Council Corner: Decision Time—Again
By Don Hamill, Town Council
In the midst of our annual budget cycle in May I wrote an article appealing for us as a Public, Town Council and Staff to prioritize our large capital items. They included the Library Expansion $13MM ($18MM+ including all costs), School Facilities Improvements ($130MM+) and a Community Center and Pool ($35MM+). I recommended the following actions:
1) The Town Council, Board of Education and Town Staff must first analyze the top 3 capital project priorities, discuss, and recommend a path forward with timing and steps.
2) This group must engage the project sponsors and the public to facilitate a vigorous discourse on options to validate priorities and plans. We have had a solid track record of this - utilizing workshops and ad hoc committees including the Charter Commission and Community Center and others.
3) The Town Council needs to be the gatekeeper for what moves forward to the public for approval, according to our authority under the town charter and ordinances.
4) The public needs to be responsible to approve large capital expenditures based on ballot measures determined by the Town Council, in a town-wide vote.
We have devoted much time and energy as a Council to define the Library project more clearly and have made a very preliminary step forward by modeling various scenarios for capital appropriations with our external bond advisor. This has led to a “spreadsheet duel” between the Council, Town Staff and citizen activist groups. After all of this we are at a standstill. The Library is demanding we put $12. 9MM on the ballot in November to “Let the Public Decide” via a political campaign funded by private donations; and SMARTaxes and SAGA (Scarborough Alliance for Government Accountability) have responded in kind. There has been no success with reducing the scope of the project or capturing synergies and efficiencies by combining programming and facilities.
In the meanwhile, the Council and Town Staff have been occupied with other matters. We have discussed a GMO exemption request from the Downs for 430 units which has failed to reach an agreement. It has been followed by a second exemption with both pending as of this date.
We are struggling with short term measures to address homelessness and uptick in crime with no path forward for shelter or temporary housing. We continue to operate without Directors of Finance or Public Works. We are just now onboarding a new Planning Director. This has placed the Town Council Chair and Council in a vortex of pseudo sponsorship - filling in for work that is the domain of the Town Manager or having to find outside resources to do the subject matter expert work.
We are reacting to events rather than leading processes and initiatives to put us on the right track. The four steps outlined above stand a good chance of simply being tossed into the dustbin of history, while we as a leadership group and a community continue to let events manage us.
We should be spending our time on evaluating our Fiscal Health. This includes scenario planning and pressure testing our so-called “growth engine” to see if we really can continue to increase our debt load while our fund balance declines. The current economic indicators including interest rates, inflation, and other key metrics are predicting hard times ahead. We need to change the way we’re doing business in Scarborough, or prepare to fail. This is a race against time that we cannot afford to lose.
Time to hit the pause button and get our house in order. Let’s begin by placing the Library project on hold until we can answer all of the open questions surrounding it and competing development projects and create a plan we can all follow together.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Scarborough Town Council.