The Warwick City Council, to their credit, are unquestionably dedicated public servants who put in hours of work, for very little pay, to try and make decisions that benefit their constituents and the city as a whole. It is a job that not many can do, and one that even fewer want to do.
They exercised great due diligence in going over every detail of the proposed $85 million bond put forward by the Warwick School Department to make crucial repairs to our public schools, and they were right to ask as many questions as possible pertaining to the city’s ability to bond and pay off the debt incurred by that bond.
However, when the time came to make a decision – to take a stand – on what steps will be taken to address the future of public education in Warwick, rather than push forward with a strong united plan, the council chose to chop the bond in half, waffle on the fence and express with legislative overtness their distrust in a school administration which has unquestionably performed its own due diligence.
The council made it a point on Jan. 22, the first of two special meetings to reach a consensus on whether or not to support the bond, to declare their inability to make a decision without conferring with the city’s bond counsel. They delayed the decision until Tuesday night, in part, because they wanted to be able to ask those questions.
Yet, when Ms. Karen Grande explicitly answered that splitting up the bond into two referendums – one to be voted on in November, and another one in 2020 – was a risky move that she specifically did not recommend, the council did it anyways.
The risks of the decision are clear. There is no guarantee that one bond referendum will pass, and it is even more uncertain that taxpayers will vote for another one just two years later.
This is made riskier since it involves improvements at each of the city’s schools, some of which may get all their most important repairs done from the first bond. Why would a taxpayer from a part of the city that gets all its necessary work done vote in favor of another bond – which effectively means voting for tax increases for the foreseeable future to pay off the debt service – just two years later?
Alleging that residents will simply vote selflessly for the benefit of their city as a whole – and put others before themselves even though they will gain nothing but a tax increase from that decision – might work as part of a hopeful statement in a political advertisement, but it is far removed from reality.
Outside the hypothetical scenario of whether or not the second bond fails, leaving a huge portion of the city’s children and teachers in schools that continue to degrade without any recourse to repair them, is a much more likely and costly scenario – what if the state reimbursement rate either goes down or vanishes entirely?
There is no guarantee that the $250 million state bond referendum will pass and give us a 50 percent reimbursement rate, however we are already guaranteed a 40 percent rate for school capital projects approved this year. There is no such guarantee two years from now – when our current governor and her cabinet spearheading these efforts might not even be in office anymore. Raimondo’s opponents all warn of the state’s growing deficit. It is unlikely at best, should she lose, they would be willing to continue financing at that level moving forward.
Therefore, locking in the full $85 million bond for at least a 40 percent reimbursement rate is actually the safer and fiscally responsible move. Splitting it up means you’re getting less in guaranteed return and opening yourself up to more uncertainty.
The council waxed poetical for hours over the past months about how they needed to be prudent and conservative. They took cheap shots completely unrelated to the bond simply as a means of antagonizing the school department, and some councilpersons openly expressed their distrust of the department due to past demons and transgressions from a completely separate administration.
Ironically, their final action – the result of so many hours of due diligence – may wind up proving to be more financially damaging to the city, and causing more drama for the city’s schools and its students, than if they had just gone ahead and rubber stamped the original $85 million request.