Scarborough budget forum brings out skeptics

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SCARBOROUGH — Residents grilled officials about town spending Wednesday night at a public forum on the proposed fiscal 2016 budget.

Many of the questions from the approximately 75 people at the meeting at Scarborough High School took on an accusatory tone, with inquiries about the salaries of city and School Department staff, teacher raises, and the town’s efforts to obtain grants in lieu of raising taxes.

Town Councilor Shawn Babine and School Board member Chris Caizzo gave presentations on the municipal and school budgets before questions were fielded through moderator, Keith Freeman.

The initial budget required a nearly 8.5 percent hike in the tax rate. 

Babine on Wednesday presented a $60.2 million total budget, with an approximate tax hike of 7.12 percent. For the owner of a home valued at $300,000, it would mean a $331 annual increase in taxes.

The proposed School Department portion of budget is about $40.5 million, an approximate 13 percent increase from this year.

Factors on the school side of the budget include an approximate $1 million loss in state-provided General Purpose Aid, amounting to a decrease of about 21.4 percent, Caizzo said.

Freeman, in reading questions from members of the audience, asked representatives why the town’s GPA funds were diminishing and if the district is fighting hard enough to keep them.

Kate Bolton, director of business operations for the schools, said the fact that the property valuation in town has increased compared with the state average, while the population has stayed virtually the same, are variables that contribute to how much aid the district receives.

“Because the pie isn’t big enough, those variations in funding are sizable,” Bolton said.

When asked what the cost is per pupil, Superintendent of Schools George Entwistle said approximately $12,000, or “just barely above the state average.”

Speakers also wanted to know the School Department’s largest administrative salary increase (2-3 percent, Entwistle said), how it compares with other school districts, and how many salaries for municipal employees exceeded $100,000 last year (six, Town Manager Tom Hall said).

“I think that level of questioning, suspicion, distrust has always been there, (but) I wasn’t surprised or offended by the type and tone of questions,” Hall said Thursday morning. 

In hindsight, he said, “I was extremely pleased with the turnout.”

“I think this approach is really new and different and part of a routine, open and transparent process,” Hall said. “I think this effort is all about transparency and building trust, and putting ourselves out there to be available for questions is one part of that for sure.”

The council’s second reading and vote on the budget will be Wednesday, May 20.

The school budget referendum is slated for June 9.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or 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.