Scarborough OKs school budget, despite election blunder

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SCARBOROUGH — After two failed budget referendums and two ballot snafus, a $47.1 million budget was approved Tuesday by a vote of 2,402 to 2,226.

After it was discovered Wednesday morning that 420 ballots had not been counted, a recount was conducted by election workers and the Town Council certified the results that evening, verifying the budget passed by 176 votes.

The town has asked the office of the Secretary of State to conduct an audit due to recent problems with overlooked ballots. However, a spokeswoman for Matthew Dunlap said the Secretary of State’s office has no jurisdiction over municipal elections. 

According to town officials in a news release Wednesday, “A discrepancy was identified between the total number of votes reported at 4,208 and the total number of ballots printed. It was quickly identified that a box of absentee ballots, totaling 420, was left in the vault and not counted in the final tally.”

It was the second time uncounted ballots were discovered after a school referendum vote this year. On Aug. 30, the town announced 200 uncounted ballots from the July 25 referendum were discovered Aug. 21. The uncounted ballots were evenly split, 100-100, and did not change the outcome.

In the general election last November, election workers initially failed to count more than 2,700 absentee ballots that were stored on a thumb drive. The oversight required a recount that took almost nine hours.

On Wednesday morning, town officials contacted Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap to request an audit, according to a Town Hall press release, “to reassure our residents that we are committed to conducting fair, transparent, efficient, and accurate elections.”

Officials said the audit would examine “election processes and procedures to identify any weaknesses and recommend best practices.”

According to the release, “The integrity of the election process and confidence in our abilities to conduct fair and open elections is paramount. Voters should be comforted by the fact that the post-election redundancies that are in place are effective in identifying any inconsistencies and most importantly that the process works.”

Steve Hanly, of political action committee Scarborough Maine Advocates for Reasonable Taxes, said in an email, “SMARTaxes is obviously concerned with vote tabulation issues in three separate elections in less than a year.  Our preference would have been for the Town Council to defer any vote certifications until after the Secretary of State’s office completes its audit of the Town’s voting procedures.” 

The council on Wednesday also approved an ad-hoc committee “to review established local rules and procedures for the administration of municipal and referendum votes.”

The initial, unofficial tally on Tuesday evening was 2,223 to 1,985 in favor of the proposed $47.1 million school budget, a difference of 238 ballots. 

Tuesday’s vote was the third attempt to pass a fiscal year 2018 school budget, which began July 1, and will not have an impact on the tax rate.

The town’s valuation, which determines the final tax rate, was announced at a Finance Committee meeting Aug. 31 and was lower than expected. The new tax rate will be $16.49 per $100,000 – an increase of 3.58 percent. 

For owners of a $300,000 home, the annual tax bill will be nearly $5,000, which includes municipal, school and county taxes.

Residents have rejected the school budget seven times in the last six years. In 2015, residents also defeated it twice. It took two attempts in 2012, and three referendums in 2013 before voters passed a school budget.

On June 13, 57 percent of voters rejected a $47.4 million proposal, and on July 25, 51 percent voted down the $47.1 million budget. This time around nearly 52 percent of voters supported the proposal. 

After leaving the polls on Tuesday evening, Amelia Kurtz, who supported all three referendums, said, “Strong schools help everyone in the community, not just the people with kids. Everyone in the town benefits from having a strong education system.” Kurtz noted higher real estate values in communities that have highly rated schools.

In recent years, grassroots efforts to defeat the school budget have sprung up by activists who say that property tax increases are making it unaffordable to live in Scarborough.

In a press release, Hanly, said, “The results continue to underscore the division between those who support continuing growth in the school budget and those who are financially challenged by continuing tax increases.”

Hanly added, “SMARTaxes’ mission remains unchanged – to make certain Scarborough taxpayers are well informed about matters impacting their taxes and to advocate for reasonable property taxes.”  

Caitlin Barry said she voted against the latest budget. Barry said she supports education, “but with the lack of state funding we need to think about what is really needed. It is not sustainable long term for residents,” especially the elderly and residents on fixed incomes.

Barry, who has lived in Scarborough for only four years, noted “there’s a … divisiveness in this town” over education spending.

School officials said they were relieved by both the number of voters who turned out Tuesday – 27.5 percent of the town’s registered voters – and the result. 

“That says a lot about our community,” Julie Kukenberger, superintendent of schools, said.

Kukenberger said she has already started working on next year’s budget.

“We know (fiscal 2019) is going to be a challenge,” she said. 

Kristen Muszynski, director of communications for the Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, confirmed the office was contacted Wednesday by both Town Manager Tom Hall and Town Clerk Tody Justice.

She said the Secretary of State does not have authority or oversight over municipal elections, but would be open to talking with town officials and/or offer additional training.

“We don’t really have the authority to do an audit,” said Muszynski. “I don’t know that we can do anything formal … We are open to questions and open for additional training.”

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

Scarborough Town Clerk Tody Justice, left, and Colette Mathieson, deputy town clerk, compare spreadsheets for accuracy while tabulating school budget referendum ballot counts Wednesday.

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