Cart Before Horse

The Cart Before The Horse – An Incomplete And Unfair Process

A 30-year commitment to spend $28,000,000 of your money, on top of yearly budgets in excess of $60,000,000, with so many unknowns that could inflate those figures dramatically, is what you, as Citizens of Brunswick, may be asked to swallow by your own town government. Never mind the shirking of their responsibility, the School Board is doing this based on opinions of their own consultants, omitting critical input from state experts who have access to state funds and who could provide valuable third party input and context as to the actual condition of either our elementary school or the junior high. That input could save us taxpayers millions of dollars.

There is an important and relevant document on the state Board of Education web site called “State Board of Education Rules For Major Capital School Construction Projects”. (click on horse image to see BOE document) It defines an unbiased process, which includes a questionnaire, a state team of inspectors, and a final evaluation to determine not only need, but also ranking based on that need. So why is the collective government of Brunswick ignoring that process, evaluation, opinion, and possible state funding? Why did the School Board decide in their first request to put a new elementary school and junior high on the same bond request for a referendum ahead of any state review process? If it was because they thought they wouldn’t receive state funding, there had to be a reason, and the only logical one seems to be that the state inspection “process” would not see Coffin Elementary as a critical funding need. If the School Board has their way, supported by the Town Council, we will never know, $28,000,000 dollars later.

Part two of the shell game came on the 6th of February when the Town Council was asked, by the School Board, to remove the junior high from the bond issue for fear that the intelligent voters would say no to the more expensive elementary school and yes to the less costly repairs. No attempt was even made to hold off until we applied to the state, not only for funding but also, again, for an equally important unbiased state review process. There were always the same excuses about not delaying any longer on a new school, but never a mention about seeing how the state experts might determine our true needs.

Of course we now have the third move of the “pea” in the shell game using a totally inexplicable lack of logic or creativity. They, the Brunswick School Board, don’t want the state to blow their cover on the elementary school, so the intent is to dump that on the uninformed (and now hopefully totally confused) Brunswick citizens. Now we are told they do not care to repair the junior high since it was taken off the original bond request. That issue is now being used as new alternate choice for state funding since a new junior high, without being repaired, has a better chance of getting state attention, or not, than one that has been repaired. Got that? Does the word “finagle” come to mind?

What all this maneuvering has done is to try and take attention away from any attempt to get an unbiased review by the state, a service we pay for through the state tax on our income, of the original supposed need for a new elementary school. That issue is now being made to look like a new “lesser of two evils” scenario when, originally, it was the only option. Shell game, bait and switch, smoke and mirrors, call it what you want. It is clear that all this activity is designed to manipulate the citizens of Brunswick to get the end result our town government prefers, not the one the citizens can afford or one that has been properly and thoroughly reviewed and vetted.

The old saying “measure twice and cut once” applies here. Applying for state “review” and funding must always be part of “the process”, prior to any referendum or creating debt and raising our taxes on costly issues such as these. Then we would have a validated reference point, not just one designed to manipulate and achieve an ill advised and unaffordable end result. Not taking the time to elevate this process to a “state” level is a clear sign that there is little respect for the opinion, concerns and intellect of the citizens of Brunswick.

Jockeying For Position 02/03/2017

JOCKEYING FOR POSITION

February 3, 2017

Based on viewing the town web site replay of the School Board meeting on February 1, 2017 it appears that “jockeying” was going on for our tax money that we don’t have to give. In a 6-2 vote, the School Board voted to urge the Town Council to put the new Elementary School part of the $33,000,000 bond proposal as the top priority for the referendum, and not wait to apply for state funding.

The absolutely amazing dialog that led up to this momentous decision revolved around stripping the Junior High proposal off the bond referendum to give the Elementary School the top billing and reducing the chances of the citizens going for the less expensive of two options, the Junior High repairs. What was even more stunning, and foreboding, was the nearly 40 minutes of discussions, by nearly all School Board members, talking about going for a new Junior High, 18 months down the road, instead of doing any repairs now. It was the classic smoke and mirrors “shell game” again. Are you kidding me?

All of a sudden, at the last minute, there is a change in direction. So if I am hearing this correctly, the School Board doesn’t want to hold off the referendum to try and get state aid for the elementary school, causing the taxpayers to bear the full burden. In addition, they want to take a shot, uncertain as that may be, to also build an even more expensive Junior High in the near future. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.

