School Consolidation

Our little town of Pownal has been badly bitten by Maine's school consolidation initiative, which has the noble goal of reducing the cost of education through economies of scale.  However, due to bad information, the cost allocation formula that was negotiated and approved by the towns relied on bad information.  As a consequence our town is looking at a huge tax increase with no change in the education our children receive.

Here is a letter I wrote to our governor asking for more time to renegotiate:

Dear Governor Baldacci,

 I am writing to request that you intervene in the school consolidation process to allow the new school units more time to create equitable formulas for the allocation of costs among member towns. 

When residents of my town approved restructuring we had no idea that we were accepting something in the neighborhood of $1000 per household tax increase as a result.  The numbers we had available at the time gave no hint of this, primarily as I understand it, because we did not have current school year budget numbers available.  I am certain that if the citizens here had known the true consequences of their vote our merger with Freeport and Durham would not have been approved.

While I believe the town accepted that consolidation might mean our cost per student would rise with no immediate improvement (or change) in the education our children received, we expected that the increase, if any, would be small.  We consoled ourselves with the hope that there would be some offsetting savings to the state that might eventually be returned to the town. 

Now, however, we in Pownal are faced with an overwhelming tax increase and that in an extremely difficult economy.  I own a small business which employs 6 people.  My revenues are down by 40% this year.  My bank has refused to increase my line of credit.  I am currently paying a good portion of my payroll out of my own pocket.  I can’t keep this up indefinitely.  Doubling my property taxes will not help.

I believe the other towns in our consolidated district understand the inequity of our present cost allocation formula and would be happy to work toward a more equitable distribution if only the state will allow them to do so.  

Governor, we need your intervention to allow us the time to make consolidation work for all of us.

Sincerely,

May 5, 2009 in Local Politics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Phin's Economic Activism

I recently received the following letter from Phin Sprague, a local boatyard owner and promoter of the Maine Boatbuilders Show.

“ Phin’s economic activism…please bare with me.

“Dear Win,

“For a number of years I have resolved that Maine had the talent and was going to be the center of the custom boat world and we should be considered an industry and something that should be nurtured and protected. I am doing something about this goal and I am asking for your help…”

Phin went on to say that he was trying to get politicians to take the marine industry seriously, as they should, and to that end I would be receiving a letter from Bush Cheney 2004 campaign over his signature, urging me to sign up and give heavily, because that’s how we would get access. He wound up by saying:

“In begging forgiveness in ADVANCE OF THIS CAMPAIGN LETTER, I AM ASKING YOU TO CONSIDER BEING A FORCE (us) TO BE RECONED WITH. Please read between the lines, sign up if you think you can. When I find out who signed up I will start to push visits to your facilities or whatever seems most appropriate. You will be the host, they will know your name and you will get the thank you and you will have access.

“Cheers!

“Phin Sprague, Jr.”


Dear Phin,

I must admit that at first I was a little taken aback by the heading of your letter. Just what was it that you were planning for us to bare?! Just what kind of economy did you want to activate? Only when I got to the part about being re-coned did I see what you were really proposing.

What a clever idea! I am totally in awe. (Read between the lines, indeed.) I sincerely hope our group signs up en mass so that we can attract from the highest ranks of the administration – if not the President and Vice President themselves, then at least the Attorney General or the Secretary of Defense.

Once we’ve convinced them of our bona fides, we can lure the Bush-Cheney lackeys into a visit to our ‘facilities’. Then, we can administer the coupe de grace: run Beldar and Prymatt right into the stall with them. Those inimitable Conehead antics will surely provide just the right antidote to their incipient constipation.

Yes, yes, sign me up. Twill be a noble thing, to bare…the cones! They will certainly know my name after that! Econeominc activism at its best.

Best regards,

Win

August 13, 2004 in Local Politics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

More Taxing

Like the idiot I am, I have gotten involved in trying to solve the controversy in our town over property taxation. ML and I are both on the second committee drafted by the selectmen to recommend a way to bring our property tax policy into conformation with state law while still maintaining open space and the rural character of our town.

knight_farm.JPG

Our town has been taxing land at about 10% of market value and homes at about 80% of market value. This has drawn complaints from citizens with expensive houses on small lots who feel they pay more than their fair share. State law says all property shall be assessed at market value, although there are also provisions for valuing land at ‘current use value’ if it is open space, farm or forest.

The first committee to study this problem recommended that the town do a revaluation immediately, at considerable expense, and that the revaluation value everything at market value. Their recommendation would have saved members of their own committee many thousands of dollars. It would also have raised the taxes on the largest farm in town, about 500 acres owned by a long time local farm family, by $12,000 per year. This would not have helped preserve the rural character of the town.

Fortunately, the town meeting resoundingly defeated a warrant item appropriating the money for said revaluation.

As my contribution to the first meeting of our new committee, I did a very rough Cost of Community Services study for our town. I found that, even with our skewed valuation of land versus buildings, we spend less than $.50 on open space/farms/forest for every $1.00 of revenue it generates. On the other hand we spend $1.12 on services to residential property for every $1.00 it generates. Moreover, if we raise taxes on land, those with the most expensive houses will save the most, while those with the least expensive houses will see their taxes rise the most.

Now it is our job to satisfy the disgruntled, or remove any cause for action, by finding away to treat land and buildings equally, while minimizing any tax increases on large land parcels, especially those held by long time residents without deep pockets. Any thoughts or advice are most welcome.

April 21, 2004 in Local Politics | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

What don't you understand about dumpster?

The weather is warming up, the snow is mostly gone, and I'm starting to get my morning aeorbics walking the country roads again. What I can't understand is why people prefer to dump their garbage on the roadsides. Not only the occasional beer bottle and McDonalds detritus, but multiple cheap bursting black 30 gallon trash bags of garbage. It really sours my opinion of the human race.

The Conservation Commission gave a forester permission to build a temporary road across town land to harvest some timber from his back lot, but with the proviso that he block the road off at night so it wouldn't get used as a dump. Not good enough... while he was working in broad daylight, someone came in and dumped a refrigerator. What pigs we be.

March 30, 2004 in Local Politics | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Investing in the Past

Yesterday, I became a trustee of a local maritime museum. I suspect that most of the other trustees either have money or know money, but there are a few of us who are in the maritime business in some way. I suspect it is their hope that we have some expertise or enthusiasm to bring to bear. I do have some ideas about what a maritime museum should be and do, but it's a little early to say whether they are in harmony with the views of my fellow trustees.

We spent most of the morning in an exercise to envision what the museum will be like in about five years. There was a lot of discussion of programs and campus and visitor experience and staff and budget and endowment, but surprisingly little about collection.

The museum has undertaken to raise funds for a giant sculpture - an evocation of the Wyoming, the largest wooden schooner ever built. It will be a full scale skeletal outline of the ship, over 400 feet long and 50 feet wide, with six towering masts and a huge jib boom. It will sit in pretty much the exact spot where the original was built and from which it was launched in 1909. I have mixed feelings about an evocation of a wooden ship made from steel (which it will be - and painted white as befits a skeleton). But, if nothing else, the new Wyoming will be a spectacular sight and a huge billboard for the musem, drawing visitors to its other attractions.

March 21, 2004 in Local Politics | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Cost of Community Services

Last night I went to a presentation by Whit Whitney of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust about land conservation. He made two points that stuck with me. They were both things that I'd heard before, but not quite as well stated.

First, he said that there are three ways to conserve land permanently. Your town (or state) can buy it and make it a park; a non-profit can acquire it and make it a preserve; the owner can place a conservation easement on it. When the town buys land it has to pay for it up front, it has to pay to maintain it, and it loses it from the tax rolls. When a non-profit acquires land, it may leave the tax rolls, although the nonprofit may elect to make a payment to the town in lieu of taxes. When the owner places a conservation easement on land, it stays on the tax rolls although maybe at a reduced rate. So all forms of conservation cost the local political entity something, at least in the short run. But conservation easement is the least expensive form of conservation.

His second point was that conservation was actually a good investment. Why? Because development, especially residential development, always costs more than conserved open space. That might seem counter-intuitive, since new development brings in new tax revenues. But it turns out that services required by residential development always cost more than this development brings in in revenue.

The evidence of this is provided by studies of the costs of community services. These studies attribute portions of community revenues and expenses to the land use that generates them. If you look at the revenues and expenses that are attributable to residential, commercial, and open space/agricultural areas in a community you get a ratio of dollars spent per dollar brought in by each type of land use. Across 70 of these studies around the country residences invariably cost more than revenue attributable to them, while for both commercial and open space the opposite is true. Usually, this ratio is three to four times greater for residential than for open space.

Of course, there's no mystery to the fact that services for people cost more than services for empty space. No one would want a town with no residents, would they? But a balance of residences and open space is a good thing. Thinking that more development will reduce taxes is absolutely wrong.

It would be interesting to see such a study for our town. At the moment, forest, farmland, and open space are taxed by our town at a much lower rate than residential, so our ratios might be less unbalanced. Is this another way to judge fairness?

February 11, 2004 in Local Politics | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Windchill

Last night ML and I went for a crosscountry ski with a couple of friends. A calm night, a brilliant moon - quite a beautiful hour, even though I'd had a little too much rum and wine to experience it with the clarity I would have liked.

Today, I was sober, and the sun was bright, but the temperature was colder than last night, and the wind was howling. As a sailor, I'm supposed to like wind (thus the title of these musings). But there are winds, and there are winds. Today's wind was bitter and nasty enough to make anyone want to stay home by the fire and do the Times crossword.

Instead, ML and I trekked out to the Democratic caucus. Our little town sends five delegates to the state convention. Kerry won three; Edwards and Kucinich, one apiece. After the first ballot, it was Kerry 3, Edwards 1, and Dean 1, but those who were supporting candidates without enough support to garner a delegate got to change their vote. Some uncommitteds went to Kucinich, and, when it looked like the Dean supporters were going to lose their delegate, they were persuaded to drop Dean and join Edwards with the hope of depriving Kerry of one of his delegates. It didn't work out, but, once again, showed Dean's support to be pretty shallow.

It was interesting to see how the locals lined up and to hear the arguements made for each candidate. There was perfect unity on one issue: beat Bush. Just the mention of our President seems to chill people like today's wind.

February 8, 2004 in Local Politics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

My Candidate

In honor of North Dakota Primary day, I took the Presidential Match candidate compatability test. It turns out that Dennis Kucinich is my candidate, closely followed by Al Sharpton. Then John Kerry and Howard Dean in distant third and fourth, respectively.

That is not the way I had them sorted in my head. Could it be that I am one of those irrational voters who doesn't vote for the candidate who most closely mirror his own position on the issues? I was kind of enjoying the prospect of the Dems quickly uniting behind the 'electable' John Kerry.

I once sailed in an overnight race with Kerry's father, Dick on his somewhat less than immaculate Ericson 35. He was a fairly down to earth type. He served as cook as well as skipper on the race. His recipe for stew for dinner consisted of pouring an extra large can of Dinty Moore and a bottle of cheap red wine into a pot, stirring and heating to slightly above luke warm. I got the feeling he didn't want to cook off any of the volatiles. John may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but it surely didn't come from the galley of his father's boat.

The Kerrys weren't Irish, though you'd be excused for thinking so. Dick's father was an Austrian Jew originally named Fritz Kohn, he chose the name Kerry after discovering County Kerry in Ireland. As an Northern Irish American, I have no problem with that. You can choose your country, and your name.

February 3, 2004 in Local Politics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Homeland Security

I had occasion to visit the Boston office of the US Customs service yesterday. If this office is the result of our giant government reorganization for a heightened level of alertness, I hate to think of what it must have been like two and a half years ago. There were about 30 "Reserved for US Customs Visitors" parking spaces, all full. All empty spaces were marked "reserved" with signs threatening to tow violators immediately. I risked all and became a violator. Entering the customs office lobby, there were no visitors - no visitors' chairs, even.

There was a visitors' window half covered by a screen, with a moveable office partition right behind it screening the view into the office. There was a little bell at the window. After ringing the bell a couple of times, I stuck my head through the window and craned my neck far enough to see around the partition into a vast office, with many empty desks and a few uniformed customs 'officers', some shuffling papers, some with their feet up drinking coffee or standing around shooting the breeze. No visitors in sight. Finally go someone's attention.

I won't go on with the story, because it depresses me. Suffice it to say I wasn't impressed by the alertness of the program. After I got out, on the way back to Maine, I stopped and bought a case of wine on sale. I feel safer already.

January 23, 2004 in Local Politics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Conservation?

I'm on our town conservation commission. We are slowly getting back to business after several years of somnolence. We are discussing what should be the goals for the management of town lands - balancing uses like recreation, wildlife habitat and plant species preservation, income from timber harvesting, what?

Mostly the land parcels had been acquired by tax lien years ago when they weren't considered to be worth much. A few of the large parcels have been harvested of timber, but mostly they have sat there, undeveloped, available for public access, hunting, etc., but never promoted for any use.

One of us suggested that we make it a goal in these tough economic times to try to produce income from timber harvesting equal to the revenue the land would bring from property tax if it were on the tax rolls. Another suggested that if we were including economic issues in our plan, we should have the lands appraised for possible sale. After all, we could sell one (or more) of the large pieces to a well healed buyer, with a conservation easement limiting development to one house, requiring most of the land to be left 'forever wild', perhaps even requiring some public access. We could get a large sum for the town coffers and add a big sum to the annual property tax rolls.

What is conservation? Probably not selling our land, we agree. We're making progress...

January 12, 2004 in Local Politics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack