Council fills Cumberland’s remaining school budget gap

Council fills Cumberland’s remaining school budget gap

Also adds to field maintenance budget

CUMBERLAND – The Town Council’s vote last Thursday to increase funding to local schools by $659,000 wasn’t all that surprising to observers, but the fact that Republican Scott Schmitt was the source of the amendment left several of his colleagues in shock.

Schmitt said he felt filling all but about $25,000 of the school budget shortfall for 2018-2019 was the right thing to do, particularly in light of the goals school officials want to accomplish with the new funding.

The proposal followed lengthy discussion over whether filling $300,000 of the shortfall in anticipation of a rebate of that same amount coming from National Grid would become part of the schools’ bottom line going forward.

The final outcome was that both the $300,000 and another $359,000 will become part of the town’s minimum appropriation to education, or maintenance of effort, from here on out. The $359,000 represents an increase in property taxes.

The 6-1 vote in favor of Schmitt’s amendment was about the most unified the council would be at the May 31 budget hearing, a meeting lasting more than five hours that was rife with tension.

A final vote was set for Wednesday, June 6. Mayor Bill Murray said he hadn’t decided as of press time whether he would veto the budget.

The $359,000 portion of Schmitt’s amendment will increase the projected tax hike by about eight cents from the $15.80 residential tax rate Murray initially proposed, or about $20 per year, said Schmitt. Prior to the amendment, Murray’s budget carried a 38-cent tax increase. The mayor said the latest numbers available prior to Wednesday’s vote was that the new projected tax rate, which won’t be finalized until next year, would be $15.94, six cents higher than the $15.88 figure estimated last week.

Schmitt said he understands an extra few cents on the tax rate is real money to many people, and while it’s not easy to increase taxes, “I think it’s necessary.”

The $300,000 won’t increase the rate because it was already budgeted this year and the payment simply hasn’t arrived yet. With last week’s vote, the council simply made an advance payment. Murray, who had said he would hand over the $300,000 once the rebate came in, clarified that he was intending for it to become part of the schools’ bottom line. Finance Director Jason Parmelee said the $300,000 was included in the $1 million increase the administration proposed for the schools.

School leaders criticized the process, saying they need to be able to count on money coming to them when it’s promised. Supt. Bob Mitchell said last year’s conversations were clear that the $300,000 was intended to help fix the schools’ funding gap when comparing it to other districts.

Business Manager Alex Prignano, responding to questions about whether the schools would rather have the $300,000 in the 2017-2018 budget, said he would prefer to have it in the coming budget.

Prignano and Mitchell said their frustration revolves around not being able to take care of “extra” issues in schools, such as fixing a stage or addressing the high school pool’s problems, because they can’t always count on money coming in when it’s promised.

Councilor Tom Kane said the council was put on “cleanup duty,” apologizing to school officials for the frustration.

Councilor Lisa Beaulieu said having the $300,000 included in two budgets without having it in hand left officials in a bind.

Kane said he and other council members tried to forewarn everyone when officials passed “a very tight (tax) levy for next year that there wouldn’t be a lot of wiggle room to satisfy school needs.” Because of the 2017-2018 levy increase of .89 percent offered by Murray, officials were left in a “very uncomfortable” place, he said.

Using surplus funds to balance the budget is “not good financial management of the town,” he said, and leaves officials “so far behind where we need to be” to make added expenditures. Beaulieu said the council was a participant in setting the levy where it was, and “we’re going to have to address when we fail.”

Murray responded that it’s his duty as mayor to keep taxes as low as possible, and he said the matter of the $300,000 did not represent a “broken promise.” Officials simply pledged to give the money when it came in, he noted.

Schmitt agreed that he didn’t think there was a broken promise on the National Grid rebate, saying no one thought it would take so long for the money to arrive.

Schmitt said the final $25,000 gap couldn’t be closed without reducing municipal spending by that same amount.

Councilor Bob Shaw thanked Schmitt for his amendment “from the bottom of my heart.”

The council often struggles to come to conclusions on school funding, said Beaulieu, but in this case, parties came together to do what was right.

Councilor Craig Dwyer, a Murray ally, was the only no vote on the Schmitt amendment.

Kane cuts anger mayor

Kane, a political foe of Murray’s, proposed a number of cuts to the town side of the budget that had the mayor accusing the councilman of more attacks on his administration. Kane asked Council President Peter Bradley for a point of order, saying this wasn’t the mayor’s chance to belittle him.

“I would never belittle you, Mr. Kane, you’re too sharp,” Murray responded. Kane responded that he also didn’t feel like being insulted.

Among the changes approved by the council, several by narrow votes, were:

• Reducing the mayor’s office contingency account from $5,000 to zero, travel and convention spending from $500 to zero, and education and training from $5,000 to zero. The contingency item is for costs such as the staff Christmas party Murray hosts each year. The cut passed by a 4-3 vote, with Kane, Bradley, Shaw and Beaulieu voting yes.

• Reducing the town clerk line item for office equipment repairs from $250 to zero, and office equipment line from $500 to zero.

• Reducing the legal department’s line item for dues and subscriptions from $800 to $500.

• Cutting the zoning department’s office supply budget from $500 to $250.

• Slashing $6,000 in money budgeted for intern pay in the planning department to $1,000. Assistant Solicitor Chris Alger said the money ends up saving the department substantial money. Kane responded that only $600 of the line item has been expended this year.

• Reducing the assessor’s department line item for office equipment from $500 to zero, supplies from $2,500 to $2,000, travel and conventions from $1,000 to zero, computer equipment from $3,000 to $1,500, and computer expense from $2,000 to $500, for a total of $5,000.

