December 4, 2012
The Deterioration of New England Local Government (and of the United States)
Paul Rahe's written an excellent essay explaining why libertarians ought to be social conservatives (via Instapundit), which is a point on which I'm writing for future publication. For the moment, though, this paragraph is more immediately relevant:
In America, [Tocqueville] found institutions, mores, and manners antithetical to what he took to be democracy's natural drift. Vigorous local self-government drew the inhabitants of New England townships out of their homes and into the public square. Initially, they made this move in self-defense, but the experience of participating soon became a pleasure all its own, and it induced individuals to abandon what he called "individualism" and to devote themselves to public concerns. In the process, these Americans learned to think ahead, they developed a powerful sense of their own capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of life, and they learned to cooperate with their neighbors and even with strangers in forming private associations for public purposes.
Rahe attributes much of the erosion of American civic society, including the ideas of local governance, private organizations, and moral self-control, to the sort of apathy that arises when generations forget what their ancestors saved them from, and what was necessary in order to accomplish that end. There's certainly a point to be made, in that regard, but I find myself returning to his phrase, "initially, they made this move in self-defense."
On the local level, it doesn't take quite the dramatic threat that is necessary to bring out the self-defense vote (so to speak) in big-time politics, which is one of the reasons pushing governance toward the local level is generally advisable. So why do we not see the apathy of prosperity looping back every now and then to a rejuvenated public engagement?
November 25, 2012
Unionize? Hellooo, You're Management
Here's something I never thought I'd say: good decision, RI State Labor Board.
The Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board recently dismissed a petition to unionize by Tiverton’s municipal department heads.
The board decided the matter on Nov. 7, saying the superintendent of wastewater collections, the town planner, tax assessor, zoning officer, senior center director, tax collector and public works director were ineligible to unionize because they all held managerial positions.
The town had also argued that the positions did not share a community of interest with each other, further limiting their eligibility to join a municipal employee union.
File the petition by Tiverton department heads to unionize under the category, "Unclear on the Concept". It appears that the Labor Board also subscribed to this view in light of the superlatives employed in their denial.
“The testimony and documentary evidence submitted in this proceeding overwhelmingly established that each and every one of the positions sought, meet the test for supervisory and/or managerial status,” the decision stated. “As such, they are wholly ineligible to engage in collective bargaining under the Municipal Employees Arbitration Act.
November 3, 2012
A Familiar School Committee Time Line
"I had the sense that everybody around the table knew that we were part of the same team.” That's how Tiverton School Committee member Carol Herrmann described negotiations with the teachers' union this summer. On August 14, the committee passed the contract extension.
It isn't surprising that the negotiations would be "cordial," as Herrmann put it. Negotiating for management were Herrmann (a union teacher), Deborah Pallasch (Herrmann's campaign partner in 2008), Superintendent William Rearick (formerly a union teacher), and Finance Director Douglas Fiore (who works for Rearick). Chairwoman Sally Black is a retired union teacher.
The committee's "negotiations," so to speak, with the people of Tiverton have been less cordial.
In January 2009, the committee approved a contract with retroactive raises despite residents' fears that the recession would continue. And voters at the May 2009 financial town meeting (FTM) refused to approve the committee's requested budget increase.
The school committee meeting a week later was heated. One guidance counselor told the committee: "I am the last person on this Earth that would want to hurt a child, but you need to make a statement… to get people to the town meeting."
As it happened, the Obama administration's stimulus filled the gap and then some.
In May 2010, Pallasch proposed an increase, as an FTM voter, that essentially made the stimulus a permanent part of the budget. Herrmann's husband, Nick Tsiongas, then made the familiar threats; if her budget didn't pass: "We will begin by closing one of the new elementary schools… eliminating all extracurricular activities… every sport and every after school activity… middle school band, high school chorus… and then five or six teaching positions at the high school."
We'd heard that before, and we've heard it ever since, including before this year's financial town referendum (FTR), which has replaced the FTM.
For the upcoming FTR, the "five-year plan" that the committee mentioned when it approved the teacher agreement calls for a school department appropriation of $29,106,009, an increase of $1.2 million (4.3%), well over the state tax cap.
And the cycle continues. The only way to stop it and to make the people of Tiverton feel as if they are the ones "on the same team” is for voters in Tiverton to elect Susan Anderson, Ruth Hollenbach, and me to the school committee. We will insist that the district maintain its programming within the budget that taxpayers feel they can afford, without threatening to "hurt" children in order to "make a statement."
September 22, 2012
TCC Announces 2012 Candidate Endorsements
The following arrived via e-mail earlier this afternoon. Yes, one of TCC's endorsed candidates for school committee is THE Justin Katz, Anchor Rising contributor extraordinaire and Managing Editor of the Ocean State Current.
Check out Tiverton Citizens for Change's website here.
Tiverton Citizens for Change are pleased to announce our candidate endorsements for the 2012 election. We followed a similar approach as in years past, beginning with letters sent to every candidate running for local office, and for State Assembly, District 70 (the only contested state seat). We considered responses to those requests as well as public service experience, voting record and public statements, skills and strengths, and commitment to personal integrity and respect. TCC remains independent and non-partisan, endorsing Democrats, Republicans, and Independents that demonstrate visible commitment to the town’s residents. For endorsement selection we focus on principles of transparency, taxpayers’ rights to good government, and reform.Continue reading "TCC Announces 2012 Candidate Endorsements"
We are proud of our endorsement record (over 90% elected) because it means voters have come to trust our message and our leadership team. It is important to note that TCC encourages all citizens to participate in local government, elected or volunteer, of any political party, because it makes us all stronger to have a healthy, professional debate about Tiverton’s future.
For Town Council, we endorse Jay Lambert, Joan Chabot, Nancy Driggs, David Nelson and Robert Coulter. These candidates have a clearly demonstrated track record of public service to Tiverton’s residents, and they will continue efforts to drive reform, hold down property taxes, bring sensible business development to the Industrial Park, and insure continued support for the FTR.
For School Committee, we endorse Justin Katz, Ruth Hollenbach, and Susan Anderson. These candidates represent Tiverton’s best chance to achieve excellence in education through reform, while promising never to cancel extracurricular activity as a means of meeting a budget.
December 31, 2011
This time of year, you can tell quite a bit about a writer or publication by the items it highlights from the past year and wishes it expresses for the coming one. This gem of a wish, from the Sakonnet Times, is an excellent example:
That Tiverton’s new Financial Town Referendum really does bring peace and fair play to budgets (and that it’s not merely a devious way to cut the life out of town services).
As much as I hate to play the villain, I'd like to take a moment to emphasize the deceptiveness of my master plan by revealing my scheme along with 50 other petitioners to place a 0%-increase budget on the FTR ballot. Once the petitioners' identities are reviewed and verified by the town clerk and officially in the public record, my next step will be to sneakily make the case for my proposal in every available public forum. Then, on the day of the referendum, perhaps some of my co-conspirators will join me in a stealth operation to stand outside polling places with large, brightly colored signs encouraging voters to consider our case when they engage in the most devious activity of all: entering the privacy of the voting booth to express their degree of willingness to continue increasing their taxes at a rate well above inflation.
I'll admit that ends do not justify all means, but this evil plot at least has as one of its objectives the fulfillment of another of the Sakonnet Times editors' wishes:
That town/school unions grasp the fact that Rhode Island (which is losing population faster than any other state) is in this tax mess because the gold plated benefits they demand cannot be sustained (they need merely glance across the border into Westport and other Massachusetts towns for a dose of contract reality).
Such wishful thinking that public employees and the politicians whom they help to elect will simply accept the necessary restraint and the pain associated with addressing the lack thereof in the past may play well in editorials, but Rhode Island is among the best examples in the nation of the consequence when wistfulness is treated as a basis for public policy. Sometimes firm action is necessary, and if voters must make the dastardly statement that enough is enough, well, so it must be.
November 21, 2011
Lambert's Council Brings Disappointing Chill in Negotiation Season
Meanwhile, in Tiverton, a Town Council that looked likely to stand firm in union negotiations is not performing as expected.
November 8, 2011
Woo-hoo (with an asterisk)
Matt Sanderson of the Tiverton Patch is reporting that both the library bond and the financial town referendum (FTR) questions passed. So, there's a big woo-hoo for the FTR. Of course, that's tempered by the fact that voters just agreed to borrow several million more dollars in order to build a new library on top of the three brand new elementary schools that we've recently built.
It doesn't take but a few floating tea leaves to see that this combination will yield a crisis (even before we throw in pension problems), but at the very least, I can only be thrilled that the referendum will likely act as a counter to the absolutely massive tax increases that would be facing Tiverton in its absence.
The difference, therefore, is around 13% of voters, which could be decisive in determining how the town deals with all of the demands being made on its finances including what I understand to be extremely weak bargaining against the local unions on the part of the current Town Council, under the leadership of President Jay Lambert.
A Referendum to Thwart Dishonest Politics
So, today Tiverton voters will have the opportunity finally to do away with the financial town meeting (FTM) that has allowed a relatively small group of very motivated people to double taxes in the past ten years and ensure that they would continue to climb even during the worst economy that most of us have ever experienced. Not surprisingly, the ringleaders of that relatively small group are in a panic to stop the referendum from becoming a reality, with an astonishingly dishonest last-minute surprise from Budget Committee Chairman Chris Cotta, who is a veritable picture of the Rhode Island Way.
Cotta, who is so Rhode Island that he achieved #34 on GoLocalProv's list of the state's 50 highest-paid staffers, appears to have sent a series of questions regarding the financial town referendum (FTR) to Suzanne Greschner, chief of the state Division of Municipal Finance, signed in his capacity as Budget Committee Chairman. My understanding is that he did not call a meeting of the Budget Committee for these purposes and, moreover, that he did not express his concerns to the local committee charged with creating the referendum despite being asked on multiple occasions.
I haven't been able to get a copy of Greschner's reply, but even through Cotta's spin, it appears that she essentially confirmed that the process for reviewing budgets, in particular with respect to the state property tax cap, will remain as it has been. Here's Cotta:
Of great concern was the proposed concept of permitting elector budgets on a ballot without being vetted and approved by the Office of Municipal Finance. The ballot question and related charter changes offer ballot access to electors without following the same stringent taxpayer protection reviews or notice requirements that the municipal budget must endure. It is now clear through the response that the Department of Revenue will approve only one budget and one tax levy for the town of Tiverton whether such budget exceeds the statutory tax cap or not. The Department of Revenue will not approve several budgets from the town as addressed in the charter change proposed.
What this means is that any budget supported by a tax levy that has not been preapproved, heard and advertised in accordance with state laws can and will be challenged by any aggrieved taxpayer in the town. This has far reaching consequences both legal and financial for the town.
Plainly put, this is bull. Under the FTM, the only budget and levy that receives public notice and state review is the Budget Committee's. That means that the School Committee's proposed amendment, if different, is not thus vetted, that the Town Council's proposed amendment, if different, is not thus vetted, and that the three amendments permitted out of thin air at the FTM are not thus vetted. The fact that voters will have advance notice of all such budgets prior to voting at an FTR allows for more scrutiny and transparency (not to mention dishonest spin such as Cotta and his allies are sure to offer), not less.
Compounding Christopher Cotta's deceit is the timing of the whole thing. According to Town Council President Jay Lambert, Cotta's letter, which (in his words) urged the council to "provide notice to the public that Ballot question No. 2 does not meet the legal standards required for taxpayer protections required under State Law," did not arrive in the Town Clerk's office until 11:26 a.m. Thursday morning. Conspicuously, that timing just makes the deadline for election-related letters to the editor in the Newport Daily News, which paper appears to have published a missive from Cotta complaining that "to date, the Town Council has taken no action."
Curiously, Cotta's public letter to the editor appeared on the opinion pages of the Fall River Herald's Web site at 1:56 p.m. It appears that Cotta submitted his letter to the Town Council calling for action at just about the same time that he sent his letter to local newspapers declaring that no action had been taken in response. Also curiously, the blog for the above-mentioned ringleaders posted Cotta's letter to the council at 1:40 a.m. the previous day indicating that his intended audience was not, in fact, the elected officials. (Naturally, that blog did not also provide the substantiating letters from the state.)
Look, I realize that to most people all of these fine details seem a bit much, but such is this state's underlying problem: People with extreme self interest in the policies and financial dealings of the state and its cities and towns have constructed a web of fine details that funnels policy toward their preferred ends and taxpayer dollars to themselves and their political allies. What they cannot accomplish through policy, they accomplish through dishonest rhetoric and political tricks.
Thus, they abuse the people of Rhode Island, just as Cotta has been abusing his local elected office. The old FTM plays into this process by increasing the degree to which only those most caught up in the system will exercise their right to vote on the town's budget. The more convenient it is for everybody to vote and the more notice everybody has with respect to the budgets on the table the less spellbinding the Rhode Island Way will be.
October 22, 2011
Wouldn't an All Day Financial Town Referendum Be More Democratic Than A Financial Town Meeting?
Currently, the Town of Tiverton determines its annual budget via the Financial Town Meeting.
On November 8, Tiverton voters will have the opportunity to consider switching from a Financial Town Meeting to a Financial Town Referendum. [Text of the referendum question here.]
Which process is more democratic?
Set aside the facility offered by the FTMeeting to undemocratically manipulate the process and to undemocratically introduce last minute amendments. Set aside that the FTMeeting does not offer the important democratic facility of voting in private or ensuring that all votes have been counted. Set aside the temptation for unscrupulous officials to - most undemocratically of all - simply disregard the law when conducting the FTMeeting so as to secure an outcome that advances their own selfish rather than the town's best interest.
Prior Tiverton FTMeetings have played host to all of these highly undesireable activities. But disregard all of these and just focus on the contrast of the processes of an FTMeeting versus an FTReferendum.
An FTMeeting requires attendance by voters of several hours and possibly again for several hours on a second day. If you're sick or you have to work or you have other obligations during this timeframe, you don't get to participate in the budget process or vote on the final product.
By contrast, the voting window of an FTReferendum is much longer (twelve hours or longer) yet the time commitment required of a voter is much less. He or she need simply show up at the voting booth at some point during the day - exactly like a regular election day - in order to cast a vote, a process that might take on average ten minutes, as opposed to hours and perhaps days.
Isn't it kind of a no-brainer that an FTR is far more democratic than an FTM?
August 3, 2011
The Government's Monopoly on Garbage
This fiscal year, residents of Tiverton are paying $580,000 through their tax bills for trash collection. The town dump is approaching capacity, however, and due to decades of poor fiscal management, the local government lacks the funds to pay for its closure and for the initiation of an alternative method of disposal. So, the powers who be have imposed a "pay as you throw" program that adds $2 per thirty-gallon bag in the hopes of, first, encouraging recycling and thereby extending the life of the dump and, second, of collecting the money to pay for capping the landfill.
I've been arguing that taxpayers already pay roughly the equivalent of one bag per household for trash pickup, and that if each were given that bag, recycling rates would skyrocket such that the town would gain plenty of time for better fiscal management. Indeed, when I first realized that the pay as you throw program was probably inevitable, I managed to cut our weekly curbside trash to thirty gallons, mainly through recycling. Alternately, the town could allow residents to opt out of curbside pickup and receive a refund for the portion of their taxes that pay for it.
Unfortunately, the Town Council thought it better to impose this usage tax on its own authority, and I couldn't get the votes at the financial town meeting to grant each household the single weekly trash bag for which we already pay. As reported in the May 26 Sakonnet Times, summarizing events at the prior Town Council meeting:
Heard from Town Administrator James Goncalo that Patriot Disposal Company has reported it's picking up half the trash it had been and needs to add another recycling truck to deal with the increased recycling that residents are engaging in.
Well, there you go. But the best part is the letter that the company sent out to residents:
ATTENTION: TIVERTON RESIDENTS
As you are aware, the Town has implemented a "Pay As You Throw Bag" Program. We would like to offer curbside pickups to residents at a very affordable price with the convenience of not having to purchase bags for all of your waste needs. We will provide trash removal and recycling services on a weekly basis for one low monthly fee. We offer 96-Gallon toters that are easy to wheel to the curbside. Also, unlike bags that rip easily, rodents and animals are not able to access the toters.
A friend who has looked into it found that the service would still come at a little bit of a premium: Using the toters would cost $30 per month, or $6.92 per week, so in the absence of a credit for garbage-related taxes, putting out three 30-gallon bags would be about a dollar less expensive per week although factoring in the inconvenience of picking up the bags and individually loading them could make a big difference for folks with that much garbage.
Some people in town government apparently fumed when they heard of Patriot's presumption, but I think it's a wonderful lesson that municipal leaders ought to encounter from time to time. In seeking to profit from one of the services that it provides (so as to compensate for past mismanagement), the town has opened itself to market competition and risks breaking the spell that leaves residents feeling as if rubbish removal is something that simply must be a public service.
Were it not for regulations, I'd wager that an few unemployed Tivertonians could make some money competing at an even better rate, driving down prices for everybody.
July 26, 2011
The Kaleidoscopic Arguments Against Democracy
Last week, in Tiverton, the committee tasked to create an alternative to the financial town meeting (FTM) held a hearing on its proposal. Basically, the budget process would follow the same steps, with the Town Council and School Committee submitting budgets to the Budget Committee, which puts together a final request for the consideration of the electorate. However, rather than having a few hundred voters (many with direct financial interest in the outcome beyond their tax bills) gather together in the high school gymnasium and offer amendments before voting on final approval by a show of hands, residents would be able to stop by a polling place for an all day referendum during which they would vote on the budget using a private ballot.
The Town Council and School Committee could place alternatives in front of voters, as could any resident, with the signatures of at least 50 people. If no option wins a majority of the vote, either a run-off referendum would decide between the two highest vote getters or the previous year's budget would remain in effect for another year, depending which version of the proposal the current Town Council and special-election voters approve.
Not surprisingly, the most interesting aspect of the hearing was the series of objections offered by members of the Democratic Town Committee, most of whom have been active advocates of the policies that have doubled property taxes in the past decade. Joanne Arruda a former Town Council member, current Budget Committee member, and plaintiff in a lawsuit apparently intended to punish the leader of a local taxpayer group for his civic activities complains that (in the reporter's paraphrase) "anyone could get 50 signatures and put a budget before the voters." (Over course, with the FTM, anyone can do the same without any signatures.) And current Town Council member Brett Pelletier thinks it should remain the job of elected representatives to prepare the budget. In short, the referendum would be too democratic.
Meanwhile, Carol Herrmann, currently a member of the School Committee (and herself a public-school teacher, in Westport, MA, I believe), complains that voters will only be able to vote on the budgets as presented on the ballot. That is, the referendum would not be democratic enough.
My favorite commentary is in the "not democratic enough" wing of the attack and comes from former Town Council member Louise Durfee, herself a plaintiff in the aforementioned lawsuit:
"There's an elephant in the room and no one is talking about it," she said. "Both of these proposals give the Town Council power over the budget that it has never had before."
By eliminating the FTM, she said, just two members of the council would have veto power over any budget that goes over the cap, a possibility she saw on the horizon as pension contributions squeeze town and school budgets.
"Despite all the claims that this [referendum proposal] can increase participation, unstated and not disclosed is the other fact that under these proposals the budget control passes to the town council," Ms. Durfee said.
The only reason that's even arguably true is that her Town Council used every trick in the Rhode Island insider playbook, with some help from connections in the state bureaucracy, not to follow the plain meaning of the tax cap legislation. The referendum would close the loophole that allowed the Town Council to squeak by without taking the required 4/5 vote to exceed the tax cap, so the town would have to follow state law. In Durfee's political view, that constitutes a power grab.
The best part is that her justification is a professed need for future money grabs: She expects the pension crisis to drive tax increases well above the state cap and wants as few hurdles as possible to ensuring that residents, not the town government, have to downsize their budgets.
With a referendum, Durfee and her crew would have to dominate town government or at least gather 50 signatures to place a massive tax increase on the ballot, persuade a majority of residents to vote for it, and convince six of the seven sitting Town Council members to let the people's vote stand. With the FTM, as currently practiced, they can just follow their annual strategy of scaring a couple hundred town employees and heavy users of town services into taking a couple of hours to force their will on the other 15,000 of us.
June 28, 2011
An A Priori Ruling from RIDE
Every year, for the past several, Tiverton's Financial Town Meeting has made a distinction between the amount that it was appropriating from "local funds" and the amount that it expected from state and federal aid. For fiscal year 2010, the state aid came in $367,165 less than predicted, and the school department took the money out of the town's general fund, anyway, even though it had a surplus that year.
The town treasurer at the time, Philip DiMattia, returned the money to the town, and the school committee sued. Not surprisingly, given that this is Rhode Island, the first step in such litigation is with the state Department of Education, and even less surprisingly, RIDE ruled in favor of the government body more directly under its control:
In her summary, [Education] Commissioner [Deborah] Gist stated that "[w]hen state aid does not materialize in the sum expected, a city or town must still fully fund the appropriation it has made."
In other words, she said, the Town of Tiverton is required to hold the school committee harmless for the total appropriation if the anticipated state aid does not materialize. The law requires a single sum ("an amount") to be appropriated, she ruled.
In a broad context, the ruling illustrates a huge problem with our modern bureaucratic system of government. The elected legislature passes laws, and the elected governor appoints bureaucrats to implement those laws, but often those bureaucrats make significant changes to those laws while acting as all three branches of government in one unelected body: legislature (by creating specific "regulations"), executive (by implementing the laws), and judiciaries (by, as in this case, ruling on disputes related to its execution of the regulations).
There are two relevant statutes containing the reference to "an amount." 16-7-23 doesn't refer to "appropriations," but to "provision":
The school committee's budget provisions of each community for current expenditures in each budget year shall provide for an amount from all sources sufficient to support the basic program and all other approved programs shared by the state.
The law goes on to say that the "community shall contribute local funds to its school committee in an amount not less than its local contribution for schools in the previous fiscal year," with certain exceptions, and to say that additional state funds cannot displace local funds already appropriated. The simple reading of this statute is that the town's appropriation of its own money must take into account revenue from other sources and then provide enough funding to meet the state's basic education plan (BEP). That this is the appropriate reading is solidified when "an amount" appears again in 6-7-24:
Each community shall appropriate or otherwise make available to the school committee for approved school expenditures during each school year, to be expended under the direction and supervision of the school committee of that community, an amount, which, together with state education aid and federal aid: (1) shall be not less than the costs of the basic program during the reference year, (2) plus the costs in the reference year of all optional programs shared by the state; provided, however, that the state funds provided in accordance with § 16-5-31 shall not be used to supplant local funds.
There's no way around the fact that the law draws a distinction between what a town appropriates and what it receives in state and federal aid. It cannot do otherwise, because a town cannot appropriate money from other, higher government entities. In the case at hand, the schools did not prove that they need that $367k to meet the BEP; it was, after all, a surplus.
So now, to force the law to be applied accurately, the town would have to appeal the commissioner's ruling to the Board of Regents, which is just as likely to be in schools' camp, and then to the state judiciary, all while paying the lawyers on both sides of the aisle. Little wonder citizens become apathetic; the law, as Tiverton's school and municipal government entities have proven repeated over recent years, is whatever you can get away with.
May 14, 2011
Fun at the FTM
I really hope Tiverton's financial town meeting (FTM) practice disappears with a proposed all-day referendum that townspeople will have the opportunity to approve in the fall. But in the meantime, we have to come out and fight the good fight.
The only striking aspect so far has been the mocking grumbles and sneering looks that I get every time I mention that folks like me have been financially struggling for months and years. So, for example, when the point was made that using a portion of last year's budget surplus (in the midst of the Great Recession) to offset tax increases this year could affect the town's credit rating, I noted the importance of remembering folks, like me, who've been getting daily calls from debt collectors. The question: What about our credit rating?
I really don't care what they think of me, but the reaction of those sitting generally in "school supporter" areas was disconcerting. Even the high school principal appeared to join in. Why is it so sneer-worthy that people who are not doing as well as others in the town have concerns about losing hundreds of more dollars of their resources every year.
May 4, 2011
I don't know Providence finances well enough to quibble with Mayor Angel Tavares's budget proposal, but in emphasis and presentation it stands in stark contrast to Governor Lincoln Chafee. Tavares led with controversial and concrete initiatives for spending reduction, while Chafee led with a massive tax increase. Maybe they'll get to the same place if the unions and the General Assembly refuse to go along with Tavares's plan, for one possibility but I doubt it.
The mayor's budget contrasts with others in this respect:
His budget includes raising the tax levy by 5.25 percentone percent more than what is currently allowed by state law.
That's being touted as a major "sharing of the pain," but from the perspective of Tiverton, it's less than the average annual tax increase over the past decade. It puts things in perspective for me that a city on the brink of catastrophe considers an extreme measure to be less than our business as usual.
I guess those who've run the government, in Tiverton, haven't been as keen on "sharing the pain" as inflicting it.
April 12, 2011
CORRECTED: The Minutia of Getting Your Way Locally
Among the oddities of local politics is the stuff that you have to care about and pay attention to. A number of years ago, Tiverton opted to build three new elementary schools. I wasn't around for the debate, but at least a significant portion of the electorate believed that the old schools would be sold at the highest possible price to offset the cost.
At last year's financial town meeting, the voters gave the Town Council authority to transfer ownership by the following language:
RESOLVED, that pursuant to Section 204 of the Town Charter, the Town Council is hereby authorized to transfer ownership of any of the following of Tiverton’s municipally owned buildings: Nonquit School, Old Ranger School, Judson Street Community Center, Senior Center, Town Hall, and DPW facility; provided however that the Municipal Facilities Committee shall have completed its study of the current use and structural status of such buildings and submitted its recommendations to the Town Council; and further provided that any such transfer is at not less than Fair Market Value (FMV); and provided that any such transfer be subject to such conditions as required by the Town Council. This approval shall expire as of the second Saturday in May, 2011.
The resolution was explicitly amended to eliminate the clause: "or if less than FMV, to a non-profit or government entity acting for the public good." Well, wouldn't you know, with the deadline fast approaching, the Municipal Facilities Committee still has yet to submit its study and recommendation. But it has put together a request for proposals for one building that would, among other things, express preference for land uses that would allow public access to any building built on the property and give purchase price only 25% weighting in the decision process.
And the wheel goes 'round and 'round. Guaranteed: the reauthorization for the sale will attempt to allow the building to be given away to a nonprofit again. They'll keep on trying until their preferred result slips through.
Thanks to Councilor Brett Pelletier for correcting me with regard to the significance of the 25% figure. I had written that offers with 25% of value would be considered, but the proposal is actually that purchase price will only count for one-quarter of the decision when comparing offers.
April 5, 2011
Doubling Expenses Through Fees
For this week's Patch column, I took on Tiverton's new Pay as You Throw (PAYT) garbage-bag fee:
Granted, of all of the factors contributing to this increase, the proximate end of the landfill's usable life is among the most legitimate. Town leaders have spent decades inadequately preparing for the day that the dump was full - so much so that we'll be shy of the $6.8 to 8.2 million needed to cap the dump around 2015 by between $2.4 and 3.8 million. That's a real problem, and it still doesn't include the costs of implementing another solution for Tiverton's refuse. Moreover, the estimated $500,000 per year that the PAYT program is supposed to generate will still cover only half of the shortfall.
These are just the numbers, though. The point that has not been adequately considered is that the lack of preparation has not been caused by a refusal to raise taxes. This has been proven dramatically as the tax levy doubled over the last decade. In other words, the money that should have been saved in order to close the landfill was not given back to taxpayers; it was spent on other things, most significantly labor costs. Why, then, should the pain for this error be felt among those who've been forced to increase town revenue, these many years, rather than those who've benefited by the profligate spending?
April 1, 2011
Using Transparency to Know What Administrators Should Be Investigating
My Patch column, this week, notes that school administrators in Tiverton appear to analyze differences between their approach and that of one of the most successful districts in Rhode Island (neighboring town, Portsmouth) only to the degree that they can formulate excuses why their own students and community in general are to blame for the disparity in results:
It's typical, among public officials, to focus on others' mystery resources and sunnier demographics and to insist on the impossibility of comparison and accountability. The fact remains, though, that Tiverton pays $1,290 more per pupil. Yes, Portsmouth's budget is 33% bigger, but its student body is 46% bigger. And even if it were accurate to suggest that Portsmouth has expenses that it doesn't report to the Department of Education, its unlisted expenses would have to amount to $3.6 million, not $300,000-400,000, for the per pupil spending to match Tiverton's.
Moreover, the UCOA shows that one needn't imagine phantom revenue, because the lines in the budget show that the "philosophical shift" is reflected in how the district spends the money that it does declare. The two districts spend about the same percentages of their budgets on regular education (73% Tiverton; 72% Portsmouth) and special education (both 24%), and Tiverton throws another 1% in for vocational and technical education. The strategies for allocating those budgets makes all the difference.
A lower median income surely has some effect on educational outcomes and the strategy used for achieving them, but it doesn't explain why Tiverton appears to focus on higher-cost employees and, say, health education over math education.
March 30, 2011
Where's the Money Supposed to Come From?
On Monday night, the Tiverton Town Council finally let the ax swing on a new trash collection system that will at least double the cost of curb-side pickup for residents. (The metaphor is meant to indicate an executioner, not a lumberjack.)
The Tiverton Town Council approved a contract on Monday night to begin a trash metering program on May 16. Town officials state they will notify the more than 7,000 residents who use Tiverton’s trash service that they [must] purchase and use special bags for the pay-as-you-throw program, or else their roadside rubbish will not be taken a few weeks after that date.
Yes, prior councils have not adequately prepared the town for the expense of closing the dump in a few years. Yes, it's only a hundred, or a couple hundred, dollars more in expense per year. Yes, provisions have to be made. But this sort of fiscal responsibility is real easy for folks whose oil tanks don't dry up on Christmas Day, as mine did. For the rest of us, where is this money supposed to come from?
Inasmuch as a some hundreds of dollars per year are already collected, per household, to pay for garbage pickup via property taxes, this is not truly a pay-for-use reform. We cannot opt out of 50% or so of the cost. What remains is not sufficient for us to make other arrangements.
Moreover, this new fee structure is essentially a 2-4% tax increase added to what is sure to be a 4-5% increase in regular property taxes, which comes on top of last year's 7-8% increase. To my knowledge, no public contract is going down in cost; no departments are seeing their budgets reduced, and yet homeowners are presumed capable of tightening their belts ever more. If my experience is any indication, many residents have seen their income stagnate or even decrease over the past few years; many have been unemployed.
Where's the money supposed to come from? Guess we'll just notch our quality of life down accordingly.
March 18, 2011
It doesn't quite rise to the level of Whitehousian attack, but RI House Representative John Edwards (D, Portsmouth, Tiverton) does give a tax reformer reason to wonder how evenly his representation applies:
"There is a loophole in that law that some groups have been employing to avoid reporting campaign activities around a Financial Town Meeting," he said. "This legislation will close that loophole."
Edwards said Tiverton Citizens for Change spent campaign funds on "robocalls" and sent cards in the mail to residents, campaigning for particular positions at the Financial Town Meeting.
"Then, when we went to check their campaign finance report, they did not file it," Edwards said. "They did not file the work they did at the FTM. The campaign finance laws are pretty clear, and I was surprised a PAC was able to float the law."
To understand the nature of the wicked "loophole," one must consider the clear law; I've italicized the parts that the sneaky residents leveraged in order to work their evil machinations:
(1) "Election" means the filling of any public office or the determination of any public question by vote of the electorate, and includes without limitation any state, town, or city office or question, and any political party primary election for the nomination of any candidate for public office; except that it shall not include a financial town meeting or a meeting to elect officers of a fire, water, or sewer district; ...
(6) "Local election" means any election limited to the electorate of any city or town, or any part, at which any city, town, ward, or district officers are to be chosen, or any elective meeting at which a question is to be submitted to the voters of a city, town, or any subdivision of a city or town, but it shall not include a financial town meeting;
Look, if Edwards doesn't believe previous legislators acted appropriately in explicitly excepting financial town meetings from the definition of "elections," then he should by all means submit legislation to change the law. But he shouldn't pretend that one group alone has been so sneaky as to follow the law.
How can residents trust his leadership when his rhetoric as an elected official is indistinguishable from the rhetoric of local partisans? Note especially the statement that "we went to check their campaign finance report." By "we," does he mean the General Assembly? No, he means the local Democrat Town Committee, and it's not unreasonable to feel as if that's whom he ultimately represents.
March 16, 2011
A Lesson for the Town's Educators (and Parents)
Not surprisingly, a majority of Little Compton parents would prefer to keep the town's students flowing through one of the state's best high schools, in Portsmouth, rather than move them over to Tiverton's facility right next door. I've explained why I would feel the same, were I among them, but the number of reasons that the parents gave makes for a stunning rebuke to Tiverton and its leadership:
Some factors favoring Portsmouth are its 13 Advanced Placement classes. Middletown has 11 and Tiverton has nine, respectively. Portsmouth also offers 74 extracurricular activities and sports. Middletown offers 28 and Tiverton offers 22, respectively.
Portsmouth scored 70 percent proficient on their New England Common Assessments Program tests. Middletown scored 69 percent proficient and Tiverton score 63 percent proficient, respectively.
For the 2012-13 tuition, Portsmouth offered Little Compton $9,000, while Middletown offered $9,602. Crowley said Tiverton could not provide a cost, but instead, a range of $14,187 to $15,954. For the 115 slated pupils to attend high school during that first year, with tuition at a 3 percent annual increase, Portsmouth was the lowest. Middletown's would have increased approximately $69,000 and Tiverton’s approximately $596,000. ...
Another parent said one can’t ignore Tiverton High School's 827 suspensions, while Middletown has 252 and Portsmouth has 85.
Perhaps most stinging is the impression of one Little Compton School Committee member that Tiverton High School, alone among the three, lacks a "sense of community."
Joining the most limited offerings with the highest price (by far) is not a winning combination. One wonders why Tiverton tolerates that which Little Compton looks likely to decline to accept. Yet, scarcely a word can be heard or read from Tiverton parents demanding better results from the town's public schools.
March 9, 2011
A Process That Binds
As an applicant for an interim town treasurer job in Tiverton, I found the process to be peculiar:
One can objectively question some of the more peculiar aspects of the process. For instance, in every blind selection process that I've encountered --- whether for employment or, say, for college admissions --- the identities of the candidates are withheld from the people making the decision. In Tiverton's hiring practice, they are the only people permitted to know who the candidates are.
It is certainly reasonable of candidates to expect some level of public privacy. Indeed, Personnel Board Chairman James Camara related an anecdote about a previous applicant who lost his or her current job after being mentioned in the local press. (Of course, this didn't stop the journalist in the room from publishing my name without seeking either permission or statement.) Still, how can the public have confidence that the Personnel Board isn't applying political litmus tests or stacking the pool of interviewees when they alone have access to the identities of applicants?
That problem compounds into others.
March 2, 2011
Another Acronym to Track
My Patch column, this week, discusses the latest acronym with which active citizens must acquaint themselves:
... OPEB stands for "other post-employment benefits" and, in Tiverton for example, includes health, dental and life insurance covering employees and their families after their retirement.
According to a press release announcing the issuance of the final report from the Rhode Island Senate Municipal Pension Study Commission, the unfunded OPEB promises that cities and towns have made to their employees amount to $2.4 billion. As the Providence Journal highlighted when reporting on the release, this is on top of about $2 billion in unfunded pension liabilities that cities and towns have incurred. ...
Eventually, of course, the bills begin to come due. Tiverton currently covers its OPEB responsibilities on a year-to-year, pay-as-you-go basis, amounting to nearly a million and a half dollars annually. For fiscal 2010, the expense was $1,362,886. That's more than 4% of the tax levy, for that year. It's also only 42% of the GASB-suggested payment (technically called an "annual required contribution"), which was $3,222,448. A payment of that size would have been 10% of the levy.
In fact, if Tiverton were to make the "required contribution" to all of its post-employment obligations, it would be storing away about 18% of its tax levy, each year, to keep public employees retiring young.
March 1, 2011
Proving the Unprovable in SLAPP Response
You may recall the legal battle between Tiverton Citizens for Change (TCC) President and current Town Council Member David Nelson and form Town Council Members Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda. The latest development is thut Superior Court Judge Melanie Thunberg has denied Nelson's request for a summary judgment. According to a Sakonnet Times article, not online:
Lawyers for both sides said in separate interviews that the reason Judge Thunberg ruled as she did was that she believed a key fact was in dispute.
Jeffrey Schreck, who represents Ms. Arruda and Ms. Durfee, said the "critical disputed fact was whether Mr. Nelson knew that what he was saying was false."
Jennifer Azevedo, the lawyer representing Mr. Nelson, said Judge Thunberg believed "there were facts in dispute with respect to whether Mr. Nelson did or did not know that the statements he made were false."
One needn't be intimately familiar with the case to wonder how it could even be conceivably true that Nelson knew the offending statement, which follows, to be inaccurate (if it was, indeed, inaccurate, which is similarly impossible to prove):
Still worse are the efforts of Ms Durfee, Joanne Arruda and their allies, in deliberate cooperation with the Town Administrator to avoid a Town Council vote exceeding the State Tax cap. They have submitted false documentation to the State to facilitate a tax increase of at least 9%.
It is simply beyond debate that Durfee and Arruda worked "to avoid a Town Council vote." And it wouldn't be possible to prove that they weren't, in some way, included in a group of "allies," with Goncalo as the point person, that submitted false documents to the state much less that Nelson knew that when the events were still fresh.
