Friday, March 30, 2012

Random mumblings on fairness, school funding, and anything else we feel like yapping about

One of the most endearing qualities of our beloved, perfect town of Brunswick, where all the women are good-looking, all the men are hard working, all the children are above average, all the schools are excellent, and all town facilities are embarrassments (or  soon will be) is a near-religious devotion to fairness.  Its close cousins equity, fair share, social justice, and economic justice are always right near by.

In our years of observing events here in town, we can think of no finer example of fairness than the pay-per-bag trash movement of several years ago.  Ever since, fairness has been on display five days a week on curbs here and curbs there.  And on our editorial minds.

The theory advanced by the trash-warriors to bring us to this plateau of enlightenment was that “it isn’t fair” for you, who perhaps sets out a coffee can full of trash per week, to pay the same for collection services as the reprobate down the street who sets out four 32 gallon trash cans every week. 

As a remedy, they declared, “it’s only fair” that you pay for the collection services you consume, and the easiest way to do that is making you pay per bag of trash.  Even more, it isn’t right for your fair share of the landfill to be gobbled up by yon reprobate before you’ve had a chance to make use of it.  Pay per bag wins again, by generating funds for land fill sustainability, while reducing the demand for space overall.

Yea, verily, the fairness choir intoned, and duly inspired, we haven’t looked at things the same since.

Sadly, just a few years ago we suggested that the same principle of fairness be applied to library services by instituting ‘pay per book.’  Inexplicably, paying for services you consume took on the nature of heresy.  It made for interesting public commentary, and elicited much vacuous doublespeak. We concluded the enlightened had much to learn before achieving black belt status in the fairness arena.

Given the current state of civic affairs, with broad public discussion of how to best make use of town assets, both fiscal and otherwise, we figure it’s time to revisit fairness, and to see if those to whom much has been revealed have risen to the next rank.

The signs have been promising, if mixed, given suggestions of foregoing a new town hall, and in the minds of some, even a new police facility, in order to be fair to the children (the teachers, actually, as we’ll explain sometime soon.)

In that spirit, we offer, for your consideration, suggestions as to how our crises might be resolved.  You do realize, as any self-respecting citizen would, that our problems are revenue based.  Spending has nothing to do with it, in keeping with cultural norms for fiscal discipline, from family levels to federal levels.  So all but a few of our thoughts will be revenue based.

- Sussman-Pingree:  The all-purpose revenue bailout mechanism for progressive interests in Maine. This is about the teachers union, which puts it right in S. Donnie’s wheel-house.  Calling Senator Stan, the minority man; we’re looking for a quick $3 million infusion, good buddy.  Get back to us as quick as you can.

- Brunswick Community United:  “Imagine our schools, imagine our future.”  This site should be renamed Brunswick Residents for Higher Spending and Higher Taxes, because that’s what it’s really about.

Remember WYSIWYG (wizziwig) in the early PC era?  Now it’s time for the PYMWYMI (pimwimi) era.

Some folks are so caring that they’ll give a needy person the shirt off your back to prove their compassion.  Others will gladly put your money where their mouth is.  Go here to find those who will.

We think it’s time for them to join the PYMWYMI movement.  They can do this by publicly declaring, when they sign the petition, how much more they’re willing to pay in property taxes.  Or, “put your money where your mouth is.”  Their commitment and their web site will be ever so much more credible when they do.  We can’t wait to see the totals.

- Pay per bus ride:  Consistent with the pay per bag principle, we believe those students who ride our school buses should pay for the privilege.  How about $1 each way?  That should generate roughly $500,000 a year, with consummate fairness.

- Pay per book: You already know the idea, and we hope the bookies are more enlightened than they were a few years ago.  We suggest they forego $400,000 of their annual stipend from the town, and make it up in user fees.  It’s only fair.  Unless fairness is unfair in their eyes.

- Public way maintenance:  We suggest the Public Works Department switch to sand only treatment for icy/snowy roads instead of the usual salt/sand mix.  They’ll spend less, and we’ll save thousands in vehicle repairs caused by rust eating away at our vehicle underbodies, brake systems, and suspensions.

Further, we should have a ‘pay per plow’ fee.  When it snows, property owners get assessed for a plowing event.  Mild winter, low fees; bad winter, high fees.  It’s only fair.

And here’s an ‘out of the box’ idea: how about mounting snow-plows to our school buses?  That would allow them to do double duty, plowing the streets as they go out in the morning for their runs.  This is innovation of the finest sort!

In the same vein, there must be a way to assess a ‘pay per pothole’ fee.  It’s only fair that we who avoid them the most pay for the privilege.

- Pay per Kid:  If you support the fairness inherent in pay per bag trash collection, you can’t possibly fail to support pay per kid school funding.  Why should a person with no students in the school system pay the same for education services as the household with one, two, three or more students in the system?  It just isn’t fair, is it?  If you argue otherwise, you argue against pay per bag.

- Pay per sport:  Once again, if you are a fair play advocate, you are stuck.  This is not an issue of math, writing, or reading.  Not only should you pay for your kids being in school, you should pay for them participating in costly sports activities involving equipment, transportation, and other specific expenses.  Thinking otherwise is a quaint notion whose time is long past.  Your neighbor is no more obligated to pay for your child’s football expenses than you are to pay for his Friday night pizza outing with his family.

- Pay per benefit:  Public sector employees, and most specifically teachers, have been receiving cadillac benefits for something like a nickel on the dollar.  This level of subsidy is unheard of, especially on a guaranteed, contractual basis, in other economic sectors.  If it’s really ‘for the children,’ school boards would be aggressively moving towards contracts that place more of the cost burden on employees, not taxpayers.

- Pay per parking spot:  How can it be fair for the rest of us to pay for the creation and maintenance of free daily parking spots for high school students, downtown shoppers, and in-town employees?  Pay per bag equity principles demand that  parking meters be installed, and that high school students pay $3-5 dollars a day to park their cars on school property.  If that results in fewer cars being used, shazamm!  Less carbon footprint, less addiction to the global masters of fossil fuel supply.  No self-respecting sustainability advocate could possibly object.

- Competitive bids for Insurance:  As we reported some months back, our School Department spends upwards of $4 million a year on various forms of insurance for employee benefit coverage.  We can find no indication that these purchases are made on a competitive basis; in fact, just the  opposite appears to be true.  Nearly every dollar is spent to purchase coverage through the State teachers union and the Maine Municipal Association, each of which extracts considerable fees to fund their advocacy efforts.  Or, more specifically, to fund political causes they favor.

Our estimate is that regular competitive practices could save from $300,000 to $500,000 a year, or even more.  So what’s the problem?  You figure it out; you can use the mental exercise.

- PPBAPPBAB:  Pay per bong and pay per beer at Bowdoin.  The local college’s long standing commitment to ‘service learning,’ not to mention their privileged status in the property tax domain, makes this a no-brainer for pumping up town revenue.  We pledge to recommend it all be dedicated to the schools, in honor of its source.  At $1 per hit, we could be looking at $500,000 or more per year.

- Teacher step increases:  Under the current contract, just about every teacher gets a $1547 annual ‘step increase’ simply for sticking around for another year.  The annual general increase of 3% or so is on top of this.  With 200 plus teachers, this step increase amounts to more than $300,000 annually, and is not related to merit or performance. If we are in extremis, shouldn’t the school board be working hard to recapture those funds to offset our ‘revenue shortfall?’  For the children?  Or don’t they matter the most?

- Budget surplus:  We’ve discovered recently that the school department doesn’t make a practice of reporting actual expenditures compared to budgeted amounts as the town does on a monthly basis.  In recent years, annual expenditures have run roughly $3 million below budget allocations.  That’s roughly the exact amount cited as the revenue gap for the coming year.  Sounds to us like real spending has been running well enough below the show-budget to make the gap for the coming year disappear with a simple stroke of the pen.

So there you have it.  Proposals based on the universally accepted and morally superior concept of fairness, which means they are above reproach.  Unless you believe pay per bag is a flawed and immoral policy.

While a detailed accounting is required, we’re confident consultants can be found to prove the creative suggestions just disclosed will more than offset perceived revenue challenges for the years ahead.

