Thursday, July 7, 2005

Editorial: Looking for dough

Published in the Current

CAPE ELIZABETH (July 7, 2005): The Cape Elizabeth schools should not make Cape’s taxpayers pay extra for one construction project just because another came in cheaper than expected.

The schools are asking the Town Council for permission to take $133,000 the town’s voters earmarked for the Pond Cove expansion and use it to pay for things on the high school renovation’s wish list.

It’s true that the Pond Cove project doesn’t need the money – the actual cost of building the kindergarten wing was 10 percent lower than projected. So this idea does not hurt the Pond Cove project, and it could help the high school.

But voters approved $1.5 million for Pond Cove and $7.9 million for the high school. They did not approve $9.4 million for both together, and they were never asked – or told – what should happen to any money “left over” at the end of either project.

In the absence of the question, and without an advance declaration of intent, voters would fairly assume that any money not needed to accomplish the stated goals of a project would simply not be spent.

If the schools needed to do $100,000 worth of additional work at the high school, they should have included that amount in the request they sent to the voters.

They didn’t include it in the request, though, and for two very good reasons: First, the estimates showed the workers would be able to do what they needed to do with $7.9 million. And second, school and town officials were worried the high school project might not pass if the cost estimate was too high.

So now, nearly two years after getting the projected cost low enough to pass muster with the voters, they want to raise actual spending without voter approval, to cross items off a wish list of “add-alternates,” those items that could be done if more money becomes available.

The original idea of add-alternates was that construction costs were uncertain. If the cost of the high school work had turned out to be lower than expected, as happened with Pond Cove, any “extra” money – anything remaining from the $7.9 million – would be used for other work, such as new upholstery for the auditorium seats.

Voters were told – in the form of the question on the ballot – that local borrowing on each project would be for bonds in an amount “not to exceed” the total carefully chosen by officials balancing school-building needs with voter-approval likelihood.

Voters were not told that if one project ended up with extra money, it might actually be spent on the other – that the amount spent could be a figure that actually did exceed the dollar amount on the ballot.

The argument that both referenda passed with strong majorities doesn’t mean the outcome would have been the same if the amounts were any higher. And the argument that a vote for one project was a vote for the other also doesn’t hold water: The vote tallies were different for the two questions.

Cape Elizabeth taxpayers do support their schools, with millions upon millions of dollars every year. But that support is not a given, and handling money responsibly is the best way to ensure it.

In fact, neither school officials nor the Town Council were certain the support was there back in 2003 when the two projects went out to voters – which was one reason the council didn’t approve the spending outright, without a referendum.

What the schools should be asking to do – and what the residents should demand of the Town Council – is to return that money to the taxpayers, by not borrowing it when it’s not needed.

If the schools and the council want to spend more on additional work at the high school, the question should go back to the voters. It’s their money.

Jeff Inglis, editor