The concern that Dave has, which I share, is that so immense would be the scope of communications necessary to determine that he knowingly fabricated the cooperation that Durfee, Arruda, and their political allies would gain access during the discovery process to a veritable book of politically relevant communications between Nelson and his own allies.
February 28, 2011
The Hot Issue of Taxation
Tonight's Tiverton Town Council agenda includes a public hearing on a proposed tax cap process for the town. The Town Hall is about 20% over capacity (meaning 120 people with a capacity of 100). The fire chief notified the council that, if some people don't clear out, he'll have to call the meeting off.
Only a few people were willing to leave, and taking faces that I recognize as a representative sample, the bulk of the audience was only too happy to see anything that might limit tax increases tabled and held off for a number of weeks. A number of teachers, for example.
February 1, 2011
Taking Past Excess Off the Table
Some elected officials, in Tiverton, are encouraging their fellows to ignore the past while constructing the next budget. My Tiverton-Little Compton.Patch column, this week, I suggest that such an approach is, well, improper:
It certainly shouldn't be a foregone conclusion that a tax base that grew by 2% over a period of 28% inflation can afford a 78% increase in the cost of local government services. All else being equal, the community for which $17.5 million was the affordable levy in 2001-2002 should only have been asked for $22.9 million in 2009-2010 [instead of $31.1 million].
Obviously, a panoply of other considerations come into play, but it's awfully convenient of Cotta to insist that Tiverton's leaders should weigh the upcoming budget in isolation from the past. Moreover, it brings to the fore the error in government budgeting processes.
January 28, 2011
"Surplus" Just Means They Haven't Spent It, Yet
Gary Trott tries to apply too much common sense to public-sector budgeting:
What should a Rhode Island city or town do if it suddenly finds itself with a surplus of unspent funds amounting to nearly $6 million? You'd think that it would do the responsible thing and not spend those funds in order to ease up a little bit on the taxpayer.
Well, that's not what the School Committee in Warwick did during the final days of December when it voted unanimously to take the $6 million surplus from the previous year and spend it by giving raises to teachers and also by cutting the 20 percent contribution that the teachers were to pay toward their health care benefits (ProJo 7 to 7 News Blog, Dec. 29).
The problem is that this isn't just spending for spending's sake, as Trott takes it. Rather, all of the incentives push government bodies in the direction of spending everything and, in particular, spending as much as possible on raises and benefits for employees.
Obviously, the electoral threat implicit in public-sector unionization is one incentive. So is the likelihood that unspent dollars won't just be considered a windfall to be kept, but will be targeted (rightly, in my view) both for a direct return to taxpayers and for a reduction in subsequent years' budgets. When the money isn't given freely as an economic exchange, but is taken under threat of law as taxation, the emphasis shifts from claiming as much money as a consumer can be convinced that the service is worth to providing cover for the claim that so much, and more, is needed, or even required by law. The process becomes one of budget tricks.
In Tiverton, for example, the school department claims that the town is required to make up for any difference in the amount of state aid that is estimated at the financial town meeting. (Naturally, extra aid is never reduced from the local appropriation.) So, say the local appropriation is $20 million and the FTM estimates that the schools will get $5 million in state/fed aid. If the aid comes in at $4 million, then the schools take another $1 million from the town's property tax pool.
Here's the best part: for the purposes of calculating the state-imposed cap on how much additional money it can request, the school department considers the $21 million to be part of its new baseline. It then begins the performance of declarations about what it will have to cut, close, and eliminate if the town doesn't bust the cap.
The process doesn't begin, in short, with the question of what the payer will bear, but with what the payee can take. The only way to change the incentives and the outcome would be to organize enough voters to place better candidates on the boards, councils, and committees and counterbalance the corrupt symbiosis between elected officials and labor.
January 27, 2011
Give Them Time... and Money
Although writing from Michigan, Kyle Olson has it right when it comes to his perspective on education happenings in Central Falls:
Central Falls students deserve a high-quality education. But instead, families are told to be patient as administrators and the teachers union hold meetings and create 45-page reform plans. And now the federal government gives the district a big check, which simply buys the defenders of the status quo more time.
At the School Committee meeting in Tiverton, this Tuesday, the committee and administrators turned part of their budget discussion into a plea that they lack the resources for early interventions that might improve results, particularly standardized test results, for students down the line. They talked about revenue sources that Portsmouth has that Tiverton doesn't; they speculated as to why Portsmouth's per-student cost might be lower, including the possibility that the town has fewer special education students. (Some quick research that I did online while they talked showed that a good portion of the difference is specifically in instruction, meaning the cost of teachers.)
As far as I'm concerned, that's all beside the point. Each town and city has the tax base that it has and the student population that it has. The principle studiously ignored during such discussions is that organizations must be built to do the work that must be done with the resources that they actually have. If that means that a particular district must pay teachers significantly less in order to hire math coaches or whatever else might be needed, then so be it.
The approach to labor and salary that has become part of public school culture begins with the premise that teachers should make roughly the same wherever they work, and the unions manipulate politics and local budget processes in order to prevent any real systemic balance of price, resources, and value. Pouring more money whether local, state, or federal into the equation causes the price of educators to go up and when the flow of revenue ebbs, programs and services go on the chopping block so that salaries never have to adjust downward.
January 25, 2011
Failure With or Without Tiers
The idea of a tiered diploma system is causing much teeth-gnashing in Tiverton and elsewhere. My Patch column, this week, explains the effect of the proposal and points out that a related topic really ought to be the controversy to which every School Committee meeting is dedicated:
In light of that change, a cynic (or, the cynic would say, a clear-eyed observer of Rhode Island politics) might suggest that the "certificates" are being introduced to ensure that non-proficient students receive something for their efforts, with the new diploma tiers layered in to disguise the fact that Rhode Island's public educational system has failed to live up to its own standards. Those resisting both the tiers and the certificates are (by this interpretation) effectively playing chicken with the Board of Regents, holding them to their prior, more-dramatic regulations in order to force the Department of Education either to be lax in judging exceptions to NECAP proficiency or to postpone or scrap the current reforms altogether.
Rhode Island voters and parents should look beyond the blurry bureaucratic dances and focus on the truth behind all of the rhetorical agreements and semantic disagreements. When it comes to high scores on standardized math tests, Rhode Island trails the nation of Turkey.
January 24, 2011
Pursuing Business Friendliness
The Tiverton Town Council meeting has already been running very long, and there's still a full agenda page of meaty topics. On the floor, right now, is a discussion of what the Town Council can do to make the town more "business friendly." I touched on this topic not long ago.
The first to speak, tonight, was Tax Assessor David Robert, who addressed the topic from the perspective of increasing tax revenue by bringing in businesses. Solicitor Andrew Teitz subsequently made the point that business activity doesn't necessarily indicate a "net gain," once the costs of the business to the town (fire, police, streets, etc.) are considered. I'd correct that: The "net gain" must include other advantages to the town, such as increasing opportunity for residents and their children, improving their quality of life, defining the town's character, creating employment for locals, and making it easier for locals to start businesses.
Resident Joe Souza took the microphone to speak from his experience on the Zoning Board, noting that zoning is so restrictive that businesses want to come and to begin within town. Specifically, Souza described his aunt's former business cutting hair in her basement, which allowed her to stay home and bring in some money. According to Souza, such a use of her property would no longer be allowed.
Appropriately, the next item on the agenda is a presentation by Councilor David Nelson, proposing a cap of 2.5% on the town's tax levy. He noted the town's rapid increase in taxes and the state's poor standing economically and for business and taxpayer attraction. Councilor Cecil Leonard noted that the budget process for next year is already well underway, with work done without regard to a new tax cap. Nelson noted that there's plenty of time to accommodate changes. I'd note that, whatever the budget activity, the financial town meeting can undo all planning anyway.
We just moved through a long presentation and discussion of a zoning/development plan being developed by Town Planner Chris Spencer for Tiverton's Four Corners Village area. From my perspective, living on the other side of town, it seems to me that the urge to tie up and continually delay development plans with objections about environment and such is indicative of the very problem that is making economic development very difficult in the modern era. Nobody wants changes in their own neighborhoods, but everybody's got a neighborhood to protect, which pushes anything potentially undesirable (typically by increasing the liberty of property owners) to the less politically active, less procedurally aware, and less financially backed neighborhoods.
Those neighborhoods simply cannot offer all of the opportunities that the town should allow or even pursue.
Among a flurry of policy proposals, Councilor Rob Coulter suggested that the council request General Assembly legislation delaying the state mandate for a town-wide property revaluation. The tax assessor is against the move, and other council members didn't seem to have much stomach for it. I say it's worth sending every possible message to the legislature that mandates are a problem and putting the topic in the public repeatedly.
January 18, 2011
Why I'm Suing the Town
My Tiverton Patch column this week explains why I'm suing the Town of Tiverton:
The entire episode was further evidence that government in Tiverton, as in the rest of Rhode Island, has long been characterized by an insulated cooperation. Officials and bureaucrats willingly making things happen for each other, connecting the letters of the law in retrospect when called on their improprieties.
If the town and the state are to pull out of the spiral toward which such corruption has pushed them, residents will have to insist that the rules by which we operate must be followed, even when political insiders find them inconvenient and even when it's their judgment that taxpayers can afford the extra bill.
January 13, 2011
Controversy Continues in Tiverton
Among the first items under discussion at the Tiverton School Committee meeting is whether the School Committee should subpoena Town Treasurer Phil DiMattia to appear before it, since he has opted not to attend their meeting at their request. Committee Member Carol Herrmann noted that it might be worth waiting to see whether the fact that he (for some undivinable reason) changed his voter registration to Middletown precludes his continuing as treasurer.
Interestingly, Committee Chairwoman Sally Black requested that this discussion be moved to the beginning of the meeting because there are Town Council members in attendance, presumably for this purpose. However, when Committee Member Danielle Coulter brought up a related letter from the Town Council President, Black stated that they'd be discussing that at the end of the meeting.
Strange turn to the discussion. Town Council Member Dave Nelson asked whether the committee would be releasing a list of questions that was referenced earlier. Superintendent Bill Rearick got testy and said that the list was his and that he didn't bring it to a meeting that had on its agenda "FY2009/2010 Treasurer's Audit Adjustments," because the treasurer had indicated that he wasn't going to come.
There's been much debate about what questions to ask when, whether the treasurer will know what information to bring with him, and so on. What's strange is that there's simply no question about what happened. If a lowly wannabe Internet pundit like me can figure it out, then these folks ought to be able to. Why pretend that it's a mystery? Is it just a matter of getting it out of the treasurer's mouth for legal reasons.
This is unbelievable. The next topic on the agenda is that of transporting so-called "restricted" aid to the general budget. In summary, the school department has heretofore left money from the state and federal governments that's earmarked for specific purposes completely out of their budgets, claiming the irrelevance of dedicated funds to general revenue. Now, with aid being cut and the state changing the way it handles it, well, in Supt. Rearick's words: "Previously restricted aid will have to be integrated with our regular budget."
So now, they're going to engage in a campaign to make sure that voters, prior to the financial town meeting in May, "realize that it's not part of a new funding stream." This even as they're filing litigation to keep almost $400,000 in extra local tax money that the school department spent, last year, arguing that their state aid was cut by that amount and the town has to cover it but the increase in their "restricted" aid more was nearly double the loss in general aid.
It's worth noting that the committee managed to maintain all of its lost aid, this year, by raising local taxes (after threatening to close schools and so on).
One gets the sense that our money is their money they just need to figure out how to take it. Somehow, the people who pay the bills seem never to get a break.
Now on to an actual education issue: They're expressing unanimous disapproval of the Board of Regents and Education Commissioner's plan to change to a three-tier diploma system, based on standardized tests, with a fourth tier of "certificate" for students who don't make the grade for the lowest.
Everybody's speaking as if this ratchets up the stakes, but my interpretation is completely opposite. Back in August, the news was how many Rhode Island students would not be graduating at all (in 2012) under the current system. It seems to me that the introduction of a third tier was mainly to disguise the fact that the Dept. of Education is adding the certificate, so that all of the students whom Rhode Island public schools failed to educate to the current standards would get something.
It may be too cynical, but it strikes me as plausible that certain groups would like to play chicken with the state daring the commissioner and regents to allow almost half of Rhode Island students to get nothing at all.
Party Games in "Non-Partisan" Tiverton
Back in 2007, I argued against non-partisan elections in Tiverton. Those who disagreed took a very community-oriented view:
ARGUING AGAINST asking Tiverton voters whether they'd like to return to partisan elections after one cycle of nonpartisanism, Charter Review Commission member Frank "Richard" Joslin made two points that have the ring of Rhode Islandry: First, that residents who actually vote (or get involved) know who belongs to what party, and second, that Joslin's fellow members of the Tiverton Democratic Committee are so ideologically diverse as to make party labels of negligible value. At the previous meeting, Commissioner Frank Marshall had asserted that everybody elected to local office is there simply to work hard and do right by the town.
Thus do Rhode Islanders like to believe about themselves. Everybody who cares knows, so inside information is by definition public, and everybody votes for the person, not the party, because the individuals are so independent and well intentioned.
That's all well and good, and to large extent true. But party isn't nothing; otherwise, there would cease to be a Tiverton Democratic Committee.
I raise the debate now because it came to light in the comments of my liveblog from Monday night's Town Council meeting that the lone Republican in Tiverton's delegation to the State House, Dan Gordon, was not informed that his peers would be briefing the local governing body. In fact, the same thing happened at the last regular School Committee meeting.
There are certainly legitimate reasons that the relevant clerks for the municipal government and the school department did not contact the only non-incumbent elected representative that Tiverton has sent to the General Assembly for this session. His contact information might not have been readily at hand or accurate. And the Democrat senators and representative might have merely forgotten to mention the meetings, even after the Republican's absence at the School Committee meeting.
It is conspicuous, though, that Rep. Jay Edwards is a member of the Democrat committee... as is Town Clerk Nancy Mello... as are three of the five School Committee members... as is, I believe, the Democrat candidate whom Gordon defeated in the last election. As Joslin once said, everybody knows who belongs to what party, especially those who continue to operate as members thereof.
January 10, 2011
State Reps in Town
The Democrat trio of Tiverton's state representation Rep. Jay Edwards, Sen. Walter Felag, and Sen. Louis DiPalma appeared before the Tiverton Town Council tonight. Here are my notes:
Edwards started out by noting his request for legislation enabling biannual licensing reviews (or longer).
Felag: The budget is the major issue, and Governor Lincoln Chafee must submit a 2012 budget by February 3, and he could also submit a supplemental 2011 budget.
Town Council President Jay Lambert: has heard that school aid may be cut.
DiPalma: State aid to schools only indirectly affects town (mainly affecting the school department). RIDE is reworking funding formula; Little Compton, for example, was going to lose money but is now gaining money [funny how nobody ever loses money, given time]
Edwards: Tiverton's projected loss is about $165,000 per year, "give or take"
Lambert: Referring to the current controversy over whether the town must indemnify the schools against losses in state aid, then cuts certainly do affect town.
Edwards: Has proposed to increase construction aid. Also noted that it would cost only $13 million per year to "hold harmless" suburban communities from changes in the funding formula, and he's put forward legislation to do so for two years.
Felag: The funding formula that passed last year doesn't go into effect until next year, and it will see multiple legislative attempts to change it before then.
Coulter: Asked about mandates from the state: how would we formally appeal them.
Felag: Until 2006, there were about 280 mandates from the state. "It's easy to say I'm going to get rid of state mandates, but there are a lot of good mandates." Solution: "submit a list that you'd like us to work on."
Edwards: "Doesn't have to be formal; you can just send us an email."
Felag: Trying to get state to have budget by beginning of June, but municipalities should think about having some 13-month budget needs.
Resident Joe Souza: The state should repeal the funding formula. The governor's legislation to eliminate mandates died in legislature, last year. Souza illustrated by requesting a show of hands that there's no support on the council for binding arbitration for teachers, and he opined that fire and police arbitration should be non-binding.
Felag: [Changing the subject.] Already have in legislation for no tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Mount Hope Bridge.
To continue the liveblog with material that's mainly of local interest: Town Solicitor Andrew Teitz has researched who has authority to act on behalf of the town administrator when he's not able to be reached (for signatures and so on) and, finding nothing satisfactory, drafted a resolution that would allow the council to appoint somebody (e.g., the town clerk).
Councilor David Nelson asked whether Mr. Teitz thinks that President Lambert acted inappropriately by signing a request to the state auditor general for an extension. Teitz said he believes so.
Town Administrator Jim Goncalo presented his first draft of the municipal budget; some notes:
- 2% increase in salaries for department heads.
- No increase for any bargaining units.
- Addition of a 1/2 clerk in treasurer's office.
- Blue Cross/Blue Shield advised that they include a 10% general increase in costs, plus 2.5% for a "health reform" increase
- Tax base has increased from $2,183 million to $2,191 million; motor vehicle tax from $1,192 million to $1,150 million.
Council Member Nelson: 3.8% increase in budget = $644,002
Goncalo: The application of the projected near-million-dollar surplus from FY10 would be taken up by the Budget Committee as a recommendation to the financial town meeting
Council Member Coulter: If we're increasing the budget even as we're collecting more in taxes than we need, then we can change the increases.
Council Member Ed Roderick: If we have liabilities, we may not be able to access the surplus.
Council Member Cecil Leonard: Surplus only brings town up to 3% reserve required in the charter.
Goncalo: Regarding "so called" increase [so called?]
- $10,000 in debt service
- $225,000 for mandates revaluation
- 15,000 general government
- $257,000 financial administration
- health insurance/liability: $128,000
- pension costs: $76,000 (50 in police)
- unfunded liabilities: $40,000
- half-clerk in treasurer's office: $20,000 (not including benefits)
- $62,000 for fire and police combined increased
- $74,0000 for DPW ($30,000 for engineering study for new license for landfill, and landfill closure engineering study)
Lambert: Budget should reflect full liability to the schools, if we're obligated to pay for state aid shortfalls
Goncalo: The best place would be as a FTM docket resolve. [an astonishing suggestion, I think, that would write that interpretation explicitly in town policy, if approved at the FTM]
Talk of folks on fixed income (meaning, typically, Social Security) is common in these discussions. I didn't get a chance, but I wanted to point out that retirement income isn't the only way to have "a fixed income." The amazing thing about public budget discussions is that increases such as labor and utilities are presented as things that must be passed on to taxpayers. I can't go to my boss with the assumption that he'll cover my increased costs of living; what's the equivalent restraint on public budget setters? (Elections, of course, but that should be a more explicit consideration.)
Councilor Coulter proposed the following resolution:
WHEREAS: The Town Council is responsible by Charter for a long-range plan which includes the development of goals, objectives, strategies, plans, and policies in furtherance of such planning; and
WHEREAS: Rhode Island General Laws also place responsibilities upon the Town Council, among other things, to generally manage the affairs and interests of the Town and specifically partake in financial and budgetary matters concerning the Town; and
WHEREAS: Long-range planning will better assist the Town in meeting its current financial obligations and future needs and facilitiate improved financial and budgetary decision making all for the betterment of the Town’s financial stability and security;
IT THEREFORE BE RESOLVED, by the Town Council of Tiverton, Rhode Island that:
(1) That the Town Council supports and approves in concept the development of a Long-Term Financial Plan to be in the best interests of the Town;
(2) That the Town Council hereby expresses its intent to further investigate, develop, and as appropriate, implement a Long-Term Financial Plan;
(3) That such Long-Term Financial Plan will include the Capital Improvement Plan and may also include a Financial Corrective Action Plan to address the known outstanding obligations of the Town; and
(4) That all Town departments, boards, commissions, and officers shall be so notified and invited to assist in the investigation, development, and as appropriate, implementation of the above.
It passed. Coulter will start by collecting known liabilities.
Now, they're discussing a new controversy related to school budgets.
President Lambert in previous discussion spoke about school committee's claim of indemnification against loss of aid. Now, he wants to discuss a second issue under potential litigation. School lawyer Robinson's letter to the education commissioner requesting a hearing and a ruling says that the town has "taken control" of $75,000 in tuition from Fall River students attending Tiverton schools. School Committee Chairwoman Sally Black's related letter calls the move "illegal."
Lambert summarizes the school department's argument as follows: The town must include Fall River students in its budget and then hand over Fall River tuition directly to the schools, effectively paying the schools twice for the same students. No town official was aware that there was an issue. The treasurer says they're handling the matter just as they always have (at least for 8 years). The town budgets for the students and then puts the money in the general fund. Indeed, Lambert cited a requested deposit from the schools into the town's general fund of one of last year's checks from Fall River. The school committee has never discussed the matter in an open meeting.
In Lambert's opinion, "This dispute has nothing to do with tuition for students coming from Fall River." It is no coincidence that this issue arises during discussion of Little Compton students' possibly attending Tiverton High School (paying over a million dollars per year). "This is simply an attempt to set a legal precedent that would have Tiverton taxpayers paying for Little Compton students through the school budget, while the district still receives payment from Little Compton."
Frankly, under Chairwoman Black, with the advice of Solicitor Robinson, one begins to get the feeling that the School Committee is hungry for lawsuits. Some might call it out of control.
It's been a long meeting. One interesting note: Treasurer Phil DiMattia has submitted notice that he's "temporarily" changed his voter registration to elsewhere, although his wife maintains property in town. There was some discussion of whether he can keep his elective job; Solicitor Teitz is researching it.
What School Choice Is Already Telling Us
For several generations, Little Compton, RI, has been practicing a community school choice by sending its teenagers elsewhere for high school. The obvious choice should be Tiverton, just over an indistinguishable border, but at least since the '70s, the kids of LC have been traveling to Aquidneck Island. My Patch column, this week, looks at the probable reason and suggests that the implied changes would benefit local kids, too:
In his presentation to the Little Compton School Committee, available on his district's Web page, Tiverton Superintendent William Rearick made the case that Tiverton has the excess capacity to accommodate its neighbors. He noted that the high school is in compliance with state requirements. And he pointed out that Tiverton's students outperform the state average on all four of the New England Common Assessments Program (NECAP) tests - albeit, just barely in math and science.
Tiverton's advanced placement course and SAT data, Rearick presented without comparison, leaving no context by which to understand whether the results are admirable or unimpressive. The absence of competitive spirit only highlights the presentation's avoidance of the choice that Little Compton actually faces.
January 5, 2011
Diplomats and Accountants
As I write in this week's Tiverton-LittleComptonPatch column, the two aspects of a local budget controversy are diplomacy and accounting. That is, one controversy is over communication and process, and the other is over actual tax dollars and how they should be allocated:
The starkest delineation of this dynamic came during a special meeting of the Town Council, last Thursday evening. Council President Jay Lambert opened with an (overly) extensive review of the who-said-whats with regard to a joint meeting of the Town Council and School Committee, after which Councilman Dave Nelson (also president of Tiverton Citizens for Change) offered to walk the council and the audience through a presentation explaining the origin of the financial disagreement. (See clips 1 and 2 of the included video.)
Before Nelson could project the relevant spreadsheet for public viewing, Councilman Brett Pelletier interrupted to express his own intention for the meeting: "I'm trying very hard to prevent people who want to fight with each other to fight with each other, because I won't have it." In patrician fashion, Pelletier began his plea not with an olive branch of good will, but by describing Lambert's monologue as "tainted with smug, cavalier, and disingenuous terminology." (See clip 3.)
December 21, 2010
Local Budgets and Generosity at Christmas
A local controversy with statewide implications is the subject of my Patch.com column, this week. In short, the Tiverton school department spent $367,165 in local funds to make up for estimated state funds that didn't materialize, and now the municipal government is taking it back.
Of course, given the season, I couldn't treat the topic without working in a moral:
The largest portion of my workdays, over the last decade, has been spent remodeling houses in neighborhoods of Newport that appear zoned to require airy names rather than street numbers. Tourists who venture away from the Breakers, Chateau-sur-Mer, and the rest of the Bellevue arcade of opulence may spot plaques and embossed stones labeling the homes of families still in the flesh and still in the money. My sense of humor being what it is, I've dubbed my North Tiverton cottage Piddlinghouse and await only the free time and resources to whittle a name-post at the end of my driveway.
The title would be apt, given the Dickensian feel of this Christmas season. Most of the presents under our tree will be a testament to the generosity of my children's extended family - as well as the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Claus. The legendary couple made an appearance at a recent family gathering, and the next day, the person who arranged the visit swung by Piddlinghouse with a box of like-new used clothes that the jolly Mrs. had thought we might put to good use.
Does Santa Claus exist? I'll offer an unequivocal "yes."
December 20, 2010
Two Senators and a Rep (with Correction)
Last Tuesday, when I summarized some points that two state senators and a representative made to the Tiverton School Committee, I misstated something that Democrat Rep. Jay Edwards said, and he corrected me in the comments to the post. At the meeting, Edwards mentioned meetings with the House speaker (Gordon Fox) and the Democrat majority leader (Nicholas Mattiello), saying that the latter is relatively conservative on matters of teachers' unions and education. Because Edwards referred to them only as "speaker" and "leader," I mistakenly conflated the two and said that he'd characterized the speaker as conservative.
For those interested in the content of the delegation's visit, here's the video:
December 14, 2010
Defining the Terms of Economic Development
Everybody supports economic development, even in a proudly ruralish town like Tiverton, but as I suggest in my Patch.com column, the details are decisive:
At least in the recent past, it has seemed that Tiverton's policy for economic development has been that it should occur only in places in which businesses struggle to succeed - mostly Stafford and Crandall Road along the eastern border and Main Road in North Tiverton. It's only a mild exaggeration to suggest that Town Council members of the past have been loath to fell a single tree for the benefit of the private sector. Meanwhile, residents in such neighborhoods as Four Corners have arisen in opposition to any attempts to nudge planning and zoning codes a little bit closer to the sweet spot between quaint and flourishing. ...
In this respect, the grocery store symbolizes the error in our very concept of economic development. Councilor Ed Roderick came closest to correcting the error when he noted that the town must "offer something that [businesses] can't get somewhere else." Truth be told, there are really only two things unique to Tiverton: Tivertonians and the town itself. The geography is what it is, and the inclination to protect its rural, coastal New England character is well placed, which leaves only the character of the people. ...
In short, the objective of luring attractive residents to a town comes down to making it a great place to live, which brings us right back to all of those issues in contentious disagreement. Clearly, for one, our schools must be top-notch. A district's threat that a large tax increase is necessary to avoid shuttering a brand new elementary school indicates that the town is already having difficulty funding schools as they are, and Tiverton is currently producing high school classes that are only 31% proficient in math and 21% proficient in science, as measured on statewide NECAP tests. Knowledge-working parents are unlikely to be impressed by such results.
By the way, while I'm posting Tiverton content:
Last night, the Town Council came out of executive session around 11:00 p.m. and voted unanimously to support Town Treasurer Phil DiMattia as he recoups $367,000 from the school department. Apparently, with state/federal aid coming in lower than budgeted at last May's financial town meeting, the schools did exactly as Tiverton Citizens for Change and I explained that they would: They've taken the position that the town is now responsible for every penny that it budgeted, regardless of the fact that it broke out that budget into "state/federal aid" and "from local sources."
Readers may recall that the controversy centered around a potential 22% tax increase. As I explained here and here, that's the outward boundary, should the schools lose all state and federal aid. That's not likely, but unless the municipal government cuts its own budget by an equal amount and municipal is much more strapped than the school department every $300,000 will require a 1% tax increase.
December 7, 2010
Positions: One Per Resident
My Patch.com column this week takes up a minor local controversy over residents' holding multiple town positions, in light of the relevance to local politics to larger political battles:
The potential for conflicts of interest and corruption is remote between the school district and oyster farming; it is less so between those who draft the school and municipal budgets and a committee addressing the method by which those budgets are approved. However obscure these specific instances may be, the principle that transforms minor town hall expectorations into webs of state and national intrigue is easy to see: The people invest every office, council, committee, board, panel, and subcommittee with a certain amount of its collective power. Factions inevitably labor to collect enough of them to achieve their ends, and the competition can, itself, be healthy...provided they must find enough politically palatable members that each need only hold one government position at a time.
December 1, 2010
Miles to Go Before Tiverton Sleeps
I'll be writing a weekly column called "15 Miles of Main Road" for the Tiverton-LittleCompton Patch.com, and my first offering seeks to set the stage for what could be an extremely interesting couple of years in Tiverton politics, perhaps with implications for politics across the state:
The infamous Tiverton Financial Town Meeting of May 2010 was fundamentally a two-tone affair. There was the red and the yellow, and while individual residents are more likely to be shades of orange, the debate was defined by the purer hues toward which each side tugged. As reductionist as it may be to posit two, simple, opposing forces, doing so allows a model for understanding what has come and what may be expected in public affairs.
November 22, 2010
Oh Goody; a Surplus
I just learned, during tonight's Town Council meeting in Tiverton, that Town Treasurer Phil DiMattia is projecting that the 2010 fiscal year brought nearly $1 million surplus. During a recession. With a large tax increase for the current fiscal year.
That, by the way, doesn't include federal funds given to the school department by the federal and state governments. Nice to know as I go through the weekly exercise of figuring out which bills will be least punitive not to pay, even as I try to figure out how to afford some Christmas presents for my children.
November 11, 2010
A Town Story Being Missed at the State Level
In all of its coverage of the election, thus far, including an "Election Digest" published last Thursday, the Providence Journal like every other major news outlet in the state has neglected to report on the fact that my local taxpayer group, Tiverton Citizens for Change, has taken a commanding role on the Town Council. Granted, we're out here on the edge of the state, but the fact that a much-vilified group has placed its president, David Nelson, who happens also to be the target of an outlandish slander lawsuit filed by two outgoing council members, has taken a public office, along with enough of his allies to constitute a majority, is surely newsworthy.
November 2, 2010
Tiverton Helps Itself, but Not Rhode Island
With 100% of the precincts reported, Tiverton put nearly every candidate endorsed by Tiverton Citizens for Change on the Town Council. That should make for a very interesting dynamic. More interesting, although less encouraging, is that the group left the School Committee and the Budget Committee (but for one endorsement) to the opposition. At the very least, one can predict that harmony will not be the keyword of the town for the next two years.
It appears, however, that my fellow townsfolk haven't applied the local lessons to the state, yet. The typical RI two-thirds sent Walter Felag (D) back to the state senate, while Louis DiPalma (D) was unopposed for his senate seat. In the RI House, incumbent John Edwards (D) retained his seat.
Luckily, although Tiverton went for the Democrat, George Alzaibak, for John Loughlin's former seat, Republican Dan Gordon appears to have managed a victory by four votes.
October 18, 2010
Red Flags in the Wind
On first hearing that Tiverton might be the site of a new on-land wind farm, I was more or less ambivalent, but with the feeling that the project would provide more benefit than detriment. But details on the structure of the initiative raise concerns more fundamental than Rhode Island's habitual not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) attitude:
Nine communities in the region have banded together to form the East Bay Energy Consortium, a group that proposes building a land-based wind farm that would provide enough clean, renewable power for as many as 7,500 homes.
What's notably different about this new form of economic development is that the towns are the entities receiving the grants and hiring consultants. In other words, this isn't a matter of a private developer working with municipalities to smooth the path toward construction and industry. It's the small-time elected officials of towns and cities deciding to go into the wind business, with a start-up cost "between $50 million and $63 million."
The insidious aspect arises with the intended handling of the money. Although the collaborative idea began as a way to "save taxpayer money," the wind farm isn't being envisioned as a sort of utility that would lower taxpayers' energy bills. Rather:
The group would sell power at market rates, and the member communities would then share revenues to help cover their municipal budgets. Initial estimates for total benefits to the consortium over 20 years range from $23 million to $39 million.
These nine communities might as well be opening up a video game development company. Their notion is to start a profitable business, claiming that the profits will enable them to lighten up on tax collections. If you believe that means tax cuts, well, then you haven't lived in Rhode Island for very long. More likely, the powers who be have observed that even the confused and apathetic electorates in their towns are chafing at tax levies that double every decade. Municipal leaders are therefore looking for a way to continue spending and to avoid reforms in their inefficient operational practices.
The generally positive view of green energy which ranges out to cultish adoration on its fringes provides them cover to dive into a speculative investment, with our tax dollars, probably through bonds, as their initial cash infusion.
October 6, 2010
Rhode Island Still Knee Caps Its Students
So, test scores for the science NECAPs are out, and the main topics of conversation have been:
- That Portsmouth leads the pack, with 51.7% proficiency in grade 11, after having rearranged its science curriculum dramatically.
- That demographic gaps in scores have increased.
- That scores overall have nudged up.
Of course, by nudging, I mean about 4%. And if we look specifically at the critical test that of 11th grade children approaching graduation the increase is all of 1.1%. It's interesting to note something for which I've got no explanation: Reviewing the charts that compare the three states that issue the NECAPs (Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont), it seems that up and down trends repeat across state borders. That fact raises questions about whether increased resources for public education will repair the underlying problem. I certainly don't think funding is the issue in Rhode Island, and we trail the pack, of course.
Of particular interest to me, naturally, is the fact that Tiverton's 11th graders have lost ground by 4.4%. That's after a drop of 4.7% from 2008 to 2009. In the first year of science NECAPs, Tiverton students were 30.5% proficient; now, they're 21.4% proficient. These results obtained despite the fact that the number of students taking the test in Tiverton, a stand-in for enrollment, decreased by nearly one-fifth. One would think that a significantly smaller class would receive more individual attention and therefore achieve higher scores. Given the fact that, from 2008 to 2009, the number of students actually increased by one, yet the scores dropped by about the same amount, the proper conclusion appears to be that the Tiverton school district is just incapable of teaching science to the students that it is tasked to educate.
Oddly, this isn't a topic of conversation around town, that I've heard. It certainly wasn't audible beneath the din of the school committee and administration threatening to close elementary schools at the FTM in May.
August 21, 2010
The Downward Spiral of Detoxifying Land
The folks down on Bay St., Tiverton, where toxic soil from long-ago industrial use of the land had contaminated back yards and led to health problems for residents, just can't to win:
... the contractor, Envirologic, has stopped work and filed for bankruptcy, leaving many of the homeowners with craters in their yards or replacement fill that has challenged their septic systems and topsoil that may itself be hazardous waste. ...
A year ago, residents of the Bay Street neighborhood saw light at the end of the tunnel.
Corvello and her neighbors won an $11.5 million settlement from Southern Union Corp., a major national energy company, in a lawsuit the residents had filed in federal court against the Texas-based utility four years earlier. ...
Corvello said the residents could see the bankruptcy coming, because the company had to remove far more soil than it had anticipated and appeared to be having cash flow problems in recent months.
I've long been opposed to the litigious route to resolving such problems a position that has left me open to accusations of favoring Big Business over my neighbors. As is often the case, though, the Party One versus Party Two analysis is less important to me than the principle, and in this case, homeowners bought property without knowing of the problems caused by a long-defunct company that had been bought by another company, which itself did not know of the problems. Not only were the culprits long dead, but they had contaminated the land long before modern regulations.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in an attempt of the property buyers to force the corporate buyer to finance the fix, and ultimately the state government began passing issue-specific laws toward the same cause.
The problem with that approach is that one must monetize the responsibility and settle it. The risk of doing comes in two stages: First, a dollar amount must be determined in advance of repair and then negotiated, all to cover a broad swath of land permeated to an unknown degree. Not for no reason did the liable utility company, Southern Union, opt to hand over money rather than to seek economies by overseeing the remediation. Second, when the problem proves more expansive than first thought, the aggrieved party finds that it has not only absolved the corporation of legal responsibility, but also of moral responsibility.
Had a different approach been taken, combining political and commercial pressure with a public-spirited charitable campaign, the risk that the problem was larger than initially thought would have been spread out. More money might have been extracted from the big pockets, and third parties right down to neighbors with wheelbarrows full of clean dirt would be more involved in the remedy.
August 16, 2010
Injustice Seen Across the Political Board
By way of an update on the local situation, here's a press release from Tiverton Citizens for Change (TCC) President David Nelson:
Citing the important free speech issues involved in the case, the ACLU of Rhode Island today announced it has agreed to represent Tiverton resident David Nelson, the president of a local tax reform group, who has been sued for defamation by two Town Council members. Nelson, head of Tiverton Citizens for Change, was sued for making public comments alleging that Council members submitted "false" documentation to the State Department of Revenue relating to an unapproved proposal for a tax increase. The ACLU called the complaint against Nelson "a classic SLAPP suit designed to intimidate town residents from speaking out on political matters."
Nelson made the comment after the Town Council filed what it called an informal "checklist for eligibility" with the state to see if the Town could get permission to impose a tax increase beyond the 4.5% cap authorized by state law. The Town Council made this request without the knowledge of the town's Budget Committee, the entity officially authorized to recommend a budget to the Financial Town Meeting, and which had formally proposed a budget below the cap. Arguing that the request was never publicly authorized by the Town Council and was prepared on the state documents necessary to formally apply for a state waiver from the tax cap, Nelson publicly charged town officials with submitting "false documentation to the State to
facilitate a tax increase."
Last month, two Town Council members, Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda, sued Nelson for punitive damages, calling his comments "false, defamatory and harmful to plaintiffs' reputation." Their lawsuit is also against unknown individuals the council members say participated in preparing and sending the letter. Interestingly, in a letter to state finance officials after the Town Council's actions came to light, the chair of the town budget committee also called the submission a "falsified document," but he has not been sued.