Murray responded that he didn’t know where the council was going with its cuts, saying the assessor’s office is doing a lot of work it didn’t do in the past.

“We’re trying to run a town here,” he said.

Kane responded by reminding Bradley that the public hearing “is supposedly closed,” and said speaking should be restricted to the council.

• Cutting the inspections division by reducing the office equipment line item from $500 to zero, vehicles from $2,500 to $500, gas and oil from $4,000 to $2,000, education and training from $2,000 to $1,000, and dues and subscriptions from $750 to $500.

• Reducing public works special services from $7,000 to $5,000.

• Reducing a line in the police budget for traffic management from $5,000 to zero. This was another item Kane noted hasn’t been used.

• Cutting a $20,000 town/school achievement grant from $20,000 to zero, another item that wasn’t spent in the current year. Shaw expressed concern that the $20,000 was placed in the budget even as Murray proposed taking $1,500 away from various youth athletic groups to offset the tax levy.

• Cutting an unemployment line item from $10,000 to $5,000.

A Kane motion to reduce overtime in the senior citizen budget from $1,000 to $250 failed. A motion to reduce fringe benefits by $64,789 also failed.

Kane made a motion to reduce the Town Council salary line item from $24,400 to $17,400, eliminating raises previously considered, and the council voted unanimously to cut the raises. He also increased the council’s legal budget from $23,000 to $25,000.

A motion by Shaw to eliminate a $1,500 stipend for flag football, which he said was done with knowledge of the league, passed unanimously.

Shaw gets a partial win on fields

Councilor Shaw, who is on the board for the Cumberland Youth Soccer Association, moved to increase the budget for field maintenance from $40,000 to $52,000, and to move the line item from the Highway Department to Parks and Recreation. He offered concern that most of the money isn’t spent on the actual materials for maintaining fields, and placing the budget under the oversight of Parks and Recreation, where members are working on implementing a maintenance plan based on an outside expert’s analysis, would help ensure that the fields are being properly maintained.

Schmitt said that while the plan deserves discussion and should be addressed at some point, he worries that it could set off a “turf war” between the departments.

The council ended up holding off on switching the accounts, but did increase the budget. The extra $12,000 will come out of the Kane cuts.

Battle over legal services

Kane’s proposal to move the town’s $60,000 in special legal services and $50,000 in extraordinary legal services lines under the council’s budget, giving the council greater oversight of outside legal costs, also drew criticism from Murray.

Council attorney Kelley Morris said the town charter only gives the mayor authority to hire the solicitor and assistant solicitor, and all other hires must be made by the council. Murray responded that the hiring has never been done that way, and Morris responded that “just because we’ve never followed it doesn’t mean it’s not correct.”

Schmitt said he saw a number of potential pitfalls with Kane’s proposal, suggesting a possible compromise to keep the council in the loop on hires.

Kane and others disagreed with Assistant Solicitor Chris Alger’s assertion that the move could make the town vulnerable in key legal situations. Morris said Alger and Solicitor Tom Hefner could handle any emergency situations, meaning there is no situation she could think of where the administration wouldn’t be able to go to the council on a hire.

The council ended up moving all but $10,000 in legal funding to the council’s budget.

Kane and Murray feud

Murray said this week that Kane accomplished nothing with his $54,050 in cuts other than to continue his “beef” with the administration. Kane initially suggested lowering taxes by that amount, but he and the council instead reduced the budgeted appropriation from surplus accounts.

Many of the items represented pointless cuts, he said, particularly the intern line item his administration was planning to use to do the groundwork for development of Epheta Park.

If Kane’s cuts were an honest attempt at saving money on taxes, he would have no argument, said Murray, but this was about again attacking him and his administration and was politically motivated. He said he informed staff on Monday that many items, such as the Christmas party, likely won’t happen.

Kane responded that his cuts, supported by colleagues, affect areas of the budget that have not been exhausted in several years, thus not requiring a full funding for this year’s budget. A portion of the money will go toward maintaining athletic fields, he said.

“The balance of these cuts will remove unnecessary bloat and prevent all taxpayers in the town from over-paying on imprudent line items that are not vital to everyday municipal operations,” he added.

As it stands, the budget still calls for an almost 4 percent tax levy increase after using more than $1.5 million in surplus funds to balance properly, added Kane.  

“After this year’s initial levy process left us with a nearly $2 million gap to fill, it is more important than ever to manage essential town expenses and allocate accordingly throughout the year,” he said.

Comments

Bravo to the Mayor for trying to hold the line on taxes. Unfortunately this Council continues to feed the Schools insatiable need for more funding. I hope people remember this at election time.

In the 60 some years (40 paying taxes)that i been in this town this has to be the most irresponsible budget i have ever seen. If the council if that what they call it now a days want to play politics do it with you own money. Foolish

I'm tired of hearing that the schools are irresponsible. Show up at a meeting and ask some questions.

The state of Rhode Island has mandates that every school district in the state has to follow. One of them is step increases. This cost the school system about $650,000 a year, every year.

Come August 2018, there will be an additional 125 students that have been already identified entering the 9th grade at the high school. Those 125 extra students means the school department needs nine additional high school teachers.

Also the kindergarten registration has already exceeded space available, do we not provide teachers? maybe shut off registration?

We send our children to school praying they come back safely. Where we would practice just fire drills, now we practice active shooter drills for teachers.

Security cost money, what price are you willing to pay?

The state budget approved by the House of Representatives just mandated police officers in every school, how do you propose that gets paid for? Its not even is this years budget.

So many Monday morning quarterbacks here that would never show up at a meeting and ask for the details. But you have all the answers.

Ask a school committee member for the real facts about the budget.

Paul DiModica
Cumberland School Committee
Finance Subcommittee Chairman