Monday, May 15, 2017

School Department salary “justice;” how much longer must our public servants suffer?

First, we begin with a post-script to yesterday’s post on New School Kool-Aid.  In FY 05, when school enrollment was at a high of 3,372 students, with four elementary schools in operation, the school budget was $27.7 million.  Here we are, staring at a proposed budget of $38 million, with one thousand less students, and only two elementary schools in operation, one of which is a LEEDS certified big money saver.  That’s right: over $10 million more in operating cost for 1,000 fewer students!

And “Great Schools Brunswick” has the temerity and unmitigated gall to whine about “limited resources” and “desperate budget shortfalls?”  And in the face of the maintenance policies cited, and this increase in funding, to cite ‘worn out buildings that have been identified as “a catastrophe waiting to happen.?”’ If they are so, guess who is responsible?

Are we as stupid as they think we are?  Or are they even more stupid than those who pay for these derelictions of duty?  Either way, their rhetoric is insulting at every level.

Moving On

Now on to today’s subject.  That friend of ours who has been diligently researching School Department data, and seeking answers to some obvious questions, has forwarded more data provided to her by the Business Manager at Department offices.

Here they are for your edification.  This first item is pretty obvious in it’s content.

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Note that while some salary increases are modest, no one goes without a raise.  The HBS principal, we should note, is a more junior replacement for a senior level employee that moved on.  The Business Manager gets a 7% increase; the Curriculum Coordinator gets a 9% increase; the Assistant Superintendent gets a 17% increase; and the Technology Director gets a 7% increase.  This is without considering increases in their benefit costs where applicable; as you can see we pay more than $20,000 a year for health coverage for most.

You might compare these figures to your circumstances and annual salary increases.

The item just below shows that employees pay at most 15% of their health care coverage.  Again, compare that with your circumstances and those you know who work in the private sector.  (personal memory flogger: before becoming Medicare eligible, we paid $972 monthly for staying on the health plan of the employer from whom we retired after 35 years.  I suppose it would have been twice that by now.)

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Just below is the salary chart for the coming year out of the Teachers Contract.  Be sure to note the cash payments at the bottom of the chart that add considerably to the “junior” salaries.

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Now here’s the distribution of the teaching corps across those salary entries in the table above.

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We think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of teachers are in the $60,000 to $75,000 salary range (plus benefits of $20,000 plus), keeping in mind that this is for a 182.5 day work year.  It’s also fair to say that the MINIMUM salary for a 5 day work week is $1,000, not including benefits.  In most settings, that would be considered a pretty good salary fresh out of college.  Especially when you see that automatic annual increases (both merit and longevity) in the range of 5% are included in the contract!

Which brings us to the conclusion of this little narrative.  Some of you may remember the much loved Jim Ashe, who preceded the current superintendent.  He was fond of saying that the regular budget increases were “due to costs beyond our control.”  I frequently took him to task for this deception by pointing out that the only “costs beyond our control” were those related to weather for the most part, and the occasional facilities based maintenance surprise.

All the other increased costs were not “beyond our control,” but in fact had been previously agreed to in various contracts approved by the administration and the School Board.  So he could try to sell crazy elsewhere, because we’ve got our fill here.

Along these very lines, I recently came across some documents that reinforce our point.  It turns out that the Teachers Contracts on their create enough budgetary increase pressure.  But if you look at these items:

http://www.brunswick.k12.me.us/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/EMPLOYEE-contract-central-office.pdf

http://www.brunswick.k12.me.us/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/EMPLOYEE-compensation-2012.pdf

you’ll see that numerous other positions in the department are directly tied to the Teachers Contract with multiplying factors.  So when the innocent Board Members, Union Leaders, and Superintendent go off to negotiate the new Teachers Contract, they are doing much more than that.

Here’s a sample from the first one:

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You really must read the entire document….it’s only 3 pages….to see the other little pot sweeteners thrown in.

And now the same data from the second one; again, read the whole document, in which you’ll see work weeks are 42 and 44 weeks.

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So what are the takeaways from this little narrative?  We can think of two:

1) You probably now know more about School Department compensation realities than most School Board members, all town council members, and all but the teenie-weeniest percentage of town taxpayers.

2) The next time some bloviator tells you how long-suffering and underpaid teachers and administrators are, tell them to go sell the idea somewhere else.

As scarce as truth is, the supply always seems to exceed the demand.  Winston Churchill famously said, "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened."

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

New School Kool-Aid Kegger! Join the party!

           

Just as you might expect, the big push has begun to drive school spending ever higher.  And truth and facts be damned; new schools are far more important than either.

Here’s a precious excerpt taken from the promotional web site under the heading FAQ,  We’ll parse the ‘answer’ into segments, and respond to them point by point.

“FAQ: The Town and has been screwing up new schools for decades. Isn’t this more of the same irresponsible oversight?”

“School oversight and planning has been contentious in Brunswick for a long time.  Matters have been made worse by surprises, such as drastic cuts in state funding and the sudden structural failure of Jordan Acres.” 

Side response:

Drastic cuts in state funding?  To begin with, state funding (GPA) is, among other things, a function of enrollment.  The high water mark was in the FY07 and FY 08 time frame when enrollment was over 3,000.  State support was in the range of $4,600 per student, and total spending per student was about $10,500.  Since then, enrollment has dropped by 30% from it’s high point, to just over 2,300.  Spending per student is now over $16.000.  State support is in the range of $4,700 per student, the same as before.  Drastic cuts in state funding are not the problem; drastic increases in system spending are the problem.

Sudden structural failure of Jordan Acres?  At the time, we were told that the ‘failure’ was due to snow loading on the roof.  This was not a sudden structural failure; it was a direct and predictable consequence of maintenance ignored.