Nelson has filed a counter-claim for damages under the state's SLAPP suit law, and the ACLU has agreed to represent Nelson in getting the lawsuit against him dismissed. SLAPP suits ("Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation") refer to lawsuits brought to chill people from exercising their freedom of speech on matters of public concern.
Concerned about the use of SLAPP suits to try to stifle public debate on a variety of issues, the Rhode Island ACLU has succeeded in getting a number of similar suits dismissed since an anti-SLAPP statute was enacted in 1995. In the first such case handled by the ACLU, the R.I. Supreme Court ordered dismissal of a defamation suit brought against North Kingstown resident Nancy Hsu Fleming for critical statements she made about a private landfill. Shortly thereafter, the ACLU also helped the South Kingstown Neighborhood Congress in a suit filed against it for public comments its members made against a local developer's activities.
RI ACLU volunteer attorney Karen Davidson, who is representing Nelson, said today that the councilors' suit was "a classic SLAPP suit designed to intimidate town residents from speaking out on political matters. The SLAPP suit statute was enacted in order to prevent just this type of litigation, and we are hopeful for a quick dismissal of the suit." Nelson added: "Our bedrock constitutional rights allow us to express disagreement with elected officials and report on matters of public concern. l will not cower from this attempt to intimidate my public participation in local budget and taxation issues."
Honestly, it's difficult to understand what Durfee and Arruda are thinking, and the fact that support of Nelson spans from the ACLU to RISC suggests that they should reconsider. Several of us made comments in multiple venues calling out the documents sent to the state as "false," because they absolutely were. It was actually Town Administrator James Goncalo who submitted them, and when we brought the matter to the Town Council's attention, none but Jay Lambert thought it much worth discussing.
That doesn't mean that Durfee and Arruda were in on Goncalo's action, but as part of the generally fishy attempt to exceed the tax cap without actually voting to do so, the documents certainly fit a pattern. And that pattern, in my view, suggests that six out of seven current Town Councilors do not deserve their positions.
The two who filed the lawsuit should resign immediately and take a graceful exit from public office.
August 2, 2010
Standing Up to That Old Time Political Bullying
Justin's post announcing Arruda and Durfee's despicable lawsuit against Dave Nelson here.
The following press release from the defendant was in my in-box this morning. Note well the second paragraph describing a demand that Dave rat out his fellow concerned citizens, apparently for the crime of behaving like ... concerned citizens.
A principle of democracy is public participation in local government. The right of such participation is found in the First Amendment, which includes the right of free speech. These fundamental rights are at the core of our political system and permeate our society. It seems that not everyone likes this-please read on.
About two months ago, and only 3 days before Tiverton's second FTM, I received a letter threatening legal action from Councilors Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda's private attorney. This letter included a demand that I hand over names of people who received a letter to the editor from Tiverton Citizens for Change which highlighted tactics used by Tiverton's Town Council to request a 9% tax increase in the weeks before Tiverton's 2010 FTM. TCC views this as an attempt to intimidate, to silence the voice of dissent, stifle public debate and transform Tiverton's public debate into a lawsuit.
Durfee and Arruda filed this politically motivated civil suit, also known as a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation (SLAPP) suit, against me and Tiverton Citizens for Change in apparent retaliation to the April letter to the Editor which described 'false' documents filed with the State Department of Municipal Finance. The suit seems to be part of a larger strategy to intimidate and silence critics of Durfee and Arruda, and chill public debate.
The issue originates from Tiverton's Town Council's efforts to obtain an 'advisory' opinion from Rhode Island's Division of Municipal Finance by filing a Notice of Proposed Tax Rate Change which was not approved by the Town Council or Budget Committee. I, along with other TCC members spoke against this effort during an April 26 town Council Meeting. See our website
TivertonCC.com for the video of this meeting. The request was subsequently denied by Susanne Greschner, Chief of Division of Municipal Finance.
Our bedrock constitutional rights allow us to express disagreement with elected officials and report on matters of public concern. l will not cower from this attempt to intimidate my public participation in local budget and taxation issues. I am vigorously fighting this blatant attempt to intimidate TCC and have filed a countersuit under the State's anti-SLAPP law protections.
President of Tiverton Citizens for Change
July 23, 2010
The Government They Prefer
It's always notably plausible that there's a larger truth in the mix when I agree with Bob Kerr, but while his column lamenting the possibly fatal restrictions that the Tiverton Town Council has placed on an annual charity event, this year, counts in that regard, I'd suggest that he should think on the larger lessons that the controversy teaches about government. As Kerr describes it:
For seven years, Jane Bitto, who owns Evelyn's Restaurant with her husband, Dominic, has gone to Town Hall to get the permit for "Singing Out Against Hunger," three days of music in September that has raised a lot of money and a pile of nonperishable food for East Bay Community Action’s food pantries. Last year, in a bad economy, it raised $25,000. ...
There have been complaints. That's what Bitto heard when she went to Town Hall. There have been complaints from people living on the opposite side of Nanaquaket Pond from Evelyn's. The music is too loud and it goes on too long, they say.
As Kerr touches on and as I've seen occur time and again in local politics the process wasn't one in which people with complaints were asked to step forward to make them and confront those whom they wished to restrict. Council members made general statements about hearing complaints complaints submitted through the typical Rhode Island method of a note, visit, or phone call to people with power and blindsided their target only when the time to the event was too short to mount an effective response.
Kerr calls it "the flip side of small town charm." Over on the Tiverton Citizens for Change Web site, I beg to differ. This turn of events is the entirely predictable consequence of small-town fiefdoms. "Community minded" tends to mean a town or neighborhood conforming with a small group's personal preferences, with differences resolved through imposition rather than compromise. Just like we weren't the ones who turned this year's financial town meeting into an offensive circus, or who strove to ban the Easter Bunny from the public schools a couple of years ago, it isn't us selfish tax-hawk newcomers who aren't willing to tolerate a little prime-time music come a late-summer evening.
Rather, it's the same folks who regularly squash businesses' attempts at economic development. It's the same contingent who skirted the law to raise taxes by an oppressive amount and who then sued TCC President Dave Nelson for having the audacity to complain about their tactics, including Town Administrator James Goncalo's sending of false documents to the state. In other words, Kerr and his sympathizers should look at their concept of a government that cares and question whether it's possible to preserve such an entity from people who care above all about themselves.
I've heard it stated many times that those who hate the town as indicated by an aversion to massive mid-recession tax increases should leave. Oddly, I don't expect to hear similar suggestions when the indication of that hatred is aversion to live music in a public place for an excellent cause.
July 13, 2010
That Old Time Political Bullying
Government reform is, ought to be, and may have to be a coherent movement from the municipality to the federal government. Here in Rhode Island, it's easy to see how a broad set of principles and tactics applied across government tiers have corrupted (and expanded) government and hobbled our society, and mutual support and encouragement across town and state borders will be critical to building a lasting reform movement.
It's wonderful that national tea party activities have been putting pressure on elected officials at the federal level. It's also important that, in Rhode Island, the Ocean State Policy Research Institute has formed as a think tank following issues of statewide concern, that the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition is taking an increasingly active role in highlighting bad legislation and reviewing candidates for office, and that the Rhode Island Tea Party has directed its activities toward statewide issues as well as national. I've maintained, however, that individual activism should begin at the city and town level, where government office is most accessible and where basic political principles have an immediate and local effect on voters' lives.
We're certainly finding, in my hometown of Tiverton, RI, that members of the political establishment who operate locally are willing to act as the vanguard in intimidating active residents (of the undesirable sort) to get out of politics.
The same week* Tiverton Citizens for Change President David Nelson officially put his name down as a potential candidate for Town Council, two current members of that body, Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda, filed a defamation lawsuit against him (and an unnamed group of John and Jane Does that may turn out to include me). Their lawyer, Jeffrey Schreck, sent the initial threat of litigation to Mr. Nelson shortly before this year's contentious financial town meeting, and I'll have more to say about the suspicious timing of these events, as well as the lack of merits to their claim, in the future, but on first review, I have to express my disappointment at the level of thinking that the resources of our public judiciary must be expended to address.
The substance of the complaint made by Arruda and Durfee the latter a former director of the state Department of Environmental Management and one-time candidate for governor hardly has grammatical grounds, let alone legal ones from a PDF of the summons:
6. The Letter accuses plaintiffs and their allies of submitting false documentation to the State of Rhode Island to support a tax increase. The Letter further states that this accusation of official misconduct by plaintiffs is "not an idle charge" and is "well-documented." The Letter accuses plaintiffs and others who constitute a majority of the members of the Town Council of making "a practice of sending secret, falsified documents to the state government."
7. Mr. Nelson's statements in the Letter accuse plaintiffs of wrongful, criminal conduct, and assert that TCC has written evidence to support his charges.
Here's the relevant section of the offending letter from Mr. Nelson:
Still worse are the efforts of Ms Durfee, Joanne Arruda and their allies, in deliberate cooperation with the Town Administrator to avoid a Town Council vote exceeding the State Tax cap. They have submitted false documentation to the State to facilitate a tax increase of at least 9%. This is not an idle charge, and it is well documented. Town Administrator Goncalo has stressed that the documents are secret except for him, the Town Treasurer, Budget Committee, and the State. In fact, he promised “to find out who put that form on the Internet”, as if posting public documents is now a matter for witch hunts and suppression of transparency. We have this on tape.
It is astounding that a town official would make a practice of sending secret, falsified documents to the state government based on information that distorts the current status of the town’s budget process. More astonishing is that a majority of the Town Council supports it.
Either Durfee and Arruda have skin so thin that it pains them even to be in proximity of accusations, or they're twisting the facts in order to present themselves as victims. Their names appear in the letter specifically with reference to efforts to "avoid a Town Council vote exceeding the State Tax cap," which is irrefutably accurate, given the months of public debate in which they took precisely that position. The "they" who submitted false documents to the state is the whole group of "allies," including Mr. Goncalo, and it is simply a fact that he did so. Whether Durfee and Arruda's cooperation with the larger effort extended to direct prior knowledge of Goncalo's act is immaterial, although it's reasonable to have suspicions.
Furthermore, as evident in video of the Town Council meeting at which TCC brought this matter to a public head, the town administrator clearly did stress that his act was meant to be secret. And Nelson's letter explicitly faults "a town official" that is, Town Administrator James Goncalo for this particular action within the larger campaign to avoid the letter of the tax cap law.
Lastly, as is also evident in the video, the lack of outrage from the majority of the Town Council implicitly lends their support. If, as their lawsuit implies, Durfee and Arruda believe that Mr. Goncalo's actions were "criminal conduct" an accusation that Nelson's letter does not make then they are guilty of shirking their responsibility by not censuring their employee when the matter came to their attention.
That local elected officials who deserve partial blame for the town's thinning tax base and demand for massive tax increases in the midst of an historic recession would twist language for political purposes is to be expected. That they would seek to leverage the overburdened court system in an effort to cost a candidate for local office time and money during campaign season is one more example of the methodology by which political insiders have fostered public disengagement from the political process.
* This post initially and incorrectly stated that the suit had been filed the day after Nelson submitted his intention to run for office. The actual filing appears to have occurred the day before his official submission, although he had inquired at the town hall about the process and requirements previously.
June 14, 2010
A Local Budget Correction
I've referred, on Anchor Rising, to an erroneous conclusion of mine related to state aid and Tiverton's school budget, so I should point to my correction, here, as well. In essence, when I stated that Tiverton was receiving more than predicted in state and federal aid, I didn't realize that the state's methods include "restricted" funds in the total on which it votes within its budget. Assuming the same allocation for those funds, this year as last, the state is actually providing $55,514 less.
The error, I'd note, suggests that the school department should stop teasing "restricted" aid out of the numbers that it presents to the public.
May 23, 2010
A Familiar Drum
I'm keeping up the posting over on the Tiverton Citizens for Change Web site, including the observation that the drum that the Tiverton School Committee beat prior to our financial town meeting are now being played in West Warwick:
Sports programs and part-time employees join the list of recommended cuts school officials hope will compensate for a $1.2-million hole in the School Department’s proposed $47.8-million budget. …
Topping the list of cuts is the closing of the Maisie E. Quinn Elementary School, a move that will save the district $750,000. …
The School Committee is still discussing this budget, Chairwoman Lindagay Palazzo said Thursday. The committee will review the proposal at the June 8 public meeting, and likely will vote to have a budget ready for the Financial Town Meeting, now scheduled for June 22.
How long, do you suppose, until parents and taxpayers learn that there's a template in play, here.
May 15, 2010
Nothing to See Here, Locally and Globally
Well, we got beat at the Tiverton financial town meeting. Liveblog here, and post-game here. Tiverton's tax levy will now go up a minimum of 7.88% in the middle of the worst economy in a century, with house values plummeting, businesses closing, and for sale signs loitering for months on end on front lawns around town. Too many people stand to gain by taxing others for the upward climb of taxes to take a break for such things as unemployment and the expansion of the working poor.
But I'm going to get out of my now-more-expensive basement office and go spend some family time in the fresh air. In the meantime, I leave you with a laugh-out-loud good line from Mark Steyn:
At Ford Hood, Major Hasan jumped on a table and gunned down his comrades while screaming "Allahu Akbar!" which is Arabic for "Nothing to see here" and an early indicator of pre-post-traumatic stress disorder.
If you're merely in the mood for levity, don't click the link and read beyond that sentence. Suffice to say that I associate the growing government in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and the United States with the weakness of the West that Steyn sees on a global scale.
May 13, 2010
Radio Last Night & This Morning
I'll be on the John DePetro Show, this morning at 6:20 a.m. for the same purpose.
May 12, 2010
Bringing the Town to the State's Attention
I've got an op-ed in today's Providence Journal placing Tiverton's budget battles in the context of community and different notions thereof.
In one version of "community," it's a good thing to be a slob, thereby creating a need for other residents to pay somebody to clean up, and it's a bad thing to take an idle moment to clean where children play.
May 11, 2010
Some Tiverton Facts and Arguments
I've spent the past six months or so learning the details of current debates in Tiverton government, so I've got quite a bit of information to get out into the public during this week between assemblies of the financial town meeting. Here are three posts I've put up, this evening:
- Responding to the tax assessor's claim that we're being disingenuous.
- An update on why no schools will be closed based on a lower budget (The funny part is that I was the only person to contact the bond holder for information on closing a school before the town treasurer called them on Monday.)
- A summary of what each amendment currently on the table for the school budget will mean for taxes
May 8, 2010
2010 FTM, Volume 1
My summary report from the first 2010 Tiverton Financial Town meeting is now up. I'll get around to posting video, at some point, but since I was so active at the meeting, I didn't turn the camera at all, so it might be more useful to think of it as audio with a related picture.
Punch Drunk from Local Politics
I just got home from Tiverton's financial town meeting and a lunch decompression session. I'll attempt a more thorough report for the TCC Web site once my disorientation dissipates. I'll say this, for now: I really did not imagine how far how dirty the Democratic Town Committee/union coalition was going to be willing to go. Their strategy, as it emerged, was to scare parents into showing up, delay away half the allowable meeting time, rearrange the order of the meeting in completely convoluted ways. distort the meaning of adopted rules to erase all distinctions between amendments and motions so as to pass their preferred budget, get in one talking point about all the horrible things that will happen if they lose, shut off debate on the expenditure of $25 million by far the greatest expense of the town so that their newly frightened contingent (parents) wouldn't have a chance to hear contrary arguments, and vote for more money for themselves and their pet causes.
If you've been to a heated school committee meeting during negotiation season, this was that on steroids. As it happened, we didn't actually get to a single budgetary vote. But that's more of a summary than I intended, for now. My intention was to mention an anecdote from the end that will likely amuse Anchor Rising readers:
Not wanting to fight the traffic on the way out, I was hanging around the gymnasium while the crowd dissipated, and I couldn't believe the amount of trash that people just left lying around. So, I grabbed a garbage bag that was hanging next to a barrel and began walking the bleachers policing the area, as we used to call it in Boy Scouts.
This is so predictable that I wouldn't dare make it up: An older guy (clearly with family under the town's employ) berated me, in front of a janitor, for doing his work for him. I remarked how selfish the people who took their garbage with them must have been, at which point, a woman in the same group let loose the common riffs: if you hate the town, leave it, etc. She suggested that I send my children to private school, to which I agreed, if she'd vote for a voucher system.
On Anchor Rising, we talk a lot about the high perspective manifestation of this mentality, and we debate the folks in ties and the organizers, but it's really something to physically step into a world in which it is actually poor etiquette to get off your butt and pick up trash in the school gymnasium. Not surprisingly, that's the same world in which opposing people who threaten to cut every program in the district unless they get money to float around to the unions is evidence of hating the town.
I have to say though, that I had it easy, even as one of the most vocal folks on my side. The town moderator and budget committee chairman actually needed uniformed protection as the meeting dissipated.
Ladies and gentlemen, that's quite a face for the people who "love this town" to put forward. And now we have to do it all again next Saturday.
April 30, 2010
Different Towns, Different Compassion for Taxpayers' Plight
According to the Newport Daily News, some elected officials in Middletown are willing to acknowledge the economy in which constituents are having to struggle:
Councilman Edward J. Silveira said he submitted a docket item to discuss the issue [of a zero percent increase] after hearing from residents and businesses about the increased hardships they're facing. Silveira, Councilwoman M. Theresa Santos and Robert J. Sylvia said this week they will recommend deep cuts to line items across the board because most people cannot afford any additional expenditures. ...
"When I look and see what residents are going through and the fact our foreclosures are the highest they've been in years and families are going through so much right now, we need to do everything we can to make sure we're being reasonable," Sylvia said. "I will say this, however: Given what's going on out there, I will actively be campaigning against any member of the Town Council who votes for any tax increase. I'm a businessperson and I look at the town like a business and we can't beat up our residents any more than we already have."
The initially proposed budget represented a 2.7% increase, although some town officials are citing decreasing state and federal aid as justification for an 8% increase. Meanwhile, in Tiverton, we're having to fight to keep a compromise budget at a 4.39% tax levy increase, with town officials like the superintendent of schools proclaiming the end of our local civilization unless home owners accept a 9% increase in taxes.
Spurred by the Tiverton School Committee, rumors are flying around town declaring to parents that their children's schools will be closed, and students as early as fourth grade will be forced into the middle school, riding the bus with eighth graders. There is simply no way that will happen. For his part, Superintendent Bill Rearick warned at a public hearing, Wednesday, that even more extreme measures may be required like forcing a reduction in teacher pay. (The only reason I didn't put the italicized phrase in quotation marks is that he may have said, "more egregious," and I haven't had a chance to check the tape.)
Hard economic times bring such clarity about who's on whose side.
April 27, 2010
Shady Maneuvers in Local Government
One periodically hears the complaint that Republican candidates, in Rhode Island, too often shoot for the bigger state and federal elected offices, rather than starting local. Each person has to determine his or her interests and preferences for participation, but I've been finding local politics, here in Tiverton, to be extremely instructive in helping to form my understanding of governance in general.
As I mentioned on Anchor Rising, recently, Town Administrator Jim Goncalo has modified official documents with false information for the purposes of an "inquiry" to the Department of Revenue Division of Municipal Affairs. What he and some members of the Town Council are attempting to do is to get the state to promise to certify a tax increase above the 4.5% cap (over 9%). In that way, they avoid going on record voting to request a waiver of the tax cap before the financial town meeting but effectively achieve the same thing.
At last night's Town Council meeting, which I liveblogged on the Web site of Tiverton Citizens for Change (TCC), some of us concerned citizens raised the matter under the agenda item "financial town meeting," to which it is clearly relevant. What we confirmed immediately was that the Town Council had not seen the document (officially, anyway) and did not approve it for sending to the state as part of an "inquiry." The notable exception was that Council Member Louise Durfee was clearly very familiar with the package, suggesting that she might be working independently without council participation in the background.
That's when the education really began.
The strategy of the key players Durfee, Goncalo, and Council President Don Bolin was to insist that, in the context of the package, it really wasn't a big deal that the town administrator had misrepresented formal documents submitted to the state, apparently without authorization to do so. They then engaged in misdirection and personal attacks against those of us who took the public podium to speak.
Town Administrator Goncalo stressed that nobody was supposed to see the documents except for him, the town treasurer, the Budget Committee chairman, and the state. In fact, he promised "to find out who put that form on the Internet" (I did), as if posting public documents is now a matter for witch hunts and suppression of transparency. As if it would be preferable for town officials to make a practice of sending secret, falsified documents to departments of the state government in order to receive promises of certification based on information that does not accurately reflect the current status of the town's budget process.
The fact is that the budget, as it stands, is currently below the tax cap, an inconvenient fact for those who hope to confiscate more tax dollars.
Council Member Hannibal Costa then objected that the item wasn't on the agenda. President Bollin slammed down his gavel and ended the meeting.
For the final lesson of the evening: Even though the subject of falsified documents from a town official that had ostensibly been inappropriately released to the public was clearly the most newsworthy development of the evening, neither Tom Killin Dalglish, of the Sakonnet Times, nor Marcia Pobzeznik, of the Newport Daily News, both in attendance, approached any of the principal speakers for further information.
Now extrapolate this drama to the state and federal levels. The one hope, it seems to me, is that truth and principle will shine through, no matter the breadth of the issue or the complexity of the obfuscation.
April 22, 2010
TCC on the Richard Urban Show
Two other members of Tiverton Citizens for Change and I had the opportunity to talk Tiverton budgetary politics on the Richard Urban Show, yesterday. The video is up on the TCC Web site.
April 19, 2010
More Shenanigans in Tiverton
Somebody in town really wants a waiver of the state-imposed property tax cap, which currently limits the total property tax levy to a 4.5% increase. As I reported in a liveblog from last Monday's Town Council meeting, the council voted to send an extra-statutory "letter of inquiry" (meaning that there's no such thing in the law) to find out how much the town could exceed the cap, if it so chose.
I've tried to find out, from Jill Barrette, Acting Chief of the Division of Property Valuation and Municipal Finance, in Providence, how her office could possibly give a hypothetical number with an implied promise without the town's following the process of requesting a waiver. That would mean a 4/5 vote of the "governing body" claiming that the town's budget exceeds its allowed increase, as well as a majority vote of the financial town meeting.
The problem is that the Tiverton Budget Committee, which ultimately determines the budget on which residents will vote on May 8, managed to get it below the cap, negating the need for a waiver. To skirt this difficulty, Town Administrator Jim Goncalo has apparently reworked official documents to show a higher proposed budget, with a 9.04% increase in taxes.
Budget season, this year, has certainly been a lesson in politics, and I can't help but extrapolate local behavior to government more broadly. The law is what you can get away with, it seems, and without a bottom-up re-engagement of the electorate, it's hard to see how this tangled up mess can do otherwise than sink.
In the meantime, if anybody's got a line to the State Division of Municipal Finance, the Department of Revenue, or the governor's office, I'd love to hear some official opinions on issuing non-waiver promises of waivers based on documents that are arguably falsified. I expressed my concern, back when the tax cap was new, that it would, first, present a goal for which budgeters would shoot, every year, even if they were able to come in significantly lower and, second, regularly be waived with little difficulty. If the process of acquiring a waiver is indeed as some folks in Tiverton would like it to be, the law is little more than smoke and mirrors to give the impression of concern about taxpayers.
April 12, 2010
Government in Miniature
With Tiverton's financial town meeting (FTM) fast approaching, I've been having to attend multiple town meetings per week to keep an eye on the local powers who be. For anybody who's interested, the resulting liveblogs and videos are up on the Tiverton Citizens for Change Web site.
The experience has been a real education in the functioning of government which clearly operates in a separate and distinct reality from the rest of us. From the rhetoric being flung at those of us who wish to halt the perpetual tax increase during a time of economic hardship that we're "destroying the town" and so forth you'd never guess this to be the case:
The school side of the budget is particularly disconcerting. According to state law, school committees cannot request "municipal funds (exclusive of state and federal aid) in excess of one hundred four and one-half percent (104.5%) of the total of municipal funds appropriated by the city or town council for school purposes for fiscal year 2010." As far as General Assembly language goes, that couldn't be clearer. Yet, the committee actually requested 106.17%.
Its stated reasoning was that last year's FTM "appropriated" both the local funds and the estimated state funds, and since the state cut its contribution by about $300,000, that money ought to be figured into the budget. Nevermind that the above legislation contains language making all laws to the contrary "notwithstanding." Nevermind that the state actually did give the school district all of its expected aid, just using federal funds to fill the gap.
Over the past week, TCC finally managed to learn the district's revenue from all sources. Until now, the school department has kept millions of dollars undisclosed on the grounds that it was for "restricted" purposes. Working that data into the mix reveals that direct state aid to Tiverton schools actually went up. Moreover, federal money exploded, moving the total state and federal aid from $6,150,846 to $6,967,039.
The problem, from the school department's perspective, is that total aid is expected to drop back to $5,848,725 this coming year mostly through a drop in those secret "restricted" funds. The end result is that all of the declarations of hardship and of a danger of the schools' being "gutted," "destroyed," and "decimated" represent an attempt to pressure the town into making up for "restricted" money that the district built into its budget. It seems to me that money for special purposes of which townsfolk supposedly had no reason to be informed should bring those special purposes with it when it goes. Otherwise, it wasn't really "restricted," was it?
Of course, we all know where most of the money actually goes:
What makes the battle all the worse is the creeping suspicion rather, confidence that government functions like this all the way up the chain, only exponentially more expensive and exponentially more deceptive the broader its reach.
March 30, 2010
Clarifying My View on Cuts to Tiverton Schools
Since I offered commentary on Anchor Rising against the Tiverton Budget Committee's decision to level fund the local contribution to the school budget, it seems reasonable to note, in this space, that I've revised my position. As I explained here and here, I'd been misled by the language that the School Committee and administration use when they discuss staying within the cap on tax increases.
The cap is actually a limit on the amount of additional money that the town can raise from property taxes. What the district calls "the cap" has to do with what it requests from the town. Thus, by the district's definition, the town would have to make up its entire drop in state aid which just about exactly eats up the actual cap in a budget that’s just about half the size of the schools', which would almost precisely require decimating town services.
In other words, having been following the debate more closely on the school side, I'd misunderstood the implications and consequences of "level funding" the district. Such things happen, and it's possible to derive longer lasting lessons from errors. In this case, the lesson is that Rhode Island school districts actually acquire state aid through two channels: That which goes directly to them, and that which flows through the town, which is required to maintain its level of contribution. Based on "maintenance of effort" law at the state level, towns are forbidden from passing their loss of state aid on to the schools, which represent by far the greatest expenditure in the budget (with union labor representing by far the greatest percentage, typically 70-80%).
In those circumstances, level funding both the school and the municipal government, while raising taxes somewhat to compensate for lost state aid seems like it ought to be the centrist position union and government operative declarations that it's "extreme" notwithstanding. Of course, when elected officials continue to sign unreasonable contracts, the rancor inevitably becomes more vicious.
March 29, 2010
Tiverton Budget Talks Inch Forward
For those who are interested, I'm liveblogging from a special Tiverton Town Council meeting, which is including discussion of proposing legislation to the General Assembly that would allow cities and towns to delay final budgetary decisions for up to 90 days in order to procure more accurate information about revenue.
March 22, 2010
Liveblogging in Tiverton
FYI: I'm liveblogging a very long Tiverton Town Council meeting over on the Tiverton Citizens for Change blog. It's just about 10:00, and they're finally getting to the controversial part of the meeting. Just goes to show how much effort even local participation can take.
That's no excuse, of course.
March 19, 2010
The Battle of the Tax Cap in Tiverton
Over on the Tiverton Citizens for Change blog, I've been following the battle over the tax cap in this year's budget war. The town's Budget Committee has now voted to reduce all requested budgets to an amount below the state cap on property tax increases (4.5%). The School Committee is actively declaring the end of education as we know it for children, insisting that a roughly 6% across-the-board reduction in employee compensation is simply too draconian to consider. The Town Council is striving to push the town over the cap.
This coming Monday, for instance, Town Solicitor Andy Teitz has once again slipped the controversial topic onto the tail end of the council's agenda, under his comments and questions section. Do other Town Councils in Rhode Island operate this way? It seems like a sneaky maneuver to me.
As I note in today's blog post it is no longer the case that town officials can play the negotiation game and expect residents to accept their budget requests. Residents of other Rhode Island cities and towns should know that it really doesn't take much to show the powers who be that folks are paying attention.
March 12, 2010
UPDATED: Two Tiverton-Related Notes
UPDATE: I was able to restore the lost post
1. The post to which I linked on the Tiverton Citizens for Change blog was accidentally deleted, this morning. My time is way too limited to reconstruct it, and I apologize for any confusion.
2. The Tiverton Budget Committee voted last night to put a level-funded budget for the school district on the docket for the financial town meeting. Inasmuch as my visibility seems have positioned me to be among the most viscerally disliked people in town, I thought I should note in my personal capacity that I do not agree with that result. I don't agree with it strategically, as a means of reallocating resources from pay and benefits for adults back toward programs for students, and I don't agree with it as a final outcome, at least not yet, when the staff just voted to re open its contract and the school committee and teachers haven't played their cards, yet.
March 8, 2010
Building the Easy Road
A certain faction in Tiverton, working with the town solicitor, is striving to make it as easy as possible for the town to exceed the 3050 statewide cap on municipal tax levies. I've got background and video up on the TCC Web site, and I'll be liveblogging over there during tonight's town council meeting, at which the solicitor is going to try, once more, to slip the objectionable interpretation of the law into town policy.
March 5, 2010
Starkly Different Ways Forward
I've posted video of the Tiverton School Committee's hearing about closing the high school over on the TCC Web site. Two dramatically different visions for moving the town forward are emerging. One entails retrenchment, with townies overpowering childless retirees and moving forward with the usual way of doing business, including the decades-long approach to improving the quality of education. The other entails standing firm with the unions in order to improve programs and facilities and make Tiverton a more attractive place to live... even for people whose grandparents didn't grow up here.
March 2, 2010
A Local Focus
In addition to my regular schedule on Anchor Rising, I'll be putting a daily post up on the Web site of Tiverton Citizens for Change, focusing on content related to the town, specifically. My intention is not only to have an effect politically, but also to experiment with a new model that we've been discussing for years, leveraging blogs and multimedia at the local level, with Anchor Rising tying that information into the state-level discussion.
Much of the TCC content will be of the sort that probably wouldn't make it onto my AR posting list because of its narrow focus. However, the experiment comes into play in the sense that I'll be liveblogging from town meetings, there, as well as posting town-related video, as I've done this morning with the recent "pay as you throw" trash pickup hearing.
February 27, 2010
Town Democrats Just Say Whatever
I've meant to address a letter in the Sakonnet Times (not online) that attacks Tiverton Citizens for Change, not because it's particularly worthy of response, but because it's such a clear illustration of the up-is-down rhetoric that our local opposition has decided to pursue as a political strategy. The letter, expressing concern about an "extreme right-leaning campaign," is by Charlie Moran, arguably the town's most partisan Democrat, and Nick Tsiongas, arguably the town's most prominent left-wing radical:
The Tiverton Democratic Committee believes we need to work together to solve our problems rather than making unfounded accusations and turning residents against each other. Our town council and school committee need our support and input as the make difficult financial decisions, which will include negotiating concessions with all our unions.
The letter itself is an attempt to turn residents against each other, and its substantive claims are based on unfounded accusations. On the latter count, there are two examples:
First, Tsiongas and Moran bring up the controversy, mostly out of public view, around an attempt by some to change state law such that a simple majority at the financial town meeting could vote to exceed the cap on budget increases. That story culminated in a town council meeting at which not only a large number of concerned residents, but also Harry Staley of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition showed up in opposition. In a curious maneuver that I've seen before, the solicitor raised the issue during his comment period (just about dead last on the agenda) and Councilor Louise Durfee practically jumped out of her seat to pivot the discussion away from where everybody expected it to go and toward an attack on TCC. Had we not been there, the result may have been quite different. (I'll have video of the strange moment up later this week.)
Specifically, Tsiongas and Moran note a press release from TCC President Dave Nelson citing "months of negotiation behind closed doors" and an effort at "keeping the effort under wraps, with the topic quietly inserted into the agenda." They emphasize that the negotiations were part of a lawsuit, and so were kept secret for that reason, but the legality of secrecy does not negate the fact that it is, indeed, out of public view. Moreover, it is entirely true that the issue was slipped onto the agenda in a surreptitious way, appearing on the published agenda just a couple of days before the meeting and, as I said, raised during the solicitor's segment at the tail end of a predictably long meeting.
Second, the Democrat duo raise the school committee meeting at which Dave Nelson and I suggested that freezing or slightly reducing salaries/benefits would be a preferable approach to resolving financial difficulties to cutting pencils, technology, and programs:
... the TCC called on the school committee to unilaterally impose contract terms on our school employees, a strategy that is not only illegal in Rhode Island but also not in the best interests of our community. A similar strategy pursued in a neighboring town has resulted in legal fees in excess of $750,000 and has torn that community apart.
What is tearing communities apart is the ever-increasing tax burden that goes to the benefit of highly paid adults, a majority of whom often live out of the town in question, even as children cannot grasp simple mathematics and science. The citation of East Providence's legal bills is misleading, inasmuch as that town has already blazed the trail. The law is such that each town needn't reinvent the wheel every time. Additionally, as the court battles in East Providence prove, it isn't a statement of fact that its methods (which are currently in effect, saving the town much more money than the litigation costs, I believe) have been "illegal." That is the question that the judiciary is considering.
Most conspicuous of all, however, is Tsiongas and Moran's complaint about Harry Staley's presence at the town council meeting. Shall we expect the Democrats to speak out every time a union fills the school gymnasium with out-of-town hacks who jeer at residents who have the courage to speak up? Are we to believe that they would hesitate to bring in state-level interests when local bodies are considering matters of statewide concern?
No. We need only understand that the letter is mere political calculation that will disappear into the continuing noise of the left-wing and partisan political strategy bent on attacking Tiverton residents with opposing views, tying the hands of grassroots groups that seek to counterbalance entrenched interests, and distorting the issues to the benefit of unions.
February 25, 2010
Re: Times of Drasticness
By way of follow up, I asked Director of Administration and Finance Doug Fiore a couple of questions after tonight's school committee meeting, here are various interesting data points derived from our conversation:
- Approximately $130,000 of the $450,000 increase in health insurance costs would have been erased from the next budget if the union hadn't blocked the intended coshare increase from 12% to 18%. I assume (but did not clarify) that $260,000 would have been saved if that percentage had been applied to this year and next.
- The layoffs and reassignments that the district is leaving open as possible by sending out notices to teachers would, in total, save $1.3 million.
- That same amount could be saved by reducing combined salaries and benefits across the board by approximately 8%.
- That means that the current shortfall of $750,000 could be covered with an across-the-board reduction of about 4-5%.
I want to stress that these are ballpark figures provided while wrapping up a meeting, so they shouldn't be taken as working numbers. I'm merely trying to illustrate comparative options for covering the budget shortfall that, for some reason, aren't aired publicly.
Times of Drasticness Begin
I was a few minutes late to tonight's Tiverton School Committee meeting, and it was already underway. The high school library is pretty well filled, which means probably about 30-40 people, an apparent mix of students, teachers, and residents. The topic: closing the high school. Of course, when the union is looking for a juicy raise, the teachers pack the gymnasium, which means three digits rather than two.
Frankly, I can't help but recall the first school committee meeting after the financial town meeting at which the electorate restrained the school district's budget by $627,000 or so. At that time, the message coming from people associated with the district was that the committee had to do something drastic to drive parents to the financial town meeting and vote for lots of money.
Now Superintendent Bill Rearick said, just now: "Folks in our community need to decide what they want." He says they should go to town meetings, including the financial town meeting. This is just a dance to drive a few hundred more people to the FTM to raise taxes by double digits for everybody else.
Rearick argued that adjustments to labor would only solve this year's problem, not the systemic problems that are yielding such high deficits, ignoring:
- That one of our problems is that raises are compounding.
- That the committee spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in "stimulus funds."
- That he really shouldn't leave such things as pensions out of the labor costs.
We're something like $750,000 short for next year. Had the committee frozen compensation rather than giving out retroactive raises, it would now be only about $150,000 short, and the federal stimulus money was much beyond that.
Deborah Pallasch just read a letter on behalf of the Democratic Town Committee urging rapid resolution of negotiations with the union. No doubt some of the Democrats are urging the union to secure the maximum as they can right now, because they see that things are only going to deteriorate.
A resident whom I don't know just said that the retirement communities that moved to town in recent decades are "cancers on our community." He must be among the faction calling for unity and cooperation in town.
If he's talking about Tiverton Citizens for Change, I can testify that a majority of the core members are not gated community types.
Jan Bergandy took the opportunity to say that people have to turn out for the FTM
Dave Nelson is now addressing the committee. As he's began speaking, he turned periodically to face the audience. Unbelievably, Deborah Pallasch shouted from the audience: "You need to address the committee, not the audience." Who does she think she is?
Here's an interesting angle: A resident just asked whether there's been any communication about bringing Little Compton students into our system. I know they used to do that, and I'm not sure what happened. But it does raise the interesting point that the district has an opportunity if it concentrates on making its programs attractive.
That means getting more for its money.
