Budget process begins
Oftentimes with school or municipal budgets, it isn’t so much where you start, but where you finish. Over the next month and a half, town officials will massage the fiscal year 2018 budget, which was revealed last week, to get it to a point where voters will, they hope, pass it at the budget validation vote on Tuesday, June 13.
The proposed $85.5 in total operating expenditures, as presented by Town Manager Tom Hall and Superintendent Julie Kukenberger on April 6, requires $64.8 million to be raised through property taxes. This marks a $4.7 million or 7.84 percent increase over the current budget.
Depending on the town-wide valuation, which won’t be officially known until August, the increased budget could mean an additional $276 to $341 for the owner of a $300,000 home in Scarborough.
The budget proposal was passed unanimously at first reading and is set for a final approval by the council in mid-May. Councilor Katy Foley, who in undergoing her first budget as a councilor and expected the budget figure to be higher, was torn whether to approve the budget at this point.
“Because this is the process that I have to live within and it’s what we’ve been doing, I probably will support it tonight, but if it were the final number tonight, I would probably vote against it. That’s about as clear as I can be putting my cards on the table.”
Foley said before ultimately supporting the budget at first reading. “It’s not because of any one piece, its because I need to dissect it further.”
This is the third year the town manager and superintendent have jointly presented the budget and second with a ‘one town, one budget’ mentality that aims to dissipate the divisiveness of pitting municipal spending against that of the schools.
Drew Stevens, of Surrey Lane, approves of that approach.
“I really appreciate the one town, one budget sentiment,” he said. “It just makes a lot more sense as a way to approach the budget. Thank you for doing that again and I hope we have a really great budget process (that is) smooth and friendly.”
Vice chairman Kate St. Clair said the council is in a much better place with the budget than years prior.
“In the six years I’ve been here… this is by far the best place we have been. It is a budget I can stand behind,” she said.
That isn’t to say there isn’t still work to be done because the budget is far from finalized
“I think the worst thing people can do is overact to what was presented tonight,” Councilor Chris Caiazzo said at the April 5 budget unveiling. “It’s not a perfect world. We all see that. We all know that. We got some work to do. We realize that. We acknowledge that. I would encourage people to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Let’s do some work. Let’s put our heads together and get to a good, reasonable compromise we can all live with.”
Although she passed the budget at first reading, St. Clair said she is very concerned about senior citizens in town being able to afford what will likely be another tax increase to support municipal and school services. The key, she said, is striking a balance between what’s needed and what the community can financially support.
Pond View Drive resident Paula O’Brien shares that concern, telling councilors she “feels for the seniors and those with fixed income in town.”
Caiazzo said seniors won’t be forgotten as the council deliberates on the budget.
Kukenberger, in her first year as superintendent, is sympathetic to the financial constraints of town residents.
“We are very aware of ability to pay,” Kukenberger said at the school board’s first reading of the budget last Thursday. “We can’t continue to go out to our taxpayers to fill the gap. Some of our taxpayers have the will and the means, but some of our taxpayers don’t have that ability.”
Hall and Kukenberger said an increase in fixed costs (salaries, benefits and health insurances), debt services and a decrease in school aid from the state, are once again the biggest things impacting the budget. The loss in state aid for education is not a surprise. Since 2009, Scarborough schools have lost $4.9 million in support from the state, including $1.4 million between the current budget and the proposed one. The town will use $2.1 million from the undesignated fund to make up for the decline in state aid.
“It’s pretty remarkable we’ve gone from $7 million (in 2009) which I don’t believe was 55 percent of what the state owed us at that time to (just over) $2 million for 2018,” said Bayberry Lane resident Alex Maybarduk. “That is scandalous. I think this speaks to why we deal with so much frustration with budgets at the municipal level.”
He said it is frustrating that despite three referendums in which voters urged the state to fund 55 percent of the state’s overall K-12 public education cost, there are still legislators “working to undermine the will of the voters.”
Due to less state aid, the town budget has increasingly been falling on the shoulders of the local tax payers, which have been asked to fund more and more of the spending.
“Essentially when state subsidy goes away the local taxpayers are expected to pick up the difference because the costs don’t go away,” said Kate Bolton, the director of school budget operations. The state aid is largely the only revenue the school district has to rely on outside of revenue from adult education and the nutrition program that help to offset the costs of those programs. Bolton said Scarborough’s declining state aid figure is due to increased property value and slightly declining student enrollment.
The state aid may have hit a breaking point. With the latest cut in state revenue, Scarborough has now reached minimal receiver status, which means the $2.1 million the schools are set to received for the 2017-2018 school year can not be reduced further. It also means the volatility of state aid will cease.
“I call this the new normal,” Hall said. “The good news is we have bottomed out.”