“However some claims about how the schools could be run are simply untrue.  First, the information provided elsewhere in this FAQ demonstrates that Brunswick School Department staff been diligent with maintenance of buildings, albeit in the face of limited resources and worn out buildings that have been identified as “a catastrophe waiting to happen.” 

Lyndon Keck, the architect used by BSD, recently stated that fire alarm systems were not working properly.  Last time we went through this exercise, we heard about broken toilets.  Any school board that knows about these problems and ignores them is unworthy of the public trust and the trust of the students.  Any school department staff that is aware of these problems and does not raise them to red alert status should be severely disciplined.  Any school department staff that is unaware of these problems on their watch should be summarily fired.

In other words, claims of “diligent maintenance” are certifiably false.

On a related note, at the end of this post is a passage from the applications submitted by the BSD to the state in 2004 to secure state funding for new construction and/or major renovation funding.  It talks to regular inspections of safety systems, maintenance contracts, including inspections, for roof and HVAC systems, and other provisions you would normally expect from those who know what they are doing.  As you read those provisions, however, and consider them in the light of failed maintenance realities, it quickly becomes apparent that while the BSD can hire consultants to talk the talk in their applications, they don’t attend organizationally to walking the walk.  That is, let things go, and then press for replacement.  You read it, and then decide for yourself how good a job the School Department has been doing over the years, and how attentive the School Board has been to seeing the hired staff does things right.

Second, it is not true that the district could have renovated Jordan Acres and/or Hawthorne School (built in 1893), Union Street School (1859) or Longfellow School (1924) to re-open as schools.  Aside from compliance issues, the neighborhood schools configuration became unaffordable ever since a desperate budget shortfall during the coincidental recession, closure of the Naval Air Station, and reorganization of Durham schools.  By operating fewer, larger schools Brunswick saves millions of dollars each year.

This passage is the height of fib telling and distraction.  Be sure not to let the Kool-Aid drip on your clothes; the red stains can be boogers to get out.

A “desperate budget shortfall during the conincident recession?”  The town and the school department are entirely immune to budget shortfalls and recessions.  They set the tax rate each year to provide whatever revenue they want to spend, and anyone who pays attention knows that.  As to closure of the Naval Air Station and loss of Durham students, both were, in effect, financial windfalls for the school department.  Enrollment declined by 30%, or roughly 1,000 students, in just a few years.  The Navy came nowhere close to paying the cost of their military dependents, paying no more than $1,500 per student.  Durham was getting a great deal as well,  paying less in tuition than the department was spending per student.

In other words, go cry us a river.  Taking a look at budget totals as the base closed and Durham sent their students elsewhere reveals nary a blink as it happened.  You’d never guess from  looking at the figures that we lost 1,000 students, and reduced the schools in operation by two.  Saves millions of dollars each year?  Sure; our budget would be $15 million higher if not for the student decline!

Currently, the Brunswick School Dept does have a long-term master plan (see Strategic Framework 2016-2021) that will meet the needs of all students.  In 2018 we’ll know whether the State DOE will fund the new BJHS.  If that is approved, the Department will be able to return its attention to establishing a more stable approach to long-term funding for maintenance expenses (see last section of this presentation).

“Long term master plan that will meet the needs of all students?”  File this one under the category of you can trust us this time; we’ll do what we said we were going to do, even though history clearly shows that we’ve made the same promises before, and completely ignored them after the words on paper had served their purpose.

So in conclusion, we don’t trust a thing the new school advocates, the school department, and the school board tell us on these issues.  Their record of truth telling and effective operation of the assets with which they are entrusted does not hold up to the facts on the record.

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The sad part is that those rolling out this poppycock for public consumption and funding gobble it up like so much Kool-Aid.  No one dares hold the School Department accountable.  And no one dares hold the School Board accountable for not holding the School Department to account.

And the worst part?  No one holds the Town Council accountable for not holding the entire school establishment accountable.

Why bother?  “For the children” is the proven, all purpose remedy for anything that ails the bureaucracy.

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Herewith the excerpts from the application to the state referenced above.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Too bad it’s only words…meaningless words.

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Teacher Pay & Contracts: Side “debates” the Governor

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This past week, Maine’s Governor Paul LePage had an op-ed item published on The Maine Wire.  The column was ostensibly written in support of proposed legislation for instituting a statewide teachers contract.  At the moment, it’s not looking like that legislation has much of a chance of becoming law.

You can read the Governor’s entire item here: http://www.themainewire.com/2017/05/teachers-paid-worth/

The Governor has publicly asserted that “teachers are underpaid” for some time.  Side takes a much more ‘nuanced’ view, as you might expect.  This stems from the nuance training required to acquire an engineering degree, and we have several; not many can match our ham-fisted mastery of the concept.

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We decided to submit a column challenging the Governor’s view, and it was accepted and published on The Maine Wire as well, though the editors chose to delete two paragraphs in the interest of staying within their ‘preferred’ word count.  Word length limits on web journals are a puzzlement to us, but as a minimum, it makes the editors of a kind with Brunswick’s town council chair, who just this week cut your correpondent off at the knees as we delivered a refined and nuanced statement on town budget priorities (http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2017/05/some-of-us-just-never-learn-and-we.html).

Posted just below is the entirety of our submission, with the two paragraphs excised on the web version italicized.  (The web version is here.)

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Maine Wire: Teacher Pay? It's Time to Reform the Underlying Structure and Driving Factors

I agree with Governor LePage. Teachers should be paid what they are worth. More broadly, everyone should be paid what they are worth, including the Governor. He makes less than teachers at the top of the scale in my town, and I'm pretty sure his work schedule is well beyond the 182.5 workdays per year their salaries are based on. Not to mention that his 'classroom environment' is far more unruly and undisciplined than theirs, and his 'students' far more incorrigible.