The next speaker talked about hiring maintenance staff who keep the property up, rather than merely cleaning it. Again: The upshot is that the district now allocates its money poorly. It needs to shift some of its per-pupil expenditures toward new programs, some to maintenance, some to technology, and so on. That will mean holding existing labor flat or somewhat decreased to make the school more attractive especially with the possibility of increased student choice in the near future.
School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy just pointed out that the argument that some have made that losing the high school would make property values plummet has the problem that Little Compton's property values are much higher even though the town has no high school. It's not really a valid comparison, because the two towns are very different, but it's interesting that he argued that way.
Deb Pallasch just suggested that the committee "do whatever it can do" to drive people to the FTM.
They've moved on to talking about possible health insurance switches. The upshot is that it would take a lot of money and research even just to find out whether switching would make economic sense.
Health insurance increases account for $450,000 of the current shortfall. Not sure what percentage of that is due to the union's argument that it didn't have to negotiate a new contract this year and would not accept the budgeted increase of health insurance coshare from 12% to 18%.
Now they're discussing the 31 pink slips and 15 displacement letters that the district will send out to meet the legislative deadline of March 1 for such notices.
How absurd is it that the district must simply pick the junior employees for all layoffs. Are there no older teachers whose absence would save more money and whose absence would minimally affect the students (or perhaps not at all)? Moreover, I just don't understand how the union can make all of the arguments for class size, solidarity, and basically its entire argument for existing if it would rather cut young teachers loose rather than give concessions.
A young librarian is making an extended argument for what her department accomplishes. Good for her. None of these programs should be cut.
Just an observation: Supt. Bill Rearick is offering a conciliatory lay-off-related speech, encouraging more participation in the leadership process, but his tone of voice is confrontational. His tone isn't always so, which makes me wonder who, in his mind, he's confronting.
A recent graduate of the high school just argued on behalf of the library staff, and she closed by expressing the opinion that "a more critical eye" should be applied to the layoff process. Perhaps it's an introduction to the effect that the union system can have on a professional workforce. It's plainly wrong and strategically ludicrous.
Bergandy mentioned that there's been no movement with NEA negotations, except the scheduling of a March 4 mediation.
I'm increasingly persuaded that union-friendly legislators set the deadline for layoffs so early precisely for the angst and disruption it causes among teachers and the community, even though budgeting can't possibly be complete by this point. The law should change, and teachers should be leading the charge.
February 23, 2010
The Same Old Local Political Roundabout
As circumstances deteriorate, it's instructive to observe the varying reactions and strategies for handling them. In Tiverton, the established order, so to speak, has redoubled its efforts to keep the negative focus on Tiverton Citizens for Change in the hopes that people won't notice that the plans for improvement bear a striking resemblance to the plans that got the town into its current mess. I've got a letter pointing out the 'round-and-'round nature of the debate:
On January 27, 2009, the school committee approved a largely retroactive contract for teachers that ate up about $300,000 of that year’s budget, added approximately $150,000 to the current year’s, and is contributing more than that to the $600,000-plus increase in salaries and benefits budgeted for the next fiscal year. At a November 2008 meeting, Ms. Pallasch argued for approval, saying, “Let's start working on the new one, and give ourselves a little bit of room to refocus on the classroom and away from the adults.” The argument was that we should resolve the running dispute while there was still time to negotiate the subsequent contract amicably.
At the time, I spoke up to predict that the union would not negotiate. Rather, it would wait out the recession based on the obvious reasoning that it could avoid concessions during hard economic times and — as we’ve taught its members to expect — receive retroactive raises when times improved. I also handed out a chart showing that there had been no abatement of the increases in teacher salaries and benefits in the past decade. Indeed, the per-pupil dollar amount had gone up more (54%) than the same number for the state as a whole (40%). Over the same period, the chart showed that most other expenditures had hardly moved.
Well, negotiations did not resume with an amicable tone. Indeed, in August, the union pointed out a clause in the contract extending it for another year. The school committee had somehow missed the trick that it was supposed to notify the union of its intention to negotiate the next contract a full month before the previous one was actually approved. Changes in healthcare copayments for which the committee had budgeted went out the window. So did negotiations.
And the usual suspects are back, making all of the union's arguments for it in advance of the debate. Wealthy people wanting to increase taxes rather than stand firm with the organized labor behemoth that has soaked up a growing portion of our educational and municipal funds.
The system is broken. Revving it up for another season is not the solution.
February 22, 2010
The End Is Near; Blame Somebody Else!
Reading about the budget woes on both the school and municipal sides, in Tiverton, I find it somewhat striking that none of the elected or appointed officials appear to worry that they'll face accountability for the things about which they're complaining. For example:
Tiverton's schools could also take a $386,286 education aid hit next year, said Doug Fiore, chief finance officer for the schools.
Officials are confounded by the depth of proposedfunding losses, and the uncertainty.
I'm not directing this to Fiore, but to "officials": How could they be confounded? They can read the papers. They know what's going on in the state and in the country. And yet they approved a substantial retroactive raise for teachers last year. And yet they spent every dollar of the magic Obama money. I personally suggested to Superintendent Bill Rearick and School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy that they put that money aside for the current budget, and they explicitly told me that their intention was to deal with the forthcoming budget as a separate matter. In other words, they didn't want to let the future infringe on the spending of the present.
Incidentally, apparently the superintendent and school committee are going around proclaiming that Tiverton Citizens for Change "cut their budget" last year, a claim that is false or irrelevant for two reasons. First, the budget cut originated with a handful of angry residents, not with TCC. Second, current budget documents available on the district's page state that its "surplus of $229,546 [is] to be included in next year’s budget."
In other words, had there been no reduction in the local contribution to the district's budget, last year, it either would have found something on which to spend the money, or it would currently have a $900,000 surplus. If the administrators and elected officials are complaining that struggling residents didn't hand them an extra million dollars to leave lying around in the worst economy in a century, then their contempt for the people for whom they work is astonishing.
Also astonishing is this sort of thinking, which one hears across local government:
"I think the concept of closing the high school is ridiculous," said Leonard Schmidt, chairman of the town economic development commission. "There are many ways to save money other than by closing schools." Mr. Schmidt suggested reopening contracts for teacher concessions, and centralization of school functions, but cautioned against looking to the schools to resolve the crisis.
The teacher's contract does not have to be "reopened," because there currently is no contract. At the very least, one can say that it is not "closed."
February 19, 2010
A Negative Approach to Governance
And around and around not-my-town goes:
Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth), whose district encompasses neighborhoods on both sides of the Sakonnet River Bridge, has introduced legislation that will prohibit tolls from being charged on the bridge. ...
Instead, Rep. Edwards proposes placing a toll on Interstate Hwy 95 (I-95) in Westerly and in Pawtucket as an alternative revenue source.
As a political matter, it's an easy call to reject state-level policies that will affect one's subregion negatively. And sure, perhaps there are marginal justifications for putting a toll in one place rather than another. However, this is just gamesmanship. If Rep. Edwards wishes to submit legislation that will solve the acute problem of a toll proposal while addressing the underlying difficulty, he should propose that the General Assembly allocate money from its general revenue to the basic infrastructure matters to which it ought to be going before anything else.
Of course, that would require the risk that people in his own district might dislike the decreased revenue for the ancillary government expenditures that would have to be cut, such as nanny state programs, inside deals, and union giveaways.
February 17, 2010
Trading Schools for Raises
The Newport Daily News isn't very friendly about putting information online, so I don't have a link to the story, but I read this weekend that the Tiverton School Committee is floating the idea of closing the town's high school. In hopes of saving $450,000, as I recall, the town would either send its students elsewhere or bring in a charter school company to run things.
Meanwhile, in West Warwick, closure of an elementary school is expected to save $750,000, with the students dispersed to other schools and fifth graders heading to middle school. A reader emails:
So you are looking at placing 10 and 11 yr olds with potentially 15 y/o kids in the middle school. It gets even worse, its one thing to save the $750,000 but to then budget $900,000 in Teacher Step raises is mind boggling. Closing a school to fund Teacher raises, West Warwick is currently in the top 5 in salaries, with the top step at approx. 79,000 and health care contributions this year at 10% and next yr at 15%.
Here in Tiverton, the proposed increase in salaries, for next year, is $535,954. In other words, multiple Rhode Island communities are toying with the idea disrupting the lives of the students for whom they have responsibility in order to fund pay increases for well-remunerated public-sector workers in the middle of a painful recession and the economic collapse of the state. As if to add insult to injury, evidence of the quality of education in the state continues to be negative, such as this from the Providence Business News:
According to the College Board, 1,766 students in Rhode Island's class of 2009, or 17.3 percent of the class, took at least one A.P. exam during high school, compared with 26.5 percent nationwide. That was up from the 1,555 students in the class of 2008 who took an A.P. test and 1,112 in the class of 2004. ...
The organization said 10.7 percent of last year's class or 62 percent of A.P. test-takers earned a passing score of 3, 4 or 5. That was up from the 9.5 percent who passed at least one the prior year, but lower than the 15.9 percent of students who did so nationwide.
If we're to resist the urge to let emotion run away with us, we must admit the probability that some of the school closure talk is little more than a ploy to rile the public to accept tax increases and shame the teachers' unions into accepting concessions. Even so, the current dynamic is unacceptable: that the anxieties of residents are being manipulated in an attempt to achieve the obvious and reasonable step of holding salaries flat, or even trimming them a little, for professionals who, as a group, are failing their students.
February 3, 2010
Start Installing Highway U-Turns, Now
My blogging time has been constricted, this week, for two reasons: First, I've been working on a piece of writing of the sort that dangles a thread of hope that someday I may actually be able to make a living stringing words together. Second, I've been rushing to get back some of the excess tax money that the various tiers of government have been taking from my family rather than allowing me to pay all of my bills of which I now have a large unpaid stack, with the late-fees piling up each month.
A few years ago, I figured out the necessity of redefining what I'd considered to be a normal, modestly frugal lifestyle. Per cultural norms, the prior calculation had been based on desires and expectations, not on any mathematical equations involving reality (which may be the defining error of municipal, state, and federal government, these days.) So, for small example, my lunch boxes at the time typically held a yogurt for morning break, a large sandwich, some sort of snack desert, a bottle of iced tea or something similar, and a 20oz coffee. I figured three dollars or so per day was a small expense for the comfort.
Of course, three dollars per workday is around $750 per year, so my current lunchbox now contains an apple for break, a modest sandwich, and a 20oz coffee. The savings aren't huge, but they might pay a bill each month. Introduce this:
Governor Carcieri Tuesday proposed a toll on the new Sakonnet River Bridge just like the one on the Pell Bridge over Newport Harbor, $4 each way or 83 cents for Rhode Island residents with EZPass.
For those of you way on the other side of the bay, I'll explain that, for most of us, the Sakonnet River Bridge has more the aspect of a main road than a highway. My family, for one, crosses it an average of six times per weekday and four on the weekends. At the "local" rate, that would add up to almost $1,500 per year, easily three times my lunchbox savings.
This isn't a cry not to have my own mule gored; it's advice not to gore any such beasts. Usage fees are generally preferable to broad-based taxes, but from its current position, the last thing the state should be doing is adding to the cost of a productive life in Rhode Island. Moreover, those in the thrall of regionalization should think twice about policies that would have the cultural effect of drawing lines around our communities.
February 1, 2010
Too Big to Fail Towns?
Along with a table with the statewide results, Providence Business News has an article describing the results of "fiscal stress tests" that a state panel ran for cities and towns:
Pawtucket, North Providence, East Providence, Central Falls, Warwick and West Warwick are in the most serious trouble, the Municipal Fiscal Stress Task Force reported Friday after examining municipal reserves, property tax rates, pension liabilities and public employee health care benefits, among other factors. ...
Task force members -- made up of financial experts, CPA and several municipal finance directors -- have asked that a permanent commission be formed to monitor local spending and develop recommendations.
Peder Schaefer, chief of the Department of Revenue's municipal finance division and a member of the task force, told reporters Thursday that the report would lead to legislation that would "beef up oversight by the state."
For instance, one bill that being worked on would require local school departments to file quarterly financial reports with the R.I. Department of Education, he said. Another would give municipal councils or chief executives the authority to approve school department spending plans, administration officials said.
I remain skeptical about the urge to consolidate and control from above. The state is hardly in a condition of fiscal health, and residents have more access to change their local government than they do their municipal leadership. Indeed, the policies of the state are a contributing factor to the difficulties of the towns. It would be a mistake to assume that the people leveraging this greater influence, at the state level, would be the same people who took the initiative to study the numbers in the first place.
I say this as an active taxpayer in the most fiscally stressed "rural" town, by far. Tiverton's Fiscal Stress Test score is in company with the state's "urban" communities and fares only slightly better than the "urban ring" municipalities about which the state is so concerned.
January 26, 2010
As the Governor Speaks; Tiverton School Committee to Parents: Flee now!
This is absurd. Superintendent Bill Rearick is going over budget woes with the Tiverton School Committee. First came the bad news that the district has to budget an additional $248,715 for healthcare, putting its current working budget $1.1 million over the spending cap.
Rearick's recommendations were to:
- Use the $229,546 that it has this year (after TCC supposedly cut its budget) from changes to the pension system (to $911,000 over cap).
- Eliminate 2 special ed assistants, one part-time physical ed. high school, one in-school remediation position, and a part-time high school nurse (to $744,268)
- Cuts to office and student supplies, text books, and technology (to $624,440)
He says that the last couple of years, "we've been level funded," speaking, I guess, of non-personnel expenses. Regarding unions, they're "hoping to obtain certain concessions, but that's not going very well."
Things that Rearick blames for driving up budgets: end of magic Obama money, special ed requirements, career center tuitions, heating oil, electricity. No mention of the massive retroactive pay increase that the school committee approved last year. Rearick used that odious phrase about not having any more rabbits to pull out of the hat.
School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy suggested that they might as well add $200,000 to the overage to cover litigation, because there's no way through the mess otherwise (he likened it to a messy divorce). Data point: eliminating 10 full-time teachers would get to the whole $1.1 million. Oddly, nobody has calculated that a few percentage points of salary/benefits packages across the board would easily do the same.
Committee member Danielle Coulter suggested that the district go out to bid for healthcare coverage. Union-friendly committee member Carol Herrmann brought up the new healthcare panel that the General Assembly created in the dead of night and suggested that it "makes no sense to come up with our own alternative." (Thanks Legislative Stooges!)
TCC President Dave Nelson just suggested that nothing should be cut. He pointed out that we're cutting paper and pencils while the salary/benefit line item is increasing by more than $700,000. "We need to develop the political will to get the concessions."
Doing anything else is unconscionable, especially with the NEA playing games with the state's federal Race to the Top application.
Former school committee member Mike Burk doesn't think many people want to cut teacher pay. In fact, he thinks the school committee's current contract proposal is unreasonable. He wants to offer an "olive branch" to the union. Because they're usually so agreeable. Burk also implied that those who wish to take a harder line with the unions are irrational.
I got up to suggest that it isn't irrational for parents and taxpayers to look at charts such as these and notice that everything that the committee is talking about cutting has been essentially flat, on a per-student basis, for the past 10 years or so and suggest that it's time to stop the other line, which grows reliably year after year, from growing year after year. Year after year. Again: the entire overage translates into a few percentage point reduction in pay and benefits. And that's off an increased baseline (by more than $700,000).
Another active resident and parent (reliably supportive of every policy that is strangling the town and the state), Deb Pallasch, suggested that we all need to be cool headed and reasonable and not take any hard lines and all work together. Clearly, the committee is not interested in debates among the audience, so I didn't return to the microphone to remind the committee that the last time I showed them my chart, they approved a large pay increase for teachers, with retroactive raises.
Last year, I spoke in response to their expressed hopes, and Pallasch's suggestion, that they would just approve the contract so that the district could move on in a positive fashion and get the next negotiation off to a better start than implied by the acrimony of the last one. I warned the committee that it was obvious that the union would not negotiate according to schedule but would delay and delay until the economy improved and they could procure yet another retroactive raise, because to their experience, that is always the how things go.
For those who don't recall recent history, I was right. This town and this state need to stop playing community (think "playing house") when entrenched special interests are playing for keeps. The analogy I used while speaking a few minutes ago was that we have to stop playing footsie when the other side knows we're boxing. These meetings are like a window into a bizarro world.
Perhaps that's what was indicated by General Assembly Speaker of the House Bill Murphy and his chosen successor, Gordon Fox, were indicating that they don't have to follow the rules of economics.
January 25, 2010
A Packed House for Town Council
The town hall is pretty well packed, tonight, probably for some combination of the "pay as you throw" trash pickup and the solicitor's intention to suggest an anti-tax-payer interpretation of the requirements for exceeding the 3050 tax cap on municipal budgets. Representatives of RISC are here for the latter. Representative Jay Edwards (D, Tiverton) is probably here for the same reason. Here's the agenda: PDF).
Pay as you throw is up. Some repeated suggestions... controls for those who lack resources, an-opt out, elimination of no-bin-no-barrel recycling policies, some adjustments for developments that don't use bags at all, and (my suggestion) that the estimated revenue and expenditures should be included as a line-item in all budget documents. A new suggestion was to put the new policy on the November ballot.
Council Member Louise Durfee is suggesting that the adjustment be made by way of eliminating roughly $300,000 from the budget for the landfill closure. At best, I'm guessing that would serve to keep the council nominally under the cap. I think the estimated revenue should entirely be applied to the cap. Otherwise, what is the cap for? Only regular expenses, with all one-time expenditures and such paid with new fees that are, but don't count as, taxes?
Council President Don Bollin is suggesting that each household get to put out one bag for free.
Budget Committee Chairman Jeff Carron suggested that all revenue should be subject to the cap. Louise Durfee tried to argue that it's a good thing to "free up money" and that it has no relation to the cap. I'm not sure if she just doesn't get it or is trying to obfuscate the obvious point that this brings more money into the town government.
It looks like the program could go in the direction that gives every household a free bag. If that were to be the case, my own experience, and that of people with whom I've spoken, suggests that the life of the town's landfill would be greatly extended, and nobody would experience an unavoidable tax, because they'd have an option.
Put the program within the regular budget, and you've got a great solution on which just about everybody in town should be able to agree.
The council unanimously passed language that allows it to actually create a program. In short, Tiverton will have some kind of program, but now begins the process of putting it together for real. They're putting together some guidance for the solicitor, including a review period, a possibility of a free bag, etc.
Now we're in the midst of a "presentation on annual financial report by auditing firm." Makes one wonder if the solicitor put his item on the agenda (which he did on Wednesday evening, I believe) in the hopes that people would lose patience and leave before his turn at the tail end of the meeting.
Much thinning of the crowd. Not, though, of the principals, if you get my meaning.
Solicitor Teitz handed over a suggested change in legislation on the cap. Louise Durfee suggested that the council isn't interested in that, because the General Assembly could respond unpredictably, but the council could adopt a policy, namely that the town council is explicitly the "governing body" and would send a request for approval to exceed the cap, requiring a super-majority of the town council. Upon receiving that approval, a simple vote of the financial town meeting would suffice to follow through.
The language for the GA is tabled (unanimously). Solicitor Teitz will bring some language back for consideration in early March.
Durfee has taken explicit exception to the press release put out by TCC President Dave Nelson.
The interesting exchange of the evening came toward the end, when Durfee accused Dave Nelson of misrepresenting facts and moved to unseal the relevant executive session minutes. (The movement failed 3 to 3, with one abstention.) Subsequently, Rob Coulter, whose wife is the claimant in the lawsuit that kicked this all off, read from a letter the couple had received regarding a lawsuit that they filed, kicking the whole thing off, which proved that there was no misrepresentation.
One sort of wishes, after these meetings, that there were a way to know how things would have gone without taxpayer attendance. Had TCC not sent out a press release and packed the town hall with people willing to sit through a 3+ hour meeting, would the result have been so reasonable-seeming? Maybe. Probably not. Best not to find out for real.
Mainstreet Loses an Anchor and the Council Looks to Tax
So, Bank of America is abandoning the Main Street location in North Tiverton that it has inhabited for decades (most of the time as Fleet bank). According to somebody in a position to know, the branch remains profitable, but corporate executives have analyzed the prospects of Tiverton, Rhode Island, and determined that there will be insufficient small business activity to justify a presence in the town. Municipal officials may dream of a down-town-style business district, but when one of the two institutions that would anchor the community with access to capital and money management expresses its skepticism by packing up and leaving, residents should stop daydreaming and look at what's happening in reality.
In reality, Town Solicitor Andy Teitz has put it on tonight's agenda (PDF) for the town council to discuss the state law that places a cap on the amount that towns and cities can increase their taxes. At issue is this statutory language:
Any levy pursuant to subsection (d) of this section in excess of the percentage increase specified in subsection (a) of this section shall be approved by the affirmative vote of at least four-fifths (4/5) of the full membership of the governing body of the city or town or in the case of a city or town having a financial town meeting, the majority of the electors present and voting at the town financial meeting shall also approve the excess levy.
What the solicitor is expected to argue is that the town should entirely disregard the word "also" and accept it as town policy that a simple majority of the electorate in attendance at the financial town meeting should be able to authorize an increase above the tax cap. A lawsuit is already in process, in the town, to test that reading of the law, so one avenue that the solicitor and certain town councilors may be interested in pursuing is to change the above language, through the General Assembly, to remove the "ambiguity" of the law to conform with their reading.
Residents should decline to join in the imaginative exercise of pretending there's any ambiguity at all beyond the grammatical error of using "or" rather than a semicolon in the statute. The town council ultimately approves the baseline budget that the residents consider at the town meeting, and elected officials should therefore have to submit themselves to accountability. Otherwise, voters should take it to be their duty to reconstruct the budget line-item by line-item, perhaps with constituencies developing complete and competing budgets.
Also at tonight's town council meeting, by the way, will be a vote on the "pay as you throw" policy by which the town is seeking to more than double the cost of trash pickup for residents. Not coincidentally, I'm sure, its plan to charge households for the garbage bags that they use will not figure into the tax cap. Put it all together, and over the course of a few Monday night hours in January, Tiverton's council of seven could lay the groundwork for a truly massive increase in taxes and fees in the midst of a deep economic recession in a town and state in long-term economic decline.
January 12, 2010
Budget Season Begins
Tonight's the first meeting at which the Tiverton School Committee will address next year's budget. The upshot is that Superintendent Bill Rearick is offering, as an initial budget, an increase at the state cap (4.5%). Of course, he included in last year's budget "surprise" federal "stimulus" cash, so this budget is actually 7.13% above the allocated amount at last year's FTM.
ADDENDUM (from home):
My coverage of tonight's meeting wasn't exactly comprehensive, because I was following the conversation with especial intentness and offering comments from time to time. A few points:
- I was incorrect about the reason, but correct about the result, when it comes to budget discrepancies. The "stimulus" money wasn't included in the number for last year's budget, but it shows up as a deficit in the coming budget, meaning that current projected spending exceeds the amount laid out in the budget by $892,268.
- Superintendent Rearick mentioned several times that the taxpayers' attempted level funding (thwarted by the federal gift) was to blame for the large shortfall, but it fell to me to point out that the district could have planned for that when it discovered itself flush with revenue.
- Owing to pension changes, the district currently has something like $235,000 lying around, but since midyear cuts in aide from the state are on the table, the committee and administration are inclined to leave that completely out of the picture, for now.
- The teachers' union, which is currently without a negotiated contract, is concentrating on "ground rules" and such rather than taking up actual dollar amounts and negotiations.
- The currently proposed budget assumes no changes to healthcare-copays and zeroes out salary increases, excepting steps and an AFSCME raise scheduled at 2%.
- There does not appear to be much support from the folks on the state (metaphorically speaking) to impose labor policies unilaterally.
- Rearick was not shy about speaking the phrase "program cuts."
- I estimated that a 3.5-4% across-the-board cut in combined salaries and benefits would entirely erase the deficit, and nobody contradicted my math.
- Tiverton Citizens for Change President Dave Nelson was not happy.
So basically, we're looking at a district administration that's pushing for the maximum tax increase that it can secure, a school committee that isn't ready to commit to anything, a union that wants to delay, delay, and delay until the economy improves, as I predicted they would do back when the school committee made the ill-advised give-away that the last contract represented, and the TCC is not going to simply watch this budget float away.
January 7, 2010
Rule by Funding and Memoranda
I'm one of two people in the audience of an "emergency" Tiverton School Committee meeting, which was called in order to approve a memorandum of understanding from the Rhode Island Department of Education for the state's Race to the Top application, and the sense that I'm getting from the discussion is not encouraging.
Here's the upshot: School committees are under a lot of pressure to sign the MOU so that the state can prove "political will" to implement the program to the federal government. The problem is that the document that the local officials are being asked to sign is apparently not wholly inclusive of the information on which they believe they're voting. Some supposed facts are in a repeatedly changed FAQ document. Others were conveyed during in-person meetings. Some of it is in documents from the federal government. And the really-honestly-truly final document won't be released until Monday.
So, in the name of chasing after taxpayer money, the people whom taxpayers have elected to guide their local investment in childhood education are being asked to sign on to mandates and requirements from state and national officials without, as far as I can understand, even receiving assurances that the higher tiers of government will provide more money than they're requiring districts to spend.
Here's an interesting point from School Committee Member Leonard Wright, who seems extremely suspicious of this whole thing: There is language in the memorandum that the district agrees to comply with the terms of the federal grant and a "RIDE subgrant" that apparently has not yet been produced.
And isn't this FAQ point interesting:
Are there "supplement, not supplant" requirements for Race to the Top?
Race to the Top contains no "supplement, not supplant" requirements.
Furthermore, the language that Mr. Wright cited about a state "subgrant" suggests to me that the state could take advantage of the lack of "supplement, not supplant" language while still imposing that very rule on individual districts.
Another point that's coming up is that the town is probably going to be subject to increasing regulations and mandates whether it signs on for Race to the Top or not. It's the old "nothing to lose" lure. But imagine this outcome: The collapsing state causes a political surge for reform, among which is the elimination of state-driven mandates... except, of course, where those mandates are part of contractually agreed grant programs.
The school committee has added, as a condition of its agreement, stipulations that all program requirements will be fully funded and that the funding from Race to the Top would supplement, not supplant, allocated state and federal aid to the town.
December 28, 2009
Tiverton's Forthcoming Garbage Tax
It appears to have fallen through the online cracks, but I've got the following letter in the current issue of the Sakonnet Times:
On December 14, Tiverton's town council meeting included a public hearing concerning a proposed "pay as you throw" trash program to fund the closure of the town landfill in five or so years. Basically, residents would have to buy garbage bags from the town at a cost of $2 for a 33 gallon bag or $1 for a 15 gallon bag.
Figuring a ridiculously low single bag per household, the Landfill Committee estimates that the program would generate $520,000 per year. Taxpayers currently allocate an annual $573,000 for trash pickup. In other words, the cost of rubbish disposal for residents of the town of Tiverton would more than double.
It's too little known, around town, that the local government has failed to adequately prepare --- over the half century of the landfill's usage --- for the millions of dollars in expenditures that loom just over the horizon. Without action, the restricted account set aside for that purpose will be several million dollars short when it's finally needed, even without considering the additional cost to develop and build a transfer station to process trash on its journey out of town.
Clearly, something must be done, but as currently constituted, the "pay as you throw" program would be nothing other than a massive hidden tax increase that skirts the Paiva-Weed tax cap, leaving homeowners open to another large increase on top of the new "fee." Even residents willing to forgo pickup and bring trash, themselves, to the landfill would have to buy the bags and pay for pickup, anyway. In other words, it's a fee for a service that most residents have no choice but to utilize. It's a tax.
The more straightforward approach would be for the town to place an increase in landfill-related savings within its next budget. Of course, that wouldn't answer a secondary (and supremely advisable) purpose of the program: encouraging recycling and more conscientious trash disposal. Perhaps curbside pickup could move to a fee system, or residents could "opt out" and receive a refund of that portion of their property taxes.
Or there might be another solution. Whatever the case, the council continued the hearing to its regularly scheduled meeting on January 25. If residents tune this issue out now, the next they hear of it may be when official instructions arrive in their mailboxes explaining how to pay for trash pickup a second time.
December 21, 2009
Garbage Goes Straight to Video
Mostly for the edification of Tiverton residents, I've posted the portion of the last town council meeting that represented the public hearing on a pay-as-you-throw trash program. Nine of the 10 video clips are in the extended entry.
Continue reading "Garbage Goes Straight to Video"
December 14, 2009
There's an unusually large crowd for tonight's town council meeting... unless, of course, the recession has made this a more common form of entertainment than was the case back before I stopped attending regularly. It seems a handful of attendees are here to discuss increases in mooring fees (for late payment). Hopefully, a greater number are here to object to the proposed pay-as-you-throw trash program that would more than double (or more) the amount that residents pay for trash pickup.
I took the podium to suggest that I'll not be able to avail myself of trash pickup if its cost more than doubles for my household, and Department of Public Works Director Stephen Berlucchi hastened to correct my misunderstanding: Residents will have to buy the bags to dispose of trash in the dump, whether it's picked up or dropped off. There'll be no way around it.
In other words, this is just a massive hidden regressive tax increase during the worst recession since the Great Depression, implemented because the town did not adequately budget for the closure of the landfill over the half-century since it emptied.
One other observation: Over the phone, my wife mentioned to a friend in town where I was headed tonight, and the friend had no idea this was coming. If people have to start buying garbage bags, I'd wager they'll be in a budget cutting mood come the financial town meeting, this spring.
It sounds as if some sort of tax offset will be created. Councilor Louise Durfee suggested that some portion of the revenue from pay-as-you-throw should offset the budget line item for the landfill. Council President Don Bollin suggested that one $2 bag per week should be considered included with one's taxes.
The public hearing on this issue has been continued to the second town council meeting in January.
December 9, 2009
Bad Government, Sneaky Taxes, and Garbage
This coming Monday, December 14, the Tiverton Town Council will (hopefully) be hearing from residents concerning a proposed "pay as you throw" program for garbage pickup. The nutshell background is that (despite regular and significant annual tax increases) the town has not been putting aside adequate resources to close the landfill when it runs out in five or so years, and it's going to have to come up with around $4 million one way or another.
The proposed solution is to charge residents for the garbage bags that they may use $1 for a small bag (15 gallons) and $2 for a large bag (33 gallons). With an extremely conservative estimate of one bag per household per week (my household will probably burn through two or three large bags on an average week), the Landfill Committee is estimating gross revenue of $520,000.
The catch is that, even if we go with that ludicrously low number, the cost of garbage pickup to residents will pretty much be doubling, because the budget line item for "rubbish/recycling collection" currently runs us $573,601. The new bag fees would amount to a massive tax increase that isn't subject to the tax cap. Worse still, families (like mine) that cannot afford another regular household expense and opt, instead, to lose weekend time going to the dump, will end up subsidizing the trash pickup of those who are better off, because we'll still be paying the initial taxes.
Personally, I'd support ending curbside pickup altogether. That's not politically feasible, though, so if the town council goes forward with this proposal, it should allow households to "opt out" and receive a refund of that portion of their property taxes that support rubbish collection (around $105, on average).
December 7, 2009
Don't Scheme on Taxes, Simplify
URI Economic Professor Edward Mazze's tax-cutting suggestions sound reasonable enough, but one can't help but be suspicious of the urge to control:
Murphy said of Mazze's plan, "I want to be open to it." Murphy said he was particularly interested in Mazze's proposal geared toward revitalizing local downtown business districts.
Murphy said he remembers a vibrant Main Street in West Warwick when he was a boy. "I know in the last 40 years, our Main Street in West Warwick has not come back to where it was," he said.
An article in the latest Sakonnet Times (not online) describes the Tiverton Town Council's approval of a suite of zoning changes for commercial districts, and the accompanying pictures present a similar longing for the downtown-style main street. But there are reasons other than zoning and the lack of targeted tax breaks that Main Streets have been disappearing. Some of them are cultural; some of them are economic; the point is that attempting to counteract these forces will come at an economic cost and may fail to produce viable businesses, anyway.
In other words, if pulling the Rhode Island economy back up the cliff is the objective, we shouldn't be layering all sorts of aesthetic preferences on pro-growth policies. We also should focus on simplicity. All of Mazze's proposals will benefit people savvy enough to know about the breaks, to take the proper steps, and fill out the proper forms, but big-government corruption and waste illustrate very well that the skill set for jumping through hoops is not necessarily an indicator of a successful business. "Targeted" tax cuts, in that sense, become targets for which people looking for breaks will shoot. We need to encourage people who are interested in running businesses.
As Roland Benjamin says:
"If [Rhode Island's] tax structure was reasonable in the first place, you wouldn't need [targeted tax breaks]."
And if Rhode Island's political and academic leaders were competent to manipulate an economic recovery, we wouldn't be in the mess that we're in.
November 29, 2009
Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 6
Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 5
Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 4
Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 3
Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 2
Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 1
So when I arrived at last Tuesday's Tiverton School Committee workshop on merit pay for teachers, I set up such that I could capture the faces of speakers in the audience. But the committee out-thought me and positioned a microphone at the table typically set aside for the stenographer, and by the time I realized it, the more-appropriate side of the room was filled (and with my political opposition). Consequently, my video features mainly the backs of non-committee member participants. Consider it an effort to make the viewer feel as if he or she is actually there.
Each of these posts will include three videos, two in the extended entry.Continue reading "Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 1"
November 24, 2009
A Merit-Based Meeting
Thankfully, the Tiverton School Committee's workshop on merit pay is much better attended than has been, well, any other meeting since the poorly considered passage of the retroactive teacher contract. Maybe 50 people.
School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy mentioned some communications that he's received from teachers to the effect of: "How dare you let people discuss this."
Superintendent Bill Rearick just suggested that adding money to payroll may not be necessary, if the goal is to sort through teachers. He suggests stronger evaluations and the ability to dismiss bad teachers. I don't think anybody from Tiverton Citizens for Change would argue against that strategy.
Some discussion has passed, but I was participating, so I couldn't be posting, as well. Former School Committee Vice Chairman Mike Burke is speaking against spending any further time discussing merit pay. He's clearly presenting his prepared remarks as a direct political response to some initial thoughts by Tiverton Citizens for Change. But that's what one is to expect from the people who've been running Rhode Island and its cities and towns: His position is that all change is blocked at contractual, legal, and budgetary considerations.
Tiverton Establishment: "No change. Keep funding a failing system. Let's do some research."
One interesting point that he's made is that the financing of the districts is too closely integrated for a district's merit pay system to work. I'd argue that a system that has relatively low pay for just showing up to work, but high pay for good teachers would tend within the static system that Burke describes to attract the better teachers within the state. Not surprisingly, he wants to wait for the state to act and force something from union-controlled top down.
I haven't written much because the conversation has gone along pretty predictable lines, and there's been no deep investigation into specifics of a program. One notable thing is that merit pay does reshuffle the ideological deck, some. I know I've had behind the scenes arguments on my side, and it's clear that the other side is (or should be) having their own.
One lesson, perhaps, could be that merit pay isn't its own issue, apart from broader reforms, especially in Tiverton, which is currently working through the first stages of a strategic plan. I'll agree with some of the suggestions of folks with whom I generally disagree, that we don't want to derail other initiatives. So, perhaps merit should be built into the evaluation system currently in development. (I happen to be on the evaluation committee...)
Overall, the workshop had a productive, cordial tone, so one thing that stuck out felt inappropriate to explore mostly because it could have devolved rapidly. Comments were made several times that, essentially, teachers aren't really motivated by money. Indeed, School Committee Vice Chairwoman Sally Black said that she found the idea insulting that teachers would work harder for money. A teacher in the audience said the same. School Committee Member Carol Herrmann suggested that perhaps "merit pay" could be refigured as a sort of merit acknowledgment, with no money necessary.
Having sat through school committees watching teachers visibly shaking with passion over raises that amounted to a few thousand dollars, I find tonight's assertions kinda hard to square with experience. Boiled down, they seem to be suggesting that it is insulting not to give them annual increases (on top of step raises) simply for being teachers, but that it is also insulting to promise them additional money for proving themselves to be good teachers.
I honestly believe that the teachers do hold these views sincerely and with honorable intentions, but it just goes to show how infantilizing union membership and propaganda can be.
The bottom line on merit pay, from my perspective, is that it shouldn't be just a bonus, but an entire system aligning compensation with performance. And it shouldn't be based solely on test scores, but on job performance as broadly written as is appropriate. Just like career advancement is in the private sector.
Sure, some component would have to be related to students' actual performance. But other components could be tied to district targets. For example, one argument that I hear all the time is that parents simply aren't sufficiently involved, so perhaps some component of the evaluation and merit increase could kick in for teachers who do something to bridge that divide. A perfect example: retired music teacher (and TCC member) Anne Parker spoke of her experience doing extra work with a parent/student choir. Or, if a target area is math, a shop teacher could prove merit by integrating lessons with the students' math classes, thus improving immediate understanding while illustrating the practical utility of an abstract subject.
When it comes right down to it, though, none of this is going to be free, and the real test of whether teachers are "motivated by money" is whether they think a system of objective, useful evaluations to be worth a few years of very minimal raises.
Losing Sleep Over and Paying Attention to Education
I've got a letter in the online version of the Sakonnet Times (prospectively in the print edition out tomorrow) that begins thus:
Residents who wish to understand the gradual deterioration of Rhode Island's public school system need only contrast school committee meetings addressing two issues: teacher contract negotiations and abysmal standardized testing results. The passion that sets the auditorium on fire when adults' high pay and lavish benefits are threatened with mild budgetary restraint is nowhere to be found when, say, only 25.8% of eleventh graders prove proficient in science (down from 30.5% the year before).