And if you can’t trust consultants, who can you trust?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Trifecta Part Deux

Lagging (gnawing?) thoughts, because there’s no such thing as a horse that’s too dead to beat:


“What belongs to you, you tend to take care of; what belongs to no one or everyone tends to fall into disrepair.”

(see Footnote 1)

“Sound policy requires that we consider long-run effects and all people, not simply short-run effects and a few people.”

(see Footnote 2)

Another point or two from the special meeting Tuesday night.  A number of people, both elected and otherwise, mentioned the pressing capital needs of the School Department, in addition to ‘municipal needs.’  Which clearly sets up an interesting dilemma for all involved.

It was said that Jordan Acres (currently closed), Hawthorne, Coffin, and BJS are all in need of major work, and that the latter is over-crowded, we think.  We swear we sensed a slight whiff of ‘time to build more new schools’ in the air, but we are known for our overactive olfactory imagination.   On the other hand, our perfect little town seems to be suffering a Brass Plaque Syndrome (BPS) epidemic.  What’s that old proverb about pride?

We believe it was also stated that the high school is ‘at capacity.’  It must be from the thousands of people that have flooded into town to replace the military population.  Nobody would try to mislead us, would they?

Which leads to another question regarding the School Board:

  • Can you recall the School Board ever holding a public meeting to demonstrate proactive stewardship and oversight of School Department facilities?  Including making sure that snow is removed from flat roofs on a timely basis?  Note: wringing of hands over the latest proposal from the administration does not qualify as proactive stewardship or oversight.

Sounds like a food fight of sorts could be brewing.  “The children,” or the police?  “The children,” or town staff? 

Unless you believe in the train fairy.

You know who that is, don’t you?  It’s the secret friend that will bring carloads of money to town on that Amtrak train.  The same secret friend that’s paying to make it happen, and will pay to keep the train running since it can’t pay it’s own way.

Don’t worry, be happy.

One last item for your edification.  If you don’t think this year’s budget theatrics will set new records in dramatic staging and screen-plays, you might trip on over to this site, which, if you weren’t paying attention, you might think belongs to the School Department.  It even has nice looking school bus graphics. 

Well, it doesn’t belong to the officials in the School Department, though you can’t tell who is running it.  We have it from an authoritative source, however, that it’s operated by a member of the Bowdoin Faculty, which gives it a nice ‘grass-roots’ character.

They’ve kindly posted one of the School Department’s recent briefings on K-8 budget considerations, which you can find here.

You don’t have to be a PowerPoint Warrior to fully appreciate the contents and what they reveal.  We could go on for hours about this, but you really don’t want us to do that.

We did send them that budget data we laboriously compiled a few weeks ago, but apparently the webmaster hasn’t found the time to post it for ‘the parents.’  You know how it is when you’ve got four class periods a week to teach, and have to have 4 hours of office time as well.  It can really cramp your blogging time.

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1)  This essentially illuminates the magic of private property. It explains so much about the failure of socialized economies the world over.

In the old Soviet empire, governments proclaimed the superiority of central planning and state ownership. They wanted to abolish or at least minimize private property because they thought that private ownership was selfish and counterproductive. With the government in charge, they argued, resources would be utilized for the benefit of everybody.

What was once the farmer’s food became "the people’s food," and the people went hungry. What was once the entrepreneur’s factory became "the people’s factory," and the people made do with goods so shoddy there was no market for them beyond the borders.

We now know that the old Soviet empire produced one economic basket case after another, and one ecological nightmare after another. That’s the lesson of every experiment with socialism: While socialists are fond of explaining that you have to break some eggs to make an omelette, they never make any omelettes. They only break eggs.

If you think you’re so good at taking care of property, go live in someone else’s house, or drive their car, for a month. I guarantee you neither their house nor their car will look the same as yours after the same period of time.

If you want to take the scarce resources of society and trash them, all you have to do is take them away from the people who created or earned them and hand them over to some central authority to manage. In one fell swoop, you can ruin everything. Sadly, governments at all levels are promulgating laws all the time that have the effect of eroding private property rights and socializing property through "salami" tactics — one slice at a time.

2)  It may be true, as British economist John Maynard Keynes once declared, that "in the long run, we’re all dead." But that shouldn’t be a license to enact policies that make a few people feel good now at the cost of hurting many people tomorrow.

I can think of many such policies. When Lyndon Johnson cranked up the Great Society in the 1960s, the thought was that some people would benefit from a welfare check. We now know that over the long haul, the federal entitlement to welfare encouraged idleness, broke up families, produced intergenerational dependency and hopelessness, cost taxpayers a fortune and yielded harmful cultural pathologies that may take generations to undo. Likewise, policies of deficit spending and government growth — while enriching a few at the start — have eaten at the vitals of the nation’s economy and moral fiber for decades.

This principle is actually a call to be thorough in our thinking. It says that we shouldn’t be superficial in our judgments. If a thief goes from bank to bank, stealing all the cash he can get his hands on, and then spends it all at the local shopping mall, you wouldn’t be thorough in your thinking if all you did was survey the store owners to conclude that this guy stimulated the economy.

We should remember that today is the tomorrow that yesterday’s poor policymakers told us we could ignore. If we want to be responsible adults, we can’t behave like infants whose concern is overwhelmingly focused on self and on the here-and-now.

A Trifecta: Crystal Ball, Déjà vu, and GBL all in one swell foop

Yesterday, your loyal correspondent watched the video of Tuesday night’s special town council meeting, called to discuss selling the McLellan building back to Bowdoin College.  The proposal would raise about $2 million in instant one time cash for the School Department, which is aggressively seeking a bailout to cope with fiscal ‘surprises.’

You can watch the 40 minute video here.  We did not attend the meeting in person because of illness.  It seems you did the same.

Before giving you our report, you might reread these posts to set the stage:

  1. Why be petty at times like this? and
  2. So what’s the betting line in Perfect, LT Ben?

After you do, let us remind you of this principle, which we have posted many times in the past, and if tradition holds, will find ample reason to post many times in the future:

“Nobody spends somebody else's money as carefully as he spends his own.”

(Posted below is a footnote that expands on this point. Special thanks to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.)

Let’s get to our report;  here are what we consider the meeting takeaways:

1) The blitzkrieg troops amounted to a platoon or so of armored school supporters. Armored means fully shielded from any challenge or opposition by the purity of their intentions and sincerity. 

Air cover will be provided by The Ostrich and various new media outlets set up to ensure the schoolies can conduct their movements with zero losses.

2) The chase: the council voted 6-3 not to accept the Bowdoin College offer to take the McLellan building off the town’s hands for a figure reputed to be $2 million.  But only after discussion so sincere and passionate as to moisten one’s eyes.

3) A modest amount of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over the increased estimates for the new Police Station was in evidence.

4) The old Times Record building was mentioned, reminding us of the town’s distinguished record in planning, acquiring, and utilizing various facilities.  You could say this acquisition demonstrated the town’s expertise at due negligence, the polar opposite of due diligence. 

The town bought the facility for what seemed to be a very attractive price (less than $1.5 million), only to be shocked, shocked that it would take something like $5 million or more to turn it into a useful property.  Apparently there was no way of knowing this before closing the deal.  (It’s because of the Pelosi principle; you have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it;  perhaps the most egregious and bizarre example of government ineptitude ever heard.)

5) Which brings us to the McLellan building.  Acquired in a swap with Bowdoin College for the Longfellow School, it was portrayed as a deal too good to be true, always a good sign.  If we heard the discussion  correctly, the initial position was that the building was ready to be occupied by the town with no further investment required. 

That very quickly became $100 thousand in work to adapt it, which was then increased to $200 thousand by the Town Manager, ‘just to be safe.’  In a matter of months, based on conversations with two possible contractors, this number has been raised to $800 thousand, though no plans have been drawn or approved.  You’ve heard of slippery slopes; this is what you call a ramp.  (Now would be a good time to ask yourself if you can ever remember such an estimate being too high.)

Mention was made at the meeting of renovations vs. ‘complete gut and rebuild,’ indicating that discussion already encompasses the worst case.  We recall frequent official reminders that renovating and/or ‘repurposing’ an existing building usually costs more than tearing it down and building a new one.  Looks like you have to acquire a building to find out what it needs inside.

