BARNACLES AND BILGEWATER: Scarborough budget too good to be true

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I hate being snookered. There are few feelings worse than knowing someone is trying to pull a fast one on you. And that’s exactly what the proposed Scarborough FY 2017 budget feels like.

On the surface, the proposed tax rate increase of 3.3 percent seems reasonable. But how it was achieved and its implications going forward are very troubling.

By far the most critical factor in the proposed budget is a $1.6 million revenue windfall. It turns out that we borrowed too much money to pay for the Wentworth School construction. And $1.6 million of that excess borrowing is being applied, legitimately, to the FY 2017 school budget as revenue. This is a one-time windfall which will not repeat in FY 2018 or thereafter.

There are two other key elements in the school budget. First, the amount of state aid to education revenue we will be receiving in FY 2017 is $1.1 million less than the prior year. This continues a recent trend of declining state aid. It is a trend that is expected to continue into the foreseeable future.

The second key element is that school expenditures for on-going operations are budgeted to increase by 4 percent. That’s before adding new program expenses of nearly $600,000 for 6.5 additional positions and other costs. With the new program expenses included, the total expense increase will be 5.5 percent.

The hard financial reality is that the schools are facing dramatic reductions in state aid funding while continuing to grow the expense base by more than 5 percent.

But then the unplanned, one-time $1.6 million windfall dropped into our lap. All of a sudden, everything is rosy… at least for FY 2017. The trouble is that the windfall covers up the impact of the underlying realities of declining state aid and increasing school operating expenses. Without the windfall, taxpayer funding of the FY 2017 education budget would have increased by a staggering 9.7 percent.

In summary, significant on-going financial challenges are being disguised – just for FY 2017 – by the one-time favorable impact of the equivalent of a lottery win. Choose your cliche: a quick fix, a Band Aid or kicking the can down the road. Whatever you call it, it’s a disservice to Scarborough taxpayers not to highlight the impact of this unexpected revenue. Adopting the seemingly reasonable FY 2017 budget puts us on a clear path to unsustainable future tax increases.

Since the budget was unveiled, there has been a fair amount of praise of all the hard work that went into developing such an exemplary budget. But ask yourself this: Just how difficult could it have been for the schools to create a budget that requires a 5.5 percent increase in taxpayer funding… even after the inclusion of a $1.6 million windfall?

Town and school staffs are to be commended for producing a comprehensive 407-page budget presentation. But they failed to disclose and explain the significant negative impact of the budget on tax rates for future years. Without that information the proposed budget falls significantly short.

Town leaders should not adopt this budget without a thorough understanding and discussion of what it means for projected tax rates over the next two or three years. The current underlying revenue and expense realities must be acknowledged. And the addition of $600,000 in new school operating expenses in FY 2017 should be seriously questioned.

Steve Hanly is a Scarborough resident. Visit his blog or contact him at www.LookOutScarborough.com.

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