The title assertion of his recent column is wide open to interpretation, however, and mine differs significantly from his. For those unfamiliar with teachers contracts, I strongly recommend you look one up and read it; your eyes will be opened. If you don't have access to one, this link will take you to the current contract for Brunswick teachers: http://www.brunswick.k12.me.us/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Teacher-Contract-Sept-1-16-Aug-31-19.pdf Be sure to read all the way through to the salary scales. (As a side note, the absence of a specific identifier for the bill the Governor alludes to makes it difficult to comment on that proposal.)

Given the structure of teachers contracts with which I'm familiar, comparisons with other states is not relevant without taking average age into account. And one could argue that teachers don't "settle," they enjoy extremely high job security, cadillac benefits with minimal personal cost, and guaranteed in advance, preprogrammed salary increases per contract. Not many, in fact very few, can say the same thing, and that's without considering the hours and weeks worked.

Teachers are treated as semi-deities by the vast majority of the public, especially at budget time, and are never called to account for school and student achievement. Union protection, political influence, and lobbying dollars are as powerful as it gets in Augusta. Teacher jobs come with a teflon suit, at least as far as public policy is concerned.

Of highest concern in my view is that the worst are paid the same as the best; union contracts homogenizes teachers into faceless 'members' of a certain age and education level. This is unfair to the worst; unfair to the best; unfair to students; and unfair to taxpayers. Those who accept these conditions, and union governance, stretch the meaning of "professionals" to its limits.

A more critical view is that some teachers are overpaid (or should be gone!); some are underpaid; and most are paid appropriately. The question of a statewide contract is a separate matter, but until coherent performance measures and a merit salary component are adopted, the existing compensation structure is a poor foundation from which to move forward.

If I take the Governor's characterization at face value, he believes that all teachers are underpaid, and that giving them a substantial increase will improve their performance in the classrooms, and thereby the education of their students. This ignores the fact, at least in my town, that teachers annually get salary increases in the 5% range, and taxpayers cover 85% of the cost of their health coverage. Even worse, it suggests that teachers' dedication, effort, and effectiveness are proportional to their pay. Such a premise should be an embarrassment to anyone who wants to be considered a professional, and I would expect a truly dedicated teacher to be insulted by the very thought!

Would the Governor be a better State Executive if we raised his salary by 25%? I'm old fashioned enough to believe that he is doing the very best he can at his job because he takes it very seriously, though I have no problem thinking he should be paid significantly more for his efforts.

My greatest concern, however, is this. If the Union is somehow convinced to come to the table for a statewide contract, you can bet they will have their way with the Governor's administration - "lifting all boats" whether seaworthy or not.

The end result will be the aggregated sum of all teacher/union perks from contracts in the individual school administrative units, the highest salaries cherry-picked from those same contracts, and the elimination of those elements that the unions have fought unsuccessfully. The union will come to the game with a pile of chips that dwarfs the Governor's. And they will run the table. They may not even need all the aces up their sleeves.

Union political influence, and funds available from state and national offices for massive PR campaigns, are a matter of record. Sympathetic masses, led by the mommy mafia, toddlers in hand, will rally to support the unions and teachers, carrying signs that it's all “For The Children.” Any who oppose the union position will be demonized. “Why do you hate our schools and teachers?” And “what do you have against my children?” will be the dominant themes.

Those with experience in how this usually works locally should be familiar with these tactics.

In conclusion, while the Governor's intentions are no doubt sincere, his proposal as stated is vulnerable to an outcome that is worse, not better. I wish he would reconsider it before pressing forward into a very large trap.

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Our post of yesterday (here) dovetails nicely with our on-line ‘debate’, since it shows that for the coming year, Brunswick’s teachers will average $61,448 in salary, and $82,259 in total compensation when benefits are included.  These figures, we should point out, don’t include such perks as sabbaticals, etc.  This is why you would be well served to read their contract.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Brunswick School Department Teacher Compensation

A friend who is working hard to follow town budget activities this time around, and is bird-dogging the School Department in particular, passed along this data, which was provided by the School Administration office.

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Interestingly, total teacher salary expense is up by ~10%, while total teacher benefit expense is up by ~39% in the same time frame. This seems a bit odd.

The relatively small growth in teacher salary expense could be explained by a reduction in teaching staff, or replacing retiring teachers at the top of the pay scale with younger teachers in the lower half of the pay scale, or a combination of both.  Frankly, we don’t think the Department is prone to staff reductions, nor any other reductions for that matter.  So until we find out otherwise, we’ll assume its because of replacing retiring teachers with new ones who are paid considerably less.

The sizable increase in benefit expense supports this view, since the cost of benefits (except for retirement) are independent of salary level, and the taxpayers continue to pay the vast majority of these costs, including 85% of medical coverage.  In this day and age, that is a cadillac benefit.

We took the FY 18 Proposed Budget Book prepared by the department, which you can find here:

http://www.brunswick.k12.me.us/school-board/files/2016/09/BSD-FY-18-School-Board-Proposed-Budget-Booklet.pdf

and came up with a total of 240.4 teachers in the system for the upcoming year, including those listed as ‘Special Ed’ and ‘Student Supports’.

This infers that for the upcoming school year, for which the proposed teacher salary expense is $14,772,310, that the average teacher salary is $61,448, and that the average teacher benefit cost is $21,111.  Or, total compensation per teacher for these two items is $82,559 on average.

If the number of teachers was the same in FY 16, those figures would be $57,248 for salary and $17,012 for benefits, for a total of $74,260 in compensation.

Average salary will have increased by $4,200 per year, and total compensation by $8,300 in two years.  Incomes may be flat for most of America, but you’ll have a hard time arguing that for the teaching corps in Brunswick.

Good luck in trying to navigate your way through this morass, and in dealing with the $45 million or so in new school spending that has yet to hit the budget, though we notice that signs to support the new school plan are popping up all over town.

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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

In case you didn’t know……School Department Schedule

Silly us; we decided to go looking for some data on the Brunswick School Department web site, and stumbled across this bit of data

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http://www.brunswick.k12.me.us/#

So if your children are asked to wear saffron robes to school, or you see teachers garbed in same driving to school, you’ll know why.

Look on the bright side; it’s better than telling the kids they have to dress as Freedom of Speech activists these days.

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Some of us just never learn; and we aren’t very good at teaching either

We suppose it’s ironic that after something like 10 weeks of absence from our duties here at Other Side, we come to you with a classic retelling of the woes of a head-banger.  For reasons we can’t explain, and no-one else can either, we decided to speak before the town council at their regular meeting tonight (Monday, 1 May 2017).

The results, as we should have expected, were decidely Einsteinian.  Yes, that famous line of his about insanity.  On the other hand, we console ourselves at the moment with another of his best:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

Long story short, we showed up at a pretty sparsely attended meeting, with virtually no controversial items (e.g.: bugets) on the agenda.  Accordingly, we hoped that we would not be cut short in our statement, but you guessed it; Einstein’s principle won out.

We showed up with a statement of virtually the same length as every one we’ve given in the past, but with what we believed was a totally different point of view.  No matter; Chair Harris cut us short, even though there was no cue of others looking to waste councilor’s time as we were.

So, pompous ass that we are, with a very flat forehead, we post for you here the entirety of our planned statement, annotated to indicate where we were summarily dismissed because of time limits.

Statement to Town Council May 1, 2017

  • Good evening; I'm Mr. Schaeffer from Crestview Lane. Known as “Mister Grumpy” by some, you might know that I've been publishing a blog for years, though I haven't been very prolific lately.

  • Once I decided to speak tonight, I considered announcing my plans on the blog, but in today's social warfare climate, I decided against it. Who knows how many masked, unruly anarchists might show up to shout me down in the name of free speech? So here I am, unannounced, confident that Brunswick's finest can ably protect us, even while public authorities shrink from their duties elsewhere.

  • My main point tonight is that staff and the council are irresponsibly proposing to spend excessive amounts on road paving, trash collection, and other activities that do nothing to enhance the reputation of Brunswick. What we really need is more visionary central planning; no-one moves to Brunswick because of our streets, our dump, or our police.

  • While there are potholes here and there, none have reached sink-hole status capable of swallowing a vehicle, though Smart Cars should be cautious.

  • Police staffing? Hell, there's no crime in Brunswick, is there?

  • A new dump? We don't need a new dump. If cities and states can defy federal law to make themselves sanctuaries, we can defy it to keep using the same dump. Just rename it 'The Graham Road Garbage Sanctuary.'

  • No; clearly our top priorities must be starry-eyed commitment to idealistic undertakings that elevate our stature among the richest and best little towns in America. Instead of paving roads, we need to pave our path to a glorious future with collective good intentions.

  • Municipal aquatic centers, municipal ice rinks, and multiple new schools are barely a start to a prideful future. By the way, if you believe the aquatic center and ice rink won't cost taxpayers a penny, you probably believe the Downeaster is a break even enterprise. No matter; let's embrace 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' as our new motto.

  • There are other ways we can more visibly spend town resources, or OPM, on becoming the best we can be. Here are some ideas:

    • How about an East Brunswick Library Branch; the vacant Bookland slot in Cook's Corner would be a poetic choice, and $3 million or so ought to be enough to open the doors.

    • The wide open spaces at Brunswick Landing cry out for a grand Community Center featuring indoor and outdoor running tracks; card rooms; workout areas; dog socialization activities; classrooms for cooking and sewing instruction; 24/7 town funded babysitting; and anything else “residents demand,” to borrow an oft heard term during budget season. I'd love a town funded car wash to be part of the mix; imagine how impressed visitors would be as they enter a town full of squeaky clean vehicles, emblematic of community pride. Safe spaces for one and all, including Mr. Grumpy, should be mandatory. Everyone needs to take refuge from time to time, and I see no reason the town shouldn't provide it.

    • A Human Rights Center for advanced research in town-gown relations seems apropos. It's time that we admit that Brunswick is a feature of the Bowdoin Campus, rather than the other way around. This center would affirm our belief that no aspect of our daily lives is immune from government involvement, and ease our realignment to emerging social and cultural standards issuing from academia.

    • Brunswick is noticeably short of museums; a new Task Force could be appointed to suggest one that might raise property values even higher, and increase our attraction to home shoppers.

    • As would a motocross track on the old base property to provide additional recreational opportunities, and a drag-racing facility to make good use of the runways.

    • We could be a leader in social trends by creating a Municipal Medicinal Marijuana Growing area, designed to keep our population mellow and well. Dude!; imagine what we could do with that new revenue stream!

Approximate point at which the Chair declared I had 15 seconds of allocated speech time left.  At which point I counted backwards from 15 to 0 and departed council chambers.

  • There's one more really exciting opportunity for our town to invest in. I've heard that some young entrepreneurs, having noticed how Brunswick residents have cultivated a taste for baloney, are planning to create a new company called Baloney Hogwash. They'll be crafting artisan small batch Baloney in a wide variety of flavors, inspired by local tastes. They're banking on a forgivable loan of $1 million from town coffers to get them started on their can't miss plan.

    • Early flavor ideas include “Brunswick has the best schools;” “back-in parking;” and “Downeaster economic benefits.”

  • You get the idea; instead of dealing with the same-old, same-old spending lines, like roads, trash, and public safety, it's time to think outside the McLellan box. Go for the brass rings, councilors! You know it's what you and the school board really want to do. The hell with tough choices; denial provides no satisfaction!  So stop torturing yourselves. (last sentence added post facto.)