I go on to make some general suggestions regarding the necessary shifts in attitude and policy.
While I'm on the topic: The Tiverton School Committee's workshop on merit pay is tonight at 6:30, in the high school library.
November 15, 2009
A Same Old Same Old New Face
While we're talking political platforms, it's worth noting that candidate Dan O'Connor has put himself forward as a candidate for whom those currently represented by John Loughlin (R., Little Compton, Portsmouth, Tiverton) should not vote. His letter to the editor of The Sakonnet Times isn't online, but it's adequate to summarize that O'Connor lists the various obvious problems that the state has, offers some political clichés, and writes revealing paragraphs like this:
I am a young, fresh candidate who hopes to make it to the General Assembly in order to shake the status quo while bringing a new perspective and new ideas to the State House. I have no ties to any elected officials and have not spent any time in "back rooms" working on deals behind the scenes [that] do nothing to help Rhode Islanders. I also intend to run as a Democratic candidate which is the party currently in power. As a Democrat, I will have the ability to work with the party to help our district.
So O'Connor advertises himself as an outsider and then explains that he's running as a Democrat in order to more easily become an insider. He has no experience in "back rooms," but he looks forward to entering them. He intends to "shake the status quo" by reinforcing it as a partisan.
I am running on three principles, the economy, the environment, and education. These are core principles so important to the well being of our state and are the principles I will be dedicated to working on once I am elected. Although the economy is an easy topic that so many politicians claim they are working on, we have seen no improvement here in Rhode Island. With the various challenges we face as a state, we need to tackle the issues with the economy in the same breath as education and the environment. In fact, all three of these are interrelated and need to be worked on in tandem. Creating green jobs and the people to fill them is one of the primary goals I will work on once elected to the state house.
It would probably be unfair to dwell on the possible meanings of O'Connor's pledge to "create" people to fill green jobs. It is not unfair to suggest that his vague plan illustrates precisely the wrong understanding of how government can positively affect the economy. It is also not unfair to scoff at his subsequent declaration that government "cannot solve all the problems our state faces." Why, then, should we rely on government to pick and choose the industrial direction of the state? Is Mr. O'Connor more qualified to construct profitable industries than the folks who'd actually research the benefits of setting up shop in Rhode Island and investing their own money to do so?
Dan's face may be fresh, but it's one we've seen before far too frequently. Come on, Little Compton. We look to you for better.
November 11, 2009
Talking About Merit Pay for Teachers
The footage from last night's discussion of merit pay by the Tiverton School Committee begins with Tiverton Citizens for Change President David Nelson and continues in the extended entry:Continue reading "Talking About Merit Pay for Teachers"
October 13, 2009
The Science of Running Schools
The Tiverton School Committee meeting has gotten around to the abysmal NECAP science scores, which I described when they came out. Superintendent Bill Rearick has run through the process of evaluating the problem, yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda. It takes some years to turn things around. The East Bay Collaborative is attempting to come up with money to fund new "kits." The district is applying for grants.
News flash: There are kids graduating every year. There are students taking inadequate classes right now.
This is a bottom-line kind of thing for me. Screw contracts and hierarchies and standards and all the other grown-up junk. The district has resources allocated to it within which it must work. This is a basic function at which it is utterly failing. Expand the time that science teachers must work, if it's necessary. Fire anybody who isn't willing to put in the same degree of effort that any other professional who is utterly failing would have to put in.
Everything must stop until students are receiving the education that they deserve, and for which the town is already paying.
Chatter. Starting the conversation with the statement, "this is obviously unacceptable," isn't sufficient. I don't want to hear what balls the district has started to roll. I want to hear what they're doing to roll them faster.
Committee Member Danielle Coulter is trying to push the conversation toward what can be done immediately and what further effort can be pushed. You know, any private company, in any industry whatsoever, seeing a public release of this level of badness would be out in the public with a plan for repairs within a day. The tone of the administrators of Tiverton school district is what one unfortunately expects in the public sector. Essentially: "We're doing all of the steps that you're supposed to do. We need money. We're looking into tools."
These results (and not just science, either) should be keeping administrators across the state up at night.
Supt. Rearick just said that there is no local money left to invest in this. Earlier in the evening, Director of Administration and Finance Doug Fiore proclaimed that the budget is balanced. I hate to contradict that, but there are clearly holes therein.
September 22, 2009
Where Competition Ought to Happen
I hadn't intended to attend tonight's school committee meeting in Tiverton, but I saw on the agenda that they'd be discussing the item on the floor today: full-day kindergarten, rather than the current half day. Superintendent Bill Rearick put the additional cost at $223,953 per year, although he noted that, with next year's financial difficulty by which he means the budget hole approaching $1 million resulting from a failure to hold over any of the magic Obama money make it financially infeasible.
It's a shame. Rather than year after year paying more for the same or fewer services, the public schools should start to add services to increase the value of the system to the town, rather than to the employees.
It's the theme of tonight's meeting. Now they're talking about the district's inability to adequately monitor and coordinate curriculum development across all grades because they can't afford the extra hours for teachers. Committee Member Carol Herrmann presented the choice as between canceling classes or monitoring the classes we keep.
Superintendent Rearick put the price tag at about $100,000, saying, "We know how to build a Cadillac. We know what we need. We just can't afford it. We have a survivalist budget."
And yet the committee approved retroactive raises in the middle of an open-ended recession earlier in the year.
September 14, 2009
Vlogging About Open Negotiations
My latest video blog is about open negotiations, drawing on material from Tiverton, but applicable elsewhere.
I'd be especially interested in feedback on this one, inasmuch as I tried some new tricks (in an effort to throw myself at the learning curve) and am still trying to get a sense of appropriate content for the medium. Let me know your thoughts on any aspect of video that might inspire comment. In advance, I'll say that this is probably about as long as my vlogs will ever be, and yes, next time, I'll take a few minutes to shave beforehand. (Hey, it was a busy weekend.)
September 12, 2009
Open Negotiations in Tiverton
Yes, this is a local instance, but I've no doubt whatsoever that similar opinions exist and the same arguments would be made in towns across Rhode Island, were school committees to begin considering a demand for open negotiations.
I've posted video of the discussion about the topic at the last school committee meeting in the extended entry.Continue reading "Open Negotiations in Tiverton"
September 8, 2009
Public Business in the Open
Arriving at tonight's Tiverton School Committee meeting even a few minutes before the usual time wasn't sufficient for me to catch most of the meeting. According to the current agenda, an executive session began at 5:30, with the public meeting scheduled thereafter, and the committee is almost all the way through the scheduled topics. Luckily, I didn't miss the planned discussion of holding NEA negotiations in the open.
To be honest, I thought there'd be more people here, for that item, but perhaps the prospect of waiting out a closed session of indeterminate duration dissuaded some folks.
I brought the video camera, although I don't plan to tape these sorts of meetings from start to finish. The particular discussion, though, is one to which I'd like to be able to make reference later.
But it does raise an interesting new problem: Contrasted with a small audio recording device, a camcorder (plus tripod) cut a figure in the room, and while it isn't my intent to be a hidden-camera guy, I also don't wish to become a focal point in the room.
Consequently, I'll have to figure out how to choose seating. The current arrangement in the high school library pretty much forces me to capture any speakers in the audience from behind.
This isn't a complaint, but there's an extended conversation going on about AP classes and exams. The conversation began because the trends in Tiverton aren't the best, but the conversation has become general about the essential concept of AP. It's more like something from a social gathering than a meeting of an elected body. Just an observation; I wouldn't have expected the interest to be so high.
What an astonishing conversation about open contract negotiations. Some familiar faces none of them direct NEA union members, as far as I know came forward to argue that the school committee shouldn't even bring up open negotiations with the union because it would start things off on the wrong foot. Put the degree of assumption aside; the committee is already in court over something about union claims that Chairman Jan Bergandy is openly declaring to be lies. The notion of good faith in these negotiations is a fantasy, a sham.
But the same people went on to argue that giving the public more information is intrinsically bad, in part because of the possibility of differing interpretations. In other words, it's better to allow participants in closed-door discussions to tell the public what their interpretation is than to let we dolts in the electorate decide for ourselves.
The kicker was when school committee member Carol Herrmann argued that if Mr. Bergandy feels that he cannot trust the union negotiators, then perhaps he shouldn't be participating in the negotiations! Think about that. The union lied about something that he said (in his view), and he is now openly and fairly raising ways in which trust can be regained and ensured, and the response from an ostensible representative of the public! is that he's been tainted and ought to take himself out of the picture.
It was like watching the lunchtime supervisors in middle school argue that a beaten and bloody student should proceed into a dark corner with the bully in good faith, because, honestly, really, truly, this time the bully is interested in calmly resolving differences.
Some folks expressed concern that requesting open negotiations would create costly delays in the contract creation process, but let's be honest: As I warned the committee before it made the ridiculously poor decision to approve the last contract, the union is simply not going to negotiate until the economy recovers. Precedent has proven that they'll receive retroactive pay from the economic perspective of the date that the contract is approved (i.e., in good times), and as long as they're able to hold out, they will.
August 30, 2009
The Unions and Their Jobs
David makes a perspicacious comment to my post on the item in the teachers' contract that the school committee approved in January that effectively extended the contract for an additional year because the deadline for notification of intention to negotiate had already passed:
Actually, justin, you may be on to something. Union officials act as legal representatives for their membership and are charged with only that mission. The example that you wrote about- well that's all on the school committee for not knowing their own contract with the union. You insist on calling it a union contract when it is a contract between two parties. Both are held to its terms. Where you have something is in the reality that individual union members are often times members of the community where they work, and, are often times very interested and concerned about issues facing their community. In the case of teachers, police, firefighters, and social workers it is often the case that they are more concerned- because they have a closer view and knowledge of local issues and problems than say a Boston area worker who leaves their home in Tiverton at 6:30 in the morning and returns at 6:30 at night. Teachers often times know the community through the children better than anyone else. If you can convince those community members that their union representatives are the problem and change is needed in their own workplace than you will have a chance. Union members acting in the democratic framework of their union could help affect the changes you seek.
Realizing that it would be too much to hope that one party in these "fair-minded" negotiations would have clarified with the other that it was effectively approving the contract for an additional year, I do and did hold the school committee members responsible (and will, via future elections). Truth be told, I also allocate some blame to myself for having not been sufficiently familiar with previous contract language to have raised this question during public commentary. I suspect that might have been the one thing that could have scuttled what was clearly a fait accompli at the fateful January meeting.
With that clarification, I'd note that David is dead on to raise the importance of individual union members in changing the dynamic. Just as I'd be tempted to make it a civic requirement that every resident attend at least one school committee meeting during contract negotiation season, so as to observe, first hand, the undertone of violence that the union audience stirs up to waft onto the dais, I'd encourage teachers to spend some time pondering the structures and regimes of their non-educational organization.
As I've been given to understand, for example, a typical negotiation session involves the superintendent and couple of committee representatives at a table with two or three leaders of the local union, while a larger union negotiating committee waits in a nearby room, sometimes with a rep from the statewide organization manipulating the temper among them. (Pat Crowley, I understand, can be heard through the walls.) The small group will bring items back to the larger group and return with ostensible instructions, and ultimately the negotiating committee brings the result back to the entire membership for approval. Meanwhile, as we've seen in Tiverton, the union will go public with unverifiable claims and complaints that the entire school committee isn't available in the theatrically controlled space to negotiate the contract. (A con is much easier when there's no opportunity for head-clearing air.) Moreover, at no time is the administration or committee permitted to appeal directly to the professionals whose contracts they're negotiating.
While times were flush and the citizenry was inactive, this might have seemed like a fun pastime and remunerative, too! Union members across the Rhode Island public sector should consider, however, the effect of shifting public opinion as taxpayer groups generate an institutional investment in continued awareness. That is to say that we aren't going away, and with the processes coming out, the folks who've ultimately suffered from the game are going to be less inclined to tolerate it.
Because the pendulum always swings too far, a clever gotcha in one year's contract could ensure that somebody with a set jaw and brow as furrowed as my own will end up at that negotiating table, demanding that public-access video cameras be set up to capture the edifying performance.
August 28, 2009
A Union Gotcha in the Contract
Given recent developments, I thought I'd review my notes and the audio from the Tiverton School Committee meeting at which the members approved a largely retroactive contract. Several townsfolk warned the committee that approving the contract in the current economy was reckless. I specifically suggested that, former Vice Chair Mike Burk's suggestion to "hold the line" with the subsequent contract notwithstanding, the union would have every incentive to avoid negotiations at this time. But four of the five committee members thought it would be the fair, community-minded thing to pass the contract (PDF) and move on to negotiations for the next one which should cover the upcoming school year in a spirit of collegiality.
Well, the union must have been snickering behind its hand, with Article 31 of the approved document (carried over from the previous contract) in mind:
The provisions of this Agreement shall be effective as of September 1, 2007 and will continue and remain in full force and effect until August 31, 2009. Said Agreement will automatically be renewed and will continue in full force and effect for additional periods of one (1) year unless either the School Committee or the Association gives written notice to the other not later than December 1 of the year prior to the aforesaid expiration date, or any anniversary thereof, of its desire to reopen the Agreement and to negotiate over the terms of a successor Agreement.
Never mind that the contract wasn't approved until after the deadline, the union is insisting that notice was not given, so the contract remains in force until next year. As the Newport Daily News reports, that serves to keep all salaries where they are with step increases continuing, of course and prevent the school committee from realizing the increase in healthcare contributions for which it had budgeted.
Even union-friendly committee member Sally Black was "surprised" by the move. Gotcha.
See, to the union, talk of community, fairness, openness, honesty, education, and the good of children is merely a pack of cards to play. It's all about the adults and their remuneration and their benefits and their occupational comfort and soaking taxpayers for the maximum amount possible. If I were a teacher, I'd be ashamed to be associated with such an organization. As a taxpayer, I've certainly got my eye out for school committee candidates who won't be so easily fooled.
As services for students begin evaporating and taxes go up, parents and their neighbors should be careful to allocate blame where it belongs: With the calculating, manipulative union that represents the single largest expenditure in either of the town's budgets.
August 27, 2009
Two Sides of the Budget
So I note from the town-by-town chart (PDF) showing the amounts saved by Governor Carcieri's plan to withhold motor vehicle tax reimbursements from the towns that Tiverton stands to lose $344,616 this year. From where, I wonder, will the money come to replace it?
As much as I don't wish to darken a potential dawn arising from the school committee, it strikes me as worth mentioning that the district received $500,951 in stimulus funds, above and beyond the explicit cap that voters placed on its appropriation at the financial town meeting. The law being what it is, it's probably not worth a taxpayer group's time and resources to fight the committee's decision to ignore that cap (even to the point of declining to put some of the windfall aside for next year), but with the municipal side of the budget suddenly short hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps the town council should consider an objection.
Just a thought.
August 25, 2009
A Quiet Rumble in the Tiverton School District
As I pulled up to the Tiverton High School at the usual time for a school committee meeting, I saw two of my Tiverton Citizens for Change co-conspirators leaving. The committee scheduled an executive session for 5:00 p.m. and had worked through all of tonight's interesting public discussions before 7:00. The key results, as conveyed to me in the parking lot:
- Chairman Jan Bergandy read a letter from local union President Amy Mullen that suggested that the union and school committee had agreed to accept the current contract as expiring next year (a brazen ploy that surfaced out of nowhere a few weeks ago). Mr. Bergandy declared Mullen's statement to be an outright lie, and the committee authorized its lawyer to take some sort of action.
- The committee agreed to issue a statement to the General Assembly opposing any sort of legislation calling for binding arbitration.
- The committee also put on the agenda for its next meeting discussion of conducting union negotiations openly and in public.
August 11, 2009
Strange Moments in Liveblogging and Support for School Choice
It probably isn't even accurate to call this "liveblogging," but I'm at the Tiverton School Committee meeting, mostly researching contract issues online while the committee handles small matters of the sort in which most people in the world would have no interest. On the agenda are two families seeking permission to send their children to Rogers High School in Newport, and the committee and Superintendent Bill Rearick were discussing with the parents the option of handling the matter in executive session for the sake of their children's privacy.
Out of nowhere, committee member Leonard Wright "warned" the parents that I'd be putting their statements on the Internet. Not sure how I feel about that. Presumably, the meeting is being recorded for the public record anyway, and the notion that I'd dip into private details on Anchor Rising suggests that Mr. Wright has been dealing with unions for too long.
As I listen, though, it occurs to me that this sort of discussion is probably among the most important for residents, and especially parents, to be able to hear. The crux of the matter is the parents' right to enroll their children in academic programs in other districts that would better suit their needs. Their personal circumstances are largely irrelevant.
These students are already on track to participate in a part-time vocational program at Rogers (periods one and two every day), which is apparently their right under Rhode Island law. At least one of the parents is extremely disappointed in the education that her child has received over the past four years in Tiverton Middle School specifically with the lack of helpfulness and motivation among multiple teachers so she wants him to enroll full-time in Newport for high school.
School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy has made the argument that other parents will come forward and request to send their children to other schools public and private under the same logic. Good. This friction is utterly unnecessary and should be alleviated with the implementation of a statewide voucher program.
What all parents should witness is this group of five people the school committee standing in judgment of parents' circumstances. I don't mean this as an insult to them, but to a system in which towns collect property taxes and the state collects various other fees and taxes for the purpose of educating children, but only those who can afford to pay an additional tuition on top of that can make decisions for their own. Otherwise, they have to beg the school committee.
The district should be in the position of selling the value of their programs, not explaining why they cannot permit students to go elsewhere.
Nobody wanted to make the motion, so Chairman Jan Bergandy took it upon himself. Carol Herrmann seconded. The vote to deny the appeal was unanimous. (They actually took a separate vote for each student, but the results were the same.)
I wonder if the reduction of students to such utter despondency that they kick over chairs when five strangers deny them the ability to attend a school of their choice will be part of the new teacher evaluation standards. Perhaps contracts could fund the out-of-district tuition of students who've been poorly served locally.
July 19, 2009
A House of Zoning Cards Turns into a Trap
Come on. You've got to laugh at the irony:
... a pitched zoning battle ostensibly over a single sign has horrified more than two dozen merchants and property owners who have invested their savings and their futures in this country crossroads [at Tiverton Four Corners]. ...
The hearing over whether a tenant of Sakonnet Purls can put a second free-standing sign up on the property has droned on for hours and involved arcane legal arguments and thousands of dollars in attorney's fees. ...
... the idyllic tableau conceals tension between the shopkeepers and a zoning ordinance which some say works against the people whose enterprises maintain the character of the village, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
The problem, as reported by Gina Macris:
For one or another reason, like size, or setback from the road, [property owner James Weir] said, none of the signs conform to the sign ordinance, which Weir asserted was written to protect the town from shopping centers and is not tailored to the historic village. ...
While the village commercial district went through [in 2000], it did not expand, leaving more than half the properties in Tiverton Four Corners including the yarn shop in a residential zone.
Donald Bollin, president of the Town Council then as he is now, cast the deciding vote in 2000.
At the time, Bollin said, he was swayed by residents who "thought the commercial district was already too much."
"In the end, enough of the residential people were concerned about the traffic," said Bollin.
While Bollin believes he made the right decision nine years ago, some recent zoning decisions unrelated to Four Corners have opened his eyes to the fact that the zoning ordinance envisions nonconforming uses will eventually disappear.
They may or may not. The larger problem is that strict regulations and a reliance on "non-conforming" uses creates a minefield when consensus proves not to be as strong as previously thought or rams into the individual interests of an insider. In an attempt to block brand-named stores (which would probably do very well with such an isolated community) while ensuring that small shops emerging into the void remained rustic rather than ragged, all while micromanaging traffic for the locals, the town set up a system whereby most development would have to be individually reviewed. That permits the desired subjectivity empowering zoning and council officials to block (for example) a CVS wrapped in a planning-board-mandated bucolic veneer.
When a town management strategy relies too heavily on the wink-wink-nod method of site-plan approval, however, the potential always exists for somebody to stop nodding and frown, instead.
July 14, 2009
Giving Cards to the Other Side
The Tiverton School Committee is discussing whether to grant a leave of absence to an elementary school art teacher, and it's a strange circumstance. Apparently, the custom is to discuss such matters vaguely, so Superintendent Bill Rearick is offering details only inasmuch as is necessary to rebut reluctance from the school committee, but some details have come out:
- The teacher received a layoff notice, as required by law.
- She found another job.
- Additional funds enabled the district to cancel the layoff notice.
- The teacher is seeking a leave of absence so that she'll have until early next year to decide whether to stay at her new job or to return.
The downside, as I'm hearing it, is that the district can expect a larger pool of applicants perhaps with an upward shift of quality if the position is explicitly on the permanent track.
Interestingly, union president Amy Mullen, who was granted a maternity leave of absence just before, responded to a question from committee member Danielle Coulter about the affect of the duration of the opening on the applicant pool by saying, "If I'm an art teacher looking for employment, I'll take whatever I can get in this economic environment." This statement of bald fact is interesting because I've been arguing that the school committee should keep precisely this in mind when handling negotiations with the union.
Also interesting was committee member Carol Herrmann's progression during the discussion. Known as one of the union-friendly members of the committee, Herrmann was clearly arguing in favor of granting the leave. What's peculiar is that she appeared to have thought through the arguments, beforehand, but she started from a stance nearing ambivalence. Like Rearick, she played her cards only as necessary, finally arguing that the district put the teacher in a "stressful position." I wonder how many folks in the private sector make the decision, every year, to simply turn down jobs that they've taken in expectation of a layoff that didn't materialize.
The leave of absence request failed, with Herrmann and Sally Black as the two votes to grant.
There was no handout covering the budget discussion, and I've been typing, so I might have missed important details. It appears, however, that the district administrators (Supt. Rearick and Director of Administration and Finance Doug Fiore) intend to blow off the voters' requirement that the district stick to the dollar amount that was approved at the financial town meeting and treat that amount as creating a budget gap to be filled with stimulus money.
Bill & Doug noted that, if the stimulus money isn't repeated next year, the district will be facing a $800,000 deficit or $100,000+ more than the district is supposed to be trimming as a result of the FTM.
They're talking about closing a school. Oddly, nobody has suggested a few percent across-the-board cut in combined salaries and benefits; they go right for cutting positions, even though there is no contract yet for next year.
Why are they afraid to put forward such an obvious and reasonable solution?
Again, I don't have the paperwork, but it sounds as if extracurricular activities and athletic programs are on Rearick's hit list. Can't help but wonder whether this is all part of the strategy to motivate parents to turn out at next year's FTM and vote for more money.
Yup. Committee President Jan Bergandy just noted that the district "avoided a catastrophe" thanks to the stimulus money and suggested that the district "provide additional information for parents" as to the consequences of cuts.
A high school nurse just received a reduction in hours.
Here's audio of NEA-Tiverton President and NEARI Treasurer Amy Mullen arguing in response to a question from School Committee Member Danielle Coulter that it's an employer's market when it comes to teachers: stream, download.
July 10, 2009
A Relieving Outcome to a Long-Standing Issue
It's a relief to see the issue of soil contamination in the Bay St. area of Tiverton headed toward resolution:
A settlement of the massive Bay Street area lawsuit has been agreed to and the contaminated neighborhood is expected to be cleaned up by the end of this year, the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) announced today.
The settlement was "executed" May 18, said Gail Mastratti, a spokesperson for DEM. In addition to the DEM, the pact includes Southern Union, the Town of Tiverton, and the estimated 125 plaintiffs in the lawsuit who are residents living on about 74 contaminated properties in the 50-acre Bay Street neighborhood in north Tiverton. ...
It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that a change in the law that gives the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) the power to issue fines up to $25,000 per day (from the previous $1,000 per day) as a "pollution penalty" expedited the agreement, and in that we see a dubious method for achieving the happy end. A daily penalty, it seems to me, implies pollution that is ongoing, that an organization or individual refuses to stop. It's possible that I'm missing something, but what the DEM now appears to have is a huge cudgel to dictate who will pay for remediation outside the processes of adjudicative law. It costs the state nothing to implement fines, but it escalates the risk of seeking a legal ruling if a loss means the payment of penalties accrued during the process.
I've long maintained that other strategies for dealing with our less-enlightened past ought to be absorbed into the culture and might, indeed, have resulted in a more rapid resolution in this case. Only time, and the next case down the line, will tell whether a harmful precedent has been set.
June 9, 2009
Trudging Through the School Budget
Amazingly enough, I get email from people around the country who don't care about Tiverton politics! That's like not caring about politics in the Shire. Well, yeah, I know; these things have to be fictionalized in order to emphasize the undercurrents.
One issue of national interest, though, is the arrival of the first infusion of federal "stimulus" money. In Rhode Island's case, the "stimulus" is more like defibrillator funds. From the school's perspective, the federal dollars are merely a replacement for state dollars. Superintendent Bill Rearick expressed a wary hope that various one-time dollars might help the district to get through this year's financial trouble, with a stress on the one-time part.
May 26, 2009
The Real Discussion Happens in the Dark
A pre-meeting executive session has occupied the Tiverton School Committee for the past hour and fifteen minutes. About twenty minutes ago, Chairman Jan Bergandy and Vice Chairwoman Sally Black stepped into the auditorium to announce that a discussion of legal issues related to the budget would delay them for another fifteen.
Although my reader-funded high-speed Internet makes my entire office essentially mobile, I do wonder whether there ought to be some sort of start-time clause in public meeting laws.
I'll admit that it was kinda neat to sit in an empty auditorium for forty-five minutes. (The teachers who are no in the room with me were hanging out in the lobby area.) Pleasant memories of practicing piano in a mostly dark auditorium during study hall seventeen years ago.
And here comes the committee...
The budget discussion has begun with the pivotal nature of state and federal aid. Supt. Bill Rearick suggested that everything is speculative until those numbers are in. (Of course, he was a bit less circumspect when telling the Sakonnet Times that children are going to be hurt.
About eight of the 24 or so teachers in the room left when the agenda moved on from the budget to the district's strategic plan. Just sayin'.
And that's it. Short meeting... once the waiting was over. Of all of these meetings that I've attended, this was by far the most promotional of the students' activities. That's a good thing, and prudent, too, given the realities of budget formation. For one thing, it shows an increased appreciation for the importance of bringing the community into the various processes.
The next step should be to find ways to increase the percentage of per-student spending that goes toward such activities.
May 20, 2009
Singing the Union's Tune in Tiverton
At the May 12 School Committee meeting in Tiverton, Guidance Counselor Lynn Nicholas gave the following advice to the committee related to the financial town meeting's $627,247 cut to the schools' budget:
You need to be serious about what you plan on cutting. I am the last person on this Earth that would want to hurt a child, but you need to make a statement. I don't know how you're going to do it. I don't know what you're going to do. But you need to make a statement to get people to the town meeting.
As a matter of content, readers should put the emphasis on that "but." Nicholas doesn't want to hurt the students, but...
At some point between that night and publication of the May 21 Sakonnet Times, Superintendent Bill Rearick told reporter Tom Killin Dalglish:
...our kids are going to be hurt. I want to be blunt about it.
Mr. Dalglish offers that quotation directly after a list of academic programs that might be on the chopping block, according to "other sources." (One wonders if Mr. Dalglish has been calling the guidance office.) At the end of the piece, Mr. Rearick sounds the note again:
I feel awful for the kids, because we won't be able to continue the current level of programs that we have now.
Mere residents aren't privy to conversations behind closed school administration doors, of course, but it appears that Mr. Rearick is singing the union's tune. The objective is to scare parents into demanding the opportunity to reinstate the requested budget amount.
I've got another solution. Adding the salaries and benefits lines in the school department budget docket yields a total of $19,568,684. An across-the-board cut of 3.2% to some combination of pay and benefits would absorb the shortage. Problem solved with no harm to students and at an employee cost that is hardly egregious in the current market.
Then, the school committee should admit its error in approving an inadvisable teacher contract that accounts for roughly three quarters of the missing money and suggest that the teachers ask their well-paid lobbyists to pressure state legislators to lighten the mandate burden in order to free up money for the next contract.
May 12, 2009
A New Dawn for Tiverton Education... or Is It Dusk?
A larger-than-usual crowd is in t Tiverton High School library for the first school committee after the financial town meeting cut the district's budget by $627,247. A healthy TCC showing; the rest, I assume, are teachers and sympathizers.
School Committee Chairman: "Our only priority in dealing with this cut is to protect our students, and to make sure that our students are impacted as little as possible... everything else is secondary."
They're going to speak vaguely for public consumption and reserve specific strategies for executive session because, as Bergandy put it: "We have to explore possible legal consequences."
Carroll Hermann started by thanking those who showed up at the FTM and voted against the cut. "With $600,000, everyone will get hurt. No one will walk away whole."
Sally Black is taking a general tack, currently suggesting that, at a certain point, "tinkering" with the "delicate balance" has to stop.
She's emphasizing the "fair funding formula" from the state, pointing to a clause in proposed legislation reading "regardless of annual availability of state revenues."
Mild dig at Budget Committee members who didn't vote with the budget they proposed.
Bergandy suggested that, when the state is done cutting, the shortfall may reach a million dollars.
TCC member Joe Souza is speaking, saying that the cut wasn't to "hurt the kids." Scoffs from the teachers in the room: "Yes it was."
"We need to stand up in this town and make some noise... together." Too much in-fighting.
"It's not the Tiverton taxpayers against this school committee."
Guidance Counselor Lynn Nicholas who is heavily involved in the union thinks that lawsuits against the town "need seriously to be considered."
Now she wants to know what advocacy the school committee will pursue to get parents to the town meeting.
One teacher wants to form an organization to battle TCC. My impression was that the union and the town Democrats were organized for such purposes.
How absurd that a small group fighting back can make these people feel that the process was somehow unfairly tilted.
Bill Rearick just read the new charter amendment that prevents town funds from advocating for causes.
Sally Black described an undue concern about what it allowed her to do.
A reader just emailed to remind me of Lynn Nicholas's comment during contract disputes: if the committee does not pass the contract, there will be "a lot of harm done some financial, some not."
The audio is here. Full quote:
Before I ask Doug a question, I just need to make it clear that, if the award is not agreed upon tonight, there will be a lot of harm done. Some of it will be financial; a lot of it will not be, and I'm not going to go into detail.
When you make a statement like that when you're looking for money for yourself, you don't have a whole lot of credibility to villainize taxpayers as hurting children.
And business moves on to sex offender notification and heating oil bids.
At last night's town council, apparently at the beginning (why I missed it), Council Vice President Joanne Arruda made a point during the consent agenda segment of expressing opposition to a petition to end the Caruolo act and another to allow town councils power over teacher contracts.
It just occurred to me that one of the speakers during the financial town meeting segment of this meeting pointed out that services to students have been declining for years. She was making the point that parents will leave town if the new cut exacerbates the problem; I'd note that TCC is less than a year old.
The NEA-RI has been around for quite a while, though...
And out into the night...
May 11, 2009
The Meeting After
I apologize to readers from elsewhere for all the Tivertonalia 'round here lately, and I've got so much on my plate, right now, that I wasn't intending to come to tonight's Town Council meeting. But rumors that the council might (at some point) call for a special financial town meeting for a redo vote and the fact that discussion of Saturday's result is on the agenda for this evening persuaded me that it would be prudent to be in the room.
Of course, I've also heard whispers from my allies about town that a second round might be fun, perhaps to go back for the municipal cuts that the 1:00 p.m. deadline prevented in round 1. Me, I'd prefer that the town spend a year in these new waters before any more such tugs of war.
Discussion of the financial town meeting was limited to an announcement that Michael Smith won the FTM moderator position, 373 to 312, and a vote to send a letter of thanks and compliment to Mike Burk for his job at the last one.
During the administrator's announcement and comments section, Council Member Louise Durfee asked Administrator Jim Goncalo what the effect will be of the council's failure to secure an additional $300,000 for abatement. He'll reply at the next meeting.
And now into executive session for a "quick" discussion about unspecified litigation.
Myopia Versus the Long View in Rhode Island
Self-described newcomer to local politics, Brian Gough, has a letter on the Sakonnet Times Web site criticizing reformers' efforts. Individuals' understanding of the appropriate actions of elected representatives, particularly those in leadership roles, may vary, and differences of opinion aren't necessarily worth the expenditure of much heat. But Mr. Gough's snap assessment of the sides makes an egregious error:
The level of passion behind the actions taken at this meeting was apparent. I am a realist, and quickly did the math. I realize the impact of a small group's efforts to push their agenda is minimal in the short term but the impact on our long term financial viability is extreme. They are selling us out for a short-term reduction in our taxes, and willing to risk our long-term values (home value, bond viability, etc.) Based on this, I must question whether I am a short- or long-term resident of this town. The answer is easy, I am here for the long term, and based on this, I will focus my energy on what will help all of us for the long term.
Members of Tiverton Citizens for Change, as the most local representatives of our broader movement, take a very long view of the actions and the changes necessary to renew our town, our state, and our nation. Those who think we see each cut in terms of its immediate affect on our tax bills miss the point and are likely to stop following the thread before they've come to the real structural problems that we're trying to address.
May 10, 2009
Where Tiverton Goes from Here
Saturday morning, a majority of electors at the Tiverton financial town meeting (FTM) for 2009 voted to cut the Budget Committee's recommended school department budget by $627,247 explicitly subtracting $174,054 from the local contribution and $453,193 from the expected general state aid. Owing to a Budget Committee resolution passed earlier in the meeting, any "federal, state, or local government aid" in excess of that amount would be "returned to the Town's General Fund as a surplus."
If not for a time limit before the meeting would automatically have recessed until the following week thus risking a repeat of last year's performance the municipal budget could have experienced a similar cut.
As one might expect, rumors (aka threats) of litigation are already circulating, and Rhode Islanders have been conditioned to see such actions as unavoidable consequences of cold process. As with children decrying the restrictions imposed by peer pressure, the excuse will go out from officials and union members alike that laws, mandates, and contracts leave them no choice. Adults should understand that there are always choices, the question being who refuses to make the right ones.
In evaluating the path forward, Tiverton should recall to mind two antecedents without which Saturday's result would likely have been quite different: the suspicious outcome of last year's FTM and the imprudent raise and retroactive giveaway to the teachers' union in January. Both galvanized those of us who see a need for an overhaul of priorities, and both compounded the difficulty of dealing with current financial strain.
For all the shades of gray, there are really only two paths forward. Our representatives can take the taxpayers' cue and push back on those whom they've previously perceived as tying their hands the unions and the state. Or our representatives can continue fighting reformers and attempting to move as much of their habitual agenda as possible.
If they choose the former approach, they'll force the unions and state lawmakers to accept the mantle of intransigence against financial reality and taxpayers' demands. They'll also find eager support amidst a growing wave of active citizens with their eye on transforming Rhode Island into the national leader that it ought to be.
If they choose the latter approach if they cling to the remnants of a withering status quo, if they continue to pile on the antecedents to escalation they might just push an increasingly organized opposition to the next level of involvement: namely, campaigns for office.
May 9, 2009
Rule of Lawyer: Tiverton Town Solicitor Andrew M. Teitz and Disenfranchisement of a Lowly Blogger
Reflection has not changed my opinion, stated while liveblogging, that Mike Burk, the moderator of today's financial town meeting in Tiverton made every effort to be fair and, on the whole, succeeded. That said, he did make a few substantial errors, one of which brings into stark relief a problem of governance pervasive in Rhode Island namely, the undue power of hired attorneys in the conduct of school and municipal business.
I am neither an experienced parliamentarian nor a lawyer, so in the flow of the meeting, I focused more on principle than on procedural law. Moreover, as is evidenced by my ready willingness to modify an amendment that I'd made to the proposed school budget, I wasn't heavily invested in the specific numbers that I put forward. But it is my opinion that Tiverton Town Solicitor Andrew M. Teitz strove to disenfranchise me as a taxpaying voter in the town, and that Moderator Burk permitted him to accomplish that goal.
Teitz: Excuse me, I have a point of order. The number that you suggested for the appropriation is 20,046,960; is that correct? Which is actually less than the number that was appropriated last year.
Burk: Which means that that is out of order, am I catching that?
Teitz: Yeah, the state law requires that they receive at least as much... that the appropriation be at least as much as it was in the previous year.
Katz: My understanding, though, is that if the number of students declines, maintenance of effort permits an adjustment downward.
Burk: I will rule that out of order if it is below the number that was appropriated last year.
Teitz: You are correct; it can be adjusted if you have the information on that.
Katz: I'm not aware that I actually need that information to pass an amendment. These are questions of... I mean, if people distrust my number, they can vote my amendment down and vote for another one or the main motion, if they prefer, but I'm not understanding why I... [somebody handed me a piece of paper.] Alright: In the past six years, enrollment is down 13.5%, and tax spending has gone up 45%. I think if we're trying to show maintenance of effort, we've certainly done so.
School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy requested that the school department's attorney Stephen Robinson have the floor to offer relevant information. What he offered (included in the above audio link) was a statement that he's previously made as to the procedure for proving maintenance of effort and the right of the FTM to address line items in the school budget, as opposed to the whole thing. Then, Budget Committee Vice Chairman Rob Coulter pointed out that the law is certainly not as unambiguous as Mr. Robinson had stated and argued that, given the trends in enrollment and funding, it is simply "incorrect" to state that the previous year's exact dollar amount must be matched. Furthermore, Rob noted Teitz's opinion, elsewhere, that the charter trumps state law in these contexts, and the charter allows for line-item modification.
