June 11, 2017 – In a dramatic finale to a truncated budget process, the Town Council voted 4-1Thursday (6/8) to approve a $62 million budget that delivers a 43 cent tax rate decrease, the first decrease in 30 years.
“This is an important step in delivering on our promise to enact sound fiscal policy, and positions us to adopt greater tax reductions in the future,” Town Council President Sue Cienki said in a press release.
If the response of those in attendance Thursday is a guide, not everyone felt that way. The budget vote was met with boos and catcalls.
During the meeting, Town Councilor Mark Schwager urged the council to delay the vote to allow for further discussion. Cienki said it would be an abdication of the council’s responsibility if a vote wasn’t taken during the meeting.
“I think our obligation to the taxpayers is to delay this vote,” Schwager responded. “I’ve spoken to several members of the School Committee. They would welcome a delay so that they could better discuss with the council the impact of the proposals we have made to take some of their administrative costs onto the town side and the implications of the budget cuts.”
Cienki said the School Committee has no role in the town’s budget process. “They are considered a department. They are a big department [but] they are not afforded a seat at the table,” she said.
By town charter, the Town Council must approve a budget for the next fiscal year by June 10. Schwager asked what would happen if the budget was not approved until later in the month. The town solicitor said there were no legal ramifications if the budget was not passed by June 10 and that if there was no new budget passed by July 1, the town would continue under the previous year’s budget.
This year is the first without a Financial Town Meeting, which had offered voters the final say on the budget. Voters abolished the FTM last November. Now, the Town Council has final say over the budget.
As in years past, the budget process started months ago and Town Manager Tom Coyle proposed a $62 million budget in May. But in April the Town Council hired Providence Analytics to first audit the school district and then, in May, the council extended the request to have them audit the town as well. The final results were unveiled last Monday (6/5/17). But Providence Analytics did more than just review fiscal practices – the consultants also proposed a revised budget Monday. The $62 million figure remained intact – including level-funding of the schools – but the consultants proposed consolidating school and town administrative employees in the areas of IT, purchasing and human resources.
According to the proposal, the town would assume the cost of the school employees who work in those areas, thus giving the school district an additional $300,000. That’s far less than the School Committee had requested when it passed its budget in April. They had sought an increase in funding of $1.36 million. Since then, the School Committee has made cuts that include one nurse, one technology staff member, a French teacher, and several paraprofessionals. Those cuts, according to School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Mark, will still need to be made under the newly passed budget. She said Wednesday there were still a lot of unanswered questions with regard to Providence Analytics’ numbers.
It’s unclear, too, what the consolidation will mean for the staff in those consolidated areas. Cienki said those details would worked out by the Town Manager.
At the meeting Thursday, Schwager made one last attempt to sway his colleagues.
“We have a major opportunity to do some very good things for the town. We have the ability to close a very serious structural deficit that the schools had accumulated. We could restore the vast majority of [cut] positions and we could do it with a zero percent tax increase. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me,” he said. “Since the presentation of the manager’s budget over a month ago we’ve had no opportunities to discuss this in public.”
By then, however, Cienki had had enough.
“I call the question,” she said, cutting off further discussion. “A vote has to be taken.”
Cienki and councilors Nino Granatiero, Sean Todd and Andy Deutsch voted in favor of the $62 million budget; Schwager voted against.
“It’s a high-risk strategy to accomplish this all in one year,” Schwager said after the meeting. “We had talked about a multi-year effort to consolidate services. It’s going to require a tremendous amount of operational oversight and review.”
The School Committee will make final decisions on its budget on June 20, Mark said.
– Elizabeth McNamara