At the end of all this, as they were all ready to make a motion on this shell game, the air was figuratively sucked out of the room when our Finance Director stated that to substantially change the substance of the bond proposal, by removing one if its core elements, another public hearing would be required. Oops! There was dead silence and some attempt by a couple of board members to question the validity of that parliamentary faux pas. Apparently there is a “bond council” that would back up what the Finance Director stated. Well there was a “never mind” moment from the School Board to which they decided to just “suggest” to the Town Council that the split-off would be a nice idea and see what the Town Council might do. In this Super Bowl week, that is called a “political punt”.

Feels like the blindfolded leading the blindfolded trying to figure out how to spend money we taxpayers cannot afford. First it was one new school, now it is two. It is almost like there is a mood of “entitlement” with respect to our hard earned assets. The fact is we owe School Board nothing! They have no right to expect any help from the taxpayers of Brunswick without first seeking state aid first, for the elementary school, no matter how likely that may or may not be. Then, when and if that attempt is exhausted, it is the School Board’s obligation to seek other less costly alternatives. They think they have done that; they have not, since there are two other schools we already have that could be used. Only then, do they have the right to possibly put an option to a referendum to get, or not get, our approval to proceed with spending any more of our money. They already took $37,000,000 from us for this year’s school budget. Apparently they think we “owe” them even more. We don’t! And to add insult to injury, they are potentially eyeing more of our tax dollars for a second new school. That is absolutely beyond belief.

So now, this coming week apparently, it is up to the Town Council to decide whether to prematurely drop this jumbled “financial mess” on the taxpayers backs in a June referendum, hoping for apathy and confusion to prevail, or judiciously wait to see if we can get state funds, whatever the chances. As above, they will either pass on and agree with the “entitlement” psychology of the School Board, or act like responsible stewards of our financial resources and say no for now, until other options are pursued and exhausted and the true intentions of the School Board are sorted out. For the majority of residents in Brunswick, the second option is the only responsible one.

We will see how our Town Council chooses to govern.

February 9 2017 TC Meeting On School Bond Issue

February 9, 2017

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The lone dissenter at Monday’s Town Council “dress rehearsal” meeting for the second public “performance” on the school bond issue, now scheduled for February 21st, appeared to be as dumbfounded as this author at the path this fiasco has taken. Was I surprised, no, bemused and insulted, yes. Counselor Dan Harris indicated that the School Board (SB) stated last December that the public (their public at least, whoever they are) was in favor of both the new elementary school and the JH repairs on the bond issue. He then indicated that the school board had apparently become worried that if both items were on the referendum, separately, that the citizens might vote down the elementary school and vote for the cheaper JH repairs.

Earlier in the proceedings the chair of the School Board stated again, as they do, that there was “strong” support for the elementary school. There were no specifics as to the numbers of supporters or what percentage of the voters that meant. She also reiterated that the school board had developed concerns about putting 2 separate items on the bond proposal presumably echoing the concern that the voters would not approve the school but would approve the JH repairs.

Now think about that dichotomy for a second. Over and over we have been hearing about all this “strong support” the School Board has for the new elementary school while at the same time they were catatonic about the possibility that the voters might have voted the school down in favor of the cheaper JH repairs. Sounds like the bizzarre “alternate facts” we are getting out of Washington these days.

Here is another revealing example of the School Board’s “double speak”. On numerous occasions and in numerous meetings we have been hearing from the School Board, Town Council, and the Architect how remote a chance the town had to get state funding for the Elementary School. All of a sudden, as stated by the SB Chair in her additional comments, “we are going to aggressively pursue state funding for a new Junior High”, if it gets taken off the current bond proposal. So, by her logic, or lack thereof, we are taking our long shot chances from one (unaffordable) school, making the town cough up the $28,000,000 on that, and transferring those same long shot chances to another unaffordable school. There is more “fuzzy logic” here than on a peach skin. At the same time, we are going to defer the repairs on the Junior High, which apparently are not important in the first place.

If the majority of the taxpayers in Brunswick can’t absorb this entire fiasco, and see it for what it is, then your financial stability is in serious trouble. The February 21st presentation (not a “hearing” because that implies an act of listening which is only granted to the School Board and their supporters) will be a minor formality by the Town Council, granting the School Board their wish. The new revised bond proposal will go to a referendum as sure as the sun rises in the East. Then, it will be up to the true majority in Brunswick to finally show that they are tired of this charade. You have the voting power to do so.

