Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

 

 

Fake Budget Slams Scarborough Taxpayers

An Ugly Trifecta

It feels like we’ve just hit some trifecta of unwelcome events at Scarborough Downs.  Here’s what’s happening now:

  • a fake budget is working its way through the usual ugly process,
  • a fake emergency is being conjured up to avoid a Charter-required vote on bonding a capital project and
  • another land give-away at Pine Point seems likely.

It’s amazing to us that the Town Council can find so many different ways to outrage so many folks all at once.  Since it can’t be avoided, let’s get to it…

Yes, we know, the “fake this” and “fake that” craze is mercifully coming to an end.  But it is such an appropriate concept for the Scarborough budget process that we can’t resist. 

Why is the Fiscal 2018 budget a fake budget?  Well, here are a couple of ways:

Fake Budget Reason #1:  Miraculous Budget “Refinements”

The bad news is delivered, with an upbeat spin, at the Budget Forum.

You may recall that in our last blog entry we reported that taxpayer funding of the schools was up 10% from last year’s budget.  So with great fanfare at the Budget Forum last Wednesday evening (4/26) it was announced that certain “refinements” had been made to the school budget, reducing it by $872,000!  No meaningful detail of the refinements was provided at the Budget Forum.

But the next day we did learn the details.  So here’s how these “improvements” to the budget were achieved:

  • Received better information on future insurance and electricity costs — $306,000
  • Made a better estimate of salaries and benefits costs of existing staff — $171,000
  • Received better information on State reimbursement of laptop program — $130,000
  • Moved capital items from the operating budget to bonds (equivalent to putting it on a credit card instead of paying cash) — $264,000

As our golfing friends would say, these were all gimmies.  There was absolutely no heavy lifting involved in making these refinements.   And isn’t it amazing that all these beneficial refinements could be made in just the three weeks since the budget was first presented on April 5!  If you should hear about the “valiant efforts” and “tough decisions” made by the School Board and Town Council, don’t be fooled!  And if someone tells you the school budget has already been cut, don’t waste your breath, just walk away; they’ve been brainwashed to the point where logic will no longer influence them.

So here’s a recap of where taxpayer funding of the schools stands now after that grueling round of “refinements:”

Yes, after the refinements, taxpayers are still expected to cough up a 7.8% increase in funding of the schools.  Wait, haven’t we seen this movie before?  Yes, indeed, we have.  In fact, we see it every year at this time.


Fake Budget Reason #2:  Using $2.1 million of Fund Balance

Loyal readers of this blog are well aware of the Wentworth Windfall – a technique whereby borrowed funds left over from the Wentworth School bond issue were used to reduce operating expenses in Fiscal 2016 and 2017.  Although legal, this unexpected inflow of money artificially reduced our tax rate in Fiscal 2017.  But we burned through the windfall and gave no thought to what would happen to taxes when the windfall was no longer there to soften the tax blow.  And that time is here now.  So in Fiscal 2018 we have a somewhat larger expense base but the Wentworth Windfall money is no longer there – leaving a big hole in the budget that needs to be filled by increased property taxes.

But wait!  There’s another gimmick!  In Fiscal 2018 the budget includes the use of $2.1 million of fund balance.  Before your eyes glaze over, don’t be intimidated by the use of that arcane accounting term, “fund balance.”  Although an accountant might quibble with this description, it’s really pretty much just cash surpluses that the town and schools generated in past years.  In effect, it’s our tax dollars that were collected over and above what was actually needed.

When you hear town and school officials explain the school budget, you are likely to hear only one number – a $1.4 million reduction in State education aid funding.  While this is certainly a challenging fact of life, you almost never hear about the $2.1 million of fund balance (surpluses accumulated from prior years) included in the upcoming budget.  Yes, the budget includes “dipping into our reserves” to the tune of $2.1 million.

And that $2.1 million more than covers the reduced State aid of $1.4 million!