  • Speaking of baloney, have you ever noticed that almost no-one argues that spending more on schools makes them better? Instead they argue increased spending drives up property values.

  • It occurs to me that high property values only accrue when you sell your property and leave town. To those thinking they might want to move here, elevated property values can be a barrier to entry, especially when accompanied by elevated property taxes.

  • Recently I read that Topsham's proposed budget could up their property tax mil rate to $18.49. A home valued at $200,000 would see it's taxes increase to about $3,700. Brunswick's rate at the moment is $29.35, nearly 60% higher.

  • If you believe that property values in Brunswick are higher because we have better schools, and other distinguishing factors, that same house in Brunswick should be worth $250,000, or even more. At our current mil rate, before this year's budget increase, that would yield a tax bill of almost $7,400, or virtually twice the taxes levied by our next door neighbor.

  • In this example, the $50,000 gain in property value would be consumed by higher property taxes in 14 years; please explain how that benefits a local homeowner.

  • And why, if we're paying twice the effective property taxes as the town across the bridge, we still have roads that are an embarrassment, and a school department never held accountable for letting its physical assets fall apart year by year to force eventual replacement.

  • Don't use differential in valuation ratios as the explanation, and how we're fixing that. Sorry: the name of the game is the dollars owed on the tax bill, not the tax rate.

Thanks for allotting me this time.

As you might guess, we never got to voice that expression of gratitude to our betters.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

TRNE and NNEPRA: “Wronger Together”

As we reported last month (TrainRiders Northeast goes pro), the lobbying organization for NNEPRA hired their first salaried Executive Director.

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While we’re not yet familiar with the overall array of talents young Mr. O’Keefe, Jr brings to his new position, it’s apparent he is learning critical skills quickly from his mentor, Chairman and Founder Wayne Davis, the Father of NNEPRA and the Downeaster.

Take for example this propaganda recently published on the TRNE Facebook page (Sunday, 12 Feb; ):

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We’re especially taken by this language: “It will, however, operate on a modified schedule in anticipation of lower ridership.”  (emphasis ours)  It makes us wonder if we’ve forgotten a phrase from the cited old Post Office saw that qualfied the pledge thusly: “except in anticipation of lower mail volume.”

These comments followed the above post:

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So it didn’t take long to make a retraction of the brash bravado post, or for young Mr. O’Keefe, Jr to demonstrate his dry sense of humor.  Very un-Davis like, that, and we can’t help but wonder if a bit of additional ‘counseling’ on job performance ensued.

Ironically enough, the older post below the above items is this:

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Can we have a group chorus of “Oops” please?

                        

Oddly enough, the TRNE web page doesn’t seem to be operating today, which leaves multitudes verklempt, we’re sure, including the lovely ladies of All Aboard Brunswick.  It leaves us wondering just what the new ED and his mentor might have up their collective sleeve.

Before we leave you, we’ll summarize the information we’ve collected on ‘the only dependable public transportation system running’ in our area during the recent winter weather (“unexpected,” no doubt.)

On Feb 13th:

682 and 683 did not run from Brunswick to Boston and return. reason unknown

684 left Brunswick on time and arrived Boston  2' 26" late

685 left Boston 18" late and arrived Brunswick 1' 11" late

From Amtrak public records.  REASONS for delays and cancellations unknown.

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Summarizing for the first train out of Brunswick’s new overnight layover facility:

Scheduled departure 7:40am................1st train out of the barn

Mon 2/13    never left

Tues 2/14   departed 35” late and arrived Boston 51” late

Wed 2/15   departed 1” late and arrived Boston 26” late

Thu  2/16    departed 15” late and arrived Boston 41” late

(in railroad lingo, ‘ is the symbol for hour, and “ is the symbol for minutes)

As we said in a post on the 14th,

Wow! What a difference the Brunswick Layover Facility has made…..

We’ll close with this thought: if modifying the Downeaster schedule “in anticipation of lower ridership” was normal practice, wouldn’t half or more of the trips to/from Freeport & Brunswick be canceled? 

We notice NNEPRA hasn’t been reporting ‘city pair’ ridership statistics much in recent months, and maybe this is why.

Oops!  We almost forgot.  As often happens, we have ‘one more thing:’

On Tuesday February 14th, under improved conditions, the snow-covered morning train stored outside in sub-freezing weather at Portland departed on time, and was only 16 minutes late.  This info shows in the Amtrak table above, but we thought you might not notice it and let the implications soak in.  Unless The Ostrich covers it in an upcoming edition.

Go figure, right? 

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Case in point: why Brunswick needs a full time property manager to protect taxpayer interests

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Just the other day, we wrote of the need for REAL CHANGE in how Brunswick manages its facility assets, and we included a memo we’re sending the Town Council to propose a policy change that does so.  You’ll find it here: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2017/02/time-for-change-real-change.html

Shortly after posting the item, we recalled the case of the McLellan.  And a post on the subject dated three years ago: http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-mclellan-shame-shame-on-bowdoin.html

The ‘road to the McLellan’ was a tortured one, though we don’t expect you to remember the details.  We discovered from our earlier work that the original estimate for remodeling to meet the needs of the town was $100,000.  That figure quickly doubled.  Next thing you know, it was in excess of $1 million, or ten times the original estimate.  We’re not sure how much the final total was.  This was a lesson, ignored as usual, that competence in such matters is an unknown quantity in local governance, especially when various councilors are intent on selling us on an idea.

The post from 2014 included these pictures to express concern over the exterior condition of the building, and to scold Bowdoin College for their lack of diligence in maintaining the building; we mused as to why that might be.  Regardless, the images show a sad and shabby state of affairs three years ago.   In the real estate world, this is called ‘deferred maintenance’ to make it sound like a “normal” occurrence.  In the real world, where the rest of us live, this is called “letting things go to hell.”