At that point, Burk insisted that he was going to rule the amendment out of order, based on a lack of "significant enough details" and gave me the option of modifying it to avoid the objection. Wishing to expedite the process, I agreed. However, upon further discussion, I thought it necessary to take the thread up again (stream, download):
Katz: I disagree that the legal issues are a matter of procedure for this particular meeting. An amendment is not "out of order" because there may be litigation. This body can submit the numbers that it would like to do, and that could be resolved after the fact. The fact that there are lawyers in the room who are willing to testify to the law does not mean that we are bound by their judgment. And I would remind people that Mr. Coulter is also a lawyer, so if he presents a different opinion...
Burk: He is not here to practice law. Our solicitor is our legal council.
Katz: Right. But if they're simply giving an opinion of the law, we can disregard that. They're not judges. They're not juries. And they're certainly not executioners.
Teitz: Point of information regarding that. The advice that is given here is to the town. The client is the Town of Tiverton. You're right: it is to this financial town meeting, as interpreted by the moderator, and you can listen to everybody. You can listen to all the lawyers, including me, as to what the advice is. And this body, if there's an appeal if you want to do it over a dollar [the substantial difference of my proposal] you can. An appeal going through the proper decision... an appeal to the moderator's decision, a majority vote, and whatnot can overrule that. Obviously, you do it at your own risk, but you are correct. The body can overrule the legal opinion through the moderator if you wanted to do it. I have provided you with the information; the moderator has ruled it "out of order"; but even if it is out of order, it can be appealed.
Katz: I'm merely stating the opinion that it is not the procedure that the lawyers in the room dictate the procedure of the meeting dictate what's in order and what's out of order. We can vote on what we want.
Teitz: I'm agreeing with you, but there's a way to do it, which would be to appeal the moderator's decision.
Katz: Right, but that's only if the moderator turns to the lawyers and takes your dictation wholesale.
The point that became obscured amidst all of Teitz's agreeing with me was that he had managed to deprive me of my right to make the motion that I desired in the financial town meeting despite three parliamentary and legal matters of which he as the paid "expert" in the room should have been knowledgeable and of which the moderator presumably qualified for his role should have been aware:
- Mr. Teitz had no standing to interrupt me for a point of order. Robert's Rules allow members to make such interruptions, but not being a resident of the town, Teitz does not qualify. Somebody else could have done so, and the moderator could have requested Mr. Teitz's opinion, but as it happened, the lawyer displayed his eagerness to turn the direction of the meeting in a preferred direction, and the moderator let show his willingness to be led.
- Mr. Teitz's point of order was too late. As one can plainly hear (stream, download), my motion to amend had been duly made and seconded, and the moderator had stated the question and opened the floor for debate. According to Robert's Rules: "After debate on such a motion has begun no matter how clearly out of order the motion may be a point of order is too late."
- There is no restriction in Robert's Rules, the Tiverton Town Charter (PDF), or the Rhode Island General Laws that forbids a town meeting from explicitly taking actions that challenge the law. Indeed, the RIGL makes provisions for a ballot vote option in situations "involving... the incurring of liability by the town." In other words, it is not out of order to make a motion that knowingly opens the door to litigation, much less a motion that kinda-sorta, in the opinion of a hired lawyer, might open that door.
None of this is to say that I'm particularly upset about the outcome. I would suggest, however, that the people of Tiverton and I'm sure this applies across the state should insist that our elected officials enlist the services only of lawyers who are sufficiently knowledgeable and ethical to avoid trampling the rights of citizens. Because I know it couldn't possibly be the will of those officials to do so.
For further clarification of my thoughts on Teitz's speech about the proper procedure for disregarding the advice of lawyers: The hired legal advisers do not enter the procedure as issuers of decisions that must be overruled. They are there to offer analysis of the legal repercussions of particular decisions and, if necessary, to give suggestions as to the specific procedural rules governing the meeting. There is no procedural rule that requires a meeting to steer well clear of potential sources of legal liability.
Furthermore, it is inappropriate for the moderator to behave as a proxy by which the legal advisers can accomplish this end. Moderators are not the dictators of the meetings that they are running. Unless I'm mistaken, to accomplish their end, the moderator should have put forward as a resolve or the body should have made as a prior motion a stipulation that no motions would be entertained if, in the judgment of the town solicitor, they stood a reasonable chance of creating an opportunity for litigation. That would have negated my objections #2 and #3 above.
(Before anybody on the other side spends too much time pondering the possibilities, let me suggest that I think Tiverton Citizens for Change could have a lot of fun with such a rule.)
UPDATED: Correction on Property Taxes
Based on conversation here and here, it appears that I was wrong to state that "a new methodology will skew taxes toward waterfront properties." Several people who are typically more specifically knowledgeable about town financial matters made statements that I apparently took too literally.
That said, Tiverton Tax Assessor David Robert has strangely refused to answer, here, direct questions about the process, a decision that I attribute more to my local reputation than to his having anything to hide. (I suspect that, in certain circles, I'm taken to be much more of a conniver than I actually am.)
What I'm trying to determine is whether a decreasing pool of sales from which to determine trends has resulted in differing bases for different neighborhoods. I'd welcome feedback from folks familiar with the controversy in Barrington, especially if it might pertain to the varying results in Tiverton.
ADDENDUM 05/09/09 2:14 p.m.:
After conversation with Tax Assessor David Robert after today's financial town meeting, I'm persuaded that nothing different was done that unfairly skewed the revaluation results... at least any more than is always the case.
In essence, all sales forming the basis for the revaluation were in town. In cases in which a subsection of houses had insufficient sales to make reassessments valid, the assessor calculated based on overall sales and the typical ratio of that neighborhood to the overall. (I'm summarizing the effect, here, and may not be to-the-letter accurate about the procedure as implemented.)
I'd argue that this methodology is inherently unfair, inasmuch as a neighborhood with too few sales can't even be said to have kept up with the values of the rest of the town. If a dozen houses sell in my working class neighborhood at a 10% decrease from previous assessments, but no houses sell down the hill from me, closer to the water, one cannot infer that they would have sold at that 10% decrease. Indeed, they might well have sold only if offered at a 50% decrease, which means that their value is unfairly assessed to have held.
That said, it would be difficult (mathematically or politically) to come up with a number that adjusts for sales that didn't happen. The town could investigate the prices that the houses weren't getting, but that would only give one a maximum and, as a matter of principle, bases taxes on prima facie unrealistic home values.
Whatever the case, I was unequivocally wrong to assert a change in methodology.
Financial Town Meeting 2009
Quirky Internet service has delayed my initial post, but I've been sitting in the Tiverton High School gymnasium for about a half-hour already. At about ten-of-nine (start time), I'm a little surprised that the turnout isn't better. We're probably somewhere in the 300-400 people range sufficient for a quorum, but disappointing, given the turn-out-the-vote effort on all sides. I wonder if the lack of substantive immediate political controversy (as opposed to the specific disputes typical of town politics) have kept the enthusiasm low. Maybe it's the weather, cultural depression... who knows.
Moderator Michael Burk just announced a few more minutes of delay to allow the lines of people to get in. Rumors have it that the lines extend to cars waiting to get in several blocks away.
Still waiting. We're probably nearing 1,000 people at this point. Apparently, if the building hits capacity (upwards of 2,000, I believe), they postpone the meeting.
My early concerns appear to have been premature.
Town Solicitor Andy Teitz, Budget Committee Chairman Jeff Caron, and Moderator Michael Burk
Budget Committee Vice Chairman Rob Coulter chats with School Committee Attorney Stephen Robinson, while Superintendent Bill Rearick speaks with school department Director of Administration and Finance Doug Fiore as I take a picture immediately over Fiore's shoulder on the big screen:
The crowd just before the start of the meeting:
We're under way. The official count is 700 people. Mr. Burk is currently going over the process for a ballot vote; the presentation is certainly persuasive to avoid them for more than close, important votes.
The town council just lost its bid to add $300,000 to the budget for abatement protection. That should have been in the budget.
Current discussion is whether the petition for a ladder truck is in order. Burk ruled the resolution is in order, even if it would be impossible to actually enact it.
A resident asked whether more firefighters would have to be hired to man the truck. Town Council President Don Bollin said that they don't have that information. Audience unrest, but Bollin clarified that he doesn't support the truck.
Chief Robert Lloyd is answering that all firefighters will be trained on the truck.
Fire truck goes down.
Some resolves from the Budget Committee were unexpectedly controversial. The mood may indicate that the taxpayers are again rising up.
We're talking about the school department's budget. Three amendments to the initial amount have reduced the total and divided the total into an Operating and Capital Budget from Local Sources amount and a General State Aid, essentially determining who has to make up the difference if aid falls short: the town (taxpayers) or the school.
An amendment that I made to the school committee budget was voted down. It was the third amendment, which is the maximum allowed. In short, I'm not too sad that it fell. It was actually the highest in dollar amount of the three by one dollar.
Just a note: Mr. Burk is being fair, writing down the order of questioners regardless of microphone, etc. There have been a couple of points in which he's seemed a hair argumentative, but nothing beyond the boundaries of plain human nature.
The latest people count was 666, and people continue to leave.
School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy requested a paper ballot.
I can't believe the amount of contention even to do a paper ballot. If this happens and the vote changes there will be huge angst.
No paper ballot, and there's been a motion to move the remainder of the budget.
A moment to breathe while we figure out procedure. I'll take the opportunity to suggest that the powers who be in Rhode Island take note that the Tiverton School Department just experienced a taxpayer-driven cut in its budget.
Town Council member Hannibal Costa appealed the moderator's decision to let amendments be made to the municipal total. His appeal passed, and Jeff Caron appealed on the grounds that Robert's Rules disallow appeals after debate has proceeded. Costa's clearly incorrect, and Caron is clearly correct that Costa's appeal was out of order. But, we have to finish the meeting in order to ensure that there's no redux of last year's reworking of the budget, so it's probably a good thing that reformist efforts thus far are preserved.
Town Council member Louise Durfee just took the opportunity of a procedural intermission to chastise a few members of the school committee for not speaking out more forcefully in favor of their budget.
Well, well, well...
May 7, 2009
Rob Coulter: Property Revaluation and Subjectivity
I had a very helpful conversation with a gentleman from the property revaluation vendor for Tiverton last night, and I learned quite a bit about the process. By the way, he was very patient and cordial, and I was very impressed with him, even if we may arrive a different conclusions. I agree with Justin that this should be an exploratory dialogue, and I do not pretend to have all the answers either.
The truth is somewhat in the middle of what I'm reading from comments here. As far as I can tell, they are using a multivariable regression computer model. It is susceptible to error because the sample sizes are not statistically robust enough for so many variables. When this happens, judgment calls have to necessarily be made. In a sense, the "methodology" has not changed, but there are still many, many variables calling for subjectivity on the appraiser's part.. I don't want to go so far as to call these judgment calls arbitrary, but there is definitely enough play between the joints for the appraiser to "skew" (if that's the right word) a result based on assumptions being made.
Although it sounds fancy and complicated, the idea of using multivariable regression is to let the computer try to find the impact of one variable while holding all others constant. It's like algebra on acid. This can't be done by hand when there are dozens and dozens of variables, as there are, here, so we let a computer do it.
I do not believe that it is incorrect to use this type of modeling, but there are two very important qualifiers:
- The model only works if there are enough samples for each variable. I'm not sure there are here.
- More importantly, this model and all models have assumptions built into them. These assumptions are necessary for any model but are at the end of the day subjective and subject to dispute. For example, I learned last night that (roughly speaking) all taxpayers are taxed at nearly one acre of land no matter how much less they have, and owners with additional acres are only taxed at a very low cost per acre. So if you own one-third of an acre or one full acre, you pay about the same tax on land. Do you think that's fair? Maybe yes, maybe no, but these are some of the assumptions that lurk behind the "methodology."
There are myriad assumptions and they have a major impact. They do not involve only objective things such as acreage and square footage, but multiplying factors applied based on the style of the house. These are very subject to debate. For example, I argued that a solar panel on a roof should add value to a house based on fuel costs. The vendor suggested that it might detract because of decreased curb appeal. I replied that a new buyer could simply remove the panel. And so on. You can see how very quickly a lot of error and assumptions can creep into a system that otherwise sounds so impressive.
Again, I want to stress that I don't think anyone is trying any funny business here. I was very impressed with the vendor, and I also very much respect David Robert, Tiverton's tax assessor. But I do have experience with multivariable regression, and if that is the model behind this, I can tell you that we can't trust it wholesale. I don't think the "methodology" has changed, but there are many assumptions under this methodology that can be adjusted and are essentially subjective.
Rob Coulter is a member of the Tiverton Budget Committee as well as Tiverton Citizens for Change.
May 6, 2009
A Full Court Press, in Local Terms
Well, it's some sort of milestone, I suppose, to be denounced by name in a mailing to the email list of Tiverton Youth Soccer (with which my children are not currently involved):
It is that time of the year again.... time for me to urge each of you to attend Tiverton's Financial Town Meeting. I know, I know, sheesh Deb we don't like to go to those. They are long and confusing and lots of folks just get angry and yell.
You are right about all that, but here's the thing - I can think of lots of other things I could be doing on a Sat. morning at 9am, but I do not want to wake up on Sunday morning and hear that because enough reasonable people weren't at that meeting, a group of extreme, self-seeking residents slashed the town budget by $2 million dollars. It almost happened last year!! It would have been devastating to town services - a closed fire station, no trash pick up, etc. The schools would have had to eliminate anything not considered basic by the state - band, sports, maybe close a school. You all know the things that will go. The TCC contingent on the budget committee already tried for a $1 million dollar cut to the schools and over $250,000 to the fire department. They produced graph and charts and yelled and cut off any that would try and counter the incorrect, skewed or misleading "facts." Luckily, more reasonable and responsible voices on the committee prevailed. But, now read the letters in the Sakonnet Times from TCC members Justin Katz, Jeff Caron and Tom Parker (available on-line) filled with anger and innuendo and rumors which will stir the pot and get their cut-cut-cut base to the FTM.
I am NOT for higher taxes, but I am for maintaining services. That is what a community does - share the costs of preserving services. The proposed municipal operating increase is .5% over last year, the school increase is 1.48% over last year. These are reasonable and prudent and all have worked hard to keep taxes down while maintaining the services we all want (or at least I want). PLEASE, PLEASE try to have at least one member from your family (or 2 or 3) at the financial town meeting so we don't wake up on Sunday to find out that our town has been drastically changed. It is only a few hours but will impact the entire town for the rest of the year and beyond. Please call or forward this message to at least 10 others and let's spread the word. Thanks.
Oh, yes. Deb would never use anger (unless calling people self-seeking [sic] extremists with double exclamation points counts) or rumors to rile her base audience to the FTM. Yeah, villainizing neighbors to community groups as opposed to letters to the editor and such might be a little aggressive, but in order to be offended, one must imagine that we right-wing agitators are merely people trying to do what we believe to be right, not only for ourselves, but for the town, as well, and that clearly cannot be the case in Deb's aw-shucks world. Never mind that TCC's position (which may be different than a given member's) is to "hold the line" by approving the budget as it stands, without any surprise increases.
I do wonder, though, whether Deb's ever taken the opportunity of a group mailing to warn that the ever-growing remuneration of public-sector unions would squeeze out those "services we all want." If it's the Deb whom I believe it to be, she took quite the opposite view with the recent teachers' contract. So add that to the list of reasons for a community to exist: to provide services to the town, and to ensure disproportionate pay and benefits for union members.
Meanwhile, our old friend Richard Joslin once again appears to have hijacked (or attempted to hijack) TCC's mailing list:
If you do not want this email, please just delete it.
Once more, the TCC is lying to you. No one is planning to increase the School Budget; we support the Budget Committee on the schools. No one is trying to steal votes at the FTM. That is a paranoid fantasy Parker, Nelson and your TCC leadership are trying to "sell" you. . I for one am sick of David Nelson's lies, and you should be too. There has been an 8 month campaign to destroy our public school system by cynical people like Mr. Parker, who is claiming falsely this week that people will try to add $500K to the School Budget. And by Mr Coulter who has authored two legal suits- one attacking volunteer counters at the Town Meeting, and one destructive lawsuit which will accomplish nothing but spending your money on lawyers to defend the Town. Do you want you political "heroes" to attack the Town with lawsuits? All we are asking is for all voters to attend the FTM and vote for the Budget already approved by the Budget Committee, Town Council and School Committee. Please attend.
You cannot vote to reduce teacher's salaries or benefits at the FTM, you cannot vote to change the public pension structure at the FTM. You cannot change minimum manning of the Fire and EMTs at the FTM. Just about no one wants a ladder truck we cannot afford.
But keep on believing the lies of Parker, Coulter and Nelson. The TCC is proving to be a rogue right-wing bunch of idiots. It is an embarrassment.
This is being sent to you because (twice) three weeks ago Mr. Nelson intercepted emails I sent to supporters of the budget approved by the Budget Committee and TIV Town Council and sent my it to all TCC members. He urged you all to go to a non-public meeting to be held about the budget. Only one sad person tried to come, and as it was a private meeting he was turned away. You deserve to know the nasty tactics your TCC leadership practices.
Yup. No anger, there, from the man who decries a "right-wing bunch of idiots"! No paranoia from the guy complaining about Dave's "interception" of an email in which he (Joslin) whom I'm pretty sure I've spotted attempting to spy on TCC meetings asked all residents to attend a meeting that he hosted and encouraged recipients to forward the invitation.
Joslin never explains for whom he intends to speak with his "we," but perhaps his extensive network of informants are the reason he's so confident that "no one" is planning to increase any budgets at the financial town meeting. "Just about no one" wants a ladder truck, and yet enough residents petitioned for one to get it on the FTM docket.
At least Mr. Joslin realizes that unions are an issue, though. Unfortunately, in the cluelessness typical of those comfortable with the same-old governance of Rhode Island and its municipalities, he looks right past the effect that taxpayer pressure can have during negotiations. He has no concept of the importance of the leverage that officials can derive from downward pressure from voters.
And pressure is all we have. The unions may give some slack for this year, but their contracts are typically for three. Thus, at next year's FTM, any increase given away by negotiators will be declared untouchable. The current budget provides for no increase. That means that we're seeing a budget unaffected by the unions and it still represents more than a three percent increase! (Unaffected, of course, except for the retroactive raise that the teachers just got and that carries through to this contract as the new baseline. In the absense of a contract, by the way, I imagine, contra Joslin, that line item is in fact available for modification.)
It's time to change the conversation and to stop falling for the soothing tones of people who turn their smiles to snarls with a disconcerting ease, depending on whether they're addressing the opposition or those whom they'd like to lull back to sleep while they make decisions folks like Yer Pal Deb, Richard the Level-Headed, and Mike Burk, the FTM "moderator" who happens to have been one of the most aggressively anti-TCC partisans to emerge over the past year.
May 4, 2009
Property Tax Illusion
Because it works differently than most other taxes with which we're familiar, it surprised me when first I learned how property taxes are calculated, at least in Tiverton. In short, the rate is almost an irrelevant statistic. Confusion over that fact has led local Budget Committee and TCC member Tom Parker to pen the following explanation
2009 property revaluations have been mailed out in Tiverton, and if you listen carefully you can hear a collective sigh of relief across the town: "My property value has gone down, my taxes must be going down. Life is good, and I'm safe, at least for the time being, from the insatiable tax demands of the Tiverton government. For once, I can relax...right?" Actually, no. Unfortunately, things are not what they seem. There are two good reasons why you need to pay careful attention.
First, the letter we taxpayers got in the mail was our property revaluation, and, indeed, for many of us it is significantly lower than the previous assessment (my own decreased about $120,000). The tax RATE is the other key component in the final calculation of YOUR property tax bill. The FY2009 tax rate proposed by the Budget Committee is $14.73/1000. This is a $3.47/1000 increase (31%) over the current tax rate of $11.26/1000. So even if your assessment has gone down, your taxes could substantially increase. In my case, even though my assessment decreased $120,000 (14%), I estimate my tax bill will increase by over $1,100 (12%).
The town doesn't apply the rate to the property values to figure out how much money it has to work with. Rather, it figures out how much money it wants and then divvies the total up among all of the property in town. When property values go down, it doesn't figure out how to function with less revenue; it simply adjusts the rate to ensure the same revenue as a matter of course, with no votes or political risks necessary.
So the key question, when it comes to revaluations and taxes isn't whether your house is worth more or less; it's how it changed compared with all of the other properties in town. If they all decrease by the same percentage, everybody's taxes stay the same.
It's true that, in Tiverton, a new methodology will skew taxes toward waterfront properties, this year, which means that recalculations will hurt those homeowners more. But as Tom describes, the huge leap in the rate likely means increase for anybody whose house's value dropped less than 31%. And that's before tax-revenue beneficiaries have their whack at the budget during the upcoming financial town meeting this Saturday.
ADDENDUM 05/09/09 5:10 p.m.
The deleted sentence is incorrect. See here for explanation. Apologies for the error.
April 29, 2009
With Friends (and Moderators) Like These...
Contrary to aspersions in the comment section of my previous post on this topic, my source was not incorrect that Town Council member Jay Lambert voted against Mike Burk as financial town meeting moderator. According to a Sakonnet Times article (not online), following a profiles-in-courage strategy, he changed his vote, apparently in a way, by tone or by timing, that kept the news from getting back to members of Tiverton Citizens for Change right away:
After an initial 5 - 1 vote made it clear that Mr. Burk had won, Mr. Lambert asked to change his vote to Mr. Burk "to make it unanimous."
I'll say this: TCC moved quickly last summer. For the next election, it may be that we'll need a better developed endorsement procedure.
As for Mr. Burk, himself, he's very confident in his own capacity for neutrality:
Council member Louise Durfee said that Mr. Burk, in his application, had addressed these concerns. In the e-mail, Mr. Burk said that while "I am certainly a passionate advocate for my beliefs, I also fully recognize that the Moderator's role is to be the neutral arbiter and facilitator of the Town Meeting and I take that role very seriously."
Mr. Burk went on to say he recognizes the need to put his own beliefs in his back pocket "to ensure a fair Town Meeting process" and said that others who had seen him in action leading meetings would say "I am a very fair and reasonable facilitator."
First, as I mention in the comment section to a letter that I sent to the Sakonnet Times, Mr. Burk has previously given some indication of his fidelity to rules by asserting it to be his job (as a school committee member) to advocate for their budget using resources available to the committee, even though that's explicitly against school department administrative policy.
Second, I'd point out that the back pocket is a nicely accessible location from which to draw a metaphorical knife. Moderators help to determine who speaks when, to determine what is and is not in order, and even to make the call on voice votes. It is not unreasonable paranoia to imagine that advocacy can have a way of creeping into one's judgments on such matters. Recall, for example, the moment at last year's FTM when an audience member challenged the one and only amendment of the allowable three to propose decreasing the budget on the grounds that he had been at the microphone first. He was lying, and even a toss of the coin would have been unfair.
Can we expect balanced judgment from this man?
Participate, Because Somebody Else Will
Let's be honest. For most of us, this whole civic participation thing is a chore. It's a responsibility. We stay informed; we vote; and really that should be enough. One reason we have elected representatives is to free up the rest of us to be productive, keep the economy going, and pursue happiness.
And yet the previous speakers who called for increased participation to the extent of committing ourselves to campaigns and elective office are absolutely right. We may have no desire to make a career, or even a sabbatical, out of public service, we may have no thirst for political power, but that is precisely why we are needed. Simply put, if we don't step forward, somebody else will. Somebody who doesn't see government as a chore.
As an indication of what I'm talking about, I'm going to read a few lines from the infamous fire-truck petition:
This proposal is being sought because the item was not considered by the Tiverton Budget Committee in the docket for this year and because numerous members of the Tiverton Budget Committee have advocated a maximum increase in the annual tax levy not to exceed one percent or zero, because the Tiverton Budget Committee is recommending a slashed school operational budget in order to achieve their desired goal ... and because these same Budget Committee members are squandering the limited ability to utilize tax revenues under the State mandated cap of 4.75% to improve the community as a whole.
There's no statement of dire need to buy such equipment despite the horrible economy. No research about the likely changes in property insurance. No examples of lives that would recently have been saved. The authors of this petition didn't even bother to note properties that might have been preserved in the past. According to news reports, they didn't even consult the fire chief!
Their primary motivation, in other words, is to out-maneuver people they don't like on the Budget Committee, and secondly, to claim as much of your income as possible. Their design is to take money from every taxpayer in Tiverton and allocate it to the priorities of a few people with the time and motivation to manipulate procedure.
Some of these people either benefit directly from town government or are close to people who do. Others of them, well, who knows? Maybe they've got their eyes on the State House and maybe, in their long-term aspirations, on Congress. Maybe they just like the feeling of a little local prominence. Or maybe it's more like a high school popularity thing.
I want to stress, here, that I'm not talking about everybody in local government, whether I agree with them or not. But this is certainly a segment a vocal and active contingent that must be countered. And the reason it must be countered is that if somebody is in government for personal gain, whether of the wallet or of the ego, or even if he or she just thought it'd be a nice way to get involved in the community, then that person is going to be more susceptible to special interests.
For example, throughout the recent teachers' contract discussions, we heard again and again, from the union as well as people on the other side of the negotiating table, that the money was "in the budget." The people of Tiverton the argument went wanted that money to go to the teachers' union. And now, here we stand, with all of the town's major contracts up for negotiation during a down economy, and the school committee chairman told the Budget Committee that he's got no bargaining leverage. The Town Council President claims it's easier to have too much money in the budget for labor and to put some back in the general fund if negotiations go well.
What these representatives should be advocating is to force the unions to negotiate against a taxpayer-mandated cut. Instead, there's been a push, which we'll probably see again at the financial town meeting, to postpone budget decisions until after the unions are all settled up. The Committee and the Council want to negotiate with an admittedly weak hand rather than to be able to say to the unions, "The money is not in the budget. At least you have your jobs."
You probably already know the argument that we'll hear if the FTM occurs after the fact. "These contracts are signed. There's nothing we can do. Except raise taxes. Oh, and by the way, we're going to need more money to staff, equip, and fuel our new fire truck."
Folks, we do have to start small, and that means simply attending the financial town meeting. But we also have to build, because these people, these problems, already permeate our system at every layer of government. TCC is available to provide some structure and some moral support at the town level, and the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition is growing at the state level for the same purpose, but there really is no substitute for participation.
We've reached the point in Tiverton and in Rhode Island that participation is no longer a civic duty or chore. It's a matter of self defense.
TCC Taxpayer Forum Audio
The following speeches were given at the Tiverton Citizens for Change taxpayer forum on Monday, April 27.
- TCC President David Nelson: stream, download (4min 30sec)
- TCC and Tiverton Budget Committee member Thomas Parker: stream, download (13min 39sec)
- Rhode Island Statewide Coalition Executive Director Harry Staley: stream, download (19min 39sec)
- TCC member and Tiverton Budget Committee Chairman Jeff Caron: stream, download (17min)
- East Providence Taxpayers Association spokesman Bill Murphy: stream, download (27min 4sec)
- Anchor Rising's me: stream, download (5min 29sec)
- TCC member Joe Souza: stream, download (35sec)
April 28, 2009
Corrected: Breaking Local News Related to FTM Moderator
At the tail end of our Tiverton Citizens for Change meeting, I received word that Mike Burk won the position as financial town meeting moderator on a unanimous council vote
a council vote of five to one, with Jay Lambert voting against and, with Council President Don Bollin suspiciously absent.
Well, I warned of the outcome should this come to pass.
April 27, 2009
Gearing up for the Financial Town Meeting
I've arrived early at tonight's Tiverton Citizens for Change FTM-prep meeting, at which I'll be speaking. (FTM stands for financial town meeting). Even people who aren't speaking began walking through the VFW door about a half-hour early.
Hopefully turn-out will be good, although it would likely be too optimistic to expect an equivalent turnout to our meeting last year. After all, that one followed a controversial event. This year, we're trying to prevent a repeat.
I'll be checking in as I'm able. If you can come, please do.
Well, we've already surpassed the average town council, school committee, or budget committee meeting. Harry Staley from the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition is here (he's speaking). General Assembly Rep. Jay Edwards (D., Tiverton) just arrived (he's not speaking).
We're starting a little late, owing to a delayed speaker. Rep. John Loughlin (R., Tiverton, Little Compton, Portsmouth) just arrived, though.
About sixty people are here. TCC President Dave Nelson opened the meeting, followed by TCC & Budget Committee member Tom Parker, who is currently reviewing budget amounts and processes.
Harry Staley is up:
Providing some anecdotes, Harry's describing the way things work in Rhode Island. He emphasized that it doesn't matter what party it is that has a monopoly on government; it's not healthy.
"Instead of facing up to the problems that we have, they're going to turn to the stimulus money to pump it in to the current deficit." That'll make things worse... and he's somewhat pessimistic.
TCC member and Budget Committee chairman Jeff Caron is going through some financial changes that we'd like to see made moving forward:
Bill Murphy of the East Providence Taxpayer Association has taken the microphone:
Bill's characterizing the current power of special interests in RI as "a hostile takeover of government."
A great comparison of the U.S. Army, in which officers wait for the enlisted men to eat, with U.S. and RI government, in which the leaders take for themselves and then divvy up some of what's left.
April 24, 2009
Tiverton Taxpayer Forum
For any and all who are free and wish to attend, Tiverton Citizens for Change is hosting a taxpayer forum on Monday, April 27, at 7:00 p.m. at the North Tiverton VFW. Admission is free, and there will be a raffle for balloons filled with scratch tickets of various value as well as food. Speakers will include:
Dave Nelson, TCC President
Tom Parker, TCC and Budget Committee Member
Harry Staley, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition
Jeff Caron, TCC member and Budget Committee President
Bill Murphy, East Providence Taxpayers Association member
Larry Fitzmorris, Portsmouth Concerned Citizens member
... and me
How to Ensure Municipal Discord
The name won't mean much to Rhode Islanders from elsewhere (except inasmuch as you've seen it on Anchor Rising), but I heard last night that the Tiverton Town Council is considering appointing Mike Burk as the moderator for the upcoming financial town meeting. Do they want unrest? Do they want to encourage discord across the town?
This is a man who has been not only open, but active in his contempt of local reformers in Tiverton Citizens for Change. He's expressed paranoiac class-warfare insinuations about them in the local media. He's paced the back of Budget Committee meetings, swearing and seeking to shout down TCC members on the committee. (He's captured in the background of the two audio clips here).
Having Burk stand as the ostensibly neutral conductor of the session would be downright hostile to democratic compromise and would ensure broad suspicion of the results even before the meeting's opening. The demeanor that he displayed during meetings when he was an elected official even when he's been advancing policies that I've supported (such as holding the line for months against the teachers' union) would be perfect if the town's aspiration is to stoke controversy, but wholly inappropriate if the objective is to host a thoughtful, productive meeting.
April 13, 2009
Moderate Town Council Meeting
The first thing of note at tonight's Tiverton town council meeting is consideration of appointments for the moderator at the financial town meeting. Apparently, the town has received a single réumé to date. It's not like the moderator has to do anything important; as we learned last year, he or she mainly relays town solicitor Teitz's findings related to Robert's Rules.
Director of Public Works Stephen Berlucchi is currently suggesting a program that would begin charging for trash pickup (in addition to what comes out of our taxes). Councilor Louise Durfee just suggested that not all money raised in this way should go to putting money aside for the big pending expense of closing the town landfill, but that some should be redirected toward landfill operating expenses. (Apparently, she wasn't happy with the condition of the landfill on her last visit there.)
If I heard correctly, Berlucchi's program amounts to another $750,000-plus tax increase on residents (a point that council President Don Bollin must made).
I'm new to this debate, but I'm not sure why the town can't allocate more land. Alternately, the town could do some of the back-end work to facilitate private pickup services for residents who want it.
The council just voted 3 to 2 to "encumber" additional funds from their contingency fund for use in preparation for the financial town meeting. The issue is mainly an inability to predict the attendance.
One a positive note, the council voted unanimously to have voting machines available for use during votes at the FTM. In that setting, especially pitting police, fire, and teachers against senior citizens to some extent, voice votes are simply unfair, and hand votes are problematic for reasons both of accuracy and of political pressure.
Councilor Jay Lambert is asking Solicitor Teitz whether the petition to put a fire truck on the docket at the FTM is actually allowable according to the town charter, given the size of the expense and the questionable accuracy of the expenses stated in the petition (lacking operational and other costs that would be implied by the purchase).
April 11, 2009
Tivertonians: They Just Want Your Money
On the last page of the main section of the recent Sakonnet Times comes news of a petition that has succeeded in putting a ladder truck for the fire department on the docket for the financial town meeting. The meat of the petition is as follows:
This petition seek [sic] to appropriate and expend the annual sum of $110,290.00 for twelve (12) years for the purpose of acquiring a ladder tower for the Tiverton Fire Department. The amount paid annually will represent a financed amount of $950,000.00 over a twelve (12) year period at 5.51% interest. This proposal is being sought because the item was not considered by the Tiverton Budget Committee in the docket for this year and because numerous members of the Tiverton Budget Committee have advocated a maximum increase in the annual tax levy not to exceed one percent (1%) or zero. Because the Tiverton Budget Committee is recommending a slashed school operational budget in order to achieve their desired goal of a maximum levy increase of one percent (1%) to a zero percent [sic], and because these same Budget Committee members are squandering the limited ability to utilize tax revenues under the State mandated cap of 4.75% to improve the community as a whole, we the Tiverton Taxpayers listed below believe it is in the best interest for the Town of Tiverton to acquire a Fire Apparatus Ladder Tower vehicle that will be used to save lives, provide fire protection to the community as a whole, assist in lowering our already too high insurance premiums by generating a more favorable national Fire Standard Rating than currently exists and to provide appropriate equipment for the health and welfare of the Tiverton Fire Department professional staff.
Before touching on its dishonesty, think of the small-mindedness behind this proposal. During the worst financial downturn in decades, perhaps since the Great Depression, a minority of the town Budget Committee supports a leveled budget. Therefore because the committee is recommending a restrained school budget a handful of revenge-seeking agitators and a few dozen folks who likely don't follow town finances very closely wish to spend over a million dollars on a fire truck, adding more than $100,000 to the town's annual debt requirements for so many years that students now entering first grade will be graduating high school at around the time we're done paying off the truck. (That number obviously doesn't include any extra expenses in maintaining, fueling, operating, and manning it.)
The dishonesty of the petition points to the more basic goal of its backers. As one discovers elsewhere in the Sakonnet Times, the Budget Committee's docket currently calls for a tax levy increase of 3.36%, not 1% and certainly not 0%, and that doesn't account for the additional $300,000 that the town council wishes to set aside for abatements. In this context, look again at this line:
... these same Budget Committee members are squandering the limited ability to utilize tax revenues under the State mandated cap of 4.75% to improve the community as a whole ...
In other words, the goal for this cadre is to achieve or exceed the state's cap on tax increases. It's to take money from every taxpayer in Tiverton and allocate it to the priorities of a few people with the time and motivation to manipulate procedure. That is why the rest of us can no longer afford not to participate.
It's worth highlighting a few notables among the petition's signers:
- Former Budget Committee Chairman and thwarted Town Council candidate Chris Cotta
- Former School Committee Chairwoman Denise deMedieros
- Current Budget Committee member Alex Cote.
I'd be interested if anybody has information on this "national Fire Standard Rating." I'm not even sure that there's a rating with that name, and moreover, some light research on the matter has left me with the impression that insurance rates aren't easily calculable based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. Insurance savings are being thrown about as a vague promise of cost-offsets, but such statements don't seem to be based on much more than a general sense that spending money might, in the words of the petition, "assist in lowering" costs.
April 6, 2009
Moderating the Muddle
Tiverton Town Clerk Nancy Mello has reason to fear that the town council may consider her to be the default appointee for the position of moderator at the pending financial town meeting. So, as she and I spoke amidst children hunting for Easter Eggs this weekend, I promised to make some inquiries. Count this as one.
Candidates need not be from Tiverton, but they must be comfortable with Robert's Rules. One will be appointed by the town council to open the financial town meeting, and another (or the same) will be elected at the meeting for a two-year term. A fair and strong person could do much to help the town of Tiverton through contentious times.
Interested people must file with Mrs. Mello by the 16th.
March 30, 2009
A Special Town Council Meeting
Interested in the process of the town's postponing the financial town meeting, I made room in my schedule to attend a special meeting of the town council at which we'll find out whether the town solicitor believes the town can legally seek to move the meeting to September.
Immediately upon opening the meeting the council voted to move the executive session that had been scheduled as a sort of intermission between the special meeting and a "workshop" to the beginning of the meeting. Solicitor Teitz had estimated the length of the executive session at seven minutes; I'm pretty sure that we're now over twenty.
They're back, reviewing a handout from Teitz, with no copies for the audience.
Teitz: "I do think that it would be possible for the General Assembly to change the date for all the towns in the state." Broad, sweeping crisis stuff. He spoke to somebody who spoke with somebody who spoke with somebody, and that does not appear likely.
