from all parts of the Town stand up and say “enough of this!”?

And taxpayers get a more direct poke in the eye on this particular deal…  The Avenue 2 lot the Town will be handing over to the two abutting property owners is beachfront property about 50 feet wide.  At Pine Point, that means its assessed value would be about $ 1 million.  The deal is that the Town will get a permanent easement of the middle 10 feet of the property to allow continued beach access.  Which leaves 20 feet on each side for the two abutting property owners – Mr. Gendron on one side and the Gables Condos on the other.

The only possible silver lining we could see in this deal was that at least there would be some newly taxable beachfront property assigned to each of the abutters.  If 40 feet of the 50 foot Avenue lot were to become taxable, that would be up to $800,000 of newly taxable property for the Town (or about $13,000 of new tax revenue).  But we were increasingly wary of that benefit occurring when the Town Manager repeatedly refused to answer questions about approximately how much newly taxable assessed value would be added as a result of this deal.

Then the bomb was dropped at the Town Council meeting on December 6:  Due to the easements on the property, what is now Avenue 2 would be classified as “wasteland” for tax assessment purposes after the deal is done.  Yes, in Scarborough we have beachfront wasteland.  We still don’t know if there will be any new assessed value on the former Avenue 2, but we have a feeling that if there is, it’s going to be pretty minimal. Yes, “beachfront wasteland” is a hard concept to wrap your head around.  But this is “Scarborough, Maine – a different kind of town”©.


The Old Cynic’s Corner

Speaking of the assessment legal mess… isn’t it strange that the Town could come up with the totally unbudgeted $471,000 to pay the first installment of the tax rebates and interest out of some never-discussed slush fund (“the overlay account”) and “fund balance” without batting an eye. 

But think back to the waning days of past years’ budget processes – when at the last minute we had to impose the parking meter fee at Higgins Beach ($8,000 of revenue) in order to balance the budget… and we had to eliminate the warming hut at the Town skating rink ($6,000 of expense) in order to balance the budget… and we had to eliminate some of the beach raking at Pine Point ($8,000 of expense) in order to balance the budget.

Yes, those minuscule amounts were all presented as budget-busters.  Compared to the recently made unbudgeted tax abatement payments, they were all obviously chump changeAnd we, fellow taxpayers, were the chumps.   Let’s not let that happen again.


COMING SOON

Well, that’s all for now.  Happy trails to you until we meet again!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

LookOutScarborough BULLETIN — Public Commenter Arrested!

Michael Doyle is cuffed after making public comments at the November 15, 2017 Scarborough Town Council meeting.

As we have often stated here, one of the best reasons for attending Town Council meetings in person is for the entertainment value.  You just never know what’s going to happen, no matter what’s on the agenda.  This was proven again in spades at last evening’s meeting (11-15-2017).

The drama occurred very early in the proceedings as Michael Doyle was using his allotted three minutes of “public comment.”  For those who aren’t familiar with this part of Council meetings, it’s an opportunity for any citizen to spend three minutes speaking on any topic under the sun.  In Mr. Doyle’s case, he had just concluded comments on Scarborough’s bid for the second Amazon headquarters and was moving on to some comments about Town Manager Hall. 

As he was making those comments, Council Chair Babine, animatedly assisted by Councilor Donovan, attempted to silence Mr. Doyle.  (For the youtube video of Mr. Doyle’s comments, see this link.)

When Mr. Doyle refused to be silenced, he was arrested by one of Scarborough’s finest and later charged, we believe, with criminal trespass.  (For the video of his arrest, use this link.)

Mr. Doyle, the editor of FalmouthToday.me, is a frequent commenter at Town Council meetings and obviously has a soft spot in his heart for the Town and its leaders.  [Editor’s note:  The website’s content is at times incendiary and we are not endorsing any of its contents.]  You may have seen him at a table after the November 7 election plugging his website and new book.

Michael Doyle at his table at the November 7, 2017 election, plugging his website and his new book.

The Town Council episode played out in front of an audience that was swelled from the usual handful of attendees by a group of several Boy Scouts (and their parents) who were there to make a presentation to the Council.  And what a memorable civics lesson they got!  Speak at your own peril!

The official video of this meeting should be available on the Town website in a couple of days; go to https://sctv.viebit.com and look for the November 15 Town Council meeting.  We expect it will be in very high demand.  Let’s just hope the Town doesn’t hire the Rose Mary Woods Audiovisual Processing Company to upload the video to the website.

Well, just in case the local news media doesn’t think an arrest at a Town Council meeting is newsworthy, we thought it best to keep you informed.  We’ll also try to keep a running tab on the costs of the lawsuit that is sure to follow.

And the beat goes on.

Stay tuned for the next blog update — how much the tax assessment mess is costing you and more.

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

Michael Doyle is cuffed after making public comments at the November 15, 2017 Scarborough Town Council meeting.

Can Scarborough Afford a New $21.5 million Police/Fire Station?

Well, the public safety building proponents are running a good campaign — lots of press, lots of community outreach, a big open house at the current station (see images above), lawn signs and probably an ad in this week’s Leader.  All, we might add, privately paid for.   So it falls to LookOutScarborough to answer that all-important question: “Hey, what’s this new building going to do to my tax bill?”

As we have said before, the current police/fire station is cramped and needs updating.  But it’s a huge leap to go from there to needing a $21.5 million facility to replace it.

