Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On Brunswick Capital Improvement Plans

Hey; it's only money!

We’re in a record setting, prolonged, dreary, depressing, and chilling period, and the forecasts don’t show much hope of improvement. And then there’s the really lousy weather we’re having that makes things even worse. Reminds me of the old standby Put On A Crappy Face, which begins like this: “Clear skies are gonna cloud up, put on a crappy face. Brush off that grin and tear up, put on a crappy face.”

Well don’t you worry. Our Town Council has begun to “spread sunshine all over the place” in the form of the latest five year Capital Improvement Program. That is sunshine I see, isn’t it? These days, you gotta take your sunshine wherever you can find it. Which means we’re all more likely to be dazzled by any light on the horizon, even if it’s only sparks generated by the town rubbing its last two nickels together.

Let’s examine some of their “capital” ideas. The most immediate one is for our next fiscal year, which kicks off in July 2010. The plan is to spend $6.65 million on a new Police Station. I don’t know anyone who believes the police don’t need more space, so let’s stipulate we won’t suggest they make do with what they have.

Are you wondering what $6.65 million, the estimate in the plan, will buy? Well our most recent experience in new construction, the East Brunswick Fire Substation, cost us $2.6 million not too long ago. So we might expect that allowing for inflation (balanced by hungrier contractors), the Police Station they envision would be twice the magnificent new facility on Bath Road. Wow…that would be quite a Police Station, wouldn’t it? There’s nothing like a little healthy competition between the public safety departments.

What’s the likelihood the project will come in at that number? About the same as the likelihood that your humble correspondent will wake up with a fully restored head of hair tomorrow morning. The new school about to get under way for $28 million plus began in the Capital Plan at less than half that amount. The downtown public safety building that voters defeated in 2003 went from $6 million to nearly double that amount in a matter of months, before ever reaching the execution stage. And the new Fire Substation was in the plan at $1.6 million but quickly expanded to $2.6 million. Town costs associated with Maine Street Station haven’t exactly cloaked the Town Hall in glory either.

In other words, there isn’t much reason to believe that $6.65 million is anything more than a starting point for discussion. The unbridled joy of spending other people’s money, compelled from them by law, is simply too intoxicating, especially when “community pride” in the form of lasting monuments with brass plaques inscribed with your name are involved.

There’s nothing to indicate that the current town council and administration is in any way better equipped to rigorously hold to a plan and live within a budget than in the past. Why should they? Nobody else does, and the town can run up a “credit card” just as fast as you can, if not faster.

Based on recent history, it’s a good bet the actual number will end up at $10 million or more. And we simply must have a brand spanking new facility, widely visible to all comers, so that everyone realizes what a perfect place Brunswick is, and knows that we certainly aren’t going to be outshined by that little backwater bump in the road just across the green bridge.

Some years ago, a well known resident recited this old Yankee wisdom at a council meeting: “Use it up, wear it out; make it do, or do without.” I’d never heard it before, and it has stuck with me since. We have a much beloved school about to be closed (Longfellow); an in town facility purchased a few years ago that we refurbed at significant expense (the former Times Record building); and a major vacant facility with a full basement right in the center of town (the former Grand City).

Then there’s facilities the town will acquire as the base closes. Resourcefulness and fiscal prudence would suggest that looking at some combination of the existing Town Hall and these other facilities would provide more than enough room for the Police, and more than enough room for the rest of Town Staff.

Such a course is not politically feasible or appealing, however. While the Town Hall, if occupied only by the police, would at least double their space, it would leave Town Staff looking for a worthy and totally modern facility offering at least twice the room they currently have (trust consultants to make it absolutely a minimum requirement.) And if the Police moved elsewhere, Town Staff should not be condemned to utilizing the unseemly space now occupied by the Police.

We should, therefore, prepare ourselves for a perfect blend of consultants with the catalyst of taxpayer funds. Expect the final cost of proposed facilities to be up to twice what’s now in the plan, just to be safe. And further expect that the eventual plan will maximize the number of new facilities needed, while maximizing the destruction or laying to waste of existing facilities. It’s just the nature of government, and history proves it. Especially in Brunswick. Give me a B, give me an O, give me an H, give me an I, give me a C, give me an A.

I haven’t even touched on the out year items like a new Central Fire Station ($6.5 million, they say) and $7.5 million for work on the few schools we aren’t tossing in the ash heap.

But I do want to address the $1 million for “Land for Brunswick’s Future” in the coming fiscal year. Truth be told, this should be called “Gobbling Up Private Lands With Taxpayer Money To Be Sure They Offer No Economic Benefit To The Town,” because that’s what the intent is. The town will lose whatever tax revenue is derived from the private property purchased, and the land will never be put to productive use in any form.

Will someone explain what the words “for Brunswick’s Future” really mean, and while they’re at it, “for Maine’s Future?” This is language abuse at the hands of disingenuous bureaucracies. Future, in this case, means never. They’re not saving it to be used 10, 30, or even 50 years in the “future.” They’re making sure the land has no future use; that it stays unused forever. That might be a noble purpose, but it has nothing to do with saving it for a rainy day or any other benefit to a future for Brunswick.

I’d be much happier to see our town leaders dedicate themselves to “An Economic Plan for Brunswick’s Future” or “Sustainable Prosperity for Brunswick’s Future” or a “Plan to See That Brunswick Has A Future.” There’s no visible pressure on available land in this area; one might even argue that the opposite is true (remember tearing down McKeen St. Navy housing as an idea?) But there is immense pressure on area demographics and economic outlook. Shouldn’t that be a higher priority than stockpiling land currently on the tax rolls?

One last point, unless I think of something else. Estimates are that the approved Capital Improvement Program would, by itself, raise property taxes by more than 10% over the coming 3 years. That number is subject to all other things being equal, which is about as likely as the capital projects coming in at the numbers just approved. Instead, there are multiple factors that will drive those tax increase numbers upwards.

1) The growth in costs as plans advance.

2) “Normal” escalation in operating costs.

3) A significant property tax demand increase from the School Department, as projected in recent statements.

4) An iceberg of new operating expenses associated with maintenance and operation of Naval Air Station property, with little or no offsetting revenue.

5) Federal and state budget issues of such magnitude that they will inevitably push costs down to the local taxpayer. Figure state aid to education and revenue sharing to decline substantially as primary examples.

No one in an official capacity would dare to address these factors, or even worse, to lay out plans that account for them. You want my guess? I’d say a 50% property tax increase is in the cards for the next 5 years. I’d be willing to lay a dinner on that, if there’s still any dining establishments operating by then. And I don’t do McDonalds.

If Town officials think I’m wrong, all they have to do is publicly respond with an explanation and their own estimates. But before they do, they should look at an estimate done a year or so ago by the Finance Director. It had a number in that range, and conditions are clearly worse than envisioned in that estimate.

The normal mode of government is to blithely ignore such realities until such time as they slap them upside the head with a 4x4, and then claim “unexpected” budget pressures and “factors beyond our control” to dodge the bullet and build reluctant empathy on the part of taxpayers.

And when it happens, you can say you read about it first here. Not that it will make one damn bit of difference.

Anticipating how many readers will react to the foregoing, this quotation may well apply:

“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”

- George Bernard Shaw


  1. Very perceptive, and as a former Selectman, and Council member I'm aware of the siren song thats everywhere when you achieve that lofty peak called "The Council", or the "School Board". One particular episode stands out when a School Board member stated that the new money they wanted to spend would amount to a 'CUP OF COFFEE" each day that you would have to do without, and there were smiles in the audience and heads nodding in affirmation of that intellectual statement. Your statements bring out the old saying about , the more things change the more they stay the same. Nuff said.

  2. Well, in the final analysis, public buildings are about making a very visible "statement," aren't they?

    Most often, unfortunately, the statement they make is "hey, it's only money, and it's not ours!"

  3. For those wondering what "B-O-H-I-C-A" means, it stands for "Brunswick; One's Happiness Is Completely Assured."

    And you can trust me; I'm not like all the others.