As the quote on our web site says, “The most common way people give up their power is thinking they don’t have any”. If that is what the citizens of Brunswick think, they are seriously mis-informed. You can shut down this insulting lack of governing in a flash, if it comes to that, by casting one more vote against their actions than they can get in favor of their mistakes.

First Open Hearing 01/17/2017

January 17, 2017

Lobbying by the masses…..First Open Hearing On School Bond Issue

The open hearing on the school bond proposal drew maybe 50-100 residents of whom 30 spoke, according to the newspapers; a process, in this Town Council form of government that is supposed to provide a clear indication of the mood and feelings of the 20,000 plus residents of Brunswick. Proceedings of this type are usually dominated by the powers of the School Board and its supporters. This was a process predestined by the Town Council that told the School Board to “go big”, not affordable or practical, when developing the plan for the new school.

On one side, a unique argument by one resident who had a colleague who is going through a divorce who’s lawyer is using the condition of Coffin School as the foundation for a child custody case. Hopefully the taxpayers of Brunswick won’t be on the hook for alimony payments. On the other side was a resident who’s mother, ironically a retired teacher, is fearful of not being able to stay in town due to the high taxes. My sympathy lies with the retired teacher.

Then there was the usual and understandably biased logic of a choreographed number of speakers with children in the schools that the only reason anyone moves to Brunswick is because of the school system. Lost in that illogic is the fact that for many more people, low property taxes, town services, city water, sewers, affordable housing, proximity to medical care, nearby shopping, superior fire and police and low crime rates are of equal or more importance.

There are 2300 students in the Brunswick school system and maybe 2300 parents of those students. Add in the teachers and administrators that may live in town and you have maybe 5000 individuals directly or indirectly getting those educational services, out of 20,000 or so residents. That is 25% of the population. Not using the School Facilities Chairwoman’s flawed data, from the U.S. census taken in 2010, 7 years ago, the more up-to-date consensus of citizens over 65 in Brunswick is 25-35%. The rest of the population in town, about 40%, is apparently in the “other” classification. They also pay taxes.

Equally lost and seemingly conveniently omitted from the commentary was the current School Budget itself totaling $37,000,000 on top of the $33,000,000 being discussed for the school bond. The school budget is there year after year; it never goes down, it always goes up, including the year the possible new school bond payments kick in with a tax rate increase of 7-10 percent for that year alone. It will continue every year after that, along with bond payments for 20 to 30 years and beyond. The municipal side of the budget won’t go away either. Nor will the “unknowns” like the property re-evaluation, a new fire station, costs of services increases, additional school repairs, municipal employee costs, and on and on.

Our School Facilities Chairwoman, the same person who is apparently ready to give back the Hawthorne School to the town per a recent newspaper article, stated that we spend a lot of time, effort and money on maintenance for the schools. What she forgot to mention was the fact that after $30,000,000 (80%) is sucked out of the school budget for salaries and benefits, $5,000,000 is allocated for facilities maintenance, 13% of the total budget. Maintenance itself is an all-inclusive word that likely doesn’t mean just building repairs.

Rightly or wrongly, for someone who raised two children in a different New England state, I never lobbied any town forum or meeting on school budgets or school improvement. Nor did our parents. I lived in a town 4 times the size of Brunswick with a median income twice as high, and a school system in the top 10% of 200 systems in the state. We never expected more than what the town could afford. If we didn’t like it, we would have moved, or found alternative forms of schooling or supplements to the education we received. Our High School, as mentioned, was built in the late 1800’s; out of the 11 elementary schools, nearly all of them were built between the 1920’s to the 1950’s. They are all still being used as schools. The middle school we attended, which is also still a highly regarded school, was built in the 1930’s.

This town is not being managed adequately enough to the point where they can put this bond proposal to a referendum now, or maybe ever. To also dismiss the possible access to state funding would be nothing more than a continuation of absolute unconscionable mismanagement, which is what got them to this point in the first place. The Brunswick Town Council has inherited the sins of the past. We will shortly see if they plan on committing their own political sins now and going forward. It is now there for all to see.

