Saturday, June 2, 2012

Town Council stiff-arms opposition; approves school and municipal budgets

This past Thursday night (31 May), the Town Council met to act on the various warrants associated with approving the School, Municipal, and County components of the overall town budget.

I don’t believe I can recall a council meeting with fewer attendees, and less stimulating content, yours truly excepted.  If one took this correspondent, the School Superintendent, and two school board members out of the mix, the only others (save one I didn’t recognize) were the usual town staff members. 

There was a brief cameo appearance by Senator Stan the Minority Man, who must have gotten wind that we were going to speak.  Otherwise, why would he subject himself to the annoying adulation of town officials?

If you crave excitement, you can watch the video of the meeting here.  In the unlikely event you do so, you will see your trusty correspondent deliver the remarks below. 

(Fair warning: there is a rather glaring reflection from our manly but ever so sparsely populated pate.  Next time we speak, we’ll have to visit the Cable 3 makeup chair and see if they can apply some anti-glare makeup. If they can’t, we’ll have to wear a ‘do-rag,’ or perhaps a baseball cap turned backwards, one of our most becoming looks.  We will not, repeat not invest in a special purpose hair helmet to be used only for on screen appearances.)

The remarks:

· School Matters: I don’t know how many of you have read my recent blog posts regarding the process for approving the new 3 year teachers contract. If you haven’t, my assertion is that the vote to approve the contract was made on the basis of false pretenses. The information provided to the board to inform their vote was materially and substantively incorrect, and the same figures were provided to the public, and you the council.

· The School Budget is 61% of the total Brunswick Budget. The teachers contract, I would guess, makes up at least half of the school budget total, making it the single largest item in the town budget, and nearly one-third of total town spending.

· Understating the contract terms, as I believe was done, and putting it before the Board for a vote of approval, is an abuse of public trust. It should not go unchallenged, and those responsible should be held accountable for their actions.

· Since the contract was approved on a material misrepresentation of fact, it is incumbent upon the council to summarily reject the contract approval and the budget based on it.

· If you let things stand as they are, you will make this council party to the deceit, and exacerbate the pervasive public distrust of government, its elected officials, and those sometimes called public servants.

· Whatever else you may think about these matters, this behavior on the part of our officials is a disgrace, and if you fail to take appropriate action, you will tacitly endorse it.

· General Budget Matters: It seems to me that short of substantial application of reserved funds to counterbalance spending increases, we would have been looking at a property tax increase of at least 10% this year alone.

· It is also clear that the School Department is expecting to increase their tax demands upon the town very substantially in the coming years; the Superintendent has stated that the ‘starting point’ in the two years following the one about to begin is a $3.2 million problem, or another 10% tax increase there alone. We’ll have to pay the piper for the reserve application in this new budget, and the avoided 4% plus tax increase will pop up in our faces. As I read the CIP, we can expect at least a 10% property tax increase in the next few years for the projects contained there-in.

· Get out your whiteboard, and it’s pretty easy to show that we’re staring at a near term tax rate increase in the range of 30% above the current tax rate in just a very few years.

· I believe it is incumbent on the Council to compile and brief the public on the budget and tax increase outlook for at least the next five years, and it should be done immediately. Not doing so, under the current circumstances, is an abdication of your implicit obligation to inform the taxpaying public to the best of your ability, and raises concerns about not acting in good faith. Further, it will subject residents to challenging tax bill shocks year after year after year.

· If you feel you have no choice but to implement such draconian tax increases, the very least you could do is give those who pay them a clear indication of where things are heading. Especially in consideration of the elders among us who live on fixed and/or limited incomes.

· Thank you.

Our remarks elicited the usual non-response when delivered, but strangely enough, they did result in a comment or two a bit later into the meeting.

Our thanks to Councilor Dave Watson, who went so far as to ask whether there would be any response to our comments when the appropriate school budget warrant came up.  Watch the video from about time stamp 8:45 to 11:00 or so to see the exchange that took place.  You can move the little slider to watch this portion if you don’t want to just watch from the beginning all the way through the first 11 minutes of the meeting.

Here’s the essence of what followed Watson’s question.  Council Chair King said that if the School Superintendent or a School Board Member wanted to comment, they could, but that she herself was not prepared to respond to our statement or Watson’s question. 

While you can’t hear it on the replay, the Superintendent next indicated he was not prepared to speak on the issue.  Then School Board member Rich Ellis rose to say he fully understood the information he was presented to vote on, which does not address the assertion we made. 

He then added that he had surveyed teacher salaries in both Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties, and concluded that Brunswick salaries are below the median, an observation that also does not address the points we made.  He labeled our comments “an accusation, but not what I experienced.”

(Note to Rich Ellis: how are you coming on the dollar savings estimate for the 102 position cuts in recent years? You seem to have mastered the information base in every other school district within 30 miles or so, while our own School Department staff doesn’t seem to have figured out how to come up with the number. Perhaps the answer is for us to add up the value of the lowest paid 102 ‘positions’ in the payroll summary from a few years back.)

If we had been quicker on our feet, we could have risen to respond to his thoughts by discussing the street ‘improvements’ in the First Parish Church area, which would have been just as germane to his comments as his were to ours, and a good deal more interesting over all.

So all in all, while Councilor Watson provided a brief moment of euphoria, it only took seconds more for harsh reality to snuff it out.  We fell for a head fake, and then got blocked out as usual.

Now that we think of it, perhaps we do have a future in town government.  We’re starting to distill things down to their essence, don’t you think?

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