So here are a few crucial questions about the use of $2.1 million of surpluses:

  • How much of this fund balance/accumulated surplus is available anyway?
  • How did they arrive at $2.1 million as the correct amount of surplus to use in Fiscal 2018?
  • Why not make it $3.1 million and get taxpayer funding of the schools down to less than a 5% increase (and a total mill rate increase of less than 2%)?
  • If they say it wouldn’t be “prudent” to use more than $2.1 million this year, why haven’t they  produced a projection of future years’ tax rates and fund balance use that will support that prudence?

Bottom line: The $2.1 million use of surplus in the budget more than compensates for the loss of $1.4 million of reduced State education aid.  Yet Scarborough taxpayers are still expected to increase school funding by 7.8%.  You have been warned.


Another Pine Point Land Give-Away Moves Forward

The potential give-away of the Avenue Two extension at Pine Point Beach was described in our October 19, 2016 blog entry which you can see here.  In a nutshell, the Town is preparing to cave to a local real estate developer and resolve a very murky ownership issue in his favor without even putting up a fight.  This seems to have been the preferred solution of former chairman Donovan and current chairman Babine from the beginning – but who can know what was in their hearts?

If you know one thing, faithful reader, it is that LookOutScarborough is tight with a buck.  So we appreciate the need not to waste taxpayer dollars on quixotic quests.   On the other hand, the ownership issue of the Avenue Two extension is so uncertain that we believe the Town should assert its rights.  And the Town enters this game with a fairly strong hand – the developer needs to make the first move, i.e., sue the Town.  Remember, he’s a developer… this is a business proposition to him, so there’s a finite amount he will rationally spend to pursue his claim.

Putting aside the principle of the matter for a minute, let’s remember that the 25-foot wide piece of property that is the object of Mr. Gendron’s desire is worth about $500,000.  We don’t see what the Town would get if it gave up its ownership claim. 

The Town has shown an unfortunate streak of wimpiness in past beach access controversies.  Perhaps this would be a good time for us to stand up and defend the property we own as well as maintain long-standing beach access.

What you can do to stop this give-away:

There are two important ways you can help:  1. Send a quick email to the Town Council telling them that you are opposed to this bad deal for taxpayers.  One email address will reach them all: scarboroughtowncouncil@googlegroups.com.  2.  Come to the Town Council Workshop at 6pm on Wednesday, May 3.  If you would like to, you may make a public comment on the matter at the Town Council meeting that will follow at 7pm. 

Even if you are not a Pine Pointer, speak up!  We all have an interest in the Town protecting our access to the beaches and defending against private land grabs.

For more information or to help out, contact pinepointmaineusa@gmail.com.


Fake Bonding Approval Emergency

Another slap in the face for Scarborough taxpayers.

We’ve already taken too much of your time, but we want to make certain you are aware of yet another Town Hall shenanigan.  This one involves the requirement in the Town charter that bonds issued for capital equipment or projects costing more than $400,000 get voter approval.  It’s very important to note that the vote is not to approve the piece of equipment or the project itself.   The Town Council does that.  The voters are only asked to approve the borrowing (issuance of bonds) for the project or piece of equipment.

Well, about a month ago, the Town Manager brought the Town Council a list of capital equipment/projects to be bonded.  This happens every spring at this time and the Council routinely approves it.  The trouble is, one of the projects on the list was the replacement of the Public Works fuel station with a proposed bond amount of $687,000.  A sharp-eyed resident said, “Hey, why isn’t the public voting to approve the bonding of that project as the Charter requires?”

There was some mumbling about it being an oversight and then – in a desperate attempt to justify not complying with the Charter – the assertion that this is an emergency situation, and the Charter allows the Council to skip the public vote in cases of “financing of improvements or equipment needed as a result of fire, flood, disaster or other declared emergency. [emphasis added]”

No one is questioning the need to replace the fuel island… just the need to follow the charter if we’re going to borrow for it.

Apparently there is a Department of Environmental Protection deadline for completing the fuel station project.  But the trouble is that this project was approved in last year’s capital budget, and the contract for it has already been awarded.   The project is happening and will presumably be completed in time to meet the DEP deadline.  The Town has the funds available to complete the project.  So what, exactly, is the “emergency?” 

 

There’s no rush – or emergency – in terms of when the project gets bonded.  In the past the Town has often bonded projects after they have been started or even completed.  When the funds from the bonds finally come in, they just reimburse the Town for the costs incurred for the project/equipment.

