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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)

 

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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:

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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.

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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