February 20, 2009

The Town Governments Need the Taxpayers' Help

Justin Katz

The bottom line for Tiverton — indeed, for all of Rhode Island — came into stark relief at last night's Budget Committee meeting. The town's infrastructure is crumbling. Taxes have been skyrocketing. The schools are laying off teachers and talking about cutting into services. And town officials are insisting that there is simply no way in which they can avoid raising taxes in the double digits — during the worst economic downturn in three-quarters of a century.

As a prelude, the Department of Public Works Director Stephen Berlucchi detailed how much ground his staff must cover and how dramatic is the disrepair of the town's infrastructure. By all accounts, the DPW employees work very hard, but the fact remains that, with overtime, longevity, and sick-time buy-backs, their average income allotted in the currently proposed budget is $47,877.60. That doesn't count benefits or pensions. Mr. Berlucchi noted that their work time is all too precious, but they get two weeks of vacation to start, which climbs to three weeks after five years, and (possibly) four weeks after ten years. Factoring in their twelve sick days per year, that's potentially more than a full man-year in paid time off.

The matter of real interest, though, came from the school department's turn at the microphones. The conversation was quite revealing when the elephant in the room stepped from the shadows: stream, download.

Superintendent William Rearick: It's one thing to have discussions and say what the objectives may or may not be, but until you've done it and faced the full fury of an organization that has over 2.1 million members nationally, has unlimited resources, and will go after elected officials on the school committee and family members and say or do whatever --- it's not an easy process. And I'm saying it from experience, and I'm speaking for my former chairman, and my vice chairman, and my current members that went through that horrible process. It's not easy.

And when we were going through it, quite frankly, there weren't a whole heck of a lot of people standing shoulder to shoulder with us when we were taking on the battle, when we were the tip of the spear. And I think people need to know that. It's one thing to to pontificate about this that or the other thing. It's another thing to actually do it, to sit there and then have to withstand the assault that you will come under during negotiations.

The teachers unions, whether you like them or not, they're very powerful, well organized, and the way it's structured now, in my opinion, until we get a statewide contract, local school committees will always be under that gun.

It's just simply not that simple. I just ask people to take that in mind, having lived through it, having seen people's families negatively affected by it to the point where they're still affected by it --- needs to be taken under consideration. In simple terms: easier said than done, and folks need to consider that when the rubber hits the road.

Budget Committee Member Thomas Parker: So you're actually intimidated by contractual negotiations?

Rearick: Sir, I went eighteen months toe-to-toe with the toughest teachers union in this country. I'm not intimidated by them or anyone.

Parker: Well you just implied that you were.

Rearick: I'm telling you that they went after school committee members personally.

Former School Committee President Denise DeMedeiros: I was not intimidated.

Parker: What kind of organization is this you're dealing with that intimidates you and threatens your family?

DeMedeiros: That's what I asked every day the last year, and we were not intimidated. We did the very best we could. And my family...

Parker: Mr. Rearick just said that they were intimidating.

DeMedeiros: Of course they're intimidating. Wouldn't they intimidate you if they went after your job and your children? Wouldn't that be intimidating to you?

Parker: I've been in combat, lady...

[Crowd noise.]

Demedeiros: I'm very glad you just did that, because you just did that in front of the camera, and people in this town know who I am and know what I have done and what I went through the last year.

Parker: My point is this: You're dealing with an organization which has intimidated you, which has threatened your families.

DeMedeiros: Yes.

Parker: And you admit it here, and as a result... what kind of an organization are you dealing with? That's the only question I'm asking.

DeMedeiros: That's what we asked every day for the last year. It's called a labor union. NEA, actually.

Rearick: And we weren't intimidated, because we didn't concede the field.

Parker: So you're saying the NEA are the ones who intimidated you?

Rearick: They're the labor union that we had to deal with. They didn't intimidate us.

The bottom line is that those who populate municipal governments are placed before an orchestrated assault. It's little wonder that labor costs are scraping the services from the budget. And it's easy to empathize with the frustration that elected officials — essentially volunteers — have expressed as the local citizen group, Tiverton Citizens for Change, has stepped into the mix to push back against the union tide. In their view, they've stood up for their town and done as well as they believed possible in the face of extremely powerful interest groups that aren't afraid to throw stones and sling mud.