There is no conceivable way that the failure to adhere to the Town charter qualifies as an emergency for the purpose of issuing bonds.  The only emergency here is another transparency emergency at Town Hall.

For a concise summary of this non-emergency, take a look at a recent letter to the editor in The Forecaster. 

It will be interesting to see whether the Council decides to honor the Charter or moves ahead with a contrived emergency.


A Plug for SMARTaxes

Our friends at SMARTaxes have a new website that should be of interest to everyone interested in property taxes in Scarborough.  It’s at www.SMARTaxes.com.

Like this blog, SMARTaxes is interested in reasonable property taxes for all Scarborough residents.  Taxes that balance the often conflicting needs of municipal and school services with the ability and willingness of the town’s taxpayers to pay for them.  Check out SMARTaxes!


That’s all for now.  Thanks for your patience!  There’s so much happening all at once.  Please make your feelings known!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah


 

 

 

 

Blockbuster Scarborough Budget Waits for Fairy Dust

Sometimes living in Scarborough is like being in a fairy tale… especially during budget season. Common sense and financial prudence go out the window, and fantasy and wishful thinking rush in to replace them.  For example, consider the “first reading” of the Fiscal 2018 budget that the Town Council unanimously approved on April 5…

Here are a few of the key increases in the proposed Fiscal 2018 budget:


Being a good budget citizen…

Before we go any further, let’s take a deep breath and reflect on the budget process as it has played out over the past few years.  We need to remember that “the budget” is presented in a 394-page book (link here).  It consists of literally thousands of numbers.  Some of the numbers are more important than others, and reasonable people may legitimately disagree on the relative importance of any particular number.

We need to be very careful when we talk about specific numbers.  For instance, any of the three increase categories above could be accurately given as representing “the budget” or major components of it.  At LookOutScarborough, we try to be very precise when we talk about budget amounts.

In past budget cycles, there have been loud and sometimes strident accusations of one group or another providing “misleading” or “inaccurate” information about the budget.  Most of these accusations arose because of differing perspectives on what is or is not important in the budget.

So please… be precise when you quote budget numbers.  And remember that there are different ways of interpreting the numbers.  No one – including members of the Town Councilor – has a monopoly on the correct interpretation of the budget.

Dismounting now from our high horse, let’s get down to the business at hand.


1.   State funding of the schools will be down $1.4 million this year (subject to change based on what happens to the State budget, which will probably not be known until after our budget is finalized).  A decrease of this magnitude is not a surprise; it has been expected for a few years.  Although we may debate whether the State funding mechanism is “fair” or not, that’s not a particularly productive exercise.  The State funding is what it is.  We need to adapt to its reality.

2.  The so-called “level funding” of the schools will increase by 4.9%.  This means the schools’ expenses will increase about 5% just to keep on doing what they are currently doing.  That is, a 5% increase just to maintain the status quo.  Of course the main reason for this large increase is the teachers’ contract that the School Board agreed to last year.  This year’s impact of that contract is about a 4.7% increase in teacher salaries and benefits… or perhaps more, if health insurance premiums increase more than expected.  (Taxpayers pick up 80% of the school employees’ health insurance premiums.  We don’t think even Santa’s Elves Union has that good a deal anymore.)

3.   In spite of items #1 and 2, the schools are also planning to add about $300,000 of expenses associated with 4.8 FTE new employees.  In most prudent organizations that are facing financial challenges, attempts are made to reduce costs, not increase them.

4.  The budget uses $2.1 million of surplus funds from prior years (known as “fund balance”) to offset the financial drain caused by the above factors.  As a frame of reference: in Fiscal 2015 and 2016, the schools generated a total of about $4.5 million of surpluses.  That’s essentially our tax money that was collected in excess of what was used.

5.   Municipal expenses will increase by 2.9%.  Municipal revenues (excise taxes, program/service fees, etc.) will increase by 2.7%.  In addition, the budget describes in detail the need for four new firefighters but does not include the $290,000 cost to fund this need.