So let’s get right to the facts and figures you may not be hearing about…

Impact on our taxes

So what does a new $21.5 million police/fire station really mean for our tax bills?  Here are a couple of facts provided by the Town:

  • First year mortgage payment (principal and interest) on the building: $1.4 million. (Don’t be put off if you hear the term “debt service”… that just means the principal and interest payment on the loan for the building that gets included in the Town’s expenditures.)
  • Approximate first-year tax impact on a $300,000 home: $111. (By itself, that may not sound like much, but wait…)

Let’s do some simple arithmetic here.  The current tax bill on a $300,000 home is $4,947.  An increase of $111 for the new building would bring the tab to $5,058.  Yes, that’s a 2.2% increase just for the public safety building. 

As you probably recall, the Town Council’s recent target for tax increases has been 3% or less per year.  But they missed it this year and came in at a 3.6% increase.  And there have also been dire warnings from town and school officials that next year’s budget is going to be “challenging.”  So we will probably be very lucky to come in with no more than a 3% tax increase for the “routine” operating expenses of salaries, benefits, utilities, and so forth.  That would add another $148 to your tax bill.

 

Add together the 2.2% tax increase for the new public safety building mortgage payment and a 3% tax increase for “routine” operating expenses and it is very easy to expect a total tax increase of 5% or more.   Town officials won’t make a projection of next year’s tax rate.  You heard it here first.

 

Isn’t it better to understand the tax impact before you vote on the public safety building?   Otherwise, when it becomes clear after the building has been approved that the increase will be around 5%, town officials will tell you (with a straight face): “Of course the increase is that high.  You voters approved that public safety building.  You should have expected it.”  Forewarned is forearmed.

For those of you who are so inclined, here’s that same story graphically:

About the Public Safety Building Process…

Yes, there was a talented and hardworking committee that put together the proposal for the new police/fire station.  We appreciate their dedication and expertise.  However…

If you and I, fellow taxpayer, were considering building a new home, most of us would start with the amount we determined we could afford before making the plans.  Why design a $500,000 house when we know the most we can afford is $350,000? 

But the public safety building process didn’t work that way.  Instead, the committee was charged with designing a building that would meet the “needs” of the departments in a cost-effective manner.  So the budget was determined after the building was designed.  There was no guidance in terms of what was affordable to the taxpayers.  If someone provided guidance on a maximum budget, we never heard about it.

Indeed, before the committee began its work, the best public estimate of the cost of the new building was $18 million.  That amount appeared in the Town’s budget book issued in April, just seven months ago.  Sure, it was only an estimate, but presumably it was based on reasonable and conservative assumptions about building size and cost-per-square-foot.  So to be off by $3.5 million or 20% only seven months later raises serious questions about the planning process.

 And it reminds us that we as voters are charged with providing the final “budget control” for the new police/fire station.

“Is that your best price?”

Wiley Field Snack Bar & Restroom Facility, Pleasant Hill

Let’s face it, Scarborough has a reputation for constructing generously outfitted buildings – the Wentworth School, the “Town Mahal,”  the Wiley Field Snack Bar/Brick [Out]house.  Perhaps it’s a function of the above-described committee process that we use.

In any event, we can’t help but wonder about some of aspects of the proposed new police/fire station.  As noted in the last blog, we’re going from a 17,000 square foot building to a 52,000 square foot one – triple the size.  Yes, the current facility is crowded, but is triple the size really necessary?

Detail from architect’s final report.

Then there’s the truck bay in the new building that will house the Town’s antique fire engine, the one that’s currently located at the North Scarborough firehouse.  The proposed new building has an approximate construction cost of $354 per square foot.  The bay for the antique truck in the new building is about 465 square feet.  Doing the multiplication produces a rough cost estimate of about $165,000 for the bay for the antique truck which currently resides (without protest, we assume) at North Scarborough.  Is this a “must do” part of the project?


 

We keep coming back to that huge leap from “the current building is cramped and in need of updating” to “we need a $21.5 million facility to replace it.”

Please consider all the facts when you vote on the proposed public safety building on November 7!  Understand the real tax impact.  Remember, you as a voter are the ultimate budget control in this building project.


Brief update on the Comprehensive Plan

In the last blog, we decried the lack of broad public input into the comprehensive plan.  Instead, we got a lame spectacle called “Planapalooza” that was supposed to make everyone think there was broad public input.  There wasn’t.  We were there.

We suggested, as others have from the beginning of the comprehensive plan development process, that a survey of all residents’ attitudes about the future of the Town was needed… a survey that would be mailed to each of the approximately 8,400 households in Town.  With such a survey we could actually develop a plan that reflects what the Town’s residents want.  (What a novel idea!)

No sooner had we pressed the “publish” button on the last blog, but the following mailing came to our attention:

Yes, our friends next door in Cape Elizabeth are also engaged in the comprehensive planning process.  And guess what?  Their process included a mailing to every household in the Town alerting them to the availability of a survey on their thoughts about the future of the town.  Too bad we couldn’t afford legitimate outreach to all households to get a real handle on what the entire town wants, not just the 100 or so people who had the time and agenda-driven motivation to participate in process.   You would think with a budget of $135,000 for the comprehensive plan that our consultant could have squeezed in a real attitude survey like they did in the Cape.

And already we have the “first fruits” of the Comprehensive Plan!  Yes, someone at Town Hall (undoubtedly with the blessing of the Politburo) decided Scarborough should enter the sweepstakes for Amazon’s second headquarters location.  This was the first manifestation of what will now be touted as the overwhelming consensus of the citizen input phase of the comprehensive plan: “Think BIG!”

Never mind that Scarborough doesn’t come close to meeting Amazon’s preferred requirements.  Never mind that it’s hard to imagine any scenario that would be more likely to suck every last ounce of the Town’s remaining character out of it.  All that matters is that we think BIG!

