LTE: Public Needs More Budget Transparency

by | Jun 9, 2021

By Nicole Bucka

I attended the Joint Town Council and School Committee meeting on Tuesday, June 1, and would like to share my comments regarding the town’s budget because the School Committee has the blessing (or curse) of my feedback at every meeting.  

I want to thank School Committee member, Dr Quinn, for his analysis of the tax rate in East Greenwich; specifically, how its ebb and flow is primarily (aside from taking on the fire department acquisition in 2012) a result of real estate fluctuations.  When property values rise, the tax rate reduces and vice versa.  I also appreciate the demonstration of how low the overall influence is of the school department’s budget because messaging over the ten or so years that I have been following this process has been contrary to this (implying that the school district is the cause of tax increases). I hope Dr. Quinn will keep those slides and show them every year to add to a transparent discussion.

There was a (positive) theme to the discussion – taxes fund services across all town departments and we have an obligation to our whole town. To that end, I can see that the Town Manager, the Superintendent, and the School Committee have been working together and it is refreshing because I was here when it was not like this. I was here in the 2017-18 fiscal audit when concerns were raised regarding transparency and how costs were reported/budgeted and more. I recognize the work that has gone into each department now having a clear dollar figure.

Part of this theme includes describing the school department as a department of the town and that across departments there is a need for equity. While I agree in some respects, I feel the public at large needs the transparency to go a bit further than the accounting.  When Town Manager Nota shows the compartmentalization of costs/budget by departments (given that the majority of all department costs are personnel/staffing), could we please have each department’s number of full-time employees by their dollar figure?  

For example…

Town Dept Proposed FY 2021 – 221 FY  2021- 22 Proposed

Full Time Employees2

Dept Total $/FTE
Police Department  $5,949,716  41.5 143,367/FTE
Fire Department  $7,342,582  39 188,271/FTE
Public Works $3,775,873  20.5 184,189/FTE
General Govt  $1,105,159  11 100,469/FTE
School Dept $43,632,155 

 

230 certified full time staff

119 Non certified full time (21 part time)

125,020/FTE

1 May 13th Council Meeting Presentation:  https://d3n9y02raazwpg.cloudfront.net/eastgreenwichri/25bd4f63-ae99-11eb-8549-0050569183fa-fb0554f7-4701-42e4-bb17-d8b81969e6dd-1620930503.pdf Pages 32-34

2 Budget Message:  http://www.,eastgreenwichri.com/DocumentCenter/View/4553  –  Pages 111-113

The school department has over 300 employees. If that is a department of the town, it might be larger than all the other departments combined. The school department also has its own IT department, Human Resources department, and costs unique to their “department” like bussing/transportation. Do police, fire, and town each have their own IT department? Human Resource department? Or do they, as I believe, use the town’s infrastructure. If so, again – that would make their department’s budget appear smaller. This is important information to include with the accounting numbers for transparency.

Related to personnel/staff costs are benefits. Continuing with the theme of equality across departments, in the 2017-18 fiscal audit by the town which was then followed by a School Committee audit (let’s not rehash here, though), it was specifically called out that the school department’s union contracts’ benefits (on both the certified and non certified side) were as trim as they could be – way leaner than other towns and that the municipal contracts are comparable to other towns if not more generous. I support all town employees but it is important, for equality, that they have comparable contracts so the needs of students and educators are also considered.

After personnel/staffing, the next largest bucket in any department is operations which is tightly tied to facilities. I will simplify it to buildings – more buildings means more upkeep, more repairs/more modernizing, more custodial and related staff, etc. The school district has six schools and two district locations for a total of eight buildings. Let’s say the town does the upkeep and staffing on the district locations (a guess), that is still six building facilities. How many do the fire department have? Two. Police? One.  Town government? Two/three. Recreation? Two. The school department spans eight buildings, operations and facilities while still maintaining a relatively low per FTE cost as shown above. This is not to say the town doesn’t do a great job, too, but that I feel it often doesn’t sound like we give the same “kudos” to the school district and School Committee/board oversight at these meetings.

Use fund balance, don’t use fund balance – personally, I don’t care (it is a trust issue).  As a member of the public, I just want to understand what is happening clearly – with context. I would like to see in future presentations that when we present the cost of each respective department with the number of employees and that we point out the nuances mentioned above in at least in talking points because to not give context either presumes the taxpayers know or can be interpreted as rhetoric. I have faith in the current leadership that is not the latter, so I hope we can continue on this path towards full transparency.

Nicole Bucka lives in East Greenwich.

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