The boards and committees aren't empowered to fight against such dominating strength. In addition to behaving beyond officials' moral boundaries, the unions act and organize beyond their scope, controlling the fundamentals of the debate. Each town union's victorious negotiation gives every other town's union leverage to compare salaries. The dynamic infects even discussions about student performance. When Budget Committee Member Cynthia Nebergall raised the issue of unacceptable test scores, the superintendent's argument entailed comparisons across the state and across the nation (stream, download. But none of those comparisons rise above the core problem.

We who see must organize at the state level and remove some of shackles that bind our towns and cities, but even more importantly, taxpayers must begin to stand as a group and let the unions know that their game is over by cutting budgets and thereby forcing deep concessions. The school committee stands on its record of resisting last year's onslaught, but the reality is that the union simply wouldn't come down to a number that the district could concede. The teachers took the town's appropriation, tacked some more demands on top of it, and then began their campaign of intimidation.

It has to stop.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

Col. Tom "one-term" Parker wants to know why his taxes went up 11%. Since he's on the budget committee it's disappointing that he doesn't realize it's because the town just built $31M of new schools. If he didn't want to support that vote (yes, it was a 2/3's vote of the town) he should have graced another community with his presence.
It is truly amazing watching (some members of) the Budget Committee embarrass themselves try to jam $3.5M in debt service into a $34M budget without any regard to the consequences.
I enjoyed the colonel’s incessant gum chewing throughout the proceedings; it provided the appropriate level of dignity that was warranted by the committee.

Posted by: Will Elvis Please Leave the Building? at February 20, 2009 7:41 AM

This is why I've been saying that as long as we're going to have plumbers, programmers, stay at home moms, accountants (ie. School Committee members) professionally negotiating a contract with professional negotiators, the taxpayers are going to lose every time. Why not send me up to go face a Josh Beckett fastball, or to quarterback the Patriots. It's not going to work.

We need someone higher up, like say the Governor's Office to create a team of professional negotiators for the purpose of negotiating town contracts. Basically hired guns from the state.

If we can't do that, then we need to take the negotiating power out of the hands of locals and do it on the state level for all districts. One school district, one fire district, one police district, etc. We can't have soccer moms and dads negotiating with the NEA during some spare evenings in the late summer. It doesn't work.

Posted by: Patrick at February 20, 2009 8:13 AM


Perish the thought that we would resort to using democratic means to select our representatives in a democracy. Maybe King Carcieri will appear before us so all will see his splendid clothes.

Posted by: Phil at February 20, 2009 8:42 AM

Phil, I don't care which Governor's office does it, I just think it needs to be done. I think the locally, democratically elected School Committees need help with their negotiating skills, from someone who knows the game and has the experience in this state. If there's a Governor Roberts, Cicilline, Caprio or a Republican, I don't really care. I'm just sick of our school committees bending over for the NEA and then asking for more.

Posted by: Patrick at February 20, 2009 10:20 AM

Did the superintendent and DeMedeiros say they were "intimidated" or not? They seemed to go back and forth with that idea. To me it seemed they were more intimidated by Mr. Parker! No wonder why the school is having all these problems.

Posted by: Slightly confused at February 20, 2009 11:18 AM

There is only one solution to this problem, and, given the multiyear exodus from RI of middle class and affluent voters who aren't benefiting from "the system", it isn't going to result from a political process. It is multiple municipal bankruptcies, and drained public sector pension funds, that will finally force a dramatic restructuring of RI's public sector compensation and welfare programs. Anything we can do to hasten the day when RI "hits bottom" will hasten the arrival of the upturn we keep hoping will one day come to the Ocean State.

But let's be brutally honest: there is no other solution.

Posted by: John at February 20, 2009 12:40 PM

In any budget discussion, note should be made of the wasteful practice of having a policeman in a car standing around (on overtime?) at each road repair site.
What a waste of taxpayer money!

Posted by: Andrew B at February 20, 2009 1:05 PM

Actually, those detail police officers are actually paid by the contractor/utility doing the work, not the taxpayers.

Now that leads me to another angle as we all squabble over government folks, their pay and benefits.

Can we get a National Grid worker to tell us when the PUC regulated utility workers last went without a pay raise? Can we also find out what their health care premium co-share percentage is? After all, as a regulated semi-monopoly, shouldn't we know that our constantly increasing utility rates aren't subsidizing employees not subject to the same challenges as the real private sector?