And that, dear taxpayer, is how we arrived at those horrible increases that started off this blog.  In our next blog posting we will provide our usual one-page budget summary that connects the dots and shows how the numbers are related.  We guarantee it will be easier than slogging through a 394-page document… and probably more informative.


Bring on the fairy dust!

After Mr. Hall and Ms. Kukenberger gave the budget overview presentation at the Council meeting, members of the Council provided their reactions.  While there was a general consensus that this was a starting point and there was still work to be done, most Councilors seemed well pleased with the budget at this point.  Some hailed it as the best starting point in years.

Wait.  The budget presented a total tax rate increase of between 5.8% and 7.1%.  That compares to the goal set by the Town Council of “about 3% or less.”  So coming in with a tax rate increase of double the goal is a good thing?  (Paging Dr. Goldilocks.  Patient with delirious optimism in room 6.)

And for the record… Last year’s budget starting point had a projected tax rate increase of 3.27%, compared to this year’s 5.8% to 7.1%.  So saying that this year’s starting point is “the best in years” is just not supported by the facts.

The reactions of several Town Councilors are cited in The Forecaster’s article about the unveiling of the budget (link here).  See for yourself.  Better yet, watch the comments in the video-on-demand of the Council meeting (link here). The comments start at 2:03:00 of the video.

It’s going to take a ton of fairy dust to remove the odor of financial imprudence from this budget.  Remember, we still think Fiscal 2018 should be the year of no tax increase.  It’s going to be an interesting budget process! 


Slogans for Budget Season

Marketing slogans often make us nervous.  It always seems like someone is trying to sell you something you don’t need.  Or trying to make their product into something it’s not.

So we were naturally skeptical when the Town rolled out the slogan for the Fiscal 2018 budget season – “One Town, One Budget.”  We’re not sure just what sort of warm and fuzzy message this is supposed to convey.  Perhaps that questioning the budget is a divisive act that may damage the Town’s reputation?   At the very least, the slogan seems like an attempt to divert attention from the real driver of our tax increases – school funding issues.

No matter what the slogan is intended to convey, it doesn’t match up with the basic reality of our property tax system.  There are actually three budgets that go into our tax bills – municipal, school and county.  This fact can be readily confirmed by pulling out your tax bill and seeing the breakdown of the tax rate.

The county budget gets set by the Cumberland County Commissioners and a portion of it is passed on to each city or town.  At the Town level, we have no say in the county tax.  The municipal budget (fire, police, public works, etc.) is prepared by the Town Manager and approved by the Town Council.

The school budget (which accounts for about two-thirds of our tax bill) is prepared by the School Superintendent, approved by the School Board and then has its total spending level approved by the Town Council. And then the school budget – and only the school budget – goes to the Town’s voters for approval. 

The school budget is the only budget of the three budgets over which the Town’s voters have direct influence.  When we vote on June 13, we are voting only on the school budget.  As it stands now, voters would be asked to approve a 9.6% increase in taxpayer funding of the schools.  The June 13 vote is our only direct opportunity to influence next year’s tax rate.


Looking ahead

Now that LookOutScarborough has survived three full budget cycles, we have a pretty good idea of how the game is played.  In the next blog, we’ll provide important data and analysis, and let you know what to expect during the next couple of months.  Here’s what we plan in our next blog:

  • The fine art of budget choreography.

    A one-page budget worksheet that allows even a non-CPA to see all the major components of “the budget” and how they fit together.

  • Some of the tactics we expect will be employed as the budget process unfolds. (Who can forget the elimination of 7th grade sports a couple years back?  Or the miraculous discovery of $400,000 of unexpected excise tax revenue last year?)
  • Our fearless prediction of the school budget funding level that will end up going out to the voters on June 13.

Happy trails until we meet again!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

 

 

 

 

Scarborough Facilities Plans May Shock!

Well, friends and neighbors, here we are again in late March.  With too much snow still on the ground and a mean chill still in the air.  And with April Fool’s Day close at hand. 

We begin with our oft-promised, extremely unofficial Ten-Year Projection of Scarborough’s Facilities Plan.  Apparently town and school officials are in the final stages of preparing the “official plan,” but we wanted LookOutScarborough readers to be suitably prepared before that plan is released.  Especially those readers who are at risk for cardiac events.

