Saturday, January 30, 2010

Is Brunswick heading for a fiscal "train wreck?”

What with Maine Street Station taking up so much of the local “oxygen,” and the recent news about funding to bring Amtrak north, I sure as hell hope I’m wrong about the possibility.

But on the way to breakfast this morning, we heard Frank Sinatra singing “A Pocketful of Miracles,” and like just about everything does, it got me to thinking.

Brunswick’s history in maintaining capital assets and managing capital improvements isn’t exactly cloaked with glory.
  • The tearing down of the old Town Hall building on Maine Street still pains many long time residents, especially when viewed in the light of the “undistinguished” replacement on Federal Street.
  • The care of the old High School on McKeen Street could be seen as a travesty, although some say there was a method to the madness.
  • Not very long ago, a $6 million central fire station project was proposed that grew to a total of $13 million in a matter of months, before voters rejected the plan by a landslide.
  • The Cooks Corner Substation began as a $1.6 million undertaking and finished at $2.6 million, a growth of more than 60%.
  • The old Times Record building was purchased for around $1.5 million, only to discover AFTER it was bought that it needed $5 million plus in repairs and renovation to be useful.  As if that couldn’t have been determined BEFORE buying it.
  • Recent thoughts about using that same building as a new Police Station drew a renovation estimate of $3.6 million, considered too much to pursue.

I followed up on that estimate, only to learn that it was derived by multiplying the square footage of the building by the going dollar average per square foot for renovations.  Best I can tell, no specifications or other requirements were drafted.  No scope of work was provided by a valid estimator.  No ‘scrubbing’ of the baseline requirements or the costing of same was conducted, because neither was ever created or provided.

It’s as if you drove your car into a local repair shop and asked for an estimate to fix it, and the service rep says to you “how much does your car weigh?”  And you say “4700 pounds,” and he says “well, it’ll cost $3760, because the going rate is 80 cents a pound.”  Would you consider that a valid estimate?  Would you make a decision to repair your car or not on that basis?

I sure as hell wouldn’t, but that’s apparently the level of rigor our paid town staff, with the approval of town council, put into estimating what it would take the already substantially renovated Times Record building into a police station.  Seems like a couple of phone calls was all they put into it.

The Maine Street Station project looks to be adding to the luster of our reputation in such undertakings.  While I haven’t followed it closely, I believe we’ve already put twice as much into the project as we originally thought we’d have to.  Part of that was because of a $400,000 “math error” by one of “the engineers,” and instead of the contractor eating the problem, we covered it.

And we’re putting $700,000 plus into the renovation of the Union Street offices to provide new digs for 55 Plus, or whatever it’s called these days.  You might as well chalk that up to Maine Street Station, because it drove the group out of their former location.  And not a nickel in revenues will accrue from the makeover.

Recent news reports on the TIF discussions surrounding Maine Street Station reveal what comes across as 1) going back to the town well for more financial concessions, and 2) a general uneasiness in town councilor public statements that portends bigger problems lying just below public view.  “Contributions” higher than expected and revenues lower than originally projected are a pretty ugly combination.

Like I said at the start, I sure as hell hope I’m wrong on this, and if a knowledgeable official wants to respond here, they will be given all the column inches they need.  I hope I’m wrong, but over the years, I’ve learned that the gut and the nose often uncover the truth before the rational mind does.

Throw into the mix plans to move forward on a new police station, a new central fire station, a request to “invest” the towns reputation in BNAS improvements, an icy economic climate, a state revenue shortfall, a school funding crisis sure to lead to a substantial tax increase, and who knows what else, and it’s not too hard to imagine a fiscal train wreck right here in town.

And it won’t even take a train coming to town to cause it.

But fie on me; always a sourpuss when it comes to looking at things.  I keep forgetting that whatever comes our way, there’s always a fix, even if it does involve miraculous increases in tax revenues.

So I think I’ll put on a pink tux and top hat and lead the town chorus in a rousing rendition of “Pocketful of Miracles.” And here it is live, just for you, loyal readers.  Make sure you have your sound up! 

Bet you didn’t know I could still do the old soft shoe. Hey, I’ve learned from the best.


  1. Poppycock,

    What a coincidence that you brought up this topic of conversation.

    I had only just this morning finished looking at the occupancy rates of the local inns, hostelries and motor hotels, and the numbers are grim.

    This leads me to suspect that, of course, what will happen next is that the Town will build yet another inn right next to the train station.

    Now this will be done in a very clever way so as disguise the fact that the Brunswick taxpayers will be footing the bill.

    And the beauty of this is that the Town's very own inn will be in direct competition with all of the other struggling inns which, by the way, pay property taxes to the Town.

    The crowning achievement may prove to be the provision for paid valet parking which will serve to identify the inn as one of distinction.


  2. For further comment on this and the MRRA see my Public Comment at the Town Council meeting tomorrow