So it may well be that in the fullness of time, our prediction that
$2-3 million in modifications will be needed to ‘bring the building into compliance with town needs’ will turn out to be true, if not low.  The estimates are increasing by more than $100,000 per month, and municipal offices are not supposed to take occupancy until 2014.  You can do the math.

6) Finally, and most important, virtually every member of the Town Council emphatically, and for the public record, pandered to the schoolies and their angst over the purported school budget crisis.  We called this ‘GBL’ in the title, standing for gratuitous boot licking.  They committed to dealing with the artfully fabricated school budget crisis as their number one priority.

Not one mention of ‘spending’ was made as all present swore their support for school financing. Only revenue problems and the ‘bump in the road’ of base closure were mentioned. Ignoring irrational increases in per student spending and sizable operating surpluses amounts to deliberate negligence.

Fine; let’s examine the town council’s powers in such matters.  They have no authority to meddle in the details of the school budget.  The only option they have is to accept or reject the school budget bottom line that goes before the voters in June.  In the past, they have demonstrated their authority by asking that a $30 million budget be reduced by token amounts, usually well less than $100,000.

The only other relevant authority they have is to set the property tax rate for the coming year.  So we ask you – when they swear their commitment to come to the rescue of the School Department, what do you think they mean?

Unless you know something we don’t, it can only mean one thing.  If you can’t figure out what it is, you need to speak to LT Dan.

If we were ‘King for a Day,’ here’s one way we would handle the so-called crisis.  We’d direct the town councilors to take out their checkbooks, in public, and write a check to the School Department to demonstrate their leadership when they speak as they did on Tuesday; minimum amount $1,000. 

Then they’d put up a collection jar for the adoring public to make their donations.  They would set a new rule: speaking in favor of spending increases and higher taxes is $250 per minute, or $1,000 for five minutes.  It’s the ‘put your money where your mouth is’ approach to school financing.  A nice added touch would be having an adorable child staffing a ‘save our schools’ kettle, and ringing a bell at appropriate moments.  Out in the hallway, others could be selling Kool-Aid packets.

From time to time we’ve mentioned the choice faced by elected officials: you can govern, or you can spend.

Tuesday night, the town council made it clear what side of that choice they come down on.  To a person, they in effect said on the public record to the school establishment: ‘just tell us how much you need, and we’ll make it happen; you have our word.’  Face it; they have no other way of manifesting their devotion.

The bottom line takeaway: the Council will bow down to the School Department and raise taxes to what ever level they require to stop the sobbing.

Which means doing the best they can to make our ‘betting line’ come to pass, if not worse.  You can take that from the bank.

Put that in your crystal ball and smoke it.


1.  Expansion on spending somebody else’s money:

Ever wonder about those stories of $600 hammers and $800 toilet seats that the government sometimes buys? You could walk the length and breadth of this land and not find a soul who would say he’d gladly spend his own money that way. And yet this waste often occurs in government and occasionally in other walks of life, too. Why? Because invariably, the spender is spending somebody else’s money.

Economist Milton Friedman elaborated on this some time ago when he pointed out that there are only four ways to spend money. When you spend your own money on yourself, you make occasional mistakes, but they’re few and far between. The connection between the one who is earning the money, the one who is spending it and the one who is reaping the final benefit is pretty strong, direct and immediate.

When you use your money to buy someone else a gift, you have some incentive to get your money’s worth, but you might not end up getting something the intended recipient really needs or values.

When you use somebody else’s money to buy something for yourself, such as lunch on an expense account, you have some incentive to get the right thing but little reason to economize.

Finally, when you spend other people’s money to buy something for someone else, the connection between the earner, the spender and the recipient is the most remote — and the potential for mischief and waste is the greatest. Think about it — somebody spending somebody else’s money on yet somebody else. That’s what government does all the time.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Attention on deck! Sound the Blitzkrieg warning!

We had two memorable experiences this recent Friday morning.

First, Side put himself in the hands of his urologist for a cystoscopy at PAMC.  (We know, TMI; but it’s necessary to make a persuasive point.)

Second, immediately after, we stopped at Frosty’s, and over a still warm Chubby Checker (twist) and coffee, read this item:

Here’s your challenge: guess which was more unpleasant.

If you picked the urological procedure, Bzzzzzzzz! The studio audience says WRONG!  But they want you to have a free second guess.

Ding-Ding-Ding!  Correct-a-mundo!  “Brunswick’s tradition of valuing education” is the winner.

So let’s begin, even though we don’t know where to begin.  Not that it’s stopped us from rambling on before.

From time to time we hear economics referred to as ‘the dismal science,’ though the origins of that interpretation are a tad confusing.  We submit, however, that this commentary argues eloquently for the dismal label.

Now, consider the opening statement.

In light of the recently announced $1.2 million reduction in state aid for Brunswick’s schools, how much are we willing to pay for high-quality public schools?

It embodies, ever so perfectly, two of the sacred mantras of big public education:

  • it’s never, ever about spending; it’s always about revenue;
  • paying more is a necessary and sufficient condition for ‘quality education.’

Add to that this later statement, whose premise is unsubstantiated in the typical fashion of the spend more, spend more contingent:

As the state withdraws its support, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to send a clear message renewing our commitment to providing among the best schools in the state.

Other comments in the column echo what has become standard fare from the “don’t worry, be happy” governing class in Brunswick.  ‘Strong business growth’ at the former Naval Air Station, though any such growth, if it exists, comes via taxpayer wallets. 

‘Attracting new residents’ and ‘more economic activity;’ this from authors who cite a variety of census data and other sources.  Would you like a refill on your cup of guilt, sir?

Somehow our authors missed the memo showing Maine is in a demographic winter, and shipping its young human capital out of state.  They must have been out to lunch when it arrived.

While we’d like to explore how they know that Brunswick schools are excellent, other than that they attended them, we won’t.  And we’ll similarly not explore why, for example, not giving teachers generous automatic annual compensation increases will make our schools non-excellent.

Cutting to the bottom line, the overarching premise of the column, cunningly unstated, is that dollars spent equates directly to quality of education.  The more you spend, the more you learn.

Now that we know dollars are the measure of quality in education, we offer our condolences to those of you with degrees or credentials from the UMaine System or our Community Colleges.  It must be nearly impossible to get by with a substandard education compared to one from Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, or FITBU.  (Fill In The Blank U.)

We’re painfully aware of what a handicap this can be. This reporter is a graduate of a state college, and has suffered lack of self-esteem for decades, not to mention no respect from the local aristocracy.  It’s probably why we’re so irascible. 

We had hoped advanced degrees from a well known private university would help, but we still drive a pick-up truck.  So in the arena of things that really matter, we’re still just a member of the bourgeoisie.

Making things worse, we handicapped our daughter by sending her off to a state university.  But we love her just the same, in spite of her shortcomings.

Oh; in keeping with our tradition, one more point.  The column we’re discussing refers to multi-generational experiences.

You want multi-generational memories?  We think we span all three covered in this opinion piece.  We remember when we had to learn in school, and if we didn’t, we were held back, and even worse, wouldn’t graduate.  And if we misbehaved, we paid the price, including answering to our parents.

Oh, we learned.  Because there were expectations, and teaching of the basics before all the other fluff and distractions instituted by modern day experts.  Somehow, these experts decided that learning the basics simply wasn’t good enough, so they invented value neutral education, open classrooms ‘pods,’ self-esteem promotions, and seat-time graduation.

Fat lot of good that’s all done.  Apparently, all it will take is spending a good deal more to reverse all this progress.  And so we have suggestions of cashing in municipal facilities.

The obvious question is what will we sell off next year when enrollment is even lower and the budget even higher?  And the year after that, and after that?

“Brunswick: a town gone mad.”  A well known town personality, now deceased, uttered that to us a few years back.  If he could only see us now.

OMFG. Can you feel the guilt weighing heavy on your shoulders and your heart?

We sure can.


blitzkrieg refers to the “tactic of rapidly advancing armored forces and massive air support.”

PS to “Just when you think…..;” The power of suggestion, or the suggestion of power?

Have you seen Father of the Bride I and II with Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Dianne Keaton?  We saw them right around the time our daughter was about to be married, so they were especially poignant for us.  Not to mention the great comedy acting.

If you have, surely you remember ‘Fronk’ the Wedding Consultant, played by Short, and the great line “may I suggoost the chipper chicken, Mister Bonks?”