"There's nothing stopping the FTM, itself, from continuing it... however, you'd still have to have a budget prepared for them, and there's really no way of knowing what would happen."
"My philosophy is always to accomplish the goals of the client... So, I will tell you that it is my opinion that it is not constitutional for the General Assembly to change the date of Tiverton's financial town meeting alone."
Teitz: "We're asking to unilaterally amend our charter without going through the charter amendment process."
"The only way that I see to do it is if you had an elect --- put the question to the voters of the town."
The special election would be "practical," "difficult," but "doable."
The authority to postpone the meeting is "only with the people." The special election might still require a special bill at the General Assembly, as well.
Louise Durfee: "I think it would be easier to have the financial town meeting."
Teitz: "You are able to call a special town meeting afterwards." So, if budget considerations change, the council has the authority to call a meeting to change the budget.
Jay Lambert: "This General Assembly is not going to address the real issues, and we will have no more information in July, August, and September."
Broad agreement that the General Assembly sucks.
Don Bollin: "I think we're better off going into that financial town meeting with the understanding that we're not getting that aid."
They've now adjourned the special meeting and entered into a scheduled workshop about the council's goals, etc.
They're talking budgets and revaluations of properties in town. Town Administrator Jim Goncalo just said that the last he looked, the revals were running, overall, 15-18% lower than last year.
March 24, 2009
Non-Negotiating Season School Committee Meetings
The contrast is huge between these school committee meetings when there's no contract under negotiation versus when there is. An interested resident who came to tonight's meeting and took it as representatives would surely have trouble motivating him or her self to come to others. They're discussing the budget, but a viewer would have to know quite a bit of back story in order to discern the interesting points. (Frankly, I'm pretty well versed in the controversies, and I'm not finding much of note.)
As at last night's town council meeting, the longest discussion comes with small-town stuff, in this case, over the names that will be included on the plaque that will commemorate the completion of the new school buildings. School committee member Sally Black suggested a second plaque to capture some language suggested by fellow member Carol Herrmann (thanking the citizens of Tiverton). Danielle Coulter asked the cost per ($1,500 each) and suggested that all changes be made to the one plaque.
The committee has been discussing the possibility of pulling fifth graders from the middle school and putting them into the elementary schools. It's clear that Superintendent Bill Rearick opposes the move, and he presented the cost-benefit analysis as a dramatic cost to the district. Carol Herrmann asked Mr. Rearick for his rational for including new hires at the rate that he has (e.g., creating a 4/5 position), and his response was that the numbers were all discussed with the principals, but that he didn't have the supporting materials with him.
I'm not sure what is implied by the fact that the superintendent didn't bring all relevant material to a meeting at which the elected officials to whom he reports would be considering the issue, but it seems very unlikely to indicate something positive.
During discussion of the stimulus money, Herrmann asked whether decreases in the town's budget for the schools would disqualify the town for stimulus funds. Rearick said that to be his understanding.
One wonders why spending millions of additional dollars on schools doesn't qualify as "maintenance of effort." It's also curious that government handouts somehow always require other levels of government to spend more money themselves.
It's almost like a conspiracy.
March 23, 2009
Avoiding a Tax Increase by Increasing Taxes
While the town council discusses sewage-related matters, I've revisited a recent Sakonnet Times article and found the following more significant in light of my subsequent confusion about the sudden drop in the projected tax increase:
The council adopted a new schedule of fees and fines for over 150 services that will generate revenues for the town. Dog licenses, gun dealer permits, mooring fees, assessor inspection fees, and landfill fees are among the many listed in the new schedule.
In addition, increases in almost all such fees were approved by the council. Cemetery plot fees went from $250 to $400. Insufficient check fees went from $25 to $50. Blocking a fire hydrant will get you fined $50, not $20 as it used to. Commit a handicapped parking violation and expect to be fined $75, not the previous $20.
In an interview, Town Administrator Goncalo said he had “no idea how much more” in additional revenue the new fees and fine amounts will generate for the town.
As with the other ordinances adopted by the council Monday night, the new revised fee and fine schedule will be posted on the town website in the near future, said Mr. Teitz.
I wonder whether some sort of estimate of new revenue in the revised budget submitted by the town council. If so, then we've avoided exceeding the tax cap by increasing taxes by another means.
Back in the Town Hall
Missing a town meeting or two reminds the active citizen how nice it is to have nights at home. Ah, well. If we're going to have a democracy...
When I walked in (yes, a few minutes late) RI Rep. John Loughlin (R., Tiverton, Little Compton, Portsmouth) was giving the council the newly regular update of happenings at the State House. Now, Wayne [somebody] is describing the state's stimulus-related activities. Councilor Louise Durfee asked whether the money-related decisions will be made by the General Assembly or ladled out after the session's end. Loughlin answered, "Yes." Both methods will play a role.
Just an observation: Councilor Jay Lambert asked Loughlin about state aid (receiving no concrete answer), and jovial comments from Durfee thereafter gave the impression that something has changed in their relationship. Since the last meeting that I attended.
On state aid and the financial town meeting, Durfee told Loughlin that the town is considering giving the legislature a bill for spending needs or demand a change in the financial town meeting's date.
TCC member Joe Souza just asked the town council to request that Loughlin introduce a bill to end binding arbitration for police and fire. Souza: "We've heard the town council complain that they have no control over the budget."
Town Administrator Jim Goncalo informed the council that the governor has offered to reinstate some of the state financial aid to the town... but only if he can use stimulus money for the general fund.
This issue seemed to be raised mainly to offer another opportunity for councilors to mention postponing the financial town meeting.
The town recreation committee is requesting permission to put up outfield banner ads for the Little League fields in order to fund capital projects. They're estimating that 20 banners will generate $20,000-$25,000 per year. The committee sees the practice as the norm.
Louise Durfee is objecting that allowing advertising puts the town on slippery slope as other leagues come forward for similar treatment. "We've kept our recreation areas free of commercialism." Council President Don Bollin is getting pretty fired up about the visibility of the signage.
Hey, here's an idea: Let's raise taxes! It's almost the same thing, only the people paying the money get no advertisements in return.
Lambert suggested trying one field for a year. Councilor Ed Roderick is partial to the slippery slope argument.
Durfee moved to reject the proposal. Lambert amended to make it a one-year, one-field experiment, but received no second. All but Lambert voted to reject the proposal to place green signs with yellow letters (lettering only visible within the field) in order to build a new concession stand that isn't rodent-infested.
Have I mentioned that the town recently approved raises for AFSCME employees? Maybe we should make them wear advertising buttons on their shirts.
If I had time, I'd prove a point by standing near the outfield fence with a handheld sign for one of the organizations with which I'm involved and see if the police come after me.
Jay Lambert and Ed Roderick are about to move to postpone the financial town meeting to allow for more information to be available.
Actually... Lambert's making the point that all estimates are for tax increases below the 3050 cap even with the state aid listed as zero dollars. Consequently, he's proposing to go ahead with FTM as scheduled, where town officials would lay out what will happen with any state money: half to the reserve fund and half to tax relief for the town. "A lot of people may not trust us on a continuance."
Durfee wants to recess a meeting to "level the playing field." At the latter point, we'll have facts that we don't currently have, on which list she includes labor agreements. She argues that the low tax increase currently on the table provides for no increases for any employees. Regarding negotiations: "Changes we want in contracts, we may need to give a little to get it."
They (i.e., Durfee and her backers) just want to give more away to the unions than they should, and they don't want the citizens to feel that they have any say in the budget.
The solicitor (not Teitz) is suggesting that the General Assembly may lack the authority to permit the town to change the date of the FTM.
Durfee interrupted to argue "that doesn't ring accurately with me."
Councilor Cecil Leonard just noted another instance of numbers games in the low, low budget: Revenue projections that are dramatically higher than history, such as a jump in mooring fees from $3,500 to $45,000.
He's also arguing that postponing the FTM will result in unrest. He cited the 58% of people who rejected the proposal to let the town council decide the budget.
Chris Cotta took his regular turn at the microphone to suggest that nobody's trying to fool the taxpayers; they're just trying to have accurate information for the taxpayers. I'd suggest that the only information that they want to feed the taxpayers is how much they have to pay for signed union contracts.
Durfee moved to proceed in seeking legislation that would postpone the FTM until Saturday, September 12, pending a legal decision that it is legal to do so. Just curios: when do our seasonal retirees leave town?
If this passes, I think my summer may be devoted to campaigning to cut a double-digit percentage from the budget.
The council voted to have a special meeting next Monday, at which time, the solicitor will have an opinion, and they'll take the vote on postponement then.
March 20, 2009
Stimulating Ignorance of the Problem
So Rhode Island indeed, Tiverton may be providing the first instance of the federal stimulus at work:
It will surely be the first in Rhode Island and there's a chance that a Main Road, Tiverton, rebuilding job could be the first federal stimulus job in the nation.
"We've already had some inquiries from national media," said Frank Corrao, chief of construction for the state Department of Transportation. "We're not sure but we hear that this one could be the first."
In whatever coverage there may be of this milestone, in whatever political grandstanding, will anybody ask the critical questions: Why did we allow this road to reach this point, why did it require once-a-century federal largess to fix it, and what can we do to ensure that our transportation infrastructure doesn't continue to deteriorate to this state?
I'll guess "no." From the print edition of the story:
Mr. Corrao said that while this has been a "priority" job for some time, it was backlogged with many others due to lack of funds. It is a job that needs doing, he said, "but the money wasn't there."
Then where was it?
Good Night, Sweet Tiverton
I hadn't planned to attend the Tiverton Budget Committee meeting on Wednesday night, so when my eyelids became heavy around 9:30, and with the meeting looking as if it had settled into a series of unanimous votes on heavily debated dollar amounts, it was easy to talk myself into heading home. I wish I'd stayed:
All but one voting member of Tiverton's Budget Committee supported a proposal to move the town's financial town meeting to a later date, when more concrete state aid figures are available.
The vote came at the end of a long budget meeting Wednesday night, and just days before the Town Council is scheduled to meet and discuss whether to ask the General Assembly for the ability to postpone the meeting, which the town charter states is to take place the second Saturday of May. ...
Budget Committee Chairman Jeff Caron did not vote on the motion, and Vice Chairman Robert Coulter voted against it. The chairman usually votes only as a tiebreaker. ...
Sanford Mantell, a newly elected member of the Budget Committee, said he didn't have a problem with a request by Town Council President Donald Bollin for "unified" support from the Budget Committee to move the financial town meeting to a later date.
Some committee members made it clear that they would not want the meeting to open on May 9 only to be recessed to a later date. That would disenfranchise voters and cost the town additional money, they said.
Caron said the committee will continue to work on its budget recommendations and have a docket ready for May 9 if the meeting does end up convening on that date.
I very much hope I'm wrong about this, but it appears to me that the powers of Tiverton are in the midst of another scheme. Facing unexpected push-back from the budget committee, the town council and school committee squeezed their budgets as hard as they could even pretend to be doing. (Recall statements from the town side that the draft budget that they approved is "too low," even presenting a danger to residents.) Between that, some likely fudging of probable contract terms, and a very deep dip into reserve funds, the town brought the expected tax increase below the state cap.
That will depressurize some of the incentive for citizen activism, and a postponement of the financial town meeting will push actual decisions into the lazy summer, perhaps after municipal and school contracts are a done deal. No doubt, town officials are still hoping for the magic Obama money to save the day, but I suspect they're already planning methods of peeling the facades from the budgets and coming on strong with the message that "we must raise taxes" because we're awash in "obligations."
Business as usual may be in the middle of a hiccup, but it remains the paradigm, and when our eyes clear, we'll see whether the town's gamble that the world will go back to the way it was has paid off. Me, I think Tiverton's future gets a little bit darker every week.
As I said, I hope I'm wrong.
March 18, 2009
Zeroing the Budget
I've arrived late to a Budget Committee meeting, having had other obligations. I feel like I've missed something; somehow the predicted tax levy increase for the coming year has dropped from low-to-mid teens to 3.75%.
I know the school department has laid off some people. The town has made a bunch of cuts. But that seems like a large shave. Of course, I'm pretty sure that the three big contracts that remain for negotiation are assumed at a zero percent increase, which raises the question of what effect postponing the financial town meeting for which there's currently a coordinated push would have.
As far as I'm concerned, though, assuming the numbers are accurate, the progress already made owes a lot to TCC and the pressure that it has brought to bear.
The current discussion is whether the Budget Committee can reduce its working budget related to a decrease in longevity costs. Town Administrator Jim Goncalo argued that, even though the contracts are up for negotiation, the obligations still exist, so the Budget Committee would be, essentially, forcing the town to violate labor agreements.
As I've said, I'm getting the sense that, by desire and legal construct, local government sees its role as permitting the unions to continue their advancement.
Budget Committee Member Tom Parker moved (an amendment) to reduce the fire department's overtime budget from $225,000 to $50,000. I think his reasoning is that the town intends to decrease minimum manning in the next contract, which has as its point a reduction in overtime.
The town administrator just pointed out, with reference to a fire department work schedule, that in some months last year had three people on vacation at the same time.
Once again, though, the budget can drive negotiations to, for example, decrease minimum manning as well as spaced vacations.
Tom's amendment fails. The fire salary item passes as listed on the current docket.
March 17, 2009
Continuing the Sakonnet Times Debate
The Sakonnet Times has put a letter in which I raise some concerns about the AFSCME labor contract online. (We'll see, tomorrow, whether it makes the print edition.) I'll be surprised if the new letter racks up the 3,482 views and 171 comments (and counting) of my last offering, but at least local folks have a chance to discover that there is another side a reform movement out there.
March 16, 2009
Correction on Tiverton Contract
In attempting to get a handle on the recently approved AFSCME labor contract in Tiverton on a Saturday morning, I made a data entry error that resulted in a too-dramatically opposing result from the town administrator. He inadvertently jumbled the starting points for his increase/decrease calculations, leading to a stated savings of $117,065, and I inadvertently typed $60 into my calculator rather than $60,000 for overtime savings, leading me to declare a cost increase of $114,647.
The actual result was apparent in my second look at the contract, for which I brought the administrators numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. Unfortunately, time constraints led me not to make the connection. The upshot is that, with more-or-less even savings of $5,233, the town traded some staff restructuring related to minimum manning for the salary and healthcare-cost increases.
I regret the error and will make corrections and notes where appropriate. In the broader debate, however, my view doesn't change. The town should be looking for substantial savings, given the current environment, and this contract is ultimately more expensive than the prior one.
March 12, 2009
Tiverton Would Rather Fire Employees than Keep Their Compensation in Check
In an article that doesn't appear to be online, Tom Killin Dalglish of the Sakonnet Times perpetuates the analytical error that I've been describing:
Councilors were told that the contract will cost $117,000 less than the contract it replaces, and ultimately it was this feature that motivated the council members to end the debate and vote to approve the deal.
According to my analysis, the contract will cost only $5,233* less than three additional years of the final year of the last contract. Since that year was undoubtedly the most expensive of the three that it covered, the number is probably an overall increase in cost.
More interesting, in Tom's article, is another consideration that several council members apparently found persuasive:
But the ensuing discussion molified [Jay Lambert's] concerns. "There's no promise in this contract that guarantees a level of employment," said Council President Donald Bollin.
"It's not a no-layoff contract," said Town Solicitor Andrew Teitz.
"As long as we have Mr. Teitz's confirmation that there may be layoffs and fuloughs," Mr. Lambert said, he was satisfied, and he subsequently withdrew his motion to postpone council consideration of the contract.
Well that's just great. The town council bought a too-expensive contract in the midst of an unpredictable economic downturn at the state and national levels on the grounds that they can always increase unemployment and decrease town services in the future. As I've said, if this sort of thinking dominates the three larger contracts that the town must negotiate in the coming months, we're in a great deal of trouble.
* * My initial number resulted from a data entry error as explained here.
March 11, 2009
Stasis Locked In
I'm hearing that the Tiverton Town Council ratified the contract with the AFSCME municipal workers. That's one out of four contracts in the town becoming available for negotiation this year that is now off the table. One out of four contracts that will now represent a "locked in," unchangeable portion of the budget over the next three years, no matter what the economy does and no matter what happens in the lives of Tiverton residents.
One talking point that council members are using in justifying their votes to constituents is that the contract incorporated a couple of policy changes, notably minimum manning, that made increases in other areas a reasonable exchange. But first of all, the minimum manning of town workers hardly represents the burden that the same policy creates with the fire and police workforces. And second of all, these "principles" may be written out of contracts just as easily as they're written in. This contract, of itself, is more expensive than the status quo. Whether non-dollar policies that kept the money flowing to the union members will hold their strength next time around probably in an improved economy we'll have to wait and see.
If the other three contracts receive similar treatment, we may be in for an even more painful economic depression.
March 9, 2009
Apparently Higher Spending Is "Savings" in Tiverton
Unfortunately, time-critical tasks kept me from tonight's Tiverton Town Council meeting, at which the council will (or won't) ratify the latest AFSCME union contract. However, I did take a moment to rereview a document that the town council posted online titled "Contract Negotiations Summary."
That document shows a negative "net change" for each year of the contract and proclaims "total savings" of $117,065. Based on my inability to match the numbers, I emailed Town Administrator James Goncalo for the formula, and as I suspected, the town derives that dollar amount by assuming increases in salaries and other costs and counting some mitigating changes as savings. Basically, one totals the "wages," "health increase," and "co-pay" numbers for each year, finds the difference between one year and the year before, and then adds and subtracts the new expenditures and savings items.
Now, I don't believe that those who put together this spreadsheet are being deliberately dishonest, but I'm reasonably sure that they have made a conceptual mistake that conveniently embellishes their "savings." Simply put, the various line items are calculated from different starting points. For a measure of "net change," the wages, health increase, and copay items are calculated from the prior year,but everything else is calculated from the last year of the prior contract (2007-2008).
Thus, for 2010-2011, aggregate wages increase to $927,367 from $904,759, but estimated overtime savings don't actually increase an additional $60,000. They increase $60,000 compared with 2007-2008 rates. For the wage amounts to be comparable, they would have to be listed as the actual dollar-amount increase from 2007-2008 or, $8,654 for 2008-2009, $39,375 for 2009-2010, and $61,983 for 2010-2011. Alternately, one could calculate all numbers as a change from the previous year. Recalculated in these ways, the "net change" amounts would render as follows (adjusting for a $10 error in the original calculations for the final year), with savings denoted as negative numbers:
The most reasonable measure of this contract's impact is the total increase or decrease compared with a flat-lined continuation of the status quo, or
$114,647 -$5,233,* and I hope the town council isn't in the process of ratifying the contract as I type. If it does pass, residents can expect to hear that "locked in" phrase repeatedly during future budget battles, and we will be entirely justified in making these specific councilors pay a political price for having done the locking in.
* My initial number resulted from a data entry error as explained here.
March 7, 2009
An Increase as "Savings" in Tiverton Contract
It so happened that, the week my letter about Tiverton officials' relationship with the public unions appeared in the Sakonnet Times, the town council posted a "tentative agreement" with AFSCME Council 94, slated for ratification at Monday's town council meeting. The coincidence led one commenter on the Sakonnet Times site to aver hypocrisy, on my part, for treating the teachers' union as unique. (The magnitude of cost is apparently not a factor in judging a conservative's "hypocrisy.")
That commenter is not the only person who's asked my opinion, so as I would have done anyway, I spent some time looking through the various documents related to the agreement. Of particular interest is the PDF showing $117,065 in savings over the life of the contract: Unless I'm misreading and I couldn't make the provided numbers translate into the stated decrease* the town derives that dollar amount by assuming increases in salaries and other costs and counting some mitigating changes as "savings."
Based only on this "contract negotiations summary" document, however, the estimated cost to the town of this contract represents an
increase of $114,647 (3.4%) decrease of only $5,233** compared with a scenario in which the contract total would be held steady at the '07/'08 level over the same period. Since that year was the most expensive of its contract, the total cost surely increased.
This is why the town like the state is in its current predicament: It begins with what sounds like a fair-sounding pay increase (2.5%), rather than starting from the perspective of the taxpayer. What makes town officials think that the town will have more to spend on these services in a few years than it had at the tail end of an era of plenty during a housing boom?
At a time when newspapers are reporting the fastest rate of job loss since the 1970s, and when economists have begun pushing back their predictions of recovery by six-month intervals, agreements should be made on a one-year basis and strive for an overall balancing of cost increases and expenditure savings. Towns factor in the increases and decreases in the cost of utilities and healthcare, but they never apply the same calculations to labor. I'm sorry to say it, but the cost thereof is way down, based on the ready supply of new employees, and if union workers insist on a three-year term that protects their jobs for that duration, they ought to make the town a better offer. Otherwise, the town should consider, in a sense, going out to bid.
* I've emailed the town administrator asking for the formula that arrives at these numbers.
** My initial number resulted from a data entry error as explained here.
March 6, 2009
Displacing the Tiverton Elite
I've got a letter in the current Sakonnet Times, responding to some discouraging observations at recent town meetings:
To the editor:
The self-presumed ruling class of Tiverton in and out of office has no governing ideas but to raise taxes in good times and bad while comfortably accepting that most of the town's budget is locked in by law or by contract. So, they've turned their ire toward the members of Tiverton Citizens for Change who have stepped forward to change the trajectory of municipal government.
First the accusation against TCC was, "They're not from here, and they haven't done anything!" Then it was, "They're not from here, and they make mistakes when filing campaign finance forms!" The new one is, "They're not from here, and they need practice conducting public meetings with a hostile audience!"
Well, golly. The meetings that the familiar voices reference are those of the current Budget Committee, on which local reformers have a controlling hand, and the heat radiated most strongly (thus far) when the group interviewed the School Committee. It's almost as if the town aristocracy is trying to distract from school officials' admission of difficulty facing down the obscenely aggressive National Education Association labor union.
An anonymous commenter on my web site, AnchorRising.com, mocked Budget Committee (and TCC) member Thomas Parker, a successful naval officer, and suggested that we should "take a good look at who we have running some of our meetings and think about providing effective leadership to the town in this time of crisis." Yes, let's.
At its most recent, notably quiet, meeting, the School Committee did not have members of the Town Council gabbing disruptively in the back of a small meeting room or former School Committee Vice Chairman Mike Burk bellowing attacks as he paced the room, both of which set the tone of the prior Budget Committee meeting. However cordial their gatherings, school committee members and representatives bemoan the strength of the teachers' union and (unbelievably) their own sense that they have weak hands for negotiation. (How about having employment on offer during the worst downturn since the Great Depression?) And when the town administrator and council president recently asked for financial help to maintain services in the current budget, committee members were awfully quiet, considering that the request came mere weeks after they had given away hundreds of thousands of dollars to the intimidating unionists.
On the Town Council side, meeting attendees walk away with the sense that even contracts that are up for negotiation are "locked in." Council President Don Bollin recently declared an inability to "trim a budget based on what [he] would like to see happen in negotiations," and that "it's easier to have the money put back should the results we want happen." As the School Committee recently acknowledged, however, the unions typically demand more than is budgeted, rather than allow any earmarked dollars to flow back to the town. Indeed, a central rationalization of the school department for awarding not only raises but retroactive pay was that the "money was in the budget."
So, if your overarching preference is for peaceful government meetings in which all of the meat is chewed during executive sessions and in which officials practice comity most enthusiastically while conspiring, along with the unions, to manipulate procedural rules to ram double-digit tax increases through financial town meetings, then side with the familiar faces. Me, I'll take fresh leadership that conducts entertaining meetings but checks unions to lower taxes and maintain services at the same time.
February 27, 2009
Ka-Boom! Tiverton Residents Sue for Refund of Illegal Tax Increase
Things are going to get even a leetle more interesting in our sleepy corner of the state:
Danielle Coulter, a chiropractor and Tiverton School Committee member just elected to office last November, has filed a lawsuit against the Tiverton’s tax assessor.
She claims that last year’s property tax levy in excess of the tax cap was excessive and unlawful, and she asks the court for relief from paying the taxes on property at 34 Lawton Avenue which she and her husband Robert D. Coulter are listed as owners.
Their property is assessed for tax purposes at $395,700 and they pay, according to tax assessor records, $4,455 in taxes.
Mr. Coulter is a lawyer with a Providence law firm and was elected last November to the town Budget Committee, on which he serves as vice-chairman.
Explaining the process that "has brought about this suit," Ms. Coulter said "I am simply appealing my tax bill, everyone has that right."
"The suit is not about money," she said. "The overall amount in question is $193. If returned to us it will be donated to the Tiverton Land Trust. The Financial Town Meeting process is in question. This is about fairness and following the law. It is my belief that the town was lied to in the initial FTM, regarding the timing needed to reconvene the next FTM." ...
Ms. Coulter made other allegations in her complaint about last year's town meeting that she said was "fraught with irregularities ... (that) amounted to a deprivation of due process."
I can't promise to give my refund to charity, but I might donate some of it to a joint Coulter reelection fund.
February 25, 2009
Town Council Contemplates Budget Approval
The most interesting part of the Tiverton Town Council meeting, Monday night, came when the council discussed whether to "approve" the budget that it was providing to the Budget Committee, something that they've been reluctant to do (perhaps for political reasons):
- Entire discussion: stream
- Jay Lambert expresses concern that the budget doesn't give an indication of revenue and its relationship to spending: stream, download
- Don Bollin notes the obligation to approve the budget and the historical precedent to send along a work in progress: stream, download
- Louise Durfee accuses Lambert of using suspect numbers for what was really only a hypothetical estimate for rhetorical purposes. Lambert: "Even if you don't like the style of a messenger, don't ignore the substance." stream, download
- Durfee argues that the current budget proposal represents a decrease given CPI. "You could make the argument that it's a little too low." stream, download
- Don Bollin suggests that "contractual obligations" represent a "pretty solid number you have to have in there." "I can't trim a budget based on what I would like to see happen in negotiations... It's easier to have the money put back should the results we want happen." Of course, this ignores that the union takes the budget number as a baseline for negotiations. stream, download
- Lambert raises the point that some residents will be tangibly harmed by the current budget. Cecil Leonard suggests that he's beginning to be concerned that the council has already cut too much and explains that nobody wants to cut services. stream, download
- Durfee talks about moving the financial town meeting to a later date for informational purposes. "We cannot do that without the approval of the budget committee, TCC people, school committee, and council as one block, because it won't work if we go to a meeting and somebody says, 'You're not going to recess this; I'm going to cut your budget." She further raises the specter of people dying because cuts force the fire department to refuse service on a rotating basis. stream, download
- Resident Chris Cotta offers comments, as does Councilman Ed Roderick: stream, download
- Closing discussion. Durfee: "They [the budget committee] have already worked on the town budget. They have taken their deductions. That hasn't stopped them at all. They have a flat 16.5% reduction on municipal services. They have a proposed $2 million cut $2 million cut on municipal services." stream, download
February 24, 2009
School Committee Night
When I walked in, the Tiverton School Committee was discussing the issuance of a few more layoff/non-renewal notices related to a possible move of the fifth grade (it sounded like) to the elementary schools. The move hasn't even been considered, but the notices have to meet a deadline.
I may have noted this before, but the superintendent is expecting a 4% decrease in Blue Cross/Blue Shield costs. Nothing specific, yet, but an estimated savings (off next year's budget) of $100,000, based on higher premium payments than claims.
Town Administrator Jim Goncalo and Town Council President Don Bollin are here to address the committee reporting on the town council's budget doings.
Goncalo met with all unions except fire seeking concessions. "If we are unable to acheive concessions, we'll have to take more extreme measures."
Bollin is asking for concessions from the school committee (as it were), specifically for some return of money allocated for, but not spent on, pensions ($548,000 from pension payment reductions related to the governor's cutting of education aid).
The committee is going to have substantive discussion in executive session. They're concluding that the governor's supplemental budget is a wash for the school district. Mr. Bollin argued that, by the way budgets flow, the change wouldn't be as "revenue neutral" as they assume.
Thanks to the can-kicking General Assembly, everything's in limbo. Everybody's trying to work out budgets on hypotheticals. The example is stunning.
Don Bollin reported that the town is hearing, as it tries to find potential cuts, questions (complaints) about whether the school department is doing anything at all to help with current budget problems, and the answer thus far has been "no."
Let it be noted (although nobody of official capacity has done so) that the school committee would have certainly been able to assist the town with its budget shortfal Bollin: "We've gotten to the point that we're actually not going to pave a road," for example if it had not given hundreds of thousands of dollars away to the teachers, including in retroactive pay.
On discussion of why the committee can't be detailed in its minutes, the schools' attorney discourages detail for reasons of practice and liability. The law requires only "the essence" of the meeting.
The issue of the minutes came up because committee member Danielle Coulter thought some summary of the points and arguments of the committee and others regarding the recent contract debate should have been included, not just the vote tally. The attorney agrees that the law appears to require at least a bullet-point format of discussion.
There's some extensive debate going on about the difficulty of providing summary minutes. As a guy who sits in the audience and summarizes key points (from my point of view, of course), I find the objections bemusing.
TCC & budget committee member Rob Coulter is addressing the committee with a follow up on inappropriate actions on the school district's part in encouraging voters to approve the budget at last years financial town meeting.
Oddly, the current school committee has not been updated on the exchanges between the superintendent and the Department of Education. After the initial request from the state for a statement, Supt. Rearick informed the committee, but he says that he was waiting for a response from RIDE before offering an update.
As seems usually to be the case, substantive discussion about the law and the operation of the school district will be performed in executive session.
There was some unnecessary contention. Rob asked whether it's committee policy to adhere to a charter amendment (passed but not ratified by the state) prohibiting public funds for advocacy, and Sally Black said that Supt. Rearick had already confirmed that.
Rob made the obvious point that the committee hadn't made an official statement, and Carol Herrmann noted that the district's attorney had advised them not to do so prior to closed discussion.
My summary reads mildly, but the tone and expressions bespoke the underlying tensions of the town.
February 23, 2009
The Continuing Adventures of the Tiverton Town Council
I was a few minutes late (again), and I've got some new technology that's taking me a while to work through. Luckily (in this limited context) one of the topics in which I was particularly interested Rep. John Loughlin's update on state budget developments will not occur. Apparently, Portsmouth is more important. (Just kidding, John.)
Of notable local budget news: the town's proposed budget is still over the cap, although a few offices squeezed out a $43,000 more dollars (administrator, clerk, and treasurer). Town Administrator Jim Goncalo has scheduled meetings with all of the relevant unions, although to my knowledge, he hasn't been authorized to go Lombardi on them.
On the agenda, this evening, was a request from the Recreation Committee to begin advertising for summer positions. Councilor Louise Durfee called up a representative (Chairman Gary Rose, I believe) to ask whether he's gone before the Budget Committee, yet, because they're proposing a 16.5% cut across the board, don'cha know. Knowing looks and hints about conversations.
Technology note: Laptop batteries lose their duration even if they're almost never used as laptops. Town hall note: the outlet next to me does not appear to work...
Back to my stealth blogging gear.
Representatives of the Recreation Committee are back in front of the council to ask for permission to accept donations of land and money to begin the process of developing a soccer complex (which comes with minimal expense, none from the town, to begin with). Ms. Durfee took the opportunity to talk about the notable experience of going before (or even attending) a Budget Committee meeting.
"They're looking to cut everything." Well. Yeah.
Councilor Jay Lambert asking that the council be clear about its budget submission: "Just because you don't like the style of the messenger, don't ignore the substance." Meaning the budget committee.
Durfee thinks the budget is "arguably" low, arguing from the spending side, without regard to taxes.
President Don Bollin is arguing that collective bargaining determines budget amounts, even with contracts open. (I'd argue that the unions use the budgeted money as a baseline.)
Bollin is also wary of following in East Providence's footsteps even though resolution of those issues are about a year out.
Cecil Leonard counts himself among those who worry that the council is already cutting too much.
Chris Cotta approached the council to agree with everything the council has said, but to follow through on the process.
February 21, 2009
When Negotiating Season and Flat-Tire Season Coincide
In a comment to my post about Tiverton school officials' ambiguous admission of intimidation by the National Education Association, Cranstoner Donald Botts relates the following anecdote:
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.
Each of my family's vehicles has had a flat tire, recently. With my work van, it was a roofing nail; with my wife's car (which I use when not working), it was two punctures, sans implement.
Of course, being a carpenter, I'm very slow to look elsewhere to explain such things. Moreover, amidst the daily inconveniences that arise from working full-time in a construction trade, having three children, owning a fifty-year-old home, living in Rhode Island, being politically active, and writing for this here blog, flat tires are things to be taken in stride. Heck, it's been so long since I was above grade, what's another shovelful out of the hole I'm digging?
It strikes me as a particularly foolish mechanism of intimidation, though, if there's another explanation for flat tires than the terrible condition of our state's roads: If they appear to be coincidental, the action will have no effect on behavior. On the other side of the spectrum, strongly suspecting a human agent behind a mere inconvenience will surely tend to increase one's resolve.
Mr. Botts sends along a picture of the nails of assorted sizes collected from the driveway, sidewalk, and grass in front of his home, as if tossed from a car:
February 20, 2009
The Town Governments Need the Taxpayers' Help
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...
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.
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.
February 19, 2009
A Different Sort of Meeting
Tonight is my first Tiverton Budget Committee meeting (public-access television excepted), which means I'm not in the utter minority of the room. Town Hall is actually pretty well populated moreso than for many Town Council meetings.
Of course, it helps that the entire School Committee is here to argue (or not) for their proposed budget, which along with the proposed municipal budget, will raise property taxes in the town by an estimated 13%.
An updated tax increase is now 12.1%
First in the hotseat is the Department of Public Works Director Stephen Berlucchi.
Berlucchi reviewed the tight circumstances of the Tiverton DPW, and with a workforce of ten, there doesn't appear to be much fat there. Now he's talking about the huge increase in the cost of sand and salt for snowstorms. He predicts that supplies will run out in the middle of next year.
It sounds like Tiverton can treat the roads for two more storms this year. After that, who knows. Clearly our budget dollars flow somewhere else.
Apparently, street-sign theft is a real problem. The consequences of things I didn't realize as a teenager...
The paving budget (now equal to last year's $70,000, down from a proposed $85,000) serves also as a reserve fund for sand and salt, overtime, and so on. As the director admits (and everybody knows) the roads in town are just horrible.
Again: where's all the tax money going? These are basic government services.
And drainage is a problem, wasting manpower and sand/salt for ice that forms unnecessarily in the street. For this reason, Berlucchi applies his paving budget to alleviate this problem (you know, the paving budget that serves as a reserve budget for other things).
I'd say that, in addition to cutting the budget to a 0% tax increase, the town ought to redirect resources to these basic necessities that keep residents and visitors safe.
Budget Committee Chairman Jeff Caron asked Mr. Berlucchi what he would do to come up with a 15% reduction. Being very helpful, Berlucchi suggested that he couldn't come up with that off the top of his head, but he'd put something together and move it through Town Administrator Jim Goncalo, who (I believe I looked away) waved him off of doing so. The conclusion is that such a document will not be forthcoming.
Currently on the table is the police pension, and former Budget Committee Chairman Chris Cotta is giving a history lesson on the poor investments in the past. According to Cotta, the problems originated in the '90s, when the money was pretty much placed in a simple 5% interest account.
The question has been raised whether Budget Committee member Rob Coulter can vote on the budget of the School Committee (now up), considering that his wife, Danielle serves on it. The answer is that Rob must recuse himself only if Danielle stands to gain financially (as with a committee member stipend).
Supt. Bill Rearick just stated that the School Committee's goal is to bring its budget to an increase of 2.75%. He also noted that Blue Cross/Blue Shield expenses are likely to go down 4% (around $100,000).
The school department estimates that unfunded mandates amount to $347,000 (as an arbitrary amount for which the state would pay, but of which the town has received nothing).
The school department has been told to expect $623,000 from the federal stimulus package, but there is no information about how many years that covers. The School Committee's lawyer also clarified that existing laws require that money to supplement, not supplant, funds already dedicated, although some rumors suggest that requirement might be relaxed.
Two teachers are expected to retire and be replaced with lower-step employees conversation planned for next Tuesday night.
One Budget Committee member asked why budgets keep going up although enrollment goes down. Supt. Rearick is explaining that costs keep going up and he listed everything except the cost for classroom instruction.
Rearick's message: The school department doesn't control anything that's driving up the cost of education. Unmentioned: labor contracts.
Sally Black is expressing hope that the three government bodies (town council, budget committee, and school committee) will work together, unlike historical ire prior to the last few years.
Jeff Caron handed out a package of documents illustrating the school department's budget increases well beyond CPI. Here's where tension may ratchet up in the room.
Growth of expenditures has been more than twice CPI.
Rearick is complaining that Budget Committee worksheets show "total appropriations" and might confuse "the average citizen who reads it" into thinking that's the total tax levy. Doesn't make much sense to me... state aid and such is reduced down the line.
Jeff Caron is going through his sheet showing that school funding must drop somewhere around 5% and everything else that's changeable by 16.5% in order to stop a tax increase. I'd like to think that the school committee is picturing families that will watch their spending money shrink.
Some bickering between Supt. Rearick and Jeff Caron has seen some real heat the room. One member of the committee left the table.
School Committee Solicitor Robinson is urging the Budget Committee to "tread carefully" in taking state statute to permit a decrease in school aid.
The arrogant gaggle at the back of the room consisting of the old powers of the town are gabbing like highschoolers at a performance put on by the unpopular kids.
