Schools at epicenter of budget debate
There are already questions about former Mayor Scott Avedisian’s proposed $310.6 million budget, but it appears there will be a limited number of people to answer them when the City Council begins the budget review Tuesday starting at 5 p.m. in Council Chambers.
Last Friday, in a move that came as a surprise to Acting Mayor Joseph Solomon, city finance director Bruce Keiser announced his immediate retirement. Keiser had worked with Avedisian in drafting a no tax increase “maintenance budget” that basically level-funded departments. Solomon acted swiftly to allay concerns that there would be no one from the prior administration to present the budget.
He issued a press release that City Treasurer Brian Silvia would step in to do the job. Then on Tuesday Solomon learned that Silvia would be leaving to accept the post of Coventry town finance director. There was some question when Silvia would leave, but on Wednesday Solomon issued a release Silvia would be staying for the budget presentation.
Critical to budget deliberations and whether the council can sustain a no tax increase spending package is the school allocation. Faced with a decline in state funding and an increase in payroll resulting from the teacher contract settled this winter, the School Committee drafted a $171.4 million budget calling for an $8 million increase in city spending.
“There is no way they are getting $8 million [more],” Ward 5 Councilman and chair of the council finance committee Ed Ladouceur vowed Tuesday. Ladouceur said he would listen to the school presentation, but he can’t see giving that much more to schools.
Ladouceur also questioned why Avedisian level funded schools.
“We know there is X amount of dollars in that contract [the teacher settlement] and you know you’re facing increases, so how can you level fund it knowing you can’t pay it?” Ladouceur asked.
Avedisian did not return a call on Wednesday.
“This is a very difficult budget season,” Ladouceur said. He finds it notable that after serving 18 years as mayor that this is Avedisian’s first no tax increase budget. Ladouceur did not expound on what he thought that meant.
As for the budget process, Ladouceur concluded, “It’s not going to be pretty and I don’t think it’s going to be painless.”
To make it as easy as possible, school finance director Anthony Ferrucci has boiled down pages of budget details into a three-page summary that he plans on presenting Tuesday night. The digest that he estimates will take about two minutes to present was emailed to council members yesterday.
Ferrucci said the intent of the document is to illustrate how contractual obligations and the economic impact of negotiations and teacher step increases affect the budget. In addition, he will show that the School Committee’s action to consolidate elementary schools will save $4 million, and if that weren’t to happen the budget request would have been for $175 million, an increase of $12 million in city funding.
Ferrucci said he aims to “connect the dots” to illustrate what has driven up department costs, the loss of $1.6 million in state revenues and the use of a $1.2 million surplus in the current budget and those impacts on the budget. He said the requested budget represents a 3.19 percent increase in overall spending. Because of the reduction in state aid and dependence on city funds to make up the difference the overall increase in city funding, should the $8 million be approved, would represent a 6.6 percent increase.
Asked about his meeting Monday with Superintendent Philip Thornton, Solomon said he was interested in learning how the schools arrived at its budget and the school’s decision to seek bids for an auditor. An auditor would be needed should the committee bring legal action on the basis that the budget approved by the council fails to adequately fund schools in compliance with state standards.
Asked specifically of the requested budget, Solomon said, “I don’t know how the taxpayers can bear that.”
While Solomon was invited to participate in the budget process and would have been presented “options” according to Avedisian, he chose to let Avedisian draft the budget.
Surely, Silvia will be asked the reasoning behind level funding schools.
In a release issued Wednesday Solomon said, “It is never easy to see an employee as dedicated as Brian leave. But, it is my understanding Brian has been looking for new professional challenges and opportunities for quite some time. I wish him nothing but the best when he starts his new position, and I look forward to his continued support as we begin budget hearings next week. He, along with my administration, will continue to work together in the best interest of the taxpayers.”
Silvia said in a statement, “I thank Mayor Solomon for his understanding and encouragement since speaking to him about my decision to take on this new role. However, I remain committed to making the budget process run as smoothly as possible. While leaving is bittersweet, I will always be grateful for the opportunity to work with the talented and dedicated employees here in Warwick.”
The release notes that Solomon has participated in the municipal budget process for the last 18 years, eight of which as Council President has spent countless hours in budget hearings and scrutinizing proposals.
The release reads, “As such, the budget will continue to be presented in a transparent way with comments and concerns from taxpayers being of the utmost importance.”