I'd really like to know the answer to those two questions, because I pay more for my utilities than I do for my property taxes.

Anyone have the answer?

Posted by: john at February 20, 2009 1:17 PM

In response to Andrew B's comment regarding police officers on at road details. Those details actually MAKE cities and towns money.
The police officers on those details are paid directly by the individual companies. The officer submits pay slips through their payroll office. The city/town payroll office then surcharge the company an administrative fee to recoup the cost of having the town/city process the paperwork. This surcharge is factored into the officer's hourly wage. On top of that, most communities charge the companies for the use of the police vehicle to cover gas and "wear and tear." These funds go back into the department's vehicle maintenance fund or directly to the local coffers. Most companies doing road work factored in costs for traffic control due to liability issues for the company.

Posted by: patrick at February 20, 2009 3:56 PM

And the road construction projects are paid for by who? Er, the taxpayers.

Have you ever seen road construction projects in Europe? Or Canada? No police details. Rather, common sense -- and less cost (they also spend more up front, which reduces long-term maintenance and overall lifecycle costs for a road).

Think this through all the way, will you? FOLLOW THE MONEY.

Posted by: John at February 20, 2009 4:05 PM

John - when US drivers are as well educated as Europeans - and prove it with a rigorous test, then I'll agree that we can dispense with police details. There are a lot of advantages to converting to a strict European style licensing system. The first would be that you'd get rid of about half the drivers and consequently most all the congestion. They simply couldn't hack the skills or written tests. Until then, let's have the cops to scare the motorists into slowing down and respecting the worker's right to live. Incidentally, a euro system wouldn't save any money - it costs thousands of dollars to take all the courses and test to get a license in Germany.

But I definitely agree that they have better design and implementation of roadwork in Europe - including the signage which is often embedded in the road where you can't miss it at night.

Posted by: chuckR at February 20, 2009 4:49 PM

Well stated John. I really do not think that this would be the proper forum to debate global transportation economics. How these are accomplished in other countries really have no bearing on what happens here. My God, we can not get cities and towns to act congruently never mind the attempt to discuss what other nations are doing. I am open to solutions as much as the next taxpayer but there is also a very stark reality to face; we are not the first nor last to discuss these issue but I do not see them changing any time soon. We can only try to shed light on these issues instead of heat.

Posted by: patrick at February 20, 2009 4:57 PM

Excuse me, Well stated chuckR.

Posted by: patrick at February 20, 2009 4:59 PM

Yes, as you say it "has" to stop.
But it won't. We're still too many years of shucking, jiving, tap-dancing and tax-anticipation notes away from the Reckoning.
It shall come though, have no doubt.

Posted by: Mike at February 20, 2009 7:03 PM


I would direct you to check into the legal expenses incurred by school committees around the state when they are involved in contract negoiations with teachers. Check the East Providence school committee and find the amount the town is willing to pay a hired gun as it tells anyone that will listen that they have no money.

Posted by: Phil at February 21, 2009 8:58 AM

My take on their comments was that the union was attempting to use intimidation tactics against them, but they either were not intimidated or didn't want to admit they were intimidated.

I spoke at a school committee meeting in Cranston recently. Magically, roofing nails appeared at the end of my driveway. I was not performing any home improvement projects at the time.

Posted by: Donald Botts at February 21, 2009 10:48 AM

>>I would direct you to check into the legal expenses incurred by school committees around the state when they are involved in contract negoiations with teachers. Check the East Providence school committee and find the amount the town is willing to pay a hired gun as it tells anyone that will listen that they have no money.

Which is a bit like criticizing a homeowner for the expense of installing Brinks Home Security, or purchasing a shotgun, for defending their home against burglars.

Were the General Assembly to repeal the statute permitting collective bargaining by teachers we could pay them professional-level compensation (in return for professional-level performance) WITHOUT the expenses of contract negotiations, court appearances, Labor Board appearances, Caruolo suits, grievances, "work to rule" and strikes.

The teachers unions harm children, parents, taxpayers .. and those teachers who really do wish to be professionals. The unions existence offers nothing that is positive to the polity of Rhode Island.

Posted by: Tom W at February 21, 2009 12:36 PM
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