May 23, 2012

The Blame Game and Sowing Seeds in Woonsocket

Patrick Laverty

There's lots going on up there in Woonsocket, lots of worrying and lots of shortages on paying the bills. But why? Clearly if a town is in financial trouble, it means the Mayor hasn't been doing his job, right? He's the chief executive in the city, so that's where the buck should stop.

When you dig a little deeper though, it's easy to see that Mayor Leo Fontaine had very little, if anything, to do with the issues in Woonsocket.

The first thing that people need to understand is that the financial shortfalls that Woonsocket is experiencing are not on the municipal side, they are completely in the school department. The next thing to know is that the School Committee is independently elected, they are the ones that hire the school superintendent and the business manager. None of these report to the mayor.

Next, let's take a quick look at the school department's finances. 75% of the school's funds come from the state. As part of budget cuts over the last few years, suggested by Gov. Carcieri and passed in the budget by the General Assembly, Woonsocket received less funding. Plus, in recent years, the school department was using American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) funds to pay for positions. That too has dried up. Additionally, the previous superintendent and business manager approved spending that exceeded their budget, by millions of dollars. Making things worse, these expenditures were not even reported to the city's School Committee for approval.

So here we have an out of control school department with little to no oversight overspending their budget by millions of dollars. It can't get much worse. Actually, it can.

So why not just cut the extra spending and increase taxes to make up the difference. Simple right? No, not so much. The state's General Assembly has also enacted a cap on how much the property tax levy can be increased and for the city to make up the difference would exceed the cap. Additonally, the General Assembly has passed a law that states cities cannot spend less on their schools than they did in a previous year, so now they're locked into that extra spending each year, even though it wasn't budgeted and the city doesn't actually have the money to cover it. Additionally, the city's leaders have asked for help with the school funding from the General Assembly and haven't gotten the results they needed.

After meeting with municipal leaders, even Governor Chafee stated that a Budget Commission wouldn't help anything here because they're already doing all they can do to help themselves. Then to make things worse, we have General Assembly members from Woonsocket (Sen. Cote, Reps. Brien, Baldelli-Hunt and Phillips) stating that they'd prefer to put the city into receivership. Why? What have we seen that a receiver could fix? The problem isn't bad contracts, the problem isn't unsustainable pensions. The problem is the school department greatly overspent their budget and the Assembly and Board of Regents hasn't lifted any of the mandates on the city. They haven't been given the "tools" to help themselves.

Even the mere mention of bringing a receiver to the city is a severe black eye and likely a political death knell for the mayor. So should we ask why those four Democrats want a receiver? Especially when one of them, Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, has been rumored to be interested in the city mayor's job, replacing the Republican Leo Fontaine.

Although the mayor is not tasked with overseeing the school department, is the strategy to muddy the waters with talk of a receiver and then swoop in on election day? I guess in politics, anything is possible.

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"Making things worse, these expenditures were not even reported to the city's School Committee for approval."

Where is the police investigation on this?

"Especially when one of them, Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, has been rumored to be interested in the city mayor's job, replacing the Republican Leo Fontaine."

Hello! Well, if she gets the job AND she gets her preference that a Receiver enter the situation, she'll be a mayor in title only.

Posted by: Monique at May 23, 2012 6:34 PM

Don't get sucked into the municipal excuse-making. Here's one of the exceptions in the tax-cap legislation (44-5-2(d)(2)):

"The city or town experiences or anticipates an emergency situation, which causes or will cause the levy to exceed the percentage increase as specified in subsection (a) or (b) of this section. In the event of an emergency or an anticipated emergency, the city or town shall notify the auditor general who shall certify the existence or anticipated existence of the emergency."

Also, regarding maintenance of effort, a municipality can reduce schools if enrollment is down, and according to Census data, Woonsocket's under-18 population dropped by more than 10% from 2000 to 2010. Nobody ever wanted to have the political fight to restrain spending.

I, too, wonder why there hasn't been a criminal investigation, and I empathize with the plight of the town, but Woonsocket's been a declining city for a while, and it serves no good end to blame tax caps and other restrictions under which RI cities and towns have to operate. Where were all the complaints and rallies about mandates over the last decade?

(Note for JW: Don't take offense; ultimately, it's the voters/taxpayers culpability.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 23, 2012 8:45 PM

"Additonally, the General Assembly has passed a law that states cities cannot spend less on their schools than they did in a previous year".

As Justin points out, there is a provision for a decrease in spending due to a declining student enrollnent/population.

HOWEVER, and this is a BIGGIE . . .

How does this LAW encourage efficiency in any school department? if you KNOW you're going to minimally get at least the same $$ per student, why look to spend money more efficiently??

Where's the motivation for financial responsibility? . . . ANSWER: This is NONE.

I wonder if the teachers unions had ANYTHING to do with this law getting passed? Probably nothing, I'm sure the GA was just looking out for the good of each and every student, and ensuring the financial commitment to each and every STUDENT when they voted this into law. I'm sure they never gave a second (or first) thought to how this would impact teachers and their compensation packages.

Take it to the bank, it's all about the kids.

Posted by: stuckhereinri at May 24, 2012 10:21 AM

What the hell kind of law is that? You can't reduce the school budget? Absolutely ridiculous. Someone needs to change that ASAP!

Posted by: dill at May 26, 2012 12:15 PM
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