Despite the loss in state support, Councilor Bill Donovan sees the minimal receivership as a positive.
“We are lucky we’ve finally reached a point where we know what we will get. It will be a challenge this year and next because if the fund balance that will needed to be used.
Hall said this year’s municipal budget includes a “very modest” increase in staff, including moving one part-time librarian to full time and hiring a part-time code enforcement officer. Built into the budget are also cost of living and merit increases, as well as a number of capital improvement items that in previous year were funded through the capital improvement budget.
“Whether all these things survive to the end remains to be seen, but they are a conversation point for sure,” he said.
The drivers in the school budget include and additional $912,925 in teacher salaries, $151,800 in other wages, $275,500 in benefits, $146,300 in increased teacher retirement costs, $170,000 for year three of a technology refresh, $46,406 in coaching stipends and $30,000 in contracted athletic transportation costs.
“To me this is like oxygen,” Kukenberger said of the $43.3 million mission critical budget. “It’s what we need to ensure students are getting the high quality education that they not only need, they deserve.”
In order to help do that, the budget features a number of investments: improvement strategists at the K-2 level, Scarborough Middle School and Scarborough High School; a librarian/ media specialist and sciences instructional coach at the middle school; internship and academy coordinator, student assistance councilor and librarian at the high school; new athletic stipends at Wentworth; replacing a retiring assistant principal with a principal and reassigning a classroom teacher to academic support at the primary schools; an additional behavioral specialist and occupational therapist for special services; an assistant athletic trainer and business secretary for the athletics and activities department. Because of some savings through realigning of staff, the investments will cost $296,000, which amounts to .6 percent of the proposed budget.
Kukenberger said the internship and academy coordinator would, if funded, “build and nurture” the schools’ relationship with area businesses and find opportunity for learning for middle and high school students.
“The potential for the return on investment for this is really great,” Kukenberger said of the aforementioned investments.
“This is an amazing budget considering where we are in terms of state funding and pressures we are experiencing. It’s a remarkable budget put together by our superintendent and leadership council,” Board of Education Chairman Kelly Murphy said before the board unanimously passed the budget at first reading last week.
Getting the budget to a place where it is palpable to voters will, like in previous years, be no easy task.
“It is a challenging starting point. There is no question about it. Julie and I have done a credible job getting it started, if you will. In many respects, I’d like to think my work is done, but it is just starting,” Hall told councilors. “For everyone else, it is very much just starting. We stand here ready, with our staffs, to help you as you g through your deliberations. I am confident the hard work you’ve done over the last three or four years of working together and understanding we are all in it together, will get us through it ultimately.”
Sarah Mullen, of Gunstock Road, was glad to see the school budget was more than level services, the term that is used to indicate including just what it costs to maintain existing programs and services.
“I am very supportive of this budget and I want to thank everyone for their work,” Mullen said.
While Stacey Neumann, of Windsor Pines Drive, said she was “pleased with the budget,” fellow Scarborough resident Larry Hartwell was not as rosy to the budget.
Hartwell, of Puritan Drive, said since 2012, inflation has risen seven percent, yet the gross appropriations of the town have escalated by 37 percent in that time.
“I think we need to stop and pause and look at this at the 10,000 foot level,” Hartwell said.
The public will have many opportunities to weigh in on both municipal and school spending between now and the school validation vote, which will take place Tuesday, June 13 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Scarborough High School. A budget forum, in which residents can ask questions of town and school officials, is set for 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday April 26 at Wentworth. The board of education will hold a public hearing and final budget vote Thursday April 27 at 7 p.m. at town hall. The town council’s public hearing on the municipal and school budget will take place Wednesday, May 3 at 7 p.m. at town hall. The council’s vote is set for 7 p.m., Wednesday, May 17.
The town council and board of education finance committees will also be discussing the budget both jointly and individually over the next few weeks. The town finance committee will be dissecting department budgets Thursday evenings between now and May 4 when the three-member committee will make its final recommendations to the full council. The sessions will take place from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on April 20 (finance,/assessing, SEDCO, public works), April 27 (community services and administration), and Monday, May 4 (police/fire/EMS and planning).
Councilor Peter Hayes, who leads the town council finance committee, encourages the public to be active in the process and communicate with the council, board of education and each other in a productive way.
“Our work and your work as the community has just started. We are going to be having conversation over the next month about choices, what we are going to do, what do we want to do, how can we get this to a point that works for the most, but we need to do that in a way that is civil and everyone is listening to each other,” he said.
Budget data available
More information about the municipal and school budgets, including charts, presentation and in-depth analysis can be found on the town’s budget portal: http://www.scarboroughmaine.org/town-government/budget.
Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org