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You know how time flies.  Or runs, or swims, or walks, or takes the train if you see things differently.

We visit the McLellan from time to time for various purposes, and we usually take note of the condition to see if the situations above have been repaired; those shown are symptomatic of the overall condition of building exterior trim, and who knows what else.

Given our recent thoughts on building care, we were shocked, you might say, to realize the exterior deterioration of our ‘new’ Town Hall has been going on for three years at the very least since we took possession.  So we inquired as to when repairs would be made.

We were told repairs would begin this year, and that the budget for the work is in the range of $200,000.  Your guess is as good as ours as to where the number will actually end up.  The devil is in the details, and the proof is in the pudding.

Experience with our own home proved that a few cracks and dry rot spots here and there could be telltale indicators of far more serious and pervasive underlying damage.  We hope for our own sakes that this is not the case here, because we’ll all be paying for it.  But only time will tell as the contractor begins to rip off all the effected areas to assess the damage.

The real question is how a responsible municipal government could allow such clearly progressive decay to continue for three years without taking decisive action to eliminate the problem.

The question answers itself, we think.

And unquestionably makes the case as to why Brunswick needs a single point of accountability at a senior reporting level for managing the overall care of our hundreds of millions worth of physical assets.

We’er making the proposal; but Frank Lee, our experience in such matters gives us no hope that we’ll see any action taken by our betters.  So we’re not holding our breath that things will change, or betting any of our personal funds on the outcome.  We envision that discussing the situation will cause too much public embarrassment for the council and the school department, and so they’ll avoid it like the plague.

But in keeping with the opening principle, we’d be happy to hold your breath or bet your shekels, because it wouldn’t involve any risk or consequences for us.

If only everything in our lives worked that way.  Why is it that government (“all of us”) can get away with such behavior and never seem to be held accountable, but those of us who pay the bills for their irresponsibility can’t?

  

They used to call that “the $64,000 question.’

Now a days, it’s more like the million dollar question.

Just for starters.  Or a quick off the cuff estimate.

Cape Brunswick…..jumping into the deep end

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Every now and then, especially in the dead of winter after two feet of snow, it’s good to remind ourselves that we live in Cape Brunswick, the best and richest little town in America.

Which recently welcomed a new candy store in town, giving us two.  That’s two real candy stores; the kind you can walk into and buy something.

Turns out there’s a third candy store in town, but it’s a virtual one.  It’s the one where Town Council and School Board members act like Cape Brunswick’s little rich kids in a candy store, gorging themselves on every sweet treat they can think of, fully expecting ‘their parents’ to pay for it.

They can do that because all the important necessities, things like roads, storm drains, sewer and water lines are in tip-top shape.

But, you might say, we need a new school, a new Central Fire Station, and a new Dump.  Oops!  Make that a Land Fill.  C’mon; those are the fruits and vegetables and protein and fiber of community life.

So it’s time for the kids to make a visit to the virtual candy shoppe and find some new treats to gorge themselves on, and this time the sweet treat is called “Municipal Aquatic Center.”  How can we deny them these goodies, given our prime location in one of the coldest climates in the lower 48, and the inacessability of ocean waters for refreshing ourselves ‘naturally.’

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You’ll find the feasibility study here:  http://www.brunswickme.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Agenda-Packet-Feb-21-15-ON-LINEFeasibility-Study-Community-Aquatic.pdf

It’s in the packet for the Town Council meeting of Tuesday, February 21st.  It includes a cost estimate of $3 million, an operations analysis (revenues will exceed expenses!), and a ‘market analysis.)  You can trust the consultants who wrote this report, because they’re not like all the others.

The survey that was done at the request of the Parks and Recreation Department can be found here: http://www.brunswickme.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Brunswick-Maine-Final-Report.pdf

We were sure we’d posted on discussions regarding such an Aquatic Center some years ago, but damned if we could find it; maybe you can.

But don’t worry about that; our town employed a ‘national leader’ to conduct a survey to prove unequivocally that town residents are clamoring for such an aquatic facility.  That firm is known as the ETC Institute, and they specializing in helping communities make better decisions.  Which reminds us of a local firm called Good Decisions that recently helped our school department come up with a strategic vision.  Here’s a glimpse at ETC as they see themselves:

Connecting Communities

ETC Institute's research is implementation oriented to help clients achieve their short- and long-term goals and objectives.

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And highlights of their strengths:

Our ability to effectively listen and involve citizens and clients has given ETC Institute a reputation as the premier public policy market research firm in the country. ETC Institute’s services focus on involving citizens, users, and stakeholders in the decision making process and developing creative and sustainable funding strategies.

Core services of the firm involve conducting statistically valid phone and mail/phone services and related market research. We have conducted more than 600 surveys for parks and recreation systems in 49 states across the Country for a wide variety of projects including parks and recreation master plans, strategic plans, and feasibility studies.

Since 1992, the principals and associates of ETC Institute have helped secure funding for more than $2.5 billion of parks and recreation projects. The firm has extensive experience conducting surveys as components of plans leading to successful voter elections. ETC Institute’s work allows the community to see itself in their planning efforts, providing buy-in and trust in the process.

http://etctest.etcmain.com/research-areas/parks-and-recreation/

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Side, of course, is not riding in his first rodeo, so we take the above ETC self-description for what it is: a promise that they will give you the outcome you want, with lots of collaboration buzzwords sprinkled about to make everyone feel good about themselves.  Those of you with fewer saddle sores may have to read the passage multiple times to grasp what it says ‘between the lines.’

The fact is that the survey was never going to consider the possibility that no such facility should be planned or built.  It wasn’t going to begin with a question like “do you think this is a dumb-ass idea, or a good idea?”  Or “do you think a town with a winter that lasts nine months should build an aquatic facility?”  Or “would you like the town to compel other people to buy you a lovely place to swim whenever you feel like it?”  Or “do you think the town should build a luxury like an aquatic center when it needs two new schools, a new fire station, and a new dump?”