School Committee President Jan Bergandy is discussing the contractual complications that they face. Nothing new. All of the arguments for higher pay and such (keeping quality teachers) lose force in a non-merit, collective bargaining scenario.
Michael Burk is shouting out from the back of the room.
Very, very heated discussion, centering around Supt. Rearick's contextualization that going up against the NEA in negotiations can be very intimidating.
I'd submit that the way in which the Budget Committee can stand "should-to-shoulder" with the school committee is by forcing the issue by constraining budgets for the sake of the taxpayers.
February 14, 2009
A Cut Above, in Multiple Senses
In Portsmouth, they're debating whether a 5% reduction in town spending should be a "goal" or a "mandate":
After a freeze in discretionary spending for what remains of this fiscal year, Portsmouth will try to cut spending by 5 percent in the next fiscal year.
The Portsmouth Town Council voted 6-0 Monday evening to make next year's 5 percent reduction a "goal" rather than the mandate sought by Republican Councilor Jeffrey Plumb who had called for the budget action.
"Welcome to an emergency," Mr. Plumb said, adding that strapped taxpayers cannot afford business as usual from their town government "We should have cut our spending three years ago."
Town Administrator Robert Driscoll agreed that spending must be tightened but asked the council to make the 5 percent reduction a townwide goal. He said that while managers will do their best to "embrace" the challenge of identifying savings, departments in Portsmouth have less leeway than other places since they are already more lightly staffed than most towns.
In Tiverton, meanwhile, the Budget Committee has concluded that the only way (PDF) not to raise taxes on a struggling citizenry will be to institute the maximum reduction in school funding (enabled by declining enrollment) and to cut every expenditure that can legally be cut by 16.5%. As it is, the budgets currently submitted by the school committee and town council will result in a 13% tax increase (PDF).
A request from the Budget Committee, which is currently dominated by members of Tiverton Citizens for Change, for department heads to give the town a sense of what it might look like to cut 15% from their budgets has stirred up all kinds of resistance. Town Administrator Jim Goncalo has intervened to insist on a process of moving that request through him and the Town Council (with some ambiguity about whether he'll actually follow through). In a very interesting exchange, Fire Chief Robert Lloyd insisted that he simply cannot cut the budget 15%, called the committee a "kangaroo court," and stormed out of the meeting (audio: stream, download).
The line from town officials appears to be that expense accounts are already bare-bones, and everything else is mandated by law or by contract. Oddly, our elected and appointed negotiators (as it were) appear reluctant to acknowledge that every labor contract that is relevant to next year's budget is currently open. Perhaps they intend to accede to the unwritten law that union deals can only advance or, during real calamities, level off.
Further along in the meeting, Budget Committee member Rob Coulter noted that committee documents show the school department's budget growing from $16,504,785 to $25,156,129 (52.4%) from FY01 to FY09, even as enrollment fell from 2,201 to 1,965 (-10.7%); per-student expenditures therefore grew from $7,799 to $12,802 (64.1%). For some perspective, I calculated what the per-student expenditures would have been if they had only increased along with inflation and found that, rather than $12,032 in FY08, the number would have been $9,120, which works out to a total appropriation of $18,642,027. In other words, from 2001 to 2008, the school department's budget increased 31.9% more quickly than inflation or $5,952,360.
One gets the impression that the primary goal of municipal government is to transfer money from residents to union members.
February 10, 2009
Reducing the Schools
With other contributors covering the state of the state and the hoopla in East Providence, I'm at the Tiverton School Committee meeting, to which I arrived in the midst of Superintendent Bill Rearick's description of the various cuts to come for the next budget you know, the one that increased by about $150,000 when the committee approved the latest teachers' contract.
Personnel reductions to come:
- 0.5 middle school special ed
- One elementary special ed
- One speech pathologist
- One kindergarten teacher
- One grade one teacher
- Four grade seven teachers reduced by 20% each
- Three part-time elementary teacher assistants
- 6.5 elemntary special ed teacher assistants
As I understand, these are on top of some nine positions already slated for nixing.
The committee just voted to approve the new proposed budget, with only Danielle Coulter opposed. Supt. Rearick reminded everybody that further cuts that is, below a 2.7% spending increase year-over-year are going to begin cutting into programs.
Of course, The teachers got their raise, including retroactive pay for more than a year of negotiations. That much is off the table...
The committee is discussing the 24 tentative pink slips that the superintendent will give out in case they have to be let go. Most or all of these teachers won't lose their jobs, but Rearick made an interesting comment:
"Many of these are the best and brightest."
Presumably, he's referring to bumping and the discusson he said he had with the union leaders over whose jobs to threaten. Letting the good one's go; that's the way to succeed!
Extended discussion of the appropriate detail to be included in meeting minutes. Danielle Coulter suggests that key points of discussion ought to be included. Carol Herrmann thinks that's the press's job. Rearick said the schools' lawyer suggested the short form.
Looking at the new budget proposal, the breakdown of increases/decreases is noteworthy:
- Salaries: 0.54%
- Benefits: 2.18%
- Purchased services: 19.87%
- Supplies/materials: -5.12%
- Other costs: -3.15%
- Capital (operations): 1.19%
- Capital: 0%
Those salary and benefit numbers, by the way, take into account the 14 or so layoffs and they're still increases.
The committee is discussing the financial ramifications should the financial town meeting be moved to July. Financial Director Doug Fiore explained that any resolution to postpone the vote would require a component that ensures the continuation of cash flow until the budget is resolved.
After the meeting Town Council Member Joanne Arruda approached me rather agitated that I'd suggested that town council meetings tend to start early, and she requested that I tell my "people" that my assertion was "not a good thing."
So, people, let it be noted and I've appended a footnote to the relevant post that my casual commentary did not accurately reflect the thorough devotion to punctuality of the Tiverton town council. I should have taken a moment to elaborate on my thought, rather than publish an inaccurate short-hand quip.
February 9, 2009
Trying to Keep Up with a Fluid Government
A very tight 'round-the-state schedule today made attending the Tiverton Town Council meeting difficult, but there was an item on the agenda that I very much wanted to follow:
Discussion with Honorable Representatives Jay Edwards and John Loughlin III and Honorable Senators Walter Felag, Jr. and Louis DiPalma Regarding the Governor's Proposed Cut in Aid to Cities and Towns and Relief from Mandates.
Granted, I was about 25 minutes late, but the item was well into the second page of the agenda. Even so, the state representative discussion was well under way by the time I got through the door. Sounds like the council blew through the early parts of the agenda.
Councilor Jay Lambert is asking the legislators some big-picture questions about the supplemental budget and his impression that the General Assembly is "tiptoeing" around the reasons Rhode Island is in its current position. His suggestions are regionalization
and full state funding of schools, both of which are certainly not as straightforward as he appears to believe.
Councilor Ed Roderick observed the difficulty of budgeting without knowledge of the likely cuts in state aid.
Councilor Louise Durfee asked whether the town will have a number for next year's aid by the time of our financial town meeting. Senator Felag is explaining that no numbers will be available at that point.
Louise Durfee just stated that many people are thinking about entering the financial town meeting and immediately moving to recess until July so as to deliberate with accurate numbers.
Councilor Joanne Arruda is seconding the underlying notion.
Rep. Loughlin, with concurrence of his peers, just put the time frame for passing a supplemental budget in March or April as the state bleeds millions of dollars per week!
Jay Lambert just asked about a Curuolo-related provision in the budget, and the two Democrat legislators at the table looked to John Loughlin. Said Rep. Jay Edwards, "He's your governor."
Oddly, I'd been under the impression that he was the governor of the entire state.
Jay Edwards has remained behind for the next item on the agenda, which is his House bill (H-5200), naming the Sakonnet River Bridge after local son Christopher Potts, who died in Iraq a few years ago.
The town council passed a resolution to support Rep. Edwards's bill. Voting against was Louise Durfee and Hannibal Costa.
February 7, 2009
Tiverton Fire and Money Issues
Of the three hours of Tiverton town council budget workshop discussion, the only mildly animated discussion came toward the beginning, regarding the fire department's budget. Here are two snippets:
- Discussing the union's refusal to lower minimum manning, space their vacations, or forgo their recent pay raise: stream, download. The first voice is Fire Chief Robert Lloyd, and the second is Town Administrator James Goncalo. Councilor Louise Durfee speaks up, followed by Councilor Jay Lambert confirming that the union would offer "no concessions at all."
- Discussing a new ladder truck (which is not actually in the budget): stream, download. The initial inquiry is made by Councilor Hannibal Costa, with the chief answering and Council President Don Bollin disagreeing on a particular example and noting that negotiations occur within a long-term relationship (to paraphrase). Louise Durfee's voice is in there, as well.
Saturday with the Budget
Oddly, the Saturday morning budget workshop of the Tiverton Town Council has plenty of open seats, despite the box of donuts provided by Councilor Jay Lambert. I note, also, that the meeting did not begin early.
The upshot of the hot-off-the-presses new "administrator recommended" budget is an increase of the municipal budget from $16,397,109 to $16,922,951.33. The previous budget for 09-10 requested $17,800,966.96.
According to the town administrator, the major differences between the previous request and this one were a decrease in the projected cost of fuel and a reduction in payments to the unfunded police pension liability of $9,894 from last year and $211,225 from the recent recommended budget.
The fire chief just explained the reasons for his overtime projection, notably minimum manning and the ability for multiple firefighters to take vacation at the same time, as well as a firefighter death and a departure of another.
The town administrator just explained that he and the firechief had asked the union to waive the contractual requirement of seven-person minimum manning to six, waiving the ability of multiple firefighters to take vacations at the same time, and giving back a recent raise of (I think) 1.4%. In total, these concessions would have saved the town $75,000 by June 30.
Councilor Lambert asked whether it is the case that the town received "no concessions at all from the union." Administrator Goncalo: "Pretty much."
Citizens should take note that the contract is up for renewal at the end of June.
The chief is defending his request for a ladder truck ($800,000), and he made the point that the town currently relies on equipment from neighboring towns and gave the example of a saw shop business that is no longer in the town because a fire took the building down, in part because the firefighters couldn't open up the roof as part of the firefighting strategy. He offered a recent counterexample of music store fire in which opening up the roof enabled other businesses in the same building to open the next day: "saved businesses, saved jobs, kept a business in Tiverton."
Council President Don Bollin mentioned that the there's more cost to such equipment than just the initial cost. He also noted that the union won't help out in hard times, and that will be remembered in better times.
I should note that the fire department budget is now proposed to increase from $2,291,151 last year to $2,419,310.64.
The head of the department of public works is discussing the department's current over-budget status due to snow and ice costs for this year.
The DPW budget is now slated to go from $2,062,851 to $2,064,305, which is down from $2,125,292 in the previous proposal.
The DPW head says he's convinced people from surrounding towns are putting out trash in Tiverton. (One house put out a box spring for collection every week.
Louise Durfee is now talking about the problem of people not recycling, with the conclusion being possibly a refusal to pick up from houses that don't recycle.
At issue is that our landfill will have to close down in a few years, with a cost of $4 million. In 2025, the DPW head says, there will be nowhere in Rhode Island to dump rubbish.
Councilor Cecil Leonard just asked if anybody talks about burning waste to create energy, as in Europe. DPW head Stephen Berlucchi responded that doing so is against state law. Louise Durfee stated that it was a matter of some controversy in the early '90s.
Leonard is saying that you can't even tell where the incinerators are in Europe. Durfee stated that there is no "emission free" technology.
In response to a question from Ms. Durfee, Mr. Berlucchi just suggested that people in nearby towns that would have to pay for rubbish removal may be bringing their garbage to the homes of friends and family in Tiverton. I can't help but wonder what the difference is between that and bringing trash to a dump.
I don't know how my fellow Tivertonians, or even the reformers among them, would feel about it, but I wouldn't mind having to bring my trash to the dump, provided some improvements were made. Right now, one must literally drive up onto the mound, sometimes getting stuck in the mud, and throw trash directly into the pile. If there were a way to make that less daunting of a proposition, I'd be for saving the town the requested $573,601 for trash collection.
To the confirmation of the council, Berlucchi just praised his workers, pointing out that there are just a few guys covering 100 miles of roads, and the town's had none of that "teamster baloney" of grievances and such.
The department of Senior Citizen Services is up. Their budget last year was $111,600, the recent proposal was $144,707, and the request is now $114,311.
One thing the director noted was that the roofs are high, and the building burns a lot of oil. Why not lower the ceiling? Installing a suspended ceiling is quick and easy work.
I'm not sure why the town can't find volunteers for that sort of thing... or to help out around the senior center, even young people doing community service work. I wonder if this starts to get into the essentials of political philosophy, wherein high taxes and a "government will step in" view of social challenges decrease a general inclination toward community involvement and charitable work.
The tax assessor is up and just mentioned that the value of the residental end of the town is about to drop 15-20%. That means that the tax rate for each property will go up, but the actual amount that a household pays will remain the same.
The assessor's office, by the way, is now to receive $140,363, which is down from $142,169 last year and $146,363 in the previous request for the coming year. (Incidentally, when I say "last year" in this post, I mean the current budget year of 08-09.)
The building and zoning inspector's office is now proposed to go to $103,140, from $101,472 last year and $108,390 in the previous proposal.
A brief break, and now the treasurer is up, discussing his now-$140,363 budget, down from $142,169 in the last budget and $146,363 in the previous draft of this one.
The number of councilors actually in the room has now dropped from six to four, with only Jay Lambert, Ed Roderick, Louise Durfee, and Don Bollin remaining.
Police department is up. The previous budget was $2,568,038, the previous proposal for this budget was $2,608,851.43, and the current proposal is $2,581,647.33.
I had expected the police discussion to be much like the fire one, but nobody asked whether labor had been approached for concessions. The council merely confirmed that most items in the police budget were required by law or by contract.
Several departments have come and gone without event. The head of the library (whose budget is slated to increase by about $2,000) is explaining that usage of the library and its Web services have exploded, with the hard times that families face.
January 31, 2009
The Process of Reigning
I'm increasingly noticing the degree to which procedural minutia affect the balance of power in the disputes resolved among the lower tiers of government. The reality was stark at the last financial town meeting in Tiverton, but even in the day-to-day operations, one must weave through various traps and catches in order to bring about a particular policy. It becomes, essentially, an extra-judicial battle of lawyers.
That sense struck me during a conversation at the latest Tiverton town council meeting concerning a motion to permit the town administrator to send another draft of the next budget to the budget committee (stream, download). This exchange, in particular, makes me think that there's some defense being built of which the casual follower would remain unaware:
Ed Roderick: Isn't there a requirement that the council get this budget to the budget committee by a certain date, and we already exceeded that date?
Louise Durfee: They have it. They do have it. So, we haven't withdrawn it, I mean, so, you know...
Joanne Arruda: They can certainly work with what they have.
Roderick: I believe the wording is "an approved budget."
Durfee: Yeah, but is it "approved" really?
Arruda: It's a recommendation. It's a...
Roderick: It's a working budget?
Durfee: Yeah, it's very much of a...
Roderick: I just want everybody to be cognizant that it is a requirement that we get it to the budget committee.
Be it an approved proposed recommendation, the fact is that the town council submitted a budget with which to begin the process, and it was one that would require significant tax increases on struggling residents.
January 30, 2009
A Get What You Can Society
It's difficult not to rub one's eyes and look again:
Despite crippling losses, multibillion-dollar bailouts and the passing of some of the most prominent names in the business, employees at financial companies in New York, the now-diminished world capital of capital, collected an estimated $18.4 billion in bonuses for the year.
That was the sixth-largest haul on record, according to a report released Wednesday by the New York State comptroller.
That's the culture, though: Whether left, right, or center, take what you can. For their part, lefties and unionists can hardly complain on principle, but only on scale. News from Tiverton:
Two senior officers in Tiverton's police department have announced their imminent retirements. They are Deputy Chief Nicholas A. Maltais, 42, and Detective Sergeant Charles R. Mulcahy, 44.
Deputy Chief Nicholas A. Maltais will retire effective March 30, 2009. Although known for some time to have been considering retirement he’s been with the department for 21 years the timing of his departure now is in part related to pension reduction proposals outlined by Governor Donald Carcieri that would take effect April 1. That cutoff date is causing public employee retirements statewide. ...
Deputy Maltais earns $67,322 annually. When he retires he will have 145 days of unused sick leave that the town will buy out in a lump sum for an estimated $38,000.
Sergeant Mulcahy, who could not be reached for comment, earns a salary estimated at $56,000, according to town budget documents. His unused sick leave, and the amount of any town buyout, are unknown.
Both men will draw pensions from the police pension fund that equal 52 percent of the average of their three highest years with the department. Deputy Maltais is entitled to approximately $35,000 annually.
If Maltais lives to be 80, his total payments will be $2,420,581, or $115,266 for each year that he worked. Forty-five percent of that number, $1,090,581, is due to cost-of-living increases. In the 38th year of his pension, the payment will be $104,482.90. (That strikes even me as a very high number, so please correct me if I've erred in my calculations.)
"I feel comfortable in my decision to retire at this time. I'm looking into other opportunities. I really value family and look forward to spending time with my two sons. This is time you never get back."
Many a private-sector father knows the feeling, although most of us have no option but to watch the time slip away from behind our desks, our steering wheels, or our machine controls.
January 28, 2009
Listening in on the School Committee
Here's some significant audio from last night's school committee meeting in Tiverton, as I described on scene. A key take-away from the evening is that almost half of the $300,000+ that the school district must cut from the 2009-2010 budget to stay within the state spending cap is a direct result of this contract's approval. Unless the committee plans to cut teacher pay next year, that means either layoffs or decreases in other budget items, which already constitute a lower percentage of per-student spending than is true for the state as a whole.
- Superintendent Bill Rearick: stream, download
- Carol Herrmann: stream, download
- Danielle Coulter: stream, download
- Leonard Wright: stream, download
- Sally Black: stream, download
- Jan Bergandy: stream, download
- David Nelson: stream, download
- Joe Souza: stream, download
- Richard Rollins: stream, download
- Me: stream, download
- Rob Coulter (and a long response from Jan Bergandy): stream, download
- Mike Burk: stream, download
- Chris Cotta: stream, download
- Denise Demedeiros: stream, download
- Jay Lambert: stream, download
- Amy Mullen confirms Wright's vote: stream, download
January 27, 2009
Back to School
The new teachers' contract is up for approval again in Tiverton, and inasmuch as the agenda item is "approval of arbitrator's interim award (NEA contract)," it looks likely to go the other way. Apparently the latest info is that the state is only reducing their funding by 5%, so they're confident giving away over $300,000.
The crowd is certainly not of East Providence proportions, but some of the same principals are here (e.g., Pat Crowley), and the local union leaders are way too happy, and much too chummy with Superintendent Bill Rearick, for the outcome to be good.
ADDENDUM 7:01 p.m.:
As we wait for the school committee to have their beginning-of-meeting executive session (probably deciding how to vote after the formality of public comment), I thought I'd note that I've prepared some remarks to read when the time comes. I sincerely hope that I've done enough work with the recorder, already, to have persuaded the union to let people speak without attack.
ADDENDUM 7:08 p.m.:
While I wait, some more broad musing: I'm really not afraid of public speaking... I've made too much of a fool of myself in too many situations to be timid, but it's really an intimidating prospect to speak at school committee meetings. I really wish Tiverton would do as East Providence does and put the audience microphone off to one side, rather than in the very middle, of the space below the stage so that speakers don't feel as if they're in some interrogation setting with the angry audience bearing down from behind.
ADDENDUM 7:40 p.m.:
We're back in session and hearing a review of the status of the new school construction. The contract discussion is next.
The school committee looked somewhat glum when it entered, but it's impossible to tell from that which way things might go.
ADDENDUM 7:49 p.m.:
Here goes. Carol Herrmann voted to approve, and Sally Black seconded.
Supt. Rearick is about to speak and suggested that committee members speak before public comment.
ADDENDUM 7:52 p.m.:
Rearick just stated that this money is budgeted and will not affect the tax rate... as if every year is distinct.
He's also arguing that negotiations are holding up needed reform and accreditation changes.
ADDENDUM 7:54 p.m.:
Carol Herrmann is for the contract. Again, she brought up the held-up reforms.
Danielle Coulter is arguing that economic times have changed and that, since we're laying off teachers, it's ridiculous to give their coworkers raises.
ADDENDUM 7:58 p.m.:
Growing titters in the crowd as Danielle speaks. They're clearly trying to keep it down, but the habit must be strong.
ADDENDUM 8:00 p.m.
Leonard Wright is "on the fence," but willing to listen, and leaning toward approving the contract for "high quality teachers."
Sally Black is arguing that "during this time" --- when people are suffering --- education is something that we need to hold on to.
ADDENDUM 8:03 p.m.:
Jan Burgandy (committee president) is also "on the fence." "This is the most difficult vote I will probably ever have to take."
"We have to hope that in the future this process will be more civil and converge must faster."
As I'm about to argue: it won't.
ADDENDUM 8:06 p.m.:
I cannot believe that it doesn't strike the school committee as plain wrong that an employment contract should potentially hold up the educational need of students (e.g., accreditation).
ADDENDUM 8:08 p.m.:
Bergandy just held up a giant gavel. The audience is laughing. Glad it's so clubby.
ADDENDUM 8:09 p.m.:
David Nelson (TCC president) is speaking. I hear shushing behind.
ADDENDUM 8:12 p.m.
TCC member Joe Souza is talking about state-wide budget history.
He just mentioned that, in his construction job, he had to lay off 16 guys, this year.
ADDENDUM 8:16 p.m.:
A citizen I don't know is saying that teachers should sacrifice. "We're not asking you to move into a tent city. You're all doing pretty well."
ADDENDUM 8:24 p.m.:
I was working through my three-minute statement and amazingly Jan Bergandy stopped me to state that we're not getting into monetary or performance analysis.
Guess I really am disliked around town.
ADDENDUM 8:27 p.m.:
Ms. Black stopped me as I walked away to say that she voted against unreasonable contracts, so it is clearly not her intention to give teachers everything they want. I'm open to correction on this, but my understanding is that the committee decided the maximum amount that they could give to the teachers and told the teachers that was it. In other words, Ms. Black voted not to give over an impossible amount, but did intend to give over what she understood to be the maximum amount possible.
That was the attitude against which I was speaking.
ADDENDUM 8:32 p.m.:
TCC member Rob Coulter suggested that the school committee should consider this action (approving the contract) to negate any further request for money from the taxpayers.
ADDENDUM 8:35 p.m.:
Jan Bergandy just stated that the school committee held off on signing the contract longer than anybody else in local government.
Mike Burk just mocked me I brought up onto the stage a chart for the school committee to consider by throwing up a bag of candy. ("Red herring.") It struck me that several of them were not actually arguments that had been made, which would make the statement about red herrings a red herring itself.
ADDENDUM 8:43 p.m.:
Burk just said that the committee should really "hold the line" with the next contract. Well, there's the excuse for the union to spin the wheels until the economy is better suited to their contractual desires.
ADDENDUM 8:46 p.m.:
Chris Cotta (formerly a local elected official) just suggested that the school committee shouldn't listen to us taxpayers because "they'll always come forward to complain." Guess that's as good a reason to ignore us as any.
ADDENDUM 8:49 p.m.:
I've wondered why local officials take themselves so seriously. That's not to say that their job is not important, but the heat of the politics strikes me as excessive. Some of the speeches tonight from (former) elected officials confirm my growing conclusion that it's really an ego thing.
Not to say that's not understandable. But it's interesting.
ADDENDUM 8:53 p.m.:
The contract passes. All for, except Danielle Coulter's no and Leonard Wright's abstention.
ADDENDUM 8:59 p.m.:
Five minute recess.
You know, this went the way I expected, so I guess it was good to state some principles and considerations for future use. Watching the whole interplay of local politics can be dispiriting, I must say, and I'd suggest that, for that very reason, more regular folks should get involved. Society at large doesn't operate this way, and neither should our government.
It certainly isn't pleasant to be the bad guy, though especially when it's on top of financial struggles and a frequently tough day job.
ADDENDUM 9:12 p.m.:
Rearick is talking about the next budget and the various reductions in staff. Almost all of the teachers who were here have left.
Guess it's easier to leave on a high note.
ADDENDUM 9:18 p.m.:
My mind drifted a bit, but I think I just heard Supt. Rearick say that he's considering cutting a high-school technology teacher position. That doesn't sound good.
ADDENDUM 9:21 p.m.:
I do have a positive note, by the way: The union members were very well behaved tonight. I'm sure much of that had to do with their apparently sure knowledge from the beginning that they were going to get their big checks, but I do hope that it helps that they know they're being recorded.
That's something that other reform-type folks around the state should consider. I'd be willing to help.
ADDENDUM 9:33 p.m.:
Town Council Member Jay Lambert is objecting to the school committee's apparent complacency with the notion of increasing taxes during a recession, with the state losing population at nation-leading rates at the maximum amount.
"This committee is a real disappointment."
"That cap was not put in place to be a goal to shoot for every single year, especially during these economic times."
ADDENDUM 9:43 p.m.:
Rob Coulter just clarified with the school committee that the 09-10 budget on which the committee voted at the previous meeting did reflect the passage of the contract this evening. The district's financial guy stated that it's reflected in the 08-09 budget, but it seems to me that the numbers would have carried through to the next year.
ADDENDUM 10:18 p.m.:
Local union head Amy Mullen just asked to clarify Mr. Wright's vote on the contract. He said that he abstained and subsequently voted to approve. ("The minutes will reflect the vote as four for.")
I've been here the whole time, but I must have missed his switched vote.
ADDENDUM (from home):
After the meeting, I confirmed with district financial director Doug Fiore that the budget that the school committee submitted to the budget committee did include the contract that was approved tonight. What that means is that the number for '08-'09 would have been $301,264 lower had the contract been voted down. It also means that the number for '09-'10 would have been roughly $150,000 lower, as well almost one-half of the current budget gap.
Supt. Rearick has already brought the $323,376 down to around $209,000 (mainly through staff reductions), so absent the approval of the new contract, the school district would only need to come up with roughly $59,000 more in reductions. Five figures instead of six.
January 26, 2009
A Late Meeting Early
So how is it that I can walk in, at 7:02 p.m., to a public meeting that's advertised (PDF) for a 7:00 start, and the town council is already through the first page of its agenda? It's typical the meetings really start at 6:30 p.m. [see footnote] but this evening, I walked into a mildly contentious-seeming discussion between the police chief and councillor Louise Durfee, and it does make me wonder at the appropriateness of such business being conducted before an uninitiated citizen would have arrived.
ADDENDUM 7:21 p.m.:
Council President Don Bollin is absent tonight because of a very unfortunate and close death in the family. My prayers and condolences go out to all those close to the deceased.
ADDENDUM 7:31 p.m.:
A local lawyer seeking a position on the new Juvenile Hearing Board just noted that the children who go awry aren't all from "low income families in North Tiverton" (my neighborhood), but also from "good taxpaying families on the south side of town."
For the record, that I pay way too much to the town to let that comment go without response.
ADDENDUM 7:39 p.m.:
Man of local fame, Michael Burk, just failed in a bid for a position on the Tiverton Housing Authority. Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda voted for him, but the other four councillors (led by two TCC-endorsed candidates) voted for Elaine Nearpass.
ADDENDUM 7:47 p.m.:
Councillor Jay Lambert just withdrew his suggestion that the council cut their own pay, leaving it as a personal decision for each. Councillors Durfee and Arruda complimented his willingness to take opposing arguments under advisement.
ADDENDUM 8:03 p.m.:
An auditor brought in by the town treasurer is giving a presentation with an overheaed projector and transparencies. Now there's a frugal guy!
By the way, Treasurer DiMattia mentioned that the town currently has reserves in the amount of 1.3% of expenditures, while the town charter requires one of 3%. Nobody gasped, so it doesn't appear that anything will be done with urgency.
ADDENDUM 8:09 p.m.:
The auditor just suggested that the 3% in the charter should actually be 8-10% for bonding reasons.
ADDENDUM 8:27 p.m.:
The auditor just said that Tiverton's net pension obligation is one of the lowest in the state (covering only police officers, with everybody else in the state plan).
ADDENDUM 8:40 p.m.:
The auditor's done, and further along in the agenda: Louise Durfee is suggesting that the council go through its budget line by line before approving it and sending it to the Budget Committee, so the council doesn't get "beat up over it."
ADDENDUM 8:42 p.m.:
Maybe one has to be a lawyer, but I'm not sure how it's possible for the council to vote down a motion to send the budget to the Budget Committee on the grounds that the committee already has a budget with which to work. Semantic debate about whether the Budget Committee currently holds a budget or a proposal or a vague suggestion.
ADDENDUM 8:49 p.m.
A couple of local advocates for animal care are presenting a preemptive request to maintain funds and efforts in light of budget problems. They have offered, to help with funds via a group called Placing Paws.
ADDENDUM 8:56 p.m.:
This is interesting: If feral cats aren't controlled, they will multiply to the point at which they'll start to support larger predators, like coyotes.
My summation might have been wrongly emphasized. In summary, the advocates are suggesting that they're looking for ways to maximize dollars and contribute money to defray the costs and keep the services going.
ADDENDUM 9:18 p.m.:
Councillor Hannibal Costa just suggested that towns sell bonds to buy pieces of Twin River, with the state. No action taken.
ADDENDUM 9:23 p.m.:
The town administrator just announced as one early means of saving money that the town will no longer pick up white goods (appliances, etc.) for delivery to the town dump.
Councillor Ed Roderick just asked whether the town can charge for such pickup, and the administrator said that's on the table.
It's only a sense, but I take that as a small shot across the bow of budget cutters.
* I honestly did not know how significantly this comment would be treated. Had I realized that the excessively short-hand version of my thought would be taken so seriously and literally I would have taken a moment to flesh it out. The fact is that, during my previous bout of regular town council meeting attendance, I changed the time on my calendar to 6:30, because it seemed that arriving at 7 always led me to miss the beginnings of the meetings. That was the heart of my reference, not any knowledge that town council meetings habitually begin early according to some unwritten schedule. As I formed that concept into words while initially writing this post, it started to get away from me, so I cut it far too short so as not to interfere with my following of the meeting.
I maintain that it has always seemed to me that the council starts early, and given the sparse attendance (except for those scheduled for business), it didn't occur to me that it might be a point of controversy: So it starts early (my thinking went); regular attendees learn to arrive with time to spare, and those with business before the council will do the same, or the council will give them time to arrive.
As for this specific meeting, I can only attest to my observation and conclusion that the meeting began early.
January 24, 2009
Turning Around the Train
Apparently, I missed quite a show at the latest Budget Committee meeting in Tiverton, and it merits watching across the state. While East Providence is a battle occurring during free fall, Tiverton is an example of a municipality that can still choose to stop its train from speeding toward a collapsed bridge.
The town administrator and school department submitted their initial budget requests, on Thursday night, and there was some controversy over how seriously they should be taken and how much the public should treat these as actual government documents that will affect their lives. The usual process, as I understand it, is for the town administrator and superintendent to put together quick budget drafts to enable an unprepared town council and school committee to meet a charter-driven deadline. Over the next few months, the number typically grows, and then the Financial Town Meeting rubber stamps the budget.
That has to stop. My house is on the line.
My understanding is that the Budget Committee will have the full municipal budget on its Web page on Monday, but here's the summary page (click for a larger view):
Note the 5%, $822,542.77, increase and the lack of response to the probable cut in state funding, which I'm told will likely amount to roughly $1,000,000 .
At least the school department acknowledged the expected state cut of $242,638 in its budget:
Of course, from the Tiverton taxpayer's point of view, that admission mattered not at all, because the department already assumed an increase of taxes to the state cap of 4.75%, or $952,278. Moreover, the budget calls for an increase in expenditures of 4.06%, or $1,020,245, which is 46.4% greater than the expected increase in revenue. In other words, the district's initial budget overspends by $323,376 even with the maximum tax increase.
That's for a district that will have 79 fewer students come the autumn.
The truly astonishing news from the school department is that the School Committee looks likely to pass the mostly retroactive increase in teacher pay on Tuesday night. The additional cost? $301,264. It's one thing to give away money and then find one's self short on unanticipated bills. It's quite another thing to have the two numbers in front of you and still opt to sign the check.
It gets worse. To even get within a few hundred thousand dollars of a budget that's already requested to grow by over a half-million, the district has to plan to reduce its staff by nine employees:
- One full-time kindergarten teaching position
- One grade 1 teaching position
- Four full-time teaching positions at the middle school
- Two full-time special education teaching assistant positions at the high school
- One part-time elementary teaching assistant position
It also struck four new positions that it was considering, including a high school math coach who might have been able to do something about the town's losing ground on its high schoolers' math proficiency, which actually dropped to 24% (from 29%) in the latest round of NECAP scores (PDF.
And worse still: The "new" contract only lasts until August, so negotiations will have to resume in the very near future. When they do, the union will have been given no incentive to settle, because the principle of retroactive pay covering years of intransigence will have been reinforced, and it would clearly be a more profitable strategy to delay a final deal through these dark days of economic decline.
In Tiverton as in many other places the pain of the next few years is exacerbated, not alleviated, at ever tier of government. But there's still a chance that citizens, working from the bottom up, can apply the brakes.
January 20, 2009
Mighty Mouse Versus Yosemite Sam
It's kinda funny to contemplate what local establishment figures and their one-mind sympathizers imagine about reform groups. Former school committee member (and foiled town council candidate) Michael Burk likens Tiverton Citizens for Change to a false Mighty Mouse and whispers spooky insinuations that would surely spark laughter in anybody with a reasonable understanding of the scope of town government:
On September 15, 2008 Mr. Gerald Felise contributed $1,000 to the TCC. However, on October 7 the TCC filed a CF-5 with the Board of Elections stating they would accept donations of no more than $100 from any individual and no more than $1,000 from all contributors combined. Yet they still didn't report any contributions/expenses until November 17 13 days after the election and two months after Mr. Felise's contribution.
Rhode Island law prohibits political contributions from corporations. The TCC's Novemer 17 filing listed Mr. Felise as an individual donor with his home address as 896 Fish Road. His business, eCo Industrial Park Corporation of Rhode Island, also has an address of 896 Fish Road.
Jump ahead to the December 11 Sakonnet Times. Mr. Felise is proposing a "Giant 'eco-development'" on both sides of Route 24. Did Mr. Felise, obviously a strong TCC supporter and probably a member (they don't release their membership list), present this to a meeting of the Planning Board or the Town Council as would be the appropriate first step? No, he chose to present it to "a meeting of invited town officials and residents at the company’s offices at 896 Fish Road" the Friday after Thanksgiving. The timing of this was so close to the TCC's purported election victory that it seems rather odd to me. Mr. Nelson would like us to think that he and the other leaders of the TCC knew nothing of this proposal prior to Election Day.
The first part is an accusation that we've already covered. Trying to hit the ground running in mid-summer and having no expectation of large or numerous donations TCC opted for the easier route requiring less time filing reports. Mr. Burk doesn't bother to explain this, but that's the purpose of a CF-5: to minimize unnecessary paperwork, not to forswear large donations.
But we did receive that one large donation and many smaller ones so campaign finance law required us to begin filing regular reports. That's the process described on the CF-5; there's no actual or intimated violation involved. Owing to some confusion during a very hectic time, however, our first report missed the deadline, so several of us spent a late night filling out forms. Nothing nefarious.
That night, as it happens, was the first time I'd ever heard Mr. Felise's name, and to my knowledge, nobody active in TCC was aware of his plans. I don't believe that any of us had so much as met the man. As odd as the timing may appear to Mr. Burk, that's all there is to it. The tale that he weaves tells the reader much more about his and others' paranoia than about TCC or (I can only surmise) Mr. Felise.
One needn't have memorized the group's secret knock to have observed its formation: The results of the financial town meeting brought several previously known trouble-makers (me among them) together with existing non-establishment groups (notably the retirement communities) and some newly aggrieved residents. In the handful of months leading up to the election, we recruited and endorsed candidates mainly with the next FTM in mind. The calendar left us very little room to address anything else.
Now that the election is over, we hope to begin exploring the multiple issues that ultimately contribute to the budgets that the town passes each year, but the effort hasn't yet begun. We haven't discussed, for example, whether Mr. Felise's development is something that TCC ought to back. When we do take the matter up as a group, enough of us are sufficiently idealistic that large donations are unlikely to be of more than passing interest. Moreover, when we put forward arguments on any issues, interested residents will be able to judge them on their merits, with due consideration of our own finances.
For Michael Burk's part, the merits of Mr. Felise's project seem to hold no relevance. Some conspiracy is necessary to explain the rapid emergence of a vocal taxpayer group, and a businessman wishing to invest in the town makes as good an evil conniver as any. Nevermind the individual histories of the group's members. Nevermind the fact that Mr. Burk proclaims no evidence apart from what we have made available.
Nobody active with Tiverton Citizens for Change believes that we have all the answers. All we have are voices and an interest in using them to offer arguments that we feel haven't been adequately made in the past. We don't see ourselves as swooping in to get Tiverton "well in hand," as Burk quotes from the Mighty Mouse theme. We're more interested in asking questions, offering suggestions, and doing what we can to keep individual egos and personalities from dictating the direction of our town.
We're a bit more like Bugs Bunny than Mighty Mouse, I'd say trying to get through each episode with little more than a sense of humor and a knack for dodging the throes of absurdity.
So