Thursday, January 2, 2003

Budgets tight in new year

Published in the Current; co-written with Kate Irish Collins

When looking forward to the new year, town officials in Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough are all hoping to address some lingering issues and look at new iniatives, but there is also concern on all levels about how the state budget shortfall and proposed tax reforms will affect local municipal budget planning.

Scarborough Town Manager Ron Owens said the council’s Finance Committee is looking at a 3 to 4 percent increase in the tax rate.

“I think this will be a somewhat difficult budget year. There will be some ramifications that we won’t like, but I don’t think it will be as drastic as it could be in the next couple of years,” Owens said.

He added that much of the impact on the municipal budget will be from forces over which the town has no control.

Owens is also expecting the council to approve a comprehensive traffic study. “I think we’ll be looking at traffic more globally around town, not just specific hot spots like Dunstan Corner. We’ll look at how we should prepare for the future and maybe even look at constructing some new roads,” he said.

Scarborough is also gearing up for a revision of the comprehensive plan and Owens is expecting the process of creating a clear town-wide vision for the future to be wrapped up soon.

“We will then have to look at what would need to be done to realize the town’s vision and what compromises we are willing to make. Growth and development are not going to stop,” Owens said.

The town may also begin to look at encouraging the construction of more diverse types of housing – housing that would not only be available to people of different incomes, but different lifestyles as well.

“Let’s face it, all we have been building in Scarborough for the past few years are two-story colonials in subdivisions,” Owens said.

To help encourage commercial development of the Haigis Parkway, Owens said he hoped there would be some “serious marketing.”

“We need to go out and beat the drums - not just the town but SEDCO (Scarborough Economic Development Corporation) and the landowners out there,” he said. Owens added the town might want to look at encouraging specific types of businesses, perhaps in the bio-medical field, which already has a strong presence in town due to the Maine Medical Center campus on Route 1.

Owens also said that although it’s not as important as the budget or the comprehensive plan, he would like to see the town name its portion of Route 1. “I strongly feel the road should have a name other than Route 1,” Owens said.

Patrick O’Reilly, chairman of the Scarborough Town Council, said the proposed Great American Neighborhood project for 150 acres in Dunstan would continue to take up the council’s time in the new year. He also mentioned a comprehensive traffic study, reviewing the subdivision ordinances and the sign ordinances and addressing on-call pay for public safety workers as being goals of the council in 2003.

O’Reilly also would like the town to clearly define its goals and set up criteria for measuring success as a way to keep track of things that have been addressed or that still need to be addressed.

“It will give us not only a historical outlook but will push our future planning,” O’Reilly said.

David Beneman, chairman of the Board of Education, said the number one educational matter facing the school district is full implementation of the state-mandated Learning Results. That will be followed by the need in 2004 for a comprehensive self-assessment system that would be used to evaluate the graduating classes of 2007 and 2008.

Beneman said the schools also will be facing a budget crunch, because the state Legislature may stop paying school districts to educate foster children, some of whom have extensive special education needs. “I’m concerned that more and more is expected and required at the local level with no funding provided,” he said.

The Scarborough schools also will focus on increasing the use of technology within the classroom and around the district.

“We need to share information more effectively and communicate better, especially with parents and students,” Beneman added.

He said that as far as school facilities are concerned, the school board is hoping to hire a contractor for the high school expansion project.

In addition, a study may look at the space crunch at the middle school and Wentworth Intermediate School.

“We are proposing a year-long study of both buildings with professional help and hope to have recommendations made on the use and viability of each school,” Beneman added.

The school department also will be negotiating three out of four union contracts in 2003, including teachers, administrators and bus drivers. “The cost of health care is continuing to get higher and higher and that is one of the single biggest fixed items in the school budget. The budget planning this coming year is going to take finesse especially because we are not sure what Augusta will do,” Beneman said.

He added that because of the state-mandated Learning Results, all subjects from physical education to the fine arts are now core subjects. “That means we don’t have much that we can let go,” Beneman said. In 2003 the school department is also expecting to enroll another 100 students, requiring additional teachers.

Cape Elizabeth
Cape Town Manager Mike McGovern said in an interview that the most significant challenge facing the town in 2003 will be adopting a municipal and school budget. “We are looking at a revaluation, declining school enrollment, less revenue sharing and a council that doesn’t want to see a tax increase,” he said.

“It’s going to be a tough year. The public mood seems to be that we have been spending a lot of money and it’s time to slow down and take stock,” McGovern added. McGovern said the town has accomplished a lot in the last decade, including the construction of a new police station and a new fire station. When asked whether charging an entrance fee to Fort Williams Park would be on the table, McGovern said that everything that could increase the town’s revenue would be discussed.

He said the town will also be asked to approve some fairly significant subdivision proposals and added that the council would be reviewing the town’s sewer policy. “Right now we pretty much say no to everyone who wants to hook up, but the council and the Planning Board are looking at making the policy a little more flexible,” McGovern said.

“I think the other major challenge that all towns will be facing is what will happen with tax reform. Also the state pushing municipalities to consolidate and regionalize will be interesting,” he said. McGovern added that he doesn’t see Cumberland County government, at least, having a big role in regionalizing. “I think inter-local agreements work much better. County government is not the only answer for regionalization. County lines are not always the optimum for delivery of services,” he said.

“I really think this will be a year of reflection,” McGovern said, while acknowledging that some work will be required on both the high school and the Pond Cove School. The School Board hopes to move the kindergarten out of the high school and over to the elementary school, while bringing the high school up to date – projects that could cost as much as $9 million.

Cape Superintendent Tom Forcella is looking forward to several new developments for the schools in the coming year. The biggest among them is the school building project, which could go to referendum in May.

In March, Forcella and other Cape school officials will meet again with members of a growing consortium of schools from as far away as Clayton, Mo., and the Palisades School District, north of Philadelphia. Forcella expects the group to expand and begin really trading benchmark educational ideas and practices.

The Cape School Board also will be under a microscope of sorts when the New England School Development Council begins its study of eight “outstanding school boards” in New England. Cape Elizabeth was recently chosen as one of the boards to be studied to learn how they attract and retain “top citizens” to school board service.

Forcella said Cape was identified in a survey as a district that does well getting people involved in the board’s activities.

In the fall, the district also will conduct a broad review of its future direction plan, including all of the staff, community leaders and students to shed light on how the district is moving toward its overall goals.