Town meeting, annual rituals and a 'not-so-silent' spring

20

While rototilling manure into my daughter’s garden, I began thinking of another Maine spring ritual, the Annual Town Meeting. Standing deep in the offerings of my neighbor’s horses I realized that Raymond, unique in many ways, is also identical to neighboring towns. The details differ but the “politics of budget” are the same. Listen to Raymond. See if you hear your town in its echo.

Raymond’s school and municipal budgets are proposed to increase by percentages well over the rates of inflation and consumer price indices. Both budgets draw heavily off surplus funds to “soften” the real increases.

Savings from uncontrolled spending, costly mistakes and questionable salary increases could easily fund programs and community services. Reducing our property taxes was one of the promises of the “historic” tax reform measure LD 1. Like the old Red Sox, we’ll have to wait until next year.

We are told that these are “bare-bones” budgets. I can’t feel the pain of a 14 percent increase in compensation for our part-time school superintendent. Salary and benefits cost Raymond taxpayers $75,000-$80,000 per year. Ouch!

This staggering increase is even more incredible alongside the embarrassing and morale-busting 2-year contract “negotiation” with our bus drivers, ed techs and custodians. This dispute has cost tens of thousands of dollars. When questioned, the Board and Superintendent didn’t even know how much money had been spent.

The muscle-cutting doesn’t stop there. The schools purchased a paint-striping machine just months after the town bought one. How about the Middle School chimney fiasco? Oops!

These are symptoms of a larger leadership problem facing Raymond Schools. In future budgets Raymond will have to adhere to the State’s Essential Programs and Services (EPS) model. If we don’t meet EPS, property taxes will skyrocket. This year we are nearly $1 million over, including $120,000 of precious public education money to send a few select students to private schools.

We need to implement the “One Raymond” concept. Nothing of substance has been done to coordinate school and town spending. Read the Superintendent’s and Town Manager’s Annual Report. Neither can point to any major accomplishment of “One Raymond.” How can we expect to “regionalize” when we can’t even merge our two finance departments?

The Municipal budget exemplifies the contrast between the promises of LD 1 and the reality. The Board of Selectmen approved $12,000 on mulch for the shrub beds on Route 302 and $5,000 on an electronic sign board at Town Hall. The windows at the same building are rotting as they hemorrhage precious fuel dollars. Do we really need an electronic readerboard more than we need those windows? Crank up the furnace. Trade oil for mulch?

The Board supports allocating $58,000 of surplus to a Digital Broadcast Studio and $10,000 for the Roadrunner newsletter. The Route 302 Beautification Project was supposed to be a public/private partnership and revenue neutral. The Select Board understands the concept but will spend the $12,000 anyway. In and of themselves these seem like minor issues but when added up they ignore the current fiscal climate

The Digital Broadcast Studio is another “Big Dig” waiting to happen. Raymond has a taping and broadcasting system. This spring, Maine Education Commissioner Sue Gendron gave a public presentation on the impacts of EPS on Raymond. The Support Staff Association was also present to provide information on the labor dispute. Teachers, parents and concerned citizens questioned staff cuts. This was an important budget meeting. Where were the cameras? Packed away at Town Hall.

That leads me to the “Roadrunner.” Last year in a Roadrunner editorial, a School Board member called me “flippant” for advocating private funding for the newsletter. This year, the same Board member voted to eliminate funding for the Roadrunner and explore private financing.

The Roadrunner, Broadcast Studio, and Web site are great tools but when we have to decide between them and real life staffing deficiencies, are the choices that difficult?

Your Boards, superintendents and town managers will tell you they are “complying” with EPS and LD 1. Look for surplus spending, salary increases, outrageous legal fees and “can’t live without” expenditures. Inappropriate spending can be found in your town, too!

NO COMMENTS