Another budget cycle

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It’s that time when municipalities put together the spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year. Cranston finalized its budget last week calling for a $284.6 million spending plan - $9 million more than the current year – to be financed by a 2.18 percent increase in the tax rate. Johnston’s 2018 Fiscal budget is still being compiled and this week Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian disclosed his plan for the $310.4 million budget, an increase of $11.7 million. Avedisian’s plan, which would dip into city reserves, calls for a 1.76 percent increase in the tax levy.

What promises to happen in Warwick has already played out in Cranston. It’s a familiar script where the numbers and the cast of characters change, but the arguments are basically the same. On one side are the schools and their supporters that advocate for additional funds for education and on the other is another set of taxpayers who complain that schools are wastefully spending taxpayers’ money and shouldn’t get a dime more.

In Cranston’s case, Mayor Allan Fung trimmed the school request, reducing the requested increase in funding from $1.7 million to $700,000. The council came under pressure to increase the mayor’s allocation and in the end they came up with a contingency allocation, meaning schools won’t get the extra funding to do with as they like and only if they get in a jam. That amount came out to an extra $420,795. Warwick did something akin to this several years ago when the School Committee threatened to eliminate athletic programs unless it received additional funding. Through a sweet maneuver since the role of the mayor and council is to appropriate school funds, not dictate how they are to be spent, Warwick found a way of ensuring the extra allocation went for sports.

This year the Warwick show over school funding is likely to be uglier and more personal than prior years given the dissatisfaction over secondary school consolidation and the lack of a teachers’ contract. It won’t be pretty and it doesn’t bode well for the image of schools, which are already at a low.

While designed to separate schools from politics, the system makes for discord between groups striving to do what they believe best for the community.

Might there be a better way, not just for Warwick but other municipalities?

On a recent visit to Beacon Communications, Ken Wagner, State Commissioner of Education, noted the disconnect between schools and the taxpayer. As the municipality is the taxing authority, not the schools, the mayor and council are held accountable for the budget and the tax rate. One can understand the mayor and the council’s frustrations since they take the heat, yet other than setting the lump sum appropriation can’t say how the money is spent.

In some states schools have taxing authority and the school committee must balance what they see as school needs with the taxpayers’ willingness and ability to support the program. In some municipalities School Committee members are appointed by the mayor and council thereby giving the elected officials, who are ultimately accountable to the voters, greater control over the school budget.

There are many permutations to how a system might be constructed and, surely it seems, there’s room for improvement. But as we go through this budgetary cycle on a municipal level, let’s not lose sight that this is our community, that we elected these officials and there’s a shared goal to do what’s best for us.

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