Sure, Town officials describe the application as a “long shot” and an “academic exercise.”  But you will be forgiven if you think this “exercise” may have demonstrated that we have some staff with too much time on their hands.  We can think of several very real current challenges and issues that could benefit from more attention by Town staff.  We bet you can, too.  Perhaps it would be better to hold off on future “exercises” until the Town’s real issues are resolved.


Next time: the big tax assessment mess, how much it has cost us (taxpayers) already and how much more it may yet cost.


So long until next time.  And happy trails until then.

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

[Statement of responsibility: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author only and should not be attributed to any other persons or groups.]

[Correction: In the original version, the location of the Town’s antique firetruck was given as the Dunstan firehouse.  This was a reporting error; the engine is located at the North Scarborough firehouse. Corrected 11-02-17, 3:00 pm]


Scarborough’s Edifice Complex

Well, so much for a nice, relaxing summer in Scarborough! Who knew it would take until September to pass a school budget!  And then, when all was said and done, the final overall tax rate increase was 3.6% — more than the 3.5% and 3.0% increases that went along with the two defeated school budget referendums.  Only in Scarborough!

But, as your grandmother may have said, there’s no rest for the wicked.  Not only is there already great hand-wringing about next year’s school budget, but there are currently two major issues on our municipal plate – the approval of a new $21.5 million police/fire station and the creation of the Town’s “comprehensive plan.”  Both of these will have significant impact on our tax bills – one quite soon and one on a longer-term basis.

First, the new police/fire station.  This is a tough one.  It is abundantly clear that the current building is too small and past its prime.  There’s also no doubt that our police and fire personnel deserve a better facility.  But the tough part is the financial justification of a new building.  No matter how you slice it, there’s going to be a major increase in our tax bills if this building is approved at the November 7 referendum.  Here are some of the key numbers:

That’s right, the Town will have a new mortgage payment of $1.4 million the first year the new building goes into service.  That $1.4 million will go right on top of the other “routine” cost increases we face each year for municipal and school salaries, debt costs, other operating costs and capital equipment.  So prepare yourself for another big tax increase in the near future. 

We’re working on our projections of the Fiscal 2019 and 2020 tax increases.  Let’s hope the Town is, too.  But be aware: some of our elected officials are dead-set against doing financial projections… probably because they know just how bad they would look.  The lack of long-term financial discipline inevitably leads to fully predictable “surprises” in budget —– and tax rates.

More on the financial impact of the proposed new public safety building next time.


Bamboozled by a Planapalooza©?

Some readers may have heard about the comprehensive plan process that the Town has recently embarked on.  Unfortunately, though, many Scarborough residents either haven’t heard…or don’t care.  But this is a process you cannot afford to ignore!

The State of Maine requires communities to prepare a “comprehensive plan” every 12 years.  While it is a zoning document at heart, the “comp plan” sets the Town’s broad general objectives for the next 10-20 years.  Things like, how fast do we want the Town to grow?  Where do we want that growth to occur?  What sort of housing solutions do we want to accommodate population growth – single family homes, condos, small apartment complexes, high-rise apartment buildings?  What will the impacts of growth be on demand for services and facilities?  (How much more crowded do you want Route 1 to be?)  And about a thousand more questions… the ultimate answers to which lead directly back to your tax bill.

The headquarters of our comp plan consultant, TPUDC, in Franklin, TN.

For this planning process to be reflective of the entire Town, it needs broad general input from as many of us as possible.  Unfortunately, that broad general input is not happening. As a result, the comprehensive plan is being crafted by a boutique planning consultant and a very narrow sliver of the Town’s population.

 

Sure, there’s been all sorts of talk about what an inclusive process this is going to be.  But when you get right down to it, it’s not working out that way.  The way “public input” has been structured, you have to make a determined effort to give input.  First, you have to figure out that your input is wanted. 

 

Last month, four neighborhood meetings were held to allow citizens to share their visions of Scarborough in the future.  To a large extent, this was an exercise in compiling a wish list.  And, according to a published report, only a total of about 50 of us grass-roots citizens attended the four meetings.  (At some meetings,  Town officials and employees  seemed to outnumber us garden-variety folks.)  Did people not know about these meetings or did they just not care?

You can still provide input by going to the special comprehensive plan website (www.scarboroughengaged.com).   Once there, you can join the small number of your fellow citizens who have commented on the discussion forums.  (Chances are these are mostly people from that same group of 50-100 who have been “engaged” through the in-person meetings.)   Or you could have spent a day or two at “Planapalooza©” from September 25-28.  Come on now… how many of us are able to devote several hours to this exercise?

From the very beginning, several residents have asked to have the public input process include a survey of all residents.  You know, mail a survey to every household that asks the folks who live here how they envision Scarborough’s future.  Yes, we know, how quaintly 20th century of us!  But let’s make sure that this is really an inclusive process that accurately reflects what the Town as a whole wants, not just the 100 or so people who can figure out what the hell a Planapalooza© is.  Remember, there are nearly 20,000 of us who call Scarborough home… let’s not have 100 people make decisions that will significantly impact all of us.  Also important:  a mailed survey will reach two sizable groups that may not otherwise be well represented – those older residents who are not attuned to email/social media and the many part-year residents who have now returned to their winter homes.

There’s been a whole lot of waffling as to why a hardcopy survey can’t be mailed to all residents.  But the absolute best reason we heard that we couldn’t possibly do an all-households survey was… you’re gonna love this one… it would be too expensive!  The approved budget so far for the comprehensive plan is $135,000 and we can’t fit in a decent public opinion survey?  What are we missing here???

Much more to follow as the initial outline of the comprehensive plan becomes clear.


Special interest group scuttles school budget!

One of the main reasons many of you apparently read this blog is so that you can have at least some idea of what’s really happening at Town Hall without having to sit through all those mind-numbing meetings. (Of course, the price you pay is that you have to put up with your editor’s often cynical perspective on what transpired.) 

But the September 18 meeting of the Joint Town Council/School Board Finance Committee is a good example of the sort of high quality entertainment you might not be aware of if you weren’t a LookOutScarborough reader.  This meeting featured a debriefing of the recently (and belatedly) completed Fiscal 2018 budget process. 

We were surprised to hear that several of the participants thought the budget process actually worked quite well.  In fact, the only fly in the ointment according to them was some special interest group that insisted upon widely publicizing a number that didn’t support the party line.  So the 50%, more or less, of voters who are concerned by increasing taxes are now a “special interest group” in addition to being “anti-education.”  And you know who you are.

The other rather startling aspect of this meeting was the obvious reluctance of the committee members (with one exception) to embrace financial planning and forecasting.  Remember, this is a finance committee.  And they’re against financial forecasting.  You know, so you can kind of look ahead to see what financial demands will or may be on the horizon and consider those demands when you’re preparing the current budget.  Most folks would consider that to be common sense.  But once again, Scarborough distinguishes itself – with a finance committee that comes out against financial planning.  [If you find this hard to believe, please review the video at this link.]


Lots more good stuff coming…

 

Yes, the past few weeks have been chock full of newsworthy developments at Town Hall.  We confess it has been difficult to keep up with them all.  But we’re putting our nose to the proverbial grindstone and planning to have another blog entry within the next ten days or so. 

Among the topics we’re feverishly working on:

  • The great trash bin defacing/decorating controversy… including our plans for the first (and last) trash bin decorating contest.
  • The very expensive tax abatement suit that the Town recently made its first payment on.
  • Updates on both the new police/fire station and the comprehensive plan.

Phew.  So much going on.  It takes your breath away.  

Please stay informed.  Remain vigilant.  And for heaven’s sake, keep composting!

Happy trails until we meet again,

TT Hannah

 

 

Scarborough Tax Rate Bombshell

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!

TT Hannah

(who is solely responsible for the contents of this blog and the opinions expressed therein)

 

Microscopic Reduction of Scarborough School Budget for Referendum #3

Welcome back to another rollicking, fact-filled episode of LookOutScarborough! 

The story so far:  On July 25 voters rejected the school budget for a second time, though by a slimmer margin than the first trouncing.  The vote was 1,930 against and 1,847 in favor, so the margin was about 2.2%. 

In response, our fearless Town Council proposed a further reduction of $50,000 to the school budget at their August 2 meeting.  That adjustment amounted to just 0.12% of the just-rejected budget.  Yes, that’s a bit more than one-tenth of one percent, or the same as taking 12 cents from $100.

Here’s what the numbers look like:

A couple of Council members described the further $50,000 adjustment as “significant.” One member related it somehow to a teacher’s salary, although the connection was not clear.  One Councilor went so far as to characterize the adjustment as “astronomical.”

But that’s not what we’ve been hearing.  Here are some of the reactions we’ve heard to the proposed adjustment:

“You’re kidding me!”

“Infinitesimal.”

“A slap in the face!”

“They just don’t get it!”

“Like the proverbial pimple on an elephant’s backside.”

In short, we don’t think a $50,000 adjustment is going to sway many voters over to the “yes” column. 

It should be noted that even after this “significant” adjustment, the school department will still be spending $1.3 million more than last year.  We’re really not in “hardship” territory here, despite what some will moan.

The school budget adjustment amount – if any – will be finalized at the Council’s August 16 meeting.  And we will have yet another opportunity to vote on the school budget on Tuesday, September 5.  Please mark it on your calendar now.  They are counting on voter apathy to push this budget through.  Don’t let that happen!  Keep those voting shoes ready to go!


Readers who recall the Cold War will be forgiven for noticing occasional similarities between the old, Soviet-style government and that of current-day Scarborough.  No, we’re not suggesting that the Town is run by a bunch of Commies.  Just that certain aspects of our municipal governance seem reminiscent of those days gone by.

Consider control of the media, for example.  For decades, the people of the Soviet Union had essentially one source of news – Pravda – a newspaper that served as the mouthpiece of the government, always stayed with the party line and never published dissenting views.  Does that ring any bells with Scarborough’s current media situation?

And then there’s the governing body.   Yes, technically, we have a popularly-elected, seven-person Town Council.  But somehow it often feels like a four-man Politburo, where personal agendas take precedence over the interests of the Town’s residents, where citizen input is considered a burden rather than a benefit, and where the decisions are all made and rehearsed well before the public meetings.

Contributing to this tyrannical aura are the occasional statements by certain Town Councilors that they were elected to use their judgment and that the views of the majority of the citizens really don’t matter.  On more than one occasion we have heard Council members utter a sentiment along the lines of “if you don’t like what I do, don’t re-elect me.”  We certainly hope folks will take them up on that offer!


Proposed Sign Ordinance Revision

But the most troubling reminder of an authoritarian governing style comes in the revision to the Town’s  sign ordinance that is about to be foisted upon us.  Yes, we know those political signs that pop up in the few weeks before elections are not the most attractive decorations of the landscape. On the other hand, they play a vital role in voter awareness and motivation.  They are, in fact, a key element in the democratic process.

The Council is poised to enact sweeping changes to the Town’s sign ordinance which will severely limit where political signs may be placed.  The alleged “reasons” justifying these changes are as phony as phony can be – promoting traffic safety, protecting ecologically sensitive areas and maintaining scenic vistas.  How many traffic accidents have political signs caused in the past?  Just what documented evidence is there of environmental damage to ecologically sensitive areas from temporary sign placement?  We may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.

Currently, political signs in Scarborough are largely governed by the appropriate State regulations.  Those regulations were updated within the past couple of years.  This little chart shows just how draconian the proposed changes are for the placement of temporary political signs in Scarborough:

So, no signs at the major intersections of Oak Hill, Dunstan Corner, Payne Road and Haigis Parkway.  And where signs are allowed, they have to be more than 500 feet apart.  The proposed ordinance boils down to a chilling attempt to ban political signs.  This is clearly an attempt to stifle public comment and discussion of important issues. 

If the ordinance revisions are approved (and the Politburo is firmly behind them), we envision unintended consequences.  Like signs being forced into locations where they have never been before, including in the hearts of neighborhoods.

Sure, those candidate and referendum signs can clutter things up for a few weeks every year.  But isn’t that a small price to pay for an informed electorate and a vibrant democratic process?


And finally, Scarborough’s Own Great American Monument…

Perhaps it’s not on quite as grand a scale as other iconic American monuments, but we in Scarborough are about to have a monument of our own.  When the new ordinance instituting a parking fee for 13 spaces at Higgins Beach goes into effect, the Higgins Beach Parking Meter will stand as an enduring monument to how personal agendas drive public policy in Scarborough.

From the day this proposal surfaced as a budget item at a Finance Committee meeting, it has been a fraud.  Its ostensible purpose was to raise $8,000 in additional parking revenue to help fill a budget gap.  But if the Council had really been interested in raising revenue from beach parking, it easily and quickly could have determined that our $10 per day beach parking passes are significantly below market and provide an excellent opportunity for generating additional revenue.

The budget frenzy was just a perfect, out-of-the-public-eye opportunity to sneak in a policy change that should have been publicly debated on its merits and considered within the context of all beach parking fees and policies.  As the old saying goes: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

So every time you drive by the humble parking meter that guards those 13 parking spaces on Bayview Avenue, think Statue of Liberty and recall how the zealous personal agenda of one Councilor can derail an entire town’s governing process.


Until next time…

It may be the dog days of summer, but there’s a lot going on in Scarborough at the moment… and we don’t mean Summerfest.  In addition to the school budget, there are several critically important matters currently on the Town’s agenda:

  • The deplorable sign ordinance, as discussed above
  • The proposed new $21.5 million fire/police station that will go for voter approval on November 7.
  • The updating of the Town’s “comprehensive plan.”  (This sounds like a boring bureaucratic exercise, but if we don’t pay attention, the Town’s future will be decided by others.)

We’ll do our best to keep you informed on these important developments.

Finally, just a quick reminder that the views expressed in this blog are solely those of your editor.  They should not be attributed to any other individual or group.

Here’s hoping you can enjoy some quality hammock-time during our short summer season.  But keep at least one eye on Town Hall; you never know what may happen.

Happy trails until we meet again!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

 

Augusta to Scarborough: No Pot of Gold for You!

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.

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

 

Will token budget reductions satisfy Scarborough voters?

Well, Scarborough voters made their position quite clear at the June 13 school budget referendum.  They weren’t at all happy with the 7.4% increase in taxes for the school. The vote tally was NO: 2,408 versus YES: 1,822.  Voter turnout was a robust 25%, compared to many area towns’ turnouts in the single digits.

It didn’t take town leaders long to come up with a proposal for the second budget referendum.  Within a couple of days, the outline for Round Two was out there.  Town officials will point out, as they frequently do, that this is “just a starting point.”   The final amount of the Round Two referendum won’t be known until the Town Council approval on July 5.  Then we will be voting on Round Two on Tuesday, July 25.

Here are the changes the Town Council has proposed for Round Two:

  • Unspecified reductions of $236,000 to the school budget.
  • Unspecified reductions of $71,000 to the municipal budget.
  • Allocation of 100% of any excess State education aid received to future school use, as opposed to an immediate reduction in the tax rate.

Here’s the bottom line of what those changes mean to taxpayers:

Three things concern us about the re-tooled budget proposal:

  1. Even though it was the school budget that was voted down, reductions are being made in the municipal budget as well as the school budget.  This is in line with the “One Town, One Budget” slogan that the Town Council and School Board are peddling.  It’s a sort of “share the pain” approach — the real purpose of which is to provide a smokescreen for what’s going on with the school budget.   Bottom line for “One Town, One Budget”: as long as the overall tax rate is “acceptable,” the school budget can be whatever they want it to be — never mind declining enrollment, never mind declining State education aid, never mind financial realities.  Perhaps this management by cute slogan has gone too far.
  2. On the first referendum, any excess education aid funds received from the State after the referendum were going to be split 50-50 between future school use and immediate taxpayer relief through a reduced tax rate. With the second referendum, town leaders decided that any and all excess State aid funds will be committed to future school costs.  Not even a scrap for the taxpayers.
  3. The proposed overall tax rate increase of 3% includes a 6.8% increase in taxes for the schools. If the school tax increase were, say, 5%, we estimate the overall tax rate increase would be about 1.5% instead of 3.0%.  Food for thought.

The Town Council meeting on June 21 seemed like it would never end.  Nearly three-and-a-half hours of motions and emotions.  But we would be remiss if we didn’t draw your attention to the last 20 minutes or so of it.