Are You Kidding Me

January 14, 2017

Are you kidding me……

There is an article in the current issue of the Mid-Coast Forecaster dated January 13, 2017, page 3, entitled “Brunswick track project may require town funding.” There is a sub paragraph with the heading Coffin School. The gist of this section is a discussion of the possible uses of the school once it is “abandoned”. Apparently our Facilities Committee, made up of School Board members, has brainstormed (and I use that term lightly) this issue. Additionally, our Superintendent of Schools states that the building will be utilized.

“If we build a new school, Coffin will have to be used as it is currently being used until the new school is finished, probably 3 years from now”, Paul Perzanoszki stated. The article then goes on to say that if the town embarks on repairs to the Junior High, or rebuilds the High School (this would seem to be a mistake in the article) with state funding, pending an application that would have to be approved in 2018, Coffin would house Junior High students during construction. Our Superintendent is then quoted as saying that there are options (for Coffin) “depending on if the department keeps the building in the district or gives it back to the town.”

Sarah Singer, Facilities Chairwoman and a member of the School Board, is quoted as saying that “because it has a gym and kitchen, it would support a community recreational program.” It gets worse.

On the other hand, the article states, if the School Department moved its current administrative department offices into the building (presumably the Coffin School), its current location (the School Department’s) at the former Hawthorne School could be given back to the town. Hawthorne is one of the elementary schools, a beautiful structure in town that was given up awhile back, upgraded at some cost, and made suitable for the School Department itself. It gets even worse.

Finally, and stay with me folks, I am not making this up, the article again quotes Sarah Singer as saying that the “rearrangement” would reduce the number of Town-owned school buildings, and the agreement could strengthen the department’s relationship with taxpayers, who are being asked to fund Coffin’s replacement. Huh?

So here we are, the taxpayers of Brunswick, being told by the School Board, after they were given the go ahead by our “impartial” Town Council to “go big” for a new school because Coffin is unsuitable for use, that the Coffin School is now just fine for multiple other uses. At the same time, a School Board member is offering to give us back the perfectly functional former Hawthorne Elementary school building that they have been using for their offices, once we build them a $28,000,000 new school that we don’t need.

This proposed “rearrangement” is essentially the Town of Brunswick “shell game”, now you see it, now you don’t, then now you do. Oh, and most importantly, this “Kumbaya” moment of bonding, and magnanimous gesture on their part, is supposed to strengthen the School Department’s relationship with all you Taxpayers who are also footing a bill of up to $37,000,000 for the current School Budget, 80% of which goes to salaries and benefits. The average taxpayer stagnates or falls behind financially, and they move ahead, with your money.

Doesn’t anyone else in Brunswick care that they are being manipulated and taken advantage of? Some of us do. Taxpayers of Brunswick, you get what you allow, and maybe what you deserve.

Show Me The Money

Our elementary schools have either been abandoned or neglected. To solve the problem, the taxpayers are going to be asked to take out a $28,000,000 loan to bail out our current and past town governing bodies…..the Town Council (s) and the School Board (s). In the private sector when incoming revenue barely keeps pace with expenditures, or starts to fall behind, there are three solutions. The first is to borrow capital (money). The second is to cut costs, and the third is to seek chapter 7 or chapter 11 bankruptcy.

So here we are in Brunswick with a dilemma, like many towns. The main constant source of revenue, property tax, is drying up because the residents and businesses can no longer afford to pay ever increasing taxes without going out of business or moving out of town. Borrowing money, when the income needed is no longer there, leads to insolvency. So that leaves cutting costs. In the private sector, the real world where most taxpayers get their money, that is usually done in a few ways. The first is a freeze on wages, wage concessions, reductions or loss of benefits, or layoff’s; or all of the above.

The above summary was taken from the 2016-2017 School Budget presented to the Town of Brunswick, and approved by approximately 3% of the registered voters in town. Numbers don’t lie. Do the math. If you wonder why your elementary schools are falling apart, maybe this data has something to do with it. When 80% of the entire budget is going to salaries and benefits, not much is left for buildings, maintenance, utilities and other costs to run our schools. Teacher salaries are up 4% with benefits up 2.5%. Superintendent/Board costs up 5%…..look up the budget on the Town web site. In the private sector, a 3% increase in wages use to be the norm, now it boils down to just keeping your job. For retirees, 0% COLA increase last year and .3% increase this year.