Segueing into the subject of the moment, Brunswick’s Town Manager got back to us Friday night after we had posted the ‘Just when you think blah blah’ item.

He reported that he has “been told by different people that this idea has been circulating throughout the community.”  And that “Bowdoin reached out to me about it on Wednesday. Given the significant ramifications of this, it was decided by the Council to discuss this in a public forum.”

So, we gather, Chair King is not the originator of this inspired act of charity.  Or suggoostion, if you prefer.

It does seem, though, that if the right people ‘suggoost’ things, special council meetings are scheduled in a finger-snap.  Somehow, we’ve never been able to crack that chicken wing.

We’ve made suggestions to the council year after year on all sorts of things, most having to do with budgets, expenditures, and ‘business practices.’  We’ve watched lots of others make suggestions as well. Yet hard as it is to believe, not a one resulted in a special meeting to discuss them in a public forum.

Maybe it’s something about the Naïve (Evian spelled backwards) water they drink on the Bowdoin campus, or the ‘natural’ water we drink.  Maybe it has to do with the School Department realizing that poppycock coming from Bowdoin has the veil of academic freedom to give it gravitas. 

Remember Professor Klingle, that paragon of historic knowledge?

Perhaps town fathers are telling us none too subtly that Bowdoin elites have bigger chops than the town hoi-polloi.

Or that their lobotomies were more successful than ours.

Anyway, thanks Town Council, for calling a special meeting because of suggestions coming from the College and ‘others.’

We hope that some day we’ll figure out how to join the special interest club.  We’ll start by suggoosting that the town spend 50% more on schools, and that the homes of those who don’t like it be seized to pay for it.  Maybe that will demonstrate enough chops for a place at the scheduling table.

Till then, we can only look through the knothole in the outfield fence of Brunswick inside baseball and dream.

BTW, if Bowdoin would just pay their fair share in property taxes, the School Department would have more than enough revenue to remedy every possible educational injustice, and erect statues of Polar Bears in the lobby of each school. 

We hope they preserve them when they tear down our tired schools and build new ones.  It’s the least we can do for the children.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, trust us, you haven’t….

“Time for your medication, Randall.”

Remember a few years back when Brunswick School Superintendent Perzanoski proposed putting donation jars in local shops, where patrons could donate the change from their transactions to the schools?  Not quite panhandling, but just a skosh away.

Side recalled that little factoid several days ago, and thought why not upgrade the idea to putting tip jars on teacher’s desks?  Pre-seeded with folding money to set expectations, of course.

Ludicrous as that may seem, the ante has been upped in the pursuit of school dollars.  Under the heading of ‘you can’t make this up,’ reality has stepped in and slapped us up side the head.

The Brunswick Town Council will hold a special meeting on Tuesday, March 27th.  We got word of this in an email time stamped at 3:02 pm today, ensuring The Ostrich, our local guardian of freedom, would be unable to cover it in the weekend edition.  Probably just a coincidence.

The agenda reads as follows:

45. The Town Council will discuss selling the McLellan building to Bowdoin College, and will take any appropriate action. (Chair King)

Side was a bit confused by this, having forgotten that the McLellan building now belongs to the town.  How could we forget that!  You can refresh yourself on the deal here.

At any rate, we inquired of town officials as to why we would consider selling the building back to the College.

The answer my friends, is blowing in the winds of the school budget hurricane about to thunder through our sleepy little village.

Turns out ‘it has been suggested’ that we sell the building back to Bowdoin to resolve the school budget revenue catastrophe before us.  It might be a leap too far, but from the way the agenda item reads, it appears that Chair King is the suggestor.

Good idea; reports are the College is looking for space to start the ‘Bowdoin Center for the Study of Failed Governments.’

We kid you not, we kid you not, we kid you not.

If you don’t think ‘the children’ are running this town, you might want to reconsider.

In keeping with “Always look at the bright side of your life” though, Side’s detractors can take some solace in this news.  We recently posted these words:

Start with adapting the McLellan Building for Town Office use.  That can’t possibly be less than $2-3 Million, after a $250,000 or so study to figure out what to do and make the air tight case for doing so.

Boy, were we ever off the mark on this one, as compared to our inside the park home run on Police Station cost growth.  We never guessed McLellan would be sacrificed on the altar of school budget revenue. 

We’ve learned a valuable lesson, and won’t limit our imagination in the future.  Out of the box?  How about out of this world?

Before we forget, do any of you have Stephen King’s private phone number?  We’ve got a great idea for a book.  He could call it “Children of the Schools.”

While you’re looking for the number, how about checking the Kelly Blue Book to find out how much you can get for a two year old Police Interceptor with 100,000 miles on it?  And a shed full of unused road salt.

At least now we have a better idea how Jack Nicholson’s character in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ must have felt.

We fervently hope we don’t have to submit to a lobotomy to prove our devotion to civic perfection.  We’re not so sure what others may be willing to do, though.

That’s the problem with Cuckoo Nests.  You’re never quite sure who is a Cuckoo, and who might be Nurse Ratched.

Maybe you can figure it out.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

From the pooch path: reality, with a soupcon of self-examination

Most every afternoon, in the 5pm time frame, we take Sweety-Bitch and Boo-Boo out for a walk.  Since they’re both blind, this involves a challenge or two, but we’re managing well. 

The most frustrating part is that your correspondent can’t start a conversation with any neighbor we encounter, because ‘the kids’ react to any such chatter with barking; they don’t know what else to do.  So we can’t hear what anyone else is saying.

In the last week or two, the most startling aspect of our walks is how what we wear has changed, and we mean big time.  Today was T-Shirt on top, and warm-up pants below, compared to far heavier garb (and footwear) not much more than a week ago. 

We’ve even washed both of our chariots in the last week, which may be an all time record – two clean cars in the same ten day period.

These minor details aside, our walk is more often than not a time for reflection on the events of the day.

On tonight’s walk, it occurred to us to wonder just what we’ve come to when an otherwise rational individual, like this reporter, finds purpose in reporting on the foibles (and we’re being kind here)  of local government officials as they plan the spending of public resources on municipal facilities that will do us proud.  No matter how much they cost.

And then we happened upon the latest offering of the School Department’s Political Action and Media Committee.  You can find it here:

We read through the presentation, and we realized ‘what we have come to.’

Which is a community that in spite of what others may claim, has absolutely no entity that serves as a ‘government watchdog,’ no matter how many awards they receive from their peers, and no matter how much they congratulate themselves.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

So what, you might ask.

So what, indeed.

Why be petty at times like this?

Damn near three years ago, we published an item on the ‘Ancient School of Cynics.’

It contained the following:


Your humble correspondent, widely considered a cynic, has always taken solace in thoughts like this:

The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.
-George Bernard Shaw

So while I lack Bowdoin credentials, and other similarly lofty bona fides of the anointed, please make sure you treat me with the respect due a Cynic with a capital C the next time we meet.


Since that classic post appeared, our mantle has been overflowing with the awards we haven’t received for our thoughtful examinations of the issues and news of our day.

Cynicism is one thing, and properly understood, we admit to it eagerly.  Pettiness is another.

Gloating is petty, most would agree.  But fear not, we can do petty with aplomb equal to that we display in our moments of high cynicism.

Allow us to demonstrate.  Less than a week ago, we discussed the possibilities for property tax increases looming ahead, playing off our LT Ben metaphor.  It earned 3 ‘idiotic’ reviews from readers, which we generally interpret to mean that we had touched upon some uncomfortably insightful predictions. 

‘Idiotic’ is the most common reaction to our pieces analyzing school budget history, for example, which reaction is itself idiotic, if you really think about it.  But apparently, that’s too much to ask of some readers.

At any rate, the linked post of last week had this assertion of ours:

The new Police Station is currently estimated at $5.3 million, but if things go as they usually do, it will end up at $7.0 million or so.

Well, land-a-goshen, Gertrude, who could have guessed that news would break that the latest estimate for the new station is $7.2 million! 

The Forecaster has a nice discussion of the subject here.  The article contains some passages that are classics of the genre.  Here are a few.

At $7.2 million, the estimate was nearly 30 percent higher than the $5.1 million budgeted in this year's capital improvement plan, which the Town Council approved last summer.

Who knows what the $5.1 million budgeted figure was based on, which is a problem in and of itself.  Hell, it was going to cost more than that to buff up the TR building a few years back!  More importantly, since the number was in the approved capital plan, you’d think it would have been put in the guidelines to any proposers, designers, and ad-hoc committees.

You’d think so, but then you’d be missing out on the central issue of incompetence in government capital projects: a systemic inability to set and manage to a cost baseline.  Especially in the design stage.  It’s so much more fun to let imagination and creativity run wild, as wants become needs, etc.

"We are confident we can still come forward with a modern police facility for the town of Brunswick and we can do it with the number I believe most people are going to find acceptable," Brown said.

Notice the use of the royal ‘we,’ the word ‘still,’ and the phrase ‘most people.’  Confidence builders all.  As for us, we take the above to mean ‘we’ll give it the old college try, but in the end, we’ll still end up at $7 million plus.’

We admit to using ‘we’ as a matter of course in our work here, but you know exactly who it is when we do.

"I'm totally confident we'll have a police station you'll be proud of," Donham (the architect) said. "It's just going to be different than this dream we painted."

There you have it: the rallying call to the supporters of community pride, community dreams, and a belief that “Brunswick will continue to grow.”  Not to mention that we have all the resources we could ever need.

Those who would advocate for complying with the capital plan put before the public, and approved by the council', have now been backed into a corner.  Dream-busters; inconsiderate of our public-safety team; and worse, if that’s what it takes to get ‘consensus’ for the higher figures. 

We can hear the outcome now:  ‘we don’t do this often, so we need to do it right, and if that means spending more, than that’s what we’ve got to do.  It’s more than we planned, but we believe the community backs us on this.’

One is reminded of the Public Safety Building plan of 2003 or thereabouts.  It started in the region of $6-7 million, then grew to $11.2 million.  Just before the referendum on the proposal, it grew to $13 million, because they “forgot” to include the Cook’s Corner substation. 

That particular comment is perhaps the most shameless and shameful we’ve ever heard uttered by a town official, and that’s saying a lot.  The substation, which we were told would cost $1.8 million, ended up costing roughly a million more.

Summing up, we could say we told you so about the police station, but we won’t.  That would be ungracious of us.  Besides, we’ve got to ramp up our circulation figures, and we figure petty sells better than ungracious.

So remember, you heard it here first.  And don’t forget to follow your dreams!

Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.  What a year or two this is gonna be!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Affordable Housing, A Sense of Scale, MSHA, and gun threats….

You might think this is an odd combination of subjects to combine under a single post title.  Let’s see if we can’t resolve that conundrum for you.

We’ve been posting about Maine State Housing Authority for some months now. They are this state’s ‘quasi-governmental authority’ for implementing affordable housing programs, or as we prefer to call it, government subsidized housing. 

They’ve been in the news a good deal in recent months, culminating in yesterday’s news that the Executive Director, Dale McCormick, has resigned.  We posted briefly on that yesterday, and posted separately with some quantitative data that we hoped would give you a sense of the scale of publicly subsidized housing in our area.

Some weeks back, we also posted on tangled webs, and reports of gun threats publicized by MSHA.

We think they all come together in what we are about to disclose to you here.

To begin with, read this email message.  This is the document that first revealed the threat to Governor LePage.  alphaOne, the reporting agency, is a sub to MSHA for specific subsidized housing programs.

The message reveals that the client involved, who made the threat, has a brain injury, but lives in his own home.  The main topic of the discussion is working out the details for a government funded $15,000 remodel to the client’s bathroom and laundry room, in which he has considerable freedom over design details.  Note the inclusion of a 4’ by 8’ compost (sic) deck as part of the job, with vinyl railings.

The counselor seems to be offering advice on how to have the job come in at the higher bid figure, and how to ensure that the grant funded renovation can move forward.  She mentions his reference to restraining orders, apparently intended to intimidate the counselor.

This subsequent item reveals just how threatening dealing with this individual can be, and the precautions the agency takes in dealing with him.  He has an arrest record, and is known to behave violently.  alphaOne clearly believes significant risk is involved, but doesn’t want to “lose the money,” if at all possible.  We presume alphaOne earns their revenue as a middleman in such grant programs.

We don’t know about you, but we are, to put it mildly, stunned by the nature of the circumstances documented here.

First. we’re a bit startled to discover that we have public assistance programs designed to help brain injured clients with arrest records and known violent tendencies live in their own homes.  We can only wonder how they manage to pay the bills associated with doing so, and what the work load is for the social service agencies involved, like alphaOne.

Second, we’re astonished to learn that there are grant funds available allowing such clients to obtain home improvements paid for with public funds, including bathroom remodels and ‘compost decks’ with vinyl railings.  Certainly, substantial social service agency overhead must be involved, not to mention personnel risk in dealing with those who have violent records.

Some will read this and consider us insensitive, we suppose, but we’re just the messenger here.

A more relevant reaction would be why MSHA officials did not notify the Governor’s security detail of the threat as soon as they learned of it.  As it turns out, the security detail learned of the threat from your correspondent, who obtained these emails through a Freedom of Access request.

You can decide whether MSHA laxity in this matter contributed to their public scrutiny in recent months, and proposed legislation to increase accountability of their Director.

Us?  Hell; we’ve got too many other things to think about, like how to corner the damn wasp that snuck in through an open window today.  And how to get buns delivered from our new most favorite bakery in Northern New Jersey.

One of these days, we’ll share some with you.  Perhaps a melt away, or a crumb bun, or one of a vast variety of crumb Danishes.

You probably don’t deserve it, but we’re bigger than you when it comes to things like this.

PS re School Board questions….

We’ve had a few lagging thoughts on yesterday’s post.  So what else is new, right?

Here are the added questions for your contemplation:

  • Can you recall the School Board holding a public meeting to describe the details of any new teachers contract they just negotiated and approved, with specific comparison to the contract it supersedes?  Or posting a briefing on their web site that discloses the same detailed information?
  • Can you recall the School Board holding a public meeting that reconciles annual proposed budget figures with actual expenditures and revenues, and discusses consequent surpluses and/or deficits and their disposition?

Given the complexity involved, you can have another two days to turn in your homework.  But if you don’t turn it in by Wednesday, you know what will happen.

We’ll have to give you the standard sized gold star instead of the ginormous one.  That should keep you motivated!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Schools and School Boards: reading assignments…and some questions

Every now and then, we find ourselves in perfect alignment with the natural order of the cosmos.  OK; we admit that’s a bit of an exaggeration. 

But it sometimes seems like it in the way interesting and relevant reading items arrive in our inbox, and how those items are apropos our local circumstances.

So interested readers, we recommend these items to you.

Item 1:  What Public Employee Unions Are Doing to Our Country

Imprimis, March 2012

Here’s a sample passage:

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Fred Siegel notes that public sector unions have:

become a vanguard movement within liberalism. And the reason for that is it’s the public sector that comes closest to the statist ideals of McGovern and post-McGovern liberals. And that is, there’s no connection between effort and reward. You’re guaranteed your job. You’re guaranteed your salary increase. There’s a kind of bureaucratic equality.  (emphasis ours)

By the way, if you don’t already have a free subscription to the monthly Imprimis, you should consider signing up.

Item 2:  Let a Thousand Teachers Bloom

Weekly Standard, March 19, 2012

A passage from the article:

Nor is their compensation based on their performance. In the vast majority of school systems, public school teachers’ pay reflects the number of advanced degrees they have earned and their years in the classroom, neither of which is a predictor of effective teaching. In fact, it has been found consistently that a stunning 97 percent of the variation in teacher quality is not explained by the characteristics prioritized by the current system.

This, by the way, describes Brunswick’s compensation system perfectly.

Item 3:  The Six Habits of Fiscally Responsible Public School Districts

Mackinac Institute for Public Policy, December, 2002

A summary of Habit 6: Reform Collective Bargaining

Related Questions

After you’ve read these, or even if you haven’t, we’d like to challenge you to think about the Board of Education and the role they play in Brunswick, or wherever you live.

What do you believe their role in the general scheme of things is?  Is it to provide comments and thoughts on Department subject matter, and then approve Administration recommendations, plans, and budgets?  Or is it to provide oversight, direction, and leadership to the School Department on behalf of town citizens?

Is it to serve as the primary stewards of the School Enterprise and represent the interests of all residents, or to listen to and then approve what the School Department proposes?