This was the “Councilors’ Comments” section of the meeting, where members took turns giving their impressions of why the school budget was defeated and what lessons could be learned.  There was a wide range of reactions from thoughtfulness, pragmatism and openness to arrogance, deafness, denial and petulance.

If you can invest 20 minutes in assessing the effectiveness and leadership qualities of the Council members, go to about 3:00:50 on the video of the June 21 meeting linked here.  See who you think “gets it.”

Among our favorite statements was Councilor Caiazzo’s that the Council had done “everything we thought was right” in the budget process.  And still, we note, it was voted down.   Geez, Scarborough voters, what’s your problem?

Councilor Caiazzo also noted “that 7.4% was not on the radar screen.”  Wait… 7.4% was the increase in taxes to be raised for the schools.  The amount that was going to come out of taxpayers’ pockets.  And it wasn’t on the radar screen?  Time for a new radar screen! 

We’re sure that a new radar system can somehow be worked into the $6.3 million town/school capital budget for Fiscal 2018.  (Just make certain it costs less than $400,000 so voter approval of bonding for it won’t be required.)


What’s the real answer?

[Your editor, having successfully mounted his high horse, will now proceed to pontificate, lecture and generally blow smoke…]

Here we are again.  In that familiar place where there is a great division over the amount of the school budget. Year after year we lurch from one problematic budget to another.  And we continue the search for the magic number that will make at least 51% of the town’s voters happy.

Perhaps this would be a good year to try something different.  Perhaps we could take a longer view than just the budget we’re voting on in 4 weeks.  Perhaps we could do something known in the real world as “financial planning.”  You know, do some projections out 3 or 4 years, look at underlying trends, perhaps even consider making some changes in how we do things.  Perhaps explore new sources of revenue or technology that could actually save us money rather than cost us more. 

Oh, sorry, I must have nodded off there.  Just a dream.  Now let’s get back to business as usual…


The editor would also like to remind readers: All contents of this blog, including all opinions expressed, are solely those of the editor.  No other individual or group has any responsibility for the blog’s content.


A Dearth of Mirth?

The Library’s annual book sale at the High School.

Last weekend we attended the Library’s annual book sale at the High School.  What a great event for a great community resource!  Thousands of books, all for a couple bucks or less each.

But we did make one curious observation…  There were – as you can see in the above picture – literally thousands of books in hundreds of boxes covering all imaginable categories – fiction, reference, hobbies, you name it.  But there, at the back wall, was the “humor” category — consisting in total of four measly boxes.

The humor section in its entirety.

Has Scarborough lost its sense of humor?  Mark Twain said:  “Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.”  We here at LookOutScarborough.com are all in for “a sunny spirit.”

Which reminds us… did you hear the one about the three Town Councilors who walked into a bar?


That’s it for now. 

Remember, July 5 is the all-important “second reading” of the budgets (school and municipal).  This is where the school budget we will be voting on will be finalized, probably amid a flurry of amendments.  In the past the amendment process has proved baffling to the casual observer.  Anything can — and often does — happen.  We’ll keep you posted and let you know just what you’ll be voting on on July 25.

Have a festive and safe Fourth of July!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

Storm Clouds Over June 13 Scarborough School Tax Vote

Well, folks, here we are again near the end of Phase One of the annual school budget referendum conversation.  A school tax increase that town officials had hoped to slide through quietly under a disingenuous slogan (“One Town, One Budget”) has become a topic of intense and informed discussion – the absolute last thing they wanted.  And the more people who understand what’s really going on, the less likely the prospect of passing the 7.4% increase in school taxes called for by the school budget.

As always, we value your time and will keep this post brief and to the point.  There are really only three simple things you need to know about the June 13 school budget vote:

  1. The only thing on the “School Budget Referendum” ballot is the school budget. We are NOT voting on the municipal or county budgets, which are separate components of our tax bills.
  2. As we pointed out in our last post, the school budget we are voting on raises $42.8 million of tax dollars for the schools – an increase of $2.9 million or 7.4% over last year.
  3. If you believe a 7.4% increase in taxes for the schools is too much, vote NO. This is the only opportunity you get all year to vote directly on your taxes. Please take advantage of it!

Still not sure that the 7.4% increase is for the amount of taxes to be raised for the schools?  Here’s a direct quote from The ForecasterThe $42.7 million school budget for fiscal 2018 calls for a tax increase of 7.39 percent, or $2.9 million, over the current year’s $39.8 million budget.  [Link to full article here.]


Dueling Signs

Apparently the lawn signs used in the school budget referendum have generated some controversy.  Especially the VOTE NO signs.  Those signs have the audacity to cite the actual increase percentage of school taxes to be raised if the school budget is approved.  Imagine that… highlighting the increase in taxes of the budget we’re voting on – the school budget!  And yet somehow this is misleading????

The transgression of the makers of the VOTE NO signs was that they failed to go along with the Town-mandated “One Town, One Budget” narrative that focuses on the overall tax rate increase, rather than just the school tax increase that we’re actually voting on.

We hate it when our Town Councilors get upset.  So you can imagine how pained we were to hear normally mild-mannered Councilor Donovan’s rather scathing commentary on the VOTE NO signs.  He was appalled and outraged.  He was particularly teed off by the YES and NO signs being placed next to each other, for reasons that aren’t clear to us.

