Pembroke residents have sticker shock from their tax bills

  • School board member Dan Driscoll (left to right), co-superintendent Patty Sherman, and SAU 53 business administrator Amber Wheeler attended a special budget committee meeting Thursday evening at Pembroke Academy on Nov. 2, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Saturday, November 18, 2017

There’s a false rumor going around Pembroke that the tax bill residents received this week is wrong, and that a corrected one is on the way.

With typical spikes of $1,200 over last year’s tax bills, you could forgive someone for hoping for a clerical error. But town administrator David Jodoin wants to be clear.

“The bill that is out is correct,” he said.

The culprit is an unexpected $1 million shortfall in the school budget, which has meant a big bump in residents’s bills.

“We’re getting ‘the Grinch stole Christmas’ comments,” Jodoin said.

Town hall has been flooded, he said, either by calls or residents coming in person to vent their frustrations.

“It’s nonstop,” he said.

The town gave residents an extra 20 days to pay their taxes by extending the deadline to Dec. 27.

Jodoin said he felt like he needed to give people the additional time – but said it could make it hard for the town to pay its own bills.

“Things are going to be a little stressful here for awhile, making sure we meet our obligations,” he said.

The tax rate increase itself was relatively moderate – it went up from $29 last year to $29.76 this year. But valuations went up about 10 percent town-wide.

Patty Sherman, the co-superintendent of SAU 53, said the district has instituted a spending freeze in hopes of offsetting taxes next year.

“Purchase orders are going directly to me for review,” she said.

The district is also reviewing monthly enrollment reports at Pembroke Academy to better track its student population. The revenue shortfall in the school’s budget was mostly attributable to over $700,000 in tuition to the high school from sending towns that never materialized.

The district has been criticized for doing too little to keep an eye on enrollment, which determines tuition revenues for the district.

Gerry Fleury, the vice chair of the Pembroke budget committee, said the school should have seen the steep drop in students as early as last September. If it had been paying attention, the district could have mitigated the situation, he argued.

“There would have been latitude for the school board to freeze discretionary spending. And also, to come forward and warn people,” he said.

But Sherman said the problem was the wide variation in enrollment throughout the school year. Kids that were at Pembroke Academy in the fall weren’t necessarily there in the spring.

She couldn’t say when major exoduses occurred though, and whether they came before March, when voters finalized the budget at town meeting.

“I don’t have the information for when all of this happened,” she said. “Amber (Wheeler, the business administrator) has prepared a great deal of information, but she’s not here for me to look that up.”

Sherman has also been criticized for saying nothing when nearly 200 residents turned out for a budget committee meeting on the subject earlier this month.

“The business administrator answered questions and took the heat while the superintendent was quiet. And that bothered me,” Fleury said.

Sherman, who will make $123,224 this school year, said she stayed quiet because the district was just there to provide the budget committee information, and Wheeler had a better grasp of the numbers.

“I work for the school board,” she said.