Well, friends and neighbors, here we are. That’s about all anyone can say with confidence right now. Where we will be tomorrow is anybody’s guess. But that’s our task at the moment – making rational, informed guesses. And doing that in a positive, hopeful manner. While acknowledging the reality of the situation, we need to relish the hopeful signs that are springing up… like take-out fried clams at Ken’s.
FY21 Budget – business as usual?
But enough philosophizing. On to the cold, hard realities of the Fiscal 2021 budget season! As is usually the case, the Town Manager and School Superintendent have presented “first reading” budget proposals that made taxpayers blush. Wait, maybe the taxpayers weren’t blushing, maybe they were enraged.
Granted, the original budget proposals were developed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. But still, coming in with an initial budget proposal that would increase the tax rate by 5.6% seemed ridiculously high. The Town Council agreed and, recognizing the potential impact of the pandemic, sent the budgets back for a re-do.
But the Council’s consensus target for a new tax rate increase is 2%! Be still my beating heart! All the way down from the usual 3% increase to a 2% increase! How much difference will that token reduction mean to the thousands of Scarborough taxpayers who have been laid off, had their hours cut, had their self-employment income reduced or seen their retirement savings decimated?
Perhaps Scarborough should follow the lead of many other towns and cities in the area and keep the tax rate unchanged or – please make sure you are seated – reduce it.
Teachers’ contract update
And then there’s the teachers’ contract. That contract — which by itself accounts for more than half of the total school expense budget — expired without a replacement contract on August 31, 2019, despite the fact that negotiations on it began early in 2019. We understand there was a tentative agreement on a new contract in late February, 2020. But the teachers’ union hasn’t voted to ratify the contract yet, citing the pandemic. (Ever hear of mail-in voting, guys?)
So what’s the new contract look like? Well, that’s a closely guarded secret until the teachers approve it. And that’s probably why they haven’t voted on it yet – they don’t want the public to know just how rich the salary increases are before we vote on the school budget. The union leadership is probably afraid that the public will be so incensed by the salary increases that the school budget referendum will go down in flames. And they’re probably right!
Our estimate is that teachers will get a 15% salary increase over the three-year contract period. Again, the details of the contract are shrouded in secrecy, so we can’t be certain of the amount. All we can do is make an educated guess based on publicly available documents. We hope we’re wrong, but we don’t think we are.
If we’re correct, that means annual increases of 4.5% to 5% for the next three years. We thought those increases were outrageous even before the current national crisis. In today’s world, they look just plain greedy.
It’s not too early to mark your calendar – the school budget referendum is scheduled for July 14.
More untimely tax burdens coming soon?
And speaking of insensitivity to the financial plight of the Town’s taxpayers, how about those three big-ticket items that are poised to go from concepts to real tax burdens:
- New Primary School
- Library Expansion
- “Community Center”/Athletic Facility
As many of you already know, major capital projects in Scarborough usually have a life of their own. Once the ball starts rolling, it rarely is stopped. So the most prudent approach is to assume a project is moving ahead on schedule unless there is definitive word that it has been stopped or paused. All three of these tax-busters are currently bubbling along in the background with little or no official comment on their status. But until somebody says, “it’s not happening,” the safest bet is to assume that it is happening. That’s just the way things work.
Here’s an update on the three biggies, based on what we have been able to determine:
#1 New Primary School: $60 million? $75 million? Do I hear $90 million? Planning for the new consolidated primary school continues apace. The FY21 budget includes an additional $375,000 for pre-construction/long-range planning. The new school building is expected to be on the ballot this November – price currently unknown, but huge.
#2 Library Expansion: $12 million. Planning for doubling the size of the library continues. The Town Council got the latest expansion pitch at a workshop on April 15. And the FY21 budget currently includes $350,000 for design work and costs of a fundraising campaign. Look for the $12 million library expansion on the ballot this November.
#3 “Community Center”/Athletic Facility: $108 million lease commitment over 40 years. And who knows what additional amounts we’ll be on the hook for. Remember, this started as a community center and somehow morphed into a multi-sport athletic facility. An ad hoc committee reviewed Risbara’s proposal for a community center based on the developer’s assertion that he could save us money compared to what it would cost the Town to build the same facility. Wrong!, according to the ad hoc committee. So when it was clear that proposal was a loser, the developer came back with another, even more frightening one. It calls for a 40-year Town lease of the building for about $108 million. And don’t forget, since this is a lease, we won’t have to vote on it like we would if the Town built it and issued debt for it. So just four members of the Town Council could make this happen at any time. Be prepared, folks!
So there you have it – financial chaos all around us, but the pause button has not been pressed on any of these projects. Or if it has, nobody is talking about it publicly. Keep an ear to the ground on these potential budget busters.
And now for something completely different…
One of the suggestions that comes to us frequently from loyal LookOutScarborough readers is to include a bit of highbrow content in the blog. Food for the soul, as it were. And when our readers ask us to jump, we reflexively respond, “how high?” So we are pleased to oblige and hereby introduce…
We are proud to begin this occasional feature by highlighting a recent book of poetry, On Higgins Beach, by Scarborough poet Ann Hammond. In twenty poems Ms. Hammond captures the spirit of the beach, its diverse moods, its majesty and the myriad ways in which it links the elements of the natural world with our humanity. As Toronto-based poet Molly Peacock wrote: “This poet’s vigorous and strong-minded poems track her pursuit of understanding through observing the world and its minor miracles…”
We thoroughly enjoyed “Great White Pyrenees on the Beach” and “Towels and Chairs.” But we must confess our favorite verse is “Feathers and Paws,” a heartfelt exploration of that complicated beach relationship between man’s best friend, the dog, and the piping plover (a bird of very little brain, as Pooh would no doubt have put it). The poem begins:
“Golden plover on toast,” was offered
on the first Titanic breakfast menu.
We thank Ann Hammond for her insights and inspiration. Higgins Beach and all of us who treasure it are better for her work.
On Higgins Beach is available at Amazon (link here).
That’s all for now, friends. Expect the usual thrills and spills as the budget process continues. We’ll be there for you, clapping bricks against our heads and shouting, “my head hurts!” After that, of course, we’ll let you know what’s going on…
Stay well and, for God’s sake, be neighborly!
(nom de blog of Steve Hanly, who admits to any errors or offenses committed above)