But we do agree with one of the Councilor’s comments: “You can’t trust people who would manipulate the public.”  By pretending that there is only one budget, when there are in fact three budgets (school, municipal and county) that roll up into an overall tax rate, town leaders are attempting to distract voters from the 7.4% increase in the school tax.  (Food for thought: think how much lower the overall tax rate might be if the school tax increase were up a mere 3 or 4%.)  To view Councilor Donovan’s sign commentary, start at about 2:13:25 of the June 7 Council meeting video.

And they wonder why “the trust issue” keeps on coming up in community dialogues.


Congratulations, Class of 2017!

 

We hope you took full advantage of the opportunities offered by the Scarborough schools.  We wish you much success in your future endeavors, whatever they may be.

 


Another Tax Casualty

We were sorry to hear that Mike Turek and his wife Alex have decided to leave Scarborough, additional casualties of the ever-increasing tax burden.  Mike was one of the founders of SMARTaxes back in the spring of 2014.  He has been a steady and plain-spoken voice of reason and common-sense in the community.  On numerous occasions he has championed fiscal responsibility and encouraged the Town Council and School Board to consider taxpayers’ ability to pay when approving school budgets.

Now Mike finds himself in the exact position he has fought to prevent – being forced to move from his home because of the tax burden.  Here’s the text of Mike’s public comments at the recent Town Council meeting:

———————————————————–

For three years now I have stood before the Council telling them of an ever increasing number of people who have approached me to tell me they are leaving Scarborough because of the taxes. None of them wanted to be named for a variety of reasons. The last time I addressed the Council the number was 22. Today it stands at 24. I am selling my house.

I watch my 80+ year old neighbor fret annually as the budget cycle played out. She has given up a lot to stay in her home and still eat and pay for medicine. One widow told me there is too much month left at the end of the money.  I am now 71. I do not want the same thing to happen to me or my wife.

It is my opinion the School Board does not care. A School Board member once told me the Board does not answer to the public. She said the Board is a governing body, not a representative one. Just as a church is made up of people, not just the building in which services are held, so is a town. It is my opinion the BOE and Town Council have forgotten the town is made up of people.

It is my sincere wish and hope that every School Board member who supported these drastic budgets without regard to taxpayers’ ability to pay, along with every Town Councilor who voted for them will one day suffer the same fate I am today.

Good bye.

———————————————————–

Please join us in thanking Mike for his extraordinary service to the Town and wishing him and his wife all the best in the future!   And please say thank you in a very tangible way by going to Town Hall and voting NO on June 13. 


One Final Reminder:

VOTE on Tuesday, June 13, at Town Hall, 7am-8pm

Well, that wraps it up except for one final reminder to vote at Town Hall on Tuesday, June 13, from 7am to 8pm.  If you believe a 7.4% increase in taxes raised for the schools is too much, please VOTE NO.

We had more material, but we have to end it here since duty calls – we have to go plant a few more of those “disrespectful” signs.

Happy trails until we meet again!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

Three Dirty Little Secrets about the Scarborough Budget

So, it’s all over now except for voting on the school budget on June 13.  Three weeks ago we predicted that taxpayers would be asked to pony up an additional 7.1% for the schools in Fiscal 2018.  Turns out we were a tad optimistic… in their wisdom, the Town Council unanimously approved an increase of $2.9 million or 7.4% of your tax dollars for the schools next year.  These are numbers that you will never hear from town and school officials – probably because they are justifiably afraid that informed voters will reject a 7.4% increase.

Here are the three biggest secrets that town officials don’t want you to find out about before you vote:

When you vote, the ballot will be utterly useless in informing you of what you are voting on.  Here’s what the ballot looks like:

Posted in or near the voting booth will be a (State-required) page of numbers that provides precious little meaningful information on the budget and no information whatsoever on the budget’s tax impact.

But here’s the school budget summary that you really need:

This schedule was prepared by the school department.  You won’t find it anywhere near the voting booth.  We have translated the “education budget net” terminology into plain English: “amount taxpayers will pay for the schools.”  

As you can see, the bottom line of the school budget calls for taxpayers to provide $42,777,196, which is an increase of $2,943,634 or 7.39% over last year.  Gee, why didn’t they post that information in the voting booth?

Town and school officials are perfectly content to have voters remain very hazy about what the school budget really means.  They are counting on folks not understanding the tax implications of the school budget.   If this is transparency, we’d hate to see murkiness.

So when you come face-to-face with that generic ballot question on the school budget, remember what it is really asking is: “Do you approve of a 7.4% increase in taxes for the schools (an increase of $2.9 million) that results in an overall tax rate increase of 3.5%?”  If you think a 7.4% increase is too high, vote NO.

Even to get to that big fat 7.4% increase, the budget preparers had to use $2.1 million of surplus funds from prior years (“fund balance”).  This is otherwise known as “dipping into reserves.”  So the proposed school budget uses $2.1 million of cash left over from prior years to offset increasing expenses and decreasing non-tax revenues.  If not for that infusion of cash from “reserves,” we taxpayers would have had to pony up $44.9 million – a whopping 12.7% increase over last year.  And no one has said much about our reserves – like how much they are in total and how long will they last if we keep using $2 million or so each year.

One number you will constantly hear from town and school officials is the $1.4 million reduction in the amount of State education aid we received.  But the use of $2.1 million of reserves covers that reduction… and then some.

Is this any way to prepare a budget?  Is this the way you run your household budget?  If you think this is an inappropriate way to budget, vote NO on the school budget.

 

In their wisdom, our Town Council – apparently feeling quite generous with our money – decided that giving the schools 7.4% more tax dollars was appropriate.  Perhaps, dear reader, you are not feeling quite so generous.

 

The school budget referendum is the one and only opportunity that we have each year to directly impact the amount of our taxes.  A NO vote is not anti-school.  A NO vote simply means that you believe a 7.4% increase in taxpayer dollars for the schools (and the resulting overall tax rate increase of 3.5%) is too high.  It means that the Town Council needs to do a better job of looking out for ALL taxpayers.

This is your tax bill you are voting on.   If you think this tax increase is too high, VOTE NO on June 13.


Moving the Goal Posts

At the beginning of this year’s budget process, the Town Council set the rather wishy-washy goal of a total tax rate increase of “about 3% or less.”  At the time we remember thinking, what does that really mean?  Does a 3.1% increase meet that goal?  How about 3.2%?  It seemed like a rather oddly-stated goal.

But then, about midway through the budget process, it became clear to the budget preparers that getting to an increase even close to 3% would require making some tough decisions.  Which is the absolute last thing they wanted to do.  The only solution – change the goal!  And presto-changeo, the goal became 3.5% or less.  Or, as Councilor Donovan put it at one meeting, “3.49999%.” (We may be off by one “9” there…)

This little episode perfectly illustrates the town’s m.o. when it comes to financial management – avoid the tough decisions at any cost.  Look for gimmicks to avoid dealing with the real issue of underlying costs being more than taxpayers are willing and able to pay.


Beaches in the Budget Crosshairs

Certainly one of the low points of this year’s budget process came near the end when three nickel-and-dime adjustments to beach-related accounts were proposed at the May 4 Finance Committee meeting and then wrangled over (heatedly, at times) at the May 17 Town Council meeting.

Here are the changes that the Town Council saw fit to impose upon an unaware public in the waning moments of the budget process:

* No more free parking along Bayview Avenue at Higgins Beach.  That parking meter that we were assured was just installed to help enforce the one-hour summertime parking limit will now be a pay meter.  The Finance Committee decided to ignore the numerous voices that were raised in the 2015 brouhaha over Higgins Beach parking and access.  (Seniors are currently eligible for a free beach parking pass.  But the 13 spaces on Bayview Avenue will apparently become the only spaces in town where the senior free beach parking pass will not work.)

*500 fewer hours of seasonal police beach patrols at Higgins Beach.  Should we expect public nudity and urination to return to their former levels?  And will there be adequate policing of parking violations?  Questions that — based on past experience — should have received a thorough policy going-over in an appropriate public forum were instead whisked through by the Finance Committee in one meeting.  Is this the way it’s supposed to work?

* Reduction of beach raking at Pine Point Beach.  Last year the beach raking program was upgraded to include a second beach cleaning every week during July and August to deal with the yuckies that have fouled the beach during the peak season.  With this adjustment, that second cleaning will now happen only every other week.

All three of the above changes were ultimately included in the final budget.  The sum total impact of these adjustments is an improvement of $ 22,000 to the budget.  Talk about a pittance.  Remember, this is a budget that includes using $2.1 million of fund balance (aka “dipping into reserves”) in order to come even close to the 3% tax rate increase target set by the Council.  That Town staff and members of the Town Council were not able to come up with less controversial ways to find $22,000 of budget improvements is a sad commentary on our budget process.

The other highly troubling aspect of this last-minute budget maneuver was the the utter disregard it shows for public involvement in policy decisions.  All three of the policies impacted by the budget changes had been arrived at after significant public comment, discussion and compromise.  Yet those well-considered policies were overturned or significantly degraded with almost no opportunity for public awareness or input.

Tired of a dysfunctional budget process?  Register your disgust with a NO vote on the school budget referendum on June 13.  Yes, we know that beach operations are not part of the school budget, but under the Town’s new “One Town, One Budget” philosophy, everything is fair game.


The Old Cynic’s Corner

Here’s our summary of the May 17 Town Council meeting where final approval was given to the budget.  About 10 minutes were devoted to a cursory overview of the municipal and school budgets – during which two critically important elements were not mentioned:   (1) the actual amount of taxes to be raised for the schools ($42.8 million, an increase of 7.4%) and  (2) the use of $2.1 million of reserve funds to keep the increase at “only” 7.4%.  Then there was the obligatory round of back-patting and self-congratulations for a few more minutes. 

But then, for the next 45 minutes, the Council engaged in an orgy of backstabbing, grandstanding, posturing, bullying and fact-stretching – all over $22,000 of budget adjustments focusing on Higgins and Pine Point Beaches.  This is the kind of entertainment that justifies sitting through months and months of interminable budget meetings – people at each others’ throats within minutes of proclaiming how well they work together.  It doesn’t get any better than this.  (The beach discussion starts about one-hour into the meeting should you be inclined to see it for yourself on the video replay.)


Special Free Bonus for LookOutScarborough Subscribers

In our never-ending quest to provide taxpayers with the information they need but can’t get from other sources, we are pleased to share our one-page, condensed budget summary.  It’s a nice supplement to the Town’s 392-page budget opus.  Here’s the link.  If you would like a copy of the budget summary as an Excel or pdf file, just let us know.  We hope you’ll find the budget summary helpful.


Coming Attractions

Next time, we will be making our annual budget awards.  Among the awards to be made this year:

The Niccolo Machiavelli Award for the Year’s Most Cynical Budget Proposal                                                

“The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks” Award

Also, we will update you on the kick-off of the Comprehensive Plan updating process.  This process is critical to shaping what Scarborough will look like five or ten years from now.  If you don’t pay attention, you won’t have a say.

Stay tuned!


That’s all for now, folks.  Happy trails until we meet again!                

Be neighborly,                                                

TTHannah