2017-09-08 / Front Page

Missed box of ballots delays vote result

By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

A box of 420 absentee ballots not counted Tuesday night was discovered and has the potential to change the outcome of the school budget referendum. According to a press release sent by the town Wednesday morning, election workers were scheduled to tally the ballots that morning.

Official results of the vote were not available at the Leader’s deadline. Initially, it was announced that the school budget had passed.

It is the third time in a year that some ballots were not counted, then added after the mistake was discovered.

Unless the absentee ballots change the result of the election, it appears Scarborough voters have passed a school budget on the third try. Of the 4,209 ballots that were counted, 53 percent, or 2,223 supported the $47.1 million school operating budget, $42.49 million of which will be funded through tax dollars.

“I think we need to invest in our schools. Education is the most important thing we can vote on in Scarborough,” Pat O’Brien said as he exited the polls Tuesday morning.

The vote attracted 4,209 voters took place mere days after the final tax rate was set, a figure that ended up being higher than anticipated due to slower than expected growth in town valuation.

Many people voted, especially those casting absentee ballots, thinking the overall tax rate increase would be around 2.9 percent, but after the town received the final valuation of the town, the tax rate is going to be $16.49 per thousand valuation, a .57 cent, or 3.58 percent, increase over fiscal year 2017. This means, the owner of $300,000 home, the average house value in Scarborough, will be looking at a $4,947 tax bill, a $171 increase over fiscal 2017. Heading into Tuesday’s vote, the tax rate was expected to be $16.38 per thousand valuation, which would have resulted in lower tax bills. Although it grew by slightly more than $9 million, town leaders expected Scarborough’s townwide valuation figure – $3.78 billion – to be higher.

According to a notice on the town’s website, “this is an incredibly small amount of increase compared to our historical average and is due to an abnormally high amount of exemptions this year, totaling nearly $53,000,000. The two largest components of the new exemptions relate to the increase in the Homestead exemption amount which exempted $24,252,000 in value and $14,578,000 in personal property value that qualified for the (Business Equipment Tax) exemption.”

Tax bills, based on that tax rate, were scheduled to go out this week. The first half payment of taxes is due by Sunday, Oct. 15. The second half is due in April.

“The results were particularly disappointing in view of the increase in the projected overall tax rate from 2.9 percent to 3.6 percent that the town announced only last Thursday. As a result of that change, taxpayers will actually be paying a higher overall tax rate than had been anticipated in connection with the school budget soundly defeated at the June 13 referendum,” read a statement released by SMARTaxes, a taxpayer advocacy group formed in 2014, in light of the results. “It is unfortunate that the significant number of voters who cast their ballots prior to the rate increase announcement did not have this important information when voting.”

Despite the late change to the tax rate, many voters, including Tina Pettingill came to the polls strongly in favor of the school budget.

If she had had her druthers, Pettingill would have preferred the school budget to have passed on the first try back on Tuesday, June 13. Over the last five years, however, the school budget only passed on the first time only twice in the last five years, once last year (by 428 votes) and once in 2012, by less than 100 votes.

“I have two children in the district. We believe in our schools and we believe we voted in councilors and school board members who created a fair budget. We are voting to support them, as well as the schools and our children,” Pettingill said.

“I think it’s very important,” Val Dusek said of voting to support the school budget. “I think it is disgraceful (voters) didn’t pass (the budget) the first two times while nearby towns have passed it much more quickly.”

This budget swayed some, including Sue Konkel, to vote in favor for the first time this summer. Not all voters were pleased with the school budget, including Arthur Simmons, one of the 1,985 who rejected the budget.

Simmons voted against the budget for the third time this summer, seeing no other choice.

“I got to vote no,” he said. “They are going to tax me out of town.”

“Where does it end,” Simmons added about the tax increases. “It’s easy to spend other people’s money. I understand they want to do everything for the schools and the kids, but it has to stop.”

Between now and when the fiscal year 2019 vote comes up, there may be tweaks to how the town creates the school and municipal budgets and how residents are included in that process. As this year’s budget process has dragged on, residents have asked the town council to change the budget process to make it more transparent and forward-looking. The council talked about forming an ad hoc budget review committee at its Aug. 16 meeting, but ultimately decided to tabled that idea and take it up again in a workshop session Wednesday, Sept. 20.

The committee, if formed, would “advise the town manager and town council on strategies to promote better community understanding of budget process” and “propose improvements to the budget process and … identify additional communication and outreach opportunities” as well as “establish a baseline of facts regarding the costs associated with delivery of current and historic levels by benchmarking Scarborough’s costs to those in other communities.” A report of recommended improvement would be due by December.

The group is proposed to be made up of two town councilors (representing the finance and communications committees), a school board member from the finance committee and four community members, as well as a representative from the SMARTaxes group and Save Scarborough Schools group. The council may, however, change that makeup if they form the committee.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

Return to top