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Scarborough council says school budget is still too high

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Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2013 10:22 am | Updated: 10:27 am, Thu Apr 25, 2013.

SCARBOROUGH – On Monday the Scarborough Board of Education finalized $1.74 million in cuts to the $41.4 million operating budget for 2014 first proposed by Superintendent George Entwistle, but on Wednesday, the Town Council said that’s still not enough.

At a joint budget workshop, councilors said it would take another $650,000 in cuts to reach the goal they set in January of limiting gross budget growth to 3 percent.

Town Manager Tom Hall met that mandate on the municipal side, bringing in a $28.2 million budget that’s 1.49 percent larger than this year’s appropriation. The tax bill from Cumberland County came in at $2.19 million – a 5.72 percent spike – which is not up for negotiation. Then there’s the school side, which, with the $1.4 million cafeteria budget, now rings up at $41.05 million, a 5.61 percent increase.

That, said Hall, means that as proposed, the total $71.44 million operating budget for the town will drive 2014 property tax bills up 9.29 percent. In part, that’s because an expected 2.2 percent drop in municipal revenues, along with a $1.8 million cut in the education subsidy from the state, means taxpayers are on the hook for $55 million – up $4.9 million, or 9.74 percent.

“Less than 7 percent of our budget is covered by non-property tax revenues [from the state],” said Hall. “We’re almost a non-receiver at this point.”

As a result, the projected 2014 property tax rate of $15.08 per $1,000 of valuation means the median home in Scarborough, assessed at $300,000, would pay an additional $384 next year, for a total tax bill of $4,524.

Although Councilor Judy Roy said the tax hike breaks down to $7.38 per week – “It means not getting that daily café latte,” she said – other councilors were far less forgiving. Although no threats were made, the general tone of the commentary signaled a strong possibility that when the council votes on the final budget May 1, it could well make a slash as at the school’s bottom line.

“The honest truth of the whole matter is, you’re taxing our residents right out of town,” said Councilor Ed Blaise. “People just cannot afford to keep on paying these increases.”

According to Blaise, if the budget is adopted as written, it will mean that property tax bills in Scarborough will have grown 24 percent in four years. That’s a lot, he said, given that the consumer price index, the accepted measure of monetary inflation, has grown 7 percent over that timeframe.

“I just don’t think we can tax our citizens out of this mess that we’re in,” said council Chairman Ron Ahlquist. “I think people are struggling in this day and age. I’ve heard more this year from people saying, ‘You’ve got to cut us a break,’ than ever before.

“I don’t think this recession has turned around like we thought or hoped it would,” said Ahlquist. “The real middle class in this town is a lower middle class. We’re in tough shape. I’ve heard from more senior citizens in this budget cycle than I have in all the years I’ve been on the council.”

“People have given up to now without much argument,” said Councilor James Benedict. “But people, as a rule, are not satisfied with what’s going on in their own economic lives. In the amount of calls, last year I didn’t get six. This year, in calls and emails, I’ve got at least 50. People just can’t do it anymore.

“The bottom line is, you can’t spend what you don’t have,” Benedict told the school board. “If people can’t afford it, they can’t afford it.”

“When people email us saying, ‘This is crazy,’ it doesn’t mean they’re not supporting the schools,” said Councilor Kate St. Clair. “I think people here have always been incredibly supportive of the schools. As a parent, I’ve been thrilled with the education my kids have gotten. I think they have top-rate teachers. They have top-rate services.

“Nobody is saying, ‘I don’t support those things anymore,’” said St. Clair. “What they’re saying is, ‘I can’t afford to live here.’”

Because of the drop in revenue from the state and other sources, the council would have to cut $4.68 million from the proposed operating budgets to maintain the $13.8 per $1,000 of valuation property tax rate. If they succeed in cutting $650,000, that would achieve the goal of limiting budget growth to 3 percent, but this year’s shift of costs from state sources to local taxpayers would still drive tax bills up 8 percent, to a property tax rate of $14.90 per $1,000 of valuation. That would mean a median tax increase of $330.

“The residents need to tell us what they are willing to do without,” said Roy. “I welcome the opportunity for someone to give me a real clear-cut recommendation for further budget reductions.”

For his part, Entwistle argued that those cuts should not come from the school department, which already trails 12 neighboring districts in per pupil allocations. Although there are differences – Scarborough, for example, enjoys “economy of scale” by having a larger enrollment that most of those districts, while South Portland, with a similar school population, maintains eight school buildings, compared to five in Scarborough – Entwistle insisted it was an apples-to-apples comparison.

“It may be macintosh to golden delicious, but it’s still apples-to-apples,” he said.

“That gives us a pretty good idea of where we stand in relation to surrounding communities,” said school board member Chris Caiazzo, who chairs the board’s finance committee. “If we funded just to the average of those schools, a $7 million increase is what would have been required, just to get to that level.”

“There is nothing that shouts out this is outrageous, this is crazy, this is over-sending. It’s not at all,” said Entwistle. “This budget is, quite frankly, just trying to catch up and be a little bit more competitive with the pack we should be running with."

Referring to his initial budget proposal, which was up $3.96 million, or 10.59 percent, from this year, Entwistle said, “Starting with a ‘student needs-based budget’ was not a tactic to create a large number so that another lower large number looks better. There’s a method to the madness. It makes sense. It’s looking at what we would be like if were providing the same types of programs as those other 12 [districts] provide.”

“I don’t know if anybody is going to be happy with this budget,” said Caiazzo. “I hear from people who say it’s too low.”

Scarborough residents will have an opportunity to officially weigh in on the budget at the annual validation vote on May 14. Polls will be open at town hall from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and, in addition to an up-or-down decision on the total school budget, voters also will be asked the so-called Goldilocks questions – is the budget too low, too high, or just right. This year’s ballot also asks if voters want to continue the public validation process.

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