This is a prescription for fiscal failure. Acting like these issues don’t exist is going to lead to a crisis. We are steps away from that right now. The town Education Budget is just a fancy “request for a raise”….a pay increase, exacted from taxpayers who are not experiencing the same wage and benefit increases in the private sector. “Show me the money”….because it is not out here with the Citizens and Business Owners of Brunswick.

Potential Tax Impact of New School Proposal

If the town is allowed to go ahead with the Elementary School Construction and the Junior High renovation, they will need $33,000,000.  To get that money, assuming they don’t bother to apply for state funding (?), they will have to issue a bond….borrow money with interest. That bond is paid off over different possible term periods, 25 and 10 year or 30 and 10 year as shown on the chart. The borrowing rates also can differ.

The chart assumes the debt payment will begin in Fiscal Year 2020.  Depending on the eventual scenario, property tax, in that year, would increase between 5% to almost 7%.  Now, the important thing to realize is that this chart does not include possible increases in normal school budget or the town Municipal budget which in itself has averaged 4% per year since 2010.  So now we are possibly up to 9% to 11% in FYR 2020.

Another thing to consider is that we are currently going through a re-evaluation of property values, the impact of which is unknown.  For some, outside of and in addition to the above, your taxes will go up; for some your taxes will go down; for some your taxes will remain nearly the same.

And of course there are other unknowns.  We have a Fire Station in dire need of replacement.  Our roads are in need of repair.  These and other issues will certainly come up over the coming years and will likely add to the tax burden!

Note:The above chart is part of a presentation prepared by the town finance department and can be found in the Finance area of the town web site.

What Can You Do – Property Taxes

  • The most important thing you can do is to vote in any and all School Budget referendums.  Why, because it is the only voting opportunity you ever get on the Budget Process.  You can’t vote on the Municipal side of the budget (Police, Town Administration…..).  A vote against the School Budget is not a vote against having or supporting schools, it is a statement to our Town Council that you do not like the level of spending and the effect on the taxes you pay. It is saying, “go back to the drawing boards and come up with a budget we can afford!”
  • The town does not have to put any budget to referendum.  The way to make sure that they do so is to attend any public hearing/ forum where any budget or spending proposal is discussed. The current new school proposal on January 17, 2016 is such a meeting.
  • Not showing up at the polls is a yes vote for the overall budget and a yes vote for higher taxes. On average only 5% of the town’s 16,000 voters show up and vote.
  • Vote for Town Counselors that support budget and tax fiscal responsibility.  Too often there is a homogenization of the Town Council and School Board where they become one and the same.  Some Town Council members move on to the School Board and vice versa.  Objectivity becomes questionable in this scenario.
  • Voice your opinions at Town Council Meetings and through Emails to your Town Council members.  Like any other form of government, they are being lobbied all the time by individuals and groups. The more voices that demand tax and spending reform, the better.
  • Write articles to local newspapers and other publications.
  • Become educated on what is happening! Local newspapers, the Town Web Site, Town Meetings, this web site, are all ways to find out what is going on around you.

Potential Tax Impact By Assessed Value – New School + Other Budgets

 

The chart above shows the projected impact of the new Elementary School and the repairs to the Junior High school on top of (in addition to) the other pieces of the town budget which includes the regular school budget (new school / Jr High repairs not included), the Municipal (Town) budget and the County.  The black numbers on the top of each column are the total taxes, for that year, for each $100,000 of taxable assessed value.  If your “taxable valuation” on your tax bill is $200,000 for the tax year 2020-2021 (the first year the bond debt kicks in on the chart), your taxes would be 2 X $3,391 or $6782.

The assumptions are, as indicated on the chart, that revenue will increase annually at a rate of 2%.   It also assumes expenditures (total budget requests) will average 3% per year (over the last 6 – 7 years the average has been more like 4%), except for Year 20-21, the first year of the Bond debt, which will be a tax increase of 7%.  Lastly it assumes that taxable value will increase 1% per year.

Other items not mentioned above include any funding we could possibly receive from the state to offset the bond amount / debt.  Unexpected costs for things like the Fire Station, other school repairs, and so on.

Note: The above chart is part of a presentation listed on the Town Web site by the Finance Department.


This chart shows the projected impact of the School Bonding proposal on a home with an assessed value of $200,000.  The assumptions are the same as the top chart the most critical of which is the assumed net tax increase year by year of 2.5%, except for the first year the bond kicks in which is 7% in Year 2020-2021. The obvious concern would be that the 2.5% number is too optimistic, which is likely the case.