Now the really good news; the agenda for next week’s meeting shows that the new school referendum, the aquatic center, and the Central Fire Station are all on the table for discussion.  See the agenda here: http://www.brunswickme.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Agenda-February-21-2017-1.pdf

Seems like this is a good time to review the shopping list for the virtual candy store, not including such frivolities as streets, sidewalks, curbs, storm drains, and water and sewer systems.

  • New Elementary School: $28 million
  • A new Junior High School, sure to follow:  $35-40 million
  • Central Fire Station:  $10 million or so, plus millions more for new rolling stock that will fit in the new facility
  • New Dump (Land Fill): $10 million
  • Aquatic Center:  $5 million (yeah, we know, the consultant estimate says $3 million, but that’s just a SWAG…a starting point before the real candy shoppers have their way)

You can add that up anyway you like; we’ll call it $90 million in what will all eventually be described, if not yet, as essential community expenditures. 

Accordinly, we think the Town Council needs to fess up and come clean.  In recent discussions on the Elementary School construction proposal, they had our Finance Director isolate the cost of the new elementary school and project the financing and tax increases it would require. Instead, they should have her do a projection for the aggregate of all major capital projects on the table, and present the financing profile and property tax increases they would collectively generate.

  

Trick or treat anyone?  We think that if town officials came clean on the numbers we call for, your reaction would be much more like a good Halloween scare than an all expenses paid visit to a candy store.

Which might be a good thing; you know what happens when you eat too much candy.  Next thing you know, your teeth are rotting, and you need tens of thousands of dollars in dental restoration work.  While you can buy dental insurance, we’re not aware of any property tax increase insurance.

          

Though we suppose you could call the duck or the gecko to check.  While you’re at it, watch the local media outlets for incisive analysis of the local outlook in such matters; they’re known for their intense focus on the details of such profound local evolutions.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Time for change. REAL CHANGE

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Last month, we published several items on the deplorable record of our elected officials for stewardship of both municipal and school buildings.  We asked what Brunswick would be like if ALL the buildings in town were cared for with the same lack of responsibility and accountability.

Our circumstances result from two realities as we see it.  First is the truism expressed above.  Second is the fact that town officials have the power, via the adjustable rate property tax, to compel funds from us with the force of law to pay for their mistakes, and lack of responsibility for the dilgent care of the assets we pay for and entrust to their use.

Clearly something has to change, or the sorry approach to this facet of their responsibilities will continue ad infinitum.

Accordingly, we will be submitting the following message to the Town Council shortly.  We’ll include some attachments, and it may be edited slightly from the version below.  But you can get the idea from what follows.  It will be interesting to see if they even bother to take the issue up for discussion; we aren’t hopeful in that regard.  If they do, it should be even more interesting to see how they dance around it and artfully dodge the root causes.  No doubt many memorable quotes for the ages will ensue.

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Town Officials:

The Town Council is currently deliberating the issue of a referendum to borrow $28 million to build a locally funded school to replace Coffin Elementary. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for February 22nd. I have no doubt that if things proceed as in the past, the hearing will be dominated by school advocates who believe spending such sums is 'for the children;' the Council will vote overwhelmingly to approve the referendum going to ballot, and the town will overwhelmingly approve the ballot question in a very low turn out election.

It doesn't take much knowledge of town history and current circumstances to expect that close on the heels of this project will be replacement of our Junior High School at even greater cost, with hopes that the state will contribute a good deal of the funding. But if the state demurs, we'll be faced with another one of those 'tough decisions' in which we are 'left with no choice' but to fund JHS replacement on our own.

I write here to implore you to declare “ALL STOP” before proceeding on ANY school construction (or renovation) projects. The reason is that Brunswick has a structural governance problem when it comes to stewardship of municipal capital assets, and unless this deficiency is remedied with a new and robust commitment to responsibility and accountability for these assets, the same periodic crises will continue to arise, confront sitting councilors, and stun unsuspecting residents with never-ending and unaffordable increases in property taxes.

I've been a resident of Brunswick for nearly 20 years. In that time, the town's record for diligent stewardship of building assets, both municipal and school department, has been decidedly undistinguished to say the least. Concern for taxpayers and the burdens placed upon them has been largely non-existent. Brunswick's tax rate is up 35% in ten years; spending is up $11 million per year in the same time frame.

You don't have to dig very deep to find very troubling examples of school and municipal disregard for maintaining buildings in a state of good repair and prioritizing their preservation. The School Department in particular behaves as if they can have their way with local and state taxpayers no matter how poorly they manage their capital assets, and history proves them right. When the base closed, they had a chance to eliminate all temporary classrooms, but instead decided to rid themselves of much loved school buildings (Longfellow & Hawthorne).

The worst examples of this situation are troubling and shameful. In the last several years, there have been reports of broken toilets in the schools going unrepaired. In the recent presentation by Lyndon Keck of PDT, mention was made of non-functioning fire alarms. Why does it take an architect's review to discover this, and how could School Administration allow these problems to exist?

I have never seen any evidence that either the municipal or school side of our local government has a single point of responsibility for the condition and maintenance of buildings assigned to them. This cannot continue; it clearly is a recipe for failure, building decline, poor decision making, and repeated tear down and new construction. Buildings are seen as dispensable and easily replaced. Priorities are non-existent. A central Fire Station more than a century old continues in use while other buildings are replaced at less than half that age.

Accordingly, I propose that the Town Council enact a policy that clearly identifies a single point of responsibility for monitoring, maintaining, and reporting on the condition of all Brunswick capital assets. This reporting should take place publicly at least twice a year, and should include a detailed listing of all required repairs, estimated costs, and how long the repairs will take.