The summary that follows was prepared by reviewing various town and school reports.  In addition, we consulted a Magic 8 Ball, a Ouija Board and Madame Alakazam, the noted Old Orchard Beach psychic.  Which is to say that our projection is a blend of verifiable data and unabashed guesswork.  All of the projects are “real” in that they have been proposed in town and school reports.  The estimated costs are likewise grounded in data from reliable sources.  The timing of the projects is, on the other hand, made up based on our gut feeling.  It will be interesting to see just how much capital spending (and related borrowing) town officials are willing to propose in the official plan.

Here’s our take on capital projects for the next ten years:

Perhaps two or three of these projects will get pushed out beyond the ten-year timeframe.  Or will be substantially reduced in scope and cost.  But even if we knock a third of the cost out, we’re still looking at $100 million of facilities investments over the next ten years.  That’s a sobering thought…especially in view of the Town Council’s obvious willingness to increase the tax rate by 3% a year – or perhaps just a teenie bit more – year after year after year.


Paying for it all

The obvious question is, how do we taxpayers pay for all these capital projects?  The equally obvious answer is, by taking on more debt.  Unfortunately, we already have nearly $100 million of debt outstanding, an amount that ranks us right up there – if not at the top – in debt per capita of neighboring communities.

Here’s a summary of our current debt situation:

By comparison, each resident’s share of town debt in Cape Elizabeth is $1,700.  In Yarmouth it’s $1,809 of debt per person.

And we’re considering adding another $100 – 150 million in debt?  Yikes!  Seems like a lot.

But no worries… our debt advisor says we can issue lots more debt without any problem.  So bring it on!


Budget Update and a Proposal

We still haven’t learned enough about the Fiscal 2018 budget to share a meaningful analysis.  Dribs and drabs of information come out here and there… the addition of a few part-time positions, the $900,000 increase in teachers’ salaries associated with the new contract, significant increases in health insurance premiums, etc.

 

One thing we keep our ears open for is some hint of cost-saving efficiencies or perhaps the consolidation or elimination of a position or two.  But, alas, no such news seems to be forthcoming.

 

So in the absence of new information, here’s LookOutScarborough’s Budget Masterplan for Fiscal 2018.

Expenses will be prudently managed:

  1. Municipal and school expense growth will be limited to 3% or less. This seems like a reasonable increase in view of low inflation and essentially flat school enrollment.
  1. State school aid reduction of $1.4 million will occur. (While the amount is not certain, a significant reduction is highly likely…there’s nothing we can do about it.)

Partially offsetting the costs of the above two increases will be:

  1. Tax revenue will grow automatically as new properties come on the tax rolls and some existing properties get reassessed at higher values.  (Every time a new $300,000 house/unit comes online at, say, Eastern Village, the Town gets about $4,800 of new taxes.  So if 100 new homes get added in a year, that’s $480,000 of new tax revenue… without raising the tax rate.)
  1. Revenue will also grow automatically as excise tax revenue increases. As residents buy new cars, the Town benefits from increased collection of excise taxes.

To the extent that additional revenues (#3 & 4) are not enough to cover additional expenses (#1 & 2):

  1. Surpluses generated in Fiscal 2015 and 2016 will be used to cover any shortfall of new revenues not covering new expenses. The Town socked away surpluses of about $4.5 million in those two years. Remember, those surpluses are essentially your extra tax dollars that were collected over and above what was really needed.

The net result: no tax increase in Fiscal 2018! 


This chart summarizes the arithmetic of a no-tax-increase budget for Fiscal 2018:

Too simple?  Too reasonable?  Perhaps both… but still a realistic possibility if town leaders were serious about financial discipline and minimizing tax increases.  Never mind a 3% tax rate increase… let’s make Fiscal 2018 the year of no increase!


Coming very soon… The Scarborough Downs Saga

A parable for our times, in which transparency is whisked away in a dark sedan with tinted windows and never seen again.  And the will of the people is traded for three magic beans.

All the details next time.

In the meantime, we like PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY in the third race on Sunday.


Happy trails until we meet again!

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah