Election 2015: Budget process dominates Scarborough council race

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SCARBOROUGH — Five candidates are competing to fill two seats on the Town Council. 

James Benedict, Chris Caiazzo, Robert Rowan, Liam Somers and Michael Turek are vying for council seats currently held by Chairwoman Jessica Holbrook and Councilor Ed Blaise, neither of whom are seeking re-election. 

Every candidate referenced the recent school budget process as a factor that led to their decision to run for office.

Voting will take place in Scarborough High School gym on Nov. 3 from 7 a.m.-8 p.m.

Absentee ballots are available at Town Hall. Completed ballots can be returned prior to Nov. 3 at the Scarborough Municipal Building. Otherwise, completed absentee ballots are due by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3 at the high school. 

James Benedict

Benedict, of Burnham Road, has lived in Scarborough for 15 years. He has run for council four times and was elected to a three-year term from 2011- 2014. He unsuccessfully sought re-election last November. 

He said he believes the “handling of the budget needs to be changed,” and that the School Board and Town Council must take better direction from each other.

“You have seven people speaking for 20,000 (people). It’s not an easy job, it’s not a fair job,” Benedict said.

Benedict also wants to bring more affordable housing to Scarborough.

“Affordable housing is a problem everywhere,” he said at a candidates forum in late September. “I think Scarborough needs to have more affordable housing because, otherwise, you’re going to limit yourself with the type of people you have in town.”

Chris Caiazzo

Caiazzo, of Elmwood Avenue, will complete his first three-year term on the School Board in December. He has lived in Scarborough for 15 years and has two sons, both of whom attend Scarborough High School. 

Rather than seek re-election to the School Board, Caiazzo said he is more interested in sitting on the Town Council because it has the most influence on important issues, particularly with improvements to the budget process. 

“One of the frustrating things I found on the School Board (is) it doesn’t matter how much work is done on the School Board level, the first gate to get through is always the Town Council,” he said. 

Three years ago on the School Board, Caiazzo said, he shared “the common misconception” that the budget was “over-inflated.”

But now he disagrees with the idea that balancing the town and school budgets should be as straightforward as balancing a business budget. He said government is much more dimensional and a lot of contributing factors unfold that are out of elected officials’ control.

“In government you have to convince and you have to collaborate and cajole,” he said.

While the last three budget years have arguably been the most tumultuous in recent memory – voters rejected the proposed budget twice before passing it on a third try in two of the years – Caiazzo said people tend to overlook the positive changes that have taken place, including increased transparency in the budget process.

He said the budget process is like a pendulum. Prior to 2012, there was “very little interaction between the (council and School Board) and very little transparency in the process,” he said.
“I think we made great strides in transparency and collaboration. Can we do better? Absolutely. It’s like forming a good team: you have to go through the storming part of it first before you can go through the norming part,” Caiazzo said. “I hope to be there as a resource.”
He also believes Scarborough must adopt a better “aging-in-place policy.”
“We are a wealthy community (with) the third-highest valuation in the state,” he said, adding that the town has a “moral and ethical obligation” to aid older residents.

Robert Rowan

Rowan, of Bonnygrove Drive, said he got in the race because he is “unhappy with the dysfunctional school budget process.”

Rowan and his family moved to Scarborough in 2009. He has never held public office. 

“I feel like we’ve been shortsighted when we’ve cut from and then voted down the level services budget. We need to be making steady investments in our future, rather than focusing on diminutive tax increases,” Rowan said.  

Rowan also wants to spur development of more affordable housing in Scarborough. “If you look around, all the houses that are going up are $350,000 and up. I feel like we’re not being a diverse town when we can’t actually have the people who work here live here,” he said. 

But first there must be improvements in the “tone and tenor of debate” between the community and elected officials, Rowan said. 

“We really have a problem with the way we’re talking about issues in Scarborough. In order to get heard, you have to scream really loud,” he said. “I want to improve the way the town council interacts with the citizens.”

Organizing neighborhood potlucks attended by councilors could be a great way to allow for more “opportunity for dialogue” between councilors and residents, Rowan said.

As councilor, “I (would) carry that openness and willingness to seek common ground,” he said. 

Liam Somers

Somers, of Holmes Road, has lived in Scarborough since 2011. He ran unsuccessfully for Town Council last November. 

“I think it’s time that we really take a hard look at how we create, draft and present a budget for this town,” Somers said. 

The last three years have been “really rough years of budget crisis,” that have created a “level of mistrust between the taxpayers and the folks who are putting the budget together,” he said. 

To remedy the crisis, Somers wants to create a “long-range plan” for the next three to five years. It would “give citizens of Scarborough some direction of where we’re headed and how we’re going to afford it,” he said.

Part of the solution might be seeking advice from other municipalities that seem to be doing a better job than Scarborough, like Cape Elizabeth, Somers said. 

The process can “absolutely” be improved, he said, “but we have to be open to new ideas, we have to be ready to change the process we have in place and to look to our neighbors.”

He said the goal has to be “how can we make it affordable for folks who have lived here their whole lives,” while also making the schools “the shining gem of Scarborough.”

“We have to make sure we’re not making decisions that satisfy a few, but ones that are working for the many,” Somers said. 

“The work that has to be done is real. Look at those who have had the opportunity to do that work to date and understand that we’re still in this position. Maybe it’s time to (elect) some folks who haven’t been in the inner circle,” he said. 

Michael Turek 

Turek, of Bayberry Lane, has lived in town for 20 years. He served in the Air Force for 27 years, 22 of which he lived overseas. He ran unsuccessfully as a write-in council candidate last November.

Publicly critical of this year’s budget process, Turek said he has often “been accused of being anti-education, which I’m not.

“I think if people are getting pay raises between zero and 3 percent, and the Board of Education comes to the council with a 6.8 percent increase, that’s completely out of line,” he said.

A solution to the problem would be to change the district’s fiscal year, change the start of the budget cycle from July to November, and make it a two-year budget, rather than annual.

“Our fiscal year ends about three months before the state’s,” Turek said. Changing the date would allow the town to make budgetary decisions after becoming aware of the amount of funding that will be provided from Augusta.

Turek would also like to increase public transportation in town to reduce traffic congestion. 

When compared with other candidates, Turek said what sets him apart is his proposal of concrete plans.

“Everyone else talks in esoteric terms about what’s best for Scarborough. All of these things have no structure to them; they’re just nice words,” he said. “I prefer to come up with solutions.” 

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.