I suggest that the Assistant Town Manager be assigned this responsibility. He seems the perfect choice, since his position is relatively new. Further, as a direct report to the Town Manager, his efforts would receive the high visibility and careful guidance we should expect.

I look forward to a lively council discussion of this proposal. Perhaps the council will deem the subject important enough, and never-ending, to appoint a related Task Force for oversight.

Wow! What a difference the Brunswick Layover Facility has made…..

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You may recall that one of the grand justifications for constructing the Massive Layover Facility (MLF) in Brunswick was that the effects of ‘unexpected’ harsh winter weather would be mitigated because trains would be stored inside overnight where they would be kept safe and warm, and those arriving with caked on ice and snow could have it conveniently melted off, including on their wheel and brake system components.  Operations would be vastly improved for all concerned.

Well, we suppose you could say yesterday’s deluge of happy white stuff was ‘unexpected,’ especially if you are NNEPRA and Amtrak.

Now comes word of Downeaster schedule problems today…the day after the storm…when most of us are going about our daily business and making full use of our personal transportation.  A friend with professional qualifications in the field reports these deficiencies in Downeaster operation today:

682 left Brunswick 35 minutes LATE today after sitting inside the BLF all night

684 never left Brunswick after sitting in the BLF all night. (it was cancelled, and so is 685 out of Boston)

Meanwhile:

680 left Portland ON TIME today after sitting outside all night

(this sort of information is available on national real time web sites for railroad professionals)

So there you have it, you doubting Thomases and Thomasinas.  Conclusive proof that those who make their living spending other peoples’ money can always be trusted, no matter how dubious their claims may seem.

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Come to think of it, this turn of events sort of reminds us of the promises that were made of ‘exponential economic benefit’ for Brunswick once the Downeaster started coming to town.

We just have to be patient, we suppose.  You can trust us on this; we’re not like all the others.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

TrainRIders NorthEast goes “Pro.”

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TrainRiders Northeast (TRNE), the 501(c)3 ‘non-profit’ organization without whom the Downeaster would not exist (they humbly assert), has been around a long time.  We’ve mentioned them, and their leader, Wayne Davis, scads of times over the years our journal has been published.

Further, we’ve called them a wholly owned subsidiary of NNEPRA, and lobbyists for them to boot.  We’ve used that latter term in testimony before legislative committees, and had their attorney turn to look at us from the podium and specifically deny it, as he testified against specific legislation, which pretty much defines lobbying.

Best we knew in past years, the organization was mostly volunteer, raising very little funding, and paying only a modest sum to Davis for his leadership.  In the absence of substantial compensation, Davis has been treated as a Saint of passenger rail by NNEPRA, various legislators and other officials, and an adoring and obsequious public.

Now comes word that the organization is ‘going pro,’ having hired their first “Executive Director.”  Here’s the related press release.

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A note or two on this roll-out.  First, the reference above to O’Keefe’s start in the transportation policy field as a ‘freelance writer for railroad.net’ seems a bit underwhelming.  When we surfed on over to that web-page, we found the newest content was dated  2013.  So one could surmise that the operation is, for all intents and purposes, defunct.  No matter; he’s since been “helping NNEPRA build partnerships.”  We’re limited in our knowledge of the details, but until we hear otherwise, we’re assuming this means distributing free tickets to the ‘variety of community groups,’ about which we’ve posted in past years.

While we don’t know what this will mean for TRNE’s non-profit status, it seems pretty clear they can no longer tout themselves as a volunteer organization, and that serious fund raising will have to become a larger part of their work.  Perhaps they can gain some funding from those they support, like NNEPRA and Amtrak.  And maybe even shake some loose from an obscure line item or two in State accounts.  Lord knows there are all sorts of non-profits sucking off various public teats, and we expect the young new ED to prioritize making sure his paychecks get issued.

We did take the trouble to seek out TRNE’s form 990s, which they’re required to file with the IRS in order to maintain their 501(c)3 non-profit status.  The latest one we found was for 2014, which makes us wonder if they’re bordering on being delinquent for their 2015 return, which should have been submitted early in 2016.  As you’ll see, their submission is not paritcularly complicated, so we don’t see complexity and oodles of supporting data as rationale for any extension.

Anyway, you can find the 2014 form here: https://www.scribd.com/document/338056016/TRNE-2014-990

Here are the highligths, such as they are:

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The big numbers, we must say, catch us by surprise.  $165,000 in contributions, grants, and gifts is no small number for these circumstances, and $142,000 in assets at the end of the year leaves them pretty flush as well, which may be what led to the plan to hire an ED.  That’s growth in assets of $125,000 during the year.

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Wouldn’t you just know it; they finally admit to engaging in lobbying activities.

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Then, just when you thought there was nothing else to see here, up pops an “unusual grant 2014, $125,000.”  That seems like a real curiosity to us, but try as we might, we couldn’t find any details on who the grant was from, nor any requirement that they provide that info.  All they had to do is declare it ‘unusual,’ which it is, we think you’d agree.

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Once again, admission of lobbying, even though the amounts are small and rounded.  Still, they admit to doing so.

And as we all know, there’s lobbying, and then there’s lobbying.  We know for a fact that TRNE has told the Governor’s Office that it’s their role to nominate candidates for the NNEPRA Board of Directors, not the Governor’s, regardless of what statute says.

We don’t recall that the yiddish word chutzpah actually includes ‘lobbying’ it it’s definition, but maybe it should?  Shouldn’t it?

  

Now all we want to know is when the lovely ladies of AAB will decide they’ll need a handsome young Executive Director to guide their advocacy efforts, and help them find some ‘unusual grants.’  Or perhaps someone with career experience as an Ambassador would fit the bill, especially one who rides the train multiple times a week.