Budget Hearing: Council Considers Level Funding; Vote Planned Wednesday

by | Jun 5, 2018

25 people spoke during public comment, mostly in favor of higher school funding.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

East Greenwich, R.I. – In Town Manager Gayle Corrigan’s latest budget iteration Monday night (find it here: June 4 ’18 Budget), the increase in the tax rate went from nearly 4 percent down to zero. But by cutting $900,000 from town expenses, Corrigan managed to give the schools $500,000.

That still shorts the proposed school budget by $800,000, but is more than $400,000 higher than the budget Corrigan presented last week.

The cuts on the town side include $402,652 in capital items – a mowing tractor, a dump truck and plow, two police cars, fire breathing masks and hydraulic rescue tools and the harbormaster boat. That would leave $686,471 still in the budget for capital items, up nearly $200,000 from current year spending.

Corrigan’s June 4 budget also cuts $151,428 in other unidentified line items as well as eliminating an optional $350,000 contribution toward an OPEB trust fund. OPEB stands for “other post-employment benefits,” mainly health care costs, for retired municipal and school department workers. Right now, the town is paying those costs out of general funds but as the number of retirees increase, a trust fund will be necessary. And, in fact, payments into the fund will be mandatory starting in 2020, but they are not mandatory yet, so the $350,000 can be cut.

In addition, Corrigan said her budget reflected a total staff reduction of eight people. She did not respond to a request for elaboration, but she has said publicly that she has cut two detective positions by attrition (if two police officers leave the EGPD, two of the department’s five detectives would have to move into that spot). Detective positions are not mandated by the contract, so they can be left open. Corrigan and Town Council President Sue Cienki both said Monday that there were no plans to eliminate a school resource officer, despite earlier discussion. Cienki said getting rid of one of the two SROs was never on the table.

While Cienki has taken pains over the past year to decry the state of our unfunded pension and OPEB liabilities, on Monday that took a back seat to eliminating higher taxes. If it came down to funding the OPEB trust fund at least a little or keeping taxes where they are, Cienki appeared to be in favor of keeping taxes the same.

At the start of the hearing, which was attended by approximately 180 people, she reminded everyone that residents – specifically, 4,200 households – are responsible for 90 percent of the tax revenue.

“There are no easy answers,” she said. She then read off a few of the suggestions she’d received from residents to bring more money into town coffers, including getting more money from New England Tech (that money is scheduled to increase this year, according to the state PILOT program); have the police hand out more tickets; increase fees; and increase the sales tax.

“What do all these have in common? They ignore the real problem,” Cienki said, again calling for a major restructuring of the town. In particular, she was referring to union contracts. All four municipal union contracts are up in fiscal year 2019.

While Corrigan’s $400,000-plus boost to the school budget blunted some of the criticism that came her way during public comment, many of the 25 people who spoke urged the Town Council to fund the school budget at the level that was requested – with an additional $1.3 million, not $500,000.

During Cienki’s earlier comments, she’d said, “We want what we want but we don’t want to pay for it.”

Listening to all those who spoke during public comment, however, painted a different picture. Many said they were willing to pay more in taxes if it meant funding the schools.

“My husband and I bear responsibility for appropriately supporting the education of the students in East Greenwich, and that’s through our taxes. It’s what we’re all supposed to do as citizens, isn’t it?” said Mary Madden, who said they pay around $12,000 a year in taxes. “I hope that you support the proposed school budget in its entirety.”

“Not to fund our school district is a disservice to everybody that lives in this town,” said Mark Gertsacov, a title attorney who mentioned what several others also said, that housing prices are directly related to the quality of the schools and a decrease in funding could jeopardize EG schools. “Maybe we have to dig deep and say, ‘We need to fund this because it’s important to us.’”

“Year after year, the percent of the town’s expenditures dedicated to education continues to be a smaller percent, even with growing enrollment and expensive mandated initiatives,” said parent Nicole Bucka. According to Bucka, East Greenwich spends 58 percent of its budget on education while Barrington spends 73 percent.

Colby Anderson, EGHS Class of 2017, a student at Mass Maritime Academy and a volunteer at with the EGPD, used himself as an example.

The investment you all make in the East Greenwich public education system truly doesn’t go to waste here,” he said. “It ensures that every student, including myself, or any student that has a special need or anything like that … has an opportunity. Students like myself often fall through the cracks. Failing to fund schools will result in that. So you need to fund the schools so kids like myself will get that opportunity.”

“I’d like to preface this by saying, it’s really disheartening to see how adversarial this room is…. I’m just a student. But this is local government, not ‘House of Cards,’” said an EGHS student.

“If that’s your best effort, it’s not enough,” she said. “You’re failing us.”

EGHS student Josh Petteruti spoke about the importance of school nurses, but first addressed the tension in the room.

“I’d like to preface this by saying, it’s really disheartening to see how adversarial this room is…. I’m just a student. But this is local government, not ‘House of Cards,’” he said, referring to the cutthroat Washington D.C. TV drama. “I don’t really understand how it could have gotten to this point.”

One man at the meeting Monday who asked to remain anonymous and sympathetic to the Town Council, also commented on the atmosphere at the meeting.

For a culture that decries bullying, the School Committee supporters (and even the committee itself) seemed to be in full bully mode, from velvet-gloved insults to loud shouting and zealous applause at every swipe being taken,” he said in an email Tuesday. “One would think the Town Council was Scrooge, threatening to send the kids to the workhouse! EG has serious financial problems. This Town Council did not create them. They’re just trying to find a way to regain fiscal control, but instead help they get kneecapped. Last night I was ashamed of my town.”

A few commenters took the Town Council to task for what they said were misleading numbers, scare tactics and a lack of information.

“I’d like to see more fiscal impact studies,” said resident and Town Council candidate Renu Englehart. In particular, she said she wanted to see studies on the cost of implementing a firefighter 56-hour work week, and on the cost of moving town and school employees around. Cienki said later that the construction needed to create new office space for school employees at Town Hall and town employees at the school department–public works building was not going to cost anything because it was being done in house. While some of that work will be done in house, some of the work on Town Hall needs to be contracted out. No estimates were made available for that work.

Another Town Council candidate, Caryn Corenthal, compared town officials to Chicken Little with regard to pensions.

“The sky is not falling. You are misleading the community and creating a false narrative. You are doubling down on the wrong information,” said Corenthal, who said she had spoken at length to someone at the state treasurer’s office on the town’s debt and pension liabilities.

School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark said the schools needed additional funding.

“The schools do not have a spending problem; we have a revenue problem,” she said, echoing in reverse the mantra this past year of both Cienki and Councilman Nino Granatiero. “And the Town Council can remedy that.”

The meeting also included an overview of the town’s 2017 fiscal year audit. Read more about the audit here.

The Council meets again Wednesday, June 6, at Swift Community Center at 7 p.m. A vote on the budget is on the agenda. By Town Charter, the council must approve a budget on or by June 10.

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