As you ponder this, ask yourself the following questions to help clarify your thinking:

  • Who creates the agenda for School Board Meetings?
  • What are the objectives of the School Board each time a new teachers contract goes into negotiation?  What has been achieved on behalf of taxpayers in these negotiations?
  • Can you recall the School Board calling for a review of grading, promotion, and graduation policies and practices, or conducting a comprehensive public disclosure of these specifics?
  • Can you recall the School Board calling for a review of teacher performance, employment, and compensation policies and practices, or conducting a comprehensive public disclosure of them?
  • Can you recall the School Board calling for a review of student achievement measurement methods, and a plan for steady measurable improvement?
  • Can you recall the School Board outlining a consistent and sensible set of priorities in the education we offer, and seeing that it is reflected in the budget and Department policy?
  • Can you recall the School Board identifying deficiencies in student achievement, and leading the effort to correct these deficiencies?
  • Can you recall the School Board, or anyone else for that matter, asking how a student can graduate from our High School if they are functionally illiterate?
  • Can you recall the School Board directing the Department to seek competitive bids for the millions in employee insurance coverage purchased every year, instead of repeatedly buying the coverage from the teachers union on a no-bid basis?

That ought to be enough to keep you busy.  We’d like you to submit written answers, but you can have the weekend to work on it.  Please use your best penmanship.

Don’t be late though; Monday is the deadline.  Miss that, and you could end up clapping the erasers after class.

MSHA: Breaking News

Wouldn’t you just know it; for the first time, we didn’t stick around to the bitter end of the MSHA Board Meeting this morning. Had we done so, we would have heard the info reported here:

BREAKING: MaineHousing Director Dale McCormick Resigns

At the MaineHousing board meeting this morning, the board went into an executive session at the start of the meeting and when they came out, they unanimously voted to accept the resignation of Director Dale McCormick.

The official announcement wasn’t made until the very end of the board meeting, with the earlier vote confirming a “personnel decision.”

We’ll let you decide what led to this outcome, and whether the resignation agreement might have any content regarding possible subsequent legal matters.


Affordable Housing: Getting a Sense of Scale

As you may recall, we’ve been following events at the Maine State Housing Authority, and it’s been a ‘learning process,’ to be polite.  We’ve now attended five board meetings, including one this morning.

The more you look into such things, the more layers of the onion fall away, and the more involved, expansive, and convoluted you discover the entire subject is.  Of course, you might say; it’s the government, and they’re here to help us.

You may have read recently of the internecine legal battles going on between Rosa Scarcelli, a candidate for Governor in 2010, and other members of her family.  They’ve been operating quite a sizable empire of government subsidized (our non-PC straight talk for ‘affordable’) housing, and apparently it generates enough wealth to spur serious family squabbles and litigation.  Moreover, it apparently creates ample opportunities for shoddy property management.

Rosa herself operates 2500 units, according to her web site, in Maine, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.  We don’t know if her firm has ‘non-profit’ status with the IRS; the website doesn’t say.  Scarcelli operates three properties in Brunswick alone, all in the Baribeau Drive vicinity.  Other ‘affordable housing’ firms operate properties in Brunswick as well, so it’s probably fair to say that you regularly pass government subsidized housing whether you realize it or not.

Avesta Housing, which you may have heard of, does have non-profit status.  It operates about 1300 units in 47 properties in York and Cumberland Counties.  Avesta is headed by Brunswick’s own Dana Totman, a former Deputy Director at MSHA.

To repeat, the more you follow such matters, the more you discover just how pervasive government is in all sorts of aspects of our daily lives.  And very often, the government involvement is far less than obvious to the casual observer.  We have long believed that if we were to catalog quasi-governmental entities in our area, you’d be absolutely astonished.  And one of these days we shall do so.

For now, however, we just want to pass along a local data point for purposes of illustration.  Here in town, we have the Brunswick Housing Authority (BHA), and we have no idea exactly how it relates (or not) to town government; in fact it may not relate at all.

That aside, here is some info provided by the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.  It states that ‘BHA has 276 housing units in its portfolio,’ and that ‘BHA also administers 453 Section 8 vouchers.’  The latter is rental assistance paid to private landlords on behalf of qualified clients.

We’re not sure what you might have guessed if we asked you ‘cold’ to guess the size of such operations, but we’re guessing you probably would have come in well below reality.  We’ve certainly been surprised by what we have discovered.

Keep these facts in mind the next time you try to come to grips with the sweep and fiscal scale of your government, and why they seem to be having budget, revenue, and debt problems on a historic scale.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

So what’s the betting line in Perfect, LT Ben?

Some years ago, we wrote an op-ed talking about Brunswick not being the town of “Perfect,” which at that point was the theme of a series of television commercials.  We’re reminded of that concept anew, because Brunswick is showing signs of trying to become Perfect once more.

Here we live in a country and state experiencing what many call “The Great Recession,” which has been going on for 3 to 4 years, give or take.  Employment sucks, if you’ll pardon us, with millions fewer working than just a few years ago.  Spending beyond our means and borrowing with no concern for the effects on our future is the ‘new normal.’  And Maine and Brunswick continue to live in a demographic winter.

Here in Brunswick, our lot is exacerbated by the closure of the Naval Air Station, a major economic factor in the region for more than half a century.  No matter, things couldn’t look rosier locally, what with trains a-coming, the base a-booming, and all sorts of other economic boomlets under way.

Consider that as things stand, in the span of a mere ten years, we will have built a new school, two new fire stations, a new police station, and traded for a nearly new ‘town hall.’  Not bad for ‘the worst economy since the Great Depression,’ and a dazzling spree that should show those upstarts across the green bridge just who the local big dog is.

Thank goodness for adjustable rate property taxes, which can be boosted up annually as conditions warrant, even if the increases catch you by surprise.  In the mortgage world, such practices are seen as predatory, and blamed for much of the foreclosure epidemic in recent years. 

Fortunately, in the town of ‘Perfect,’ if you’re a school department or municipal government official, adjusting tax rates upward annually is not considered predatory in the least, but instead makes you protectors of community pride and all that makes Brunswick the magnet that it is, and the envy of all.  Why it’s almost as if the higher the tax rate, the better!

And so, in the interest of softening the blow a bit, we think it’s time to take a look at what the future may hold for increasing those property tax payments of yours.  We expect you won’t be hearing much in the way of straight talk from our ‘tax brokers’ anytime soon, so it’s the least we can do for you, in case, as some have suggested, you think it’s time to move elsewhere.  All you’re going to hear is the broken record about ‘the end of Brunswick as we know it’ if you don’t fork it over, pally.

So here we go.

School Side

All the little budget ducks seem to be lining up for a budget proposal that requires at least an 8% increase in property taxes this year alone. This would cover the cataclysmic ‘revenue short falls,’ and the ‘costs beyond our control,’ otherwise known as a new teachers contract. 

And don’t you dare suggest that enrollment declines since base closure should reduce operating costs. Doing so will prove you don’t care about the children, and that you’re trying to put every realtor in the area in the poorhouse.  Not to mention that local medical providers will be overwhelmed with a sudden plague of the vapors.

The School Department has already paid some dandy consultants what must be $2,000 or so a day to come up with PowerPoint slides proving we need to spend $11 million on absolutely critical facilities needs.  Including repairs to Jordan Acres School, that ‘open classroom’ blunder foisted on us by ‘experts’ years ago as the next great education breakthrough.

Any practiced observer of how such things work knows that this is just the opening bid, and that further study will show that JA can’t be suitably renovated, and needs to be replaced.  And quickly, because thousands are waiting outside town limits to move in and enjoy the Perfect town. 

So you better make that more like $21 million in capital improvements for our school system, at least for now.

There are many variables involved in how much this will cost you in taxes, but a 5-6% increase seems about right at the moment.

Then there’s the public ‘demands’ for Pre-K and free baby-sitting, I mean Pre-School.  The push has been there for years; it’s only a matter of time, or you’ll never be able to sell your house.  One could write the script for the drama now with no trouble at all.  This will have facility consequences, of course, and operating costs.  We’ll swag the range at $2-3 million per year, or another 7-10% on your property tax bill.

Adding up these major effects, we’re looking at a 20-25% increase in property taxes on the School Side in the near term, to be followed, of course, by annual increases to that baseline of 2-4% just because.

But don’t worry about it; a nice serious chat with your employer, or your clients, or your investment counselor, or your Social Security advisor should allow you to adjust your income to the new demands placed upon you by those who care more than you do.

Municipal Side

So many possibilities here; where do we begin?  We’ll more or less ignore the need for modest increases year by year to cover the increases in salaries, etc.  At least for now.

It’s more fun to ponder the big hitters.  Start with adapting the McClellan Building for Town Office use.  That can’t possibly be less than $2-3 Million, after a $250,000 or so study to figure out what to do and make the air tight case for doing so.

The new Police Station is currently estimated at $5.3 million, but if things go as they usually do, it will end up at $7.0 million or so.  Think they’ll be able to get by with the new 22,000 square feet digs, 6 to 7 times what they have now?  That’s only the equivalent of ten or so nice houses in the Meadowbrook area.

Of course we’ll have to make disposition of the old Municipal Building: raze it, upgrade it for sale, or otherwise ‘repurpose it.’  We can’t just let it sit there.  Figure $1 million or more with remediation.  Maybe lots more.

We’ve still got to build that new Main Fire Station; first, where will it go?  Figure $6 to $8 million when it’s done.  Then we’ll have to make disposition of the old fire station and its property.  Just like the current Municipal Building, only much worse because of age and safety issues.  $1 million minimum, unknown maximum.

And what are we gonna do about the old TR building?  We can’t just let it sit there, can we?

So; total is $15-20 million or more in major capital outlays, which one way or another, translates to at least another 5-6% tax rate increase in the near term.

The Bottom Line

Summing up, it’s not out of the question to anticipate a 25-30% near term change in your adjustable rate taxes.  But let your hearts be still; as you write those bigger checks, you’ll be swelling with pride, and you won’t feel a thing.  And you can trust us on this; we’re not like all the others.

You might question our figures; be our guest.  At least we’ve given you something to base your thinking on.  And if you believe we’re way off the mark, why don’t you try to get appropriate town officials to publicly state that such expenditures are absolutely not going to happen?

Just in case you do have any worries, though, remember that unless we do these things, no one will ever, ever move to Brunswick any more.  Our exploding population will flock to the developments going up in nearby communities, which will suddenly be deemed to have schools better than ours.  And they’ll hide their faces in shame as they leave.

Try to remember that we have more than enough kind souls willing to pay more in taxes if we do all the above.  We know, we’ve watched them say so for years.  So what if we can never seem to find their names or addresses after their brave public statements; they wouldn’t mislead us, would they?

Lastly, if you don’t like it you can lump it.  Remember, one of our domestic tranquility counselors last year said seniors should move out of town if they don’t like the increases.  So to be clear, you owe a generous increase in your personal tribute to those who want the best for themselves, no matter what it does to our collective future.

Or yours in particular, you selfish bastard you.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Brunswick School Finances: Just the facts, please, ma’am.

(OK, Dear Reader: we think we’ve got the document posted in a single page format; if you use the zoom tool on the viewer, you should be able to take it all in.

A few weeks back, your correspondent told you of an item of ours that was published in The Forecaster.  We wrote of it here, and soon posted a number of related post-scripts, triggered by the on-line comments posted by Rich Ellis, a member of the Brunswick School Board.

When all the back and forth concluded, Ellis’ beef with us boiled down to the fact that we used published budget figures in our calculations rather than actual expenditures.  This gave him the leeway to suggest that our numbers were wrong and designed to stir up unwarranted public emotions, rather than discuss things reasonably and accurately.

Well, we’re here to thank Mr. Ellis for his prodding.  It stimulated us to go in search of actual expenditures, and lots of other related facts and data.  We come to you today to report on what we found, and to provide a compilation of the findings.

You’ll soon find out that Side is a data junkie, going hither, thither, and yon to ferret out the facts and present them to you.  It’s in our genetic makeup; there’s not much we can do to stifle our intellectual curiosity.  We take modest pride, though, in the fact that our insatiable thirst for knowledge differentiates us from our media colleagues.

Before you take a look at the numbers for yourself, a few general comments are in order, including this disclaimer:

We have acquired and sorted through extensive files and documents, loaded with numbers dating back as far as the last century.  We have attempted to summarize elements of that data into a single summary spreadsheet, which we are linking you to.  In such a process, it’s entirely possible for transcription and extraction errors to be made, but we give you our word that a good faith, best effort was made to avoid any such errors.

Moving on, the following comments bear on the subject:

  1. In contrast to Brunswick Municipal Budgets, the School Department Budgets do not provide actual revenue and expenditure figures.  They deal only in the ‘budget request’ domain.  A proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year will cite the proposed request, the request for the current year, and the request for the previous year.  Actuals and historic expenditures are not provided.
  2. The School Budgets do not present any form of reconciliation between requested spending and estimated revenues and actual expenditures and actual revenues.  Operating surpluses or deficits are not depicted, nor is the year to year balance in any and all reserve accounts documented; such accounts are not identified.  We’re at a loss to understand why this data is not included; perhaps you can explain it.
  3. The data presented in the spreadsheet linked to below covers from FY 2000 up to the current budget year.  With one exception, actual spending has come in below requested spending, and as you will see, the gap has been growing rapidly.  You might even infer that our property taxes have been increasing well beyond necessity.
  4. Similarly, revenues have been consistently underestimated.  The result is that the net operating surplus in recent years has been in the range of $1.5 to $3.5 million.  Budget documents, as mentioned above, do not show the year to year accumulation of these amounts in reserve accounts, so transparency is non-existent.  Unless you go way beyond reasonable expectations to dig up this data, like we have on your behalf.  That would require that you realize that something is missing, which is not likely. But if you did, you’d have to pay for copies of the data.  But hey, we’re here to serve; it’s why you’ve come to love us. 
  5. If you study and absorb the data we’ve pulled together, you could become very skeptical of the ‘sky is falling’ publicity emanating from the Political Action and Media Committee arm of the School Board.
  6. State Government makes payments to the Maine Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) on behalf of the Brunswick teachers.  These amounts do not show in the School Budget, but as we see it, are part of the total cost of running our school system.
  7. The Municipal Budgets contain “comparative balance sheets” and “comparative statement of revenues, expenditures, and changes in fund balances” at the very beginning of the document.  These provide a complete financial foundation for the budget proposal that follows. As an absolute minimum, School Department Budgets should be made to adhere to a similar reconciliation and disclosure process.  Otherwise, bumbling citizenry like this reporter will find themselves unable to pin down reality in the midst of the free-floating budget numbers, which could easily mislead even the best among us.
  8. We have serious doubts about the pronouncements of “90 positions being cut” in recent years.  We expect this number will shortly be increased to 102 in the last 3 years.  Our doubts stem from our inability to reconcile these numbers with the payroll data we acquired from the state…data presumably provided by our School Department.  The first question is just what the word ‘position’ means, as distinct from an individual person.
  9. Here’s the confusion factor.  When you look at a fiscal year payroll summary, you discover that the number of separate entries in the listing is substantially larger than the number of unique individuals on the payroll.  For example, the FY 09 summary contains 638 entries, but 510 unique individuals, with a salary total of $20,531,342.  The FY 10 summary contains 604 entries, but 481 unique individuals, with a total payroll of $21,122,405.  The FY 11 summary has 575 entries, and 478 unique individuals, for a total payroll of $21,398,876.  These figures imply that 32 individuals left the system in two years, while the payroll increased by  $867,534.
  10. The confusion arises because there are a significant number of what appear to be stipend positions, meaning a supplemental payment for coaching, ‘co-curriculum,’ and other roles.  We found individuals appearing as many as 5 times on the payroll summary, meaning they are paid for 5 separate functions.  When we take these duplicate pay entries out of the mix, we arrive at the ‘unique individuals’ totals in the previous paragraph as compared to the higher ‘entries’ total.
  11. The question immediately arises just what School officials mean when they say “90 (or 102) positions” have been eliminated; it certainly doesn’t appear to us that anywhere near that number of persons have been eliminated from staff, though we can’t speak to what might have happened to the payroll in the current school year.  And we’re pretty confident we couldn’t get the detailed listings like we have for the past three years no matter how hard we tried.
  12. We expect school officials will list these ‘position cuts’ among others, in their total of 102:
    • FY 10: 1 Secretary, 1 Ed Tech, 11 teachers, and 18 ‘noon aides.’  (note: there are no listings in the payroll summary for ‘noon-aides;’ presumably they show as something else)
    • FY 11: 18 resource assistants (Ed Techs?), 6 teachers, and 1 Secretary
    • FY 12: 4 Secretaries, 4 Ed Techs, 22 teachers, and 2 guidance counselors.
  13. If you look at our provided spread sheet, you’ll note we have listed the key job titles listed in the payroll summaries for FY 09, FY 10, and FY 11 (the last full school year); they are in the lower right hand corner of the spread sheet. Note the following:
    • Comparing FY 10 to FY 09, you see no change in the number of admin staff, 5 fewer Ed Techs, 8 fewer teachers, 1 more guidance counselor,  and 3 more literacy staff.
    • Comparing FY 11 to FY 10, you will see no change in admin staff, 7 more teachers, 5 fewer Ed Techs, and one more literacy staff.
  14. Hopefully you can appreciate our confusion when we compare these numbers in the reports from the DOE to those provided locally by the School Department.  And surely there is an explanation for it.  Again, we don’t have reported data for the current school year, and so we can’t comment on it. As a minimum, we caution you not to equate the term ‘position’ with an individual employee.  We also remind you that with two fewer schools in the system and a loss of more than 700 students (23%) in the last four years, we should expect significant declines in staff.  Not to mention consolidating each grade in only one school.
  15. We remain resolute in our conviction that the loss of Durham tuition students and military dependent students represent a fiscal windfall, since neither was paying their average cost in full, and the latter, in particular, weren’t even coming close to actual costs. 
  16. The fact remains that whether you use budget requests, actual expenditures, or the ‘all-in’ figures, cost per student has grown beyond reason in recent years.  Since FY 05, at the budget level, costs per student have grown by $5,329 per year for the current year, as stated in The Forecaster article.  At the ‘actuals’ level, between FY 05 and last year (FY 11), it increased by $3,918 per year.  And at the ‘all-in’ level, between FY 05 and FY 11, it increased by $4,316 per year.  Is it too much to ask what we’re getting for that sizable increase in “tuition?”
  17. For example, had student cost per year increased by 5% a year since FY 04, the budget (imaginary figure though it may be) this school year would be in the range of $29,000,000 instead of $33,301,672. 

Is it too much to expect our School enterprise to be managed in a way that limits annual increases in per student costs to 5%?

Obviously it is.  Since we can’t do that, is it too much to expect that we see substantial annual performance gains at every level for all the funding expended in the name of ‘educational excellence?’

You can ask that one of the School Department yourself.  We’ve already got enough cream pies (or worse) aimed in our general direction.  It’s time you ‘take one for the team.’

Once again, here’s that uploaded spread sheet, and we’ll see what we can do to make it more ‘user friendly,’ which we have now done!

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Maine Wire: Good Government and other impossible dreams


Good, or Generous?

So I began to ponder whether the conditions even exist to promote and sustain ‘good government.’  Half the population (or more) will take this to mean government that is good to them.  They want GENEROUS government, not GOOD government. However, that’s not what I’m talking about.

Read the entire item here.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Stop the presses…in a manner of speaking!

Re the page for S. Donnald Susman-Pingree posted yesterday, we have some good news for our friend with the overflowing checkbook.

It turns out he won’t need as much as he might have thought to make The Ostrich whole in the eyes of town officials and an adoring and oh-so-benevolent public.


Enter TIFs, that artifice much beloved by taxpayers everywhere. This time the real kind, rather than the figurative, de facto sort we’d asserted the Ostrich was enjoying by not paying their taxes for a good while.

It turns out that several years ago, the town set up a TIF District and Development Program associated with the town industrial park, and specifically the lots on Business Parkway, where our media friends are currently encamped.

Among other things, this arrangement calls for 10% of the property taxes paid by The Ostrich, DBA Brunswick Publishing, to be rebated to them under a ‘credit enhancement agreement.’  The total rebate is capped at $110,000.  We don’t know how much of that total they’ve already received.

We understand they have to pay the taxes first to get the rebate.  Suggestion to town officials: the next time you enter into such an agreement, you might condition it on timely payment of taxes.  No on-time payment, no rebate.  And that share of the total rebate cap is lost, gone, by-by, just like that.

Now that we think about it, in the interest of fairness, equity, and media justice, shouldn’t ALL media outlets in town be given a 10% credit enhancement deal on their property taxes? 

Especially those that pay their taxes on time like good little boys and girls?  Wouldn’t that be only fair?

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Paging S. Donald Sussman-Pingree; please bring your checkbook!

Exactly two years ago, plus or minus a leap day, we posted the now classic item appended at the end of THIS post.  It  was early in the history of this media outlet, and we had to find our amusement where we could. 

In view of current events, we thought you might want to refresh yourself on this watershed item from our on-line archives.  (BTW, the Ostrich on-line archives span all of two weeks; ours span our entire existence.)

As loyal readers know, we have frequently reported on the inability of The Ostrich to pay its fair share in property taxes on a timely basis like the rest of us do.  And we’ve juxtaposed it with their editorial predilection for telling local taxpayers to stop the whining and pay whatever it takes in increased taxes to ‘support the community and promote our school excellence.’

As it turns out, the tax delinquencies of said Ostrich have now risen to a higher degree of public visibility.  We have friends to thank for tipping us to the latest events, and as soon as we have T-Shirts made with The Other Side logo, they’ll get theirs free.

The public visibility to which we refer is rising to the level of an agenda item at the upcoming Town Council meeting on Monday, March 5th.   The agenda packet for the meeting can be found here:

You’ll have to scroll through the document, but when you do, you’ll find a complete accounting of the amounts the publishing firm owes the town.  Even more enlightening, you’ll find a sequence of emails between town officials and the publisher, and they are, to say the least, both revealing and troubling.

You can judge for yourselves whether The Ostrich  has a viable future.  They are clearly in extremis.  We’ll just say we’re glad they don’t have a cash advance of $100 or so from us.  That would have been as good an investment as buying into Kestrel Aircraft Brunswick operations.

Lastly, we have to thank another friend for suggesting that perhaps the owners of The Ostrich should contact S. Donald Sussman-Pingree to plead for a cash bailout.

He’s apparently long on cash and highly motivated to invest in media outlets, though we can’t fathom why he would do so.

If you have any hunches on why he would, please let us know, and we’ll follow up.


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Local newspaper adopts new name, image

According to unconfirmed reports, the owners & publishers of Brunswick’s daily newspaper have announced that the publication is putting a new face on the operation.  Determined to stem a precipitous circulation decline, the paper’s leadership has been searching for an identity that would breath new life into its pages, and be more consistent with its editorial policies, journalistic rigor, and the refined sensibilities of the region.

“We felt it was important to get the best ideas possible in this endeavor,” the paper’s owner allegedly said, “so we enlisted the help of the noted media consulting firm Bailey, Balderdash and Malarkey, who’ve recently been helping ABC News and the New York Times with their images.”

The locals were advised to connect with the character of the community, and Bowdoin College is clearly a cultural pillar of the town.  Impressed by the catchiness of the college newspaper’s name – ‘The Bowdoin Orient’ – the publisher asked the consultants to come up with something similarly appealing and symbolic, and after months of rigorous study, they struck pay dirt.

Henceforth, the broadsheet will be known as ‘The Brunswick Ostrich,’ and the masthead will read:

The Brunswick Ostrich

Serving the willfully uninformed since 1967

In keeping with the theme, the editorial board adopted the mascot shown below:

Editors claim to be excited about the new identity, and believe it will “tie all the loose ends together,” a willfully un-named source close to them said.  “Even the photographers feel a new sense of dedication,” the source said, “and to prove it, they offered this shot of the editors digging in to a crucial story,” presumably about the planned beach resort on the redeveloped Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Calls to Ostrich offices were not returned by post time, so this reporter cannot confirm or deny whether “feathers will be flying”  due to any possible staff realignments. 

And questions about whether the beach resort is simply a Potemkin Village do-over for Oxford Aviation and renowned barrister F. Lee Bailey will go unanswered.

Which, come to think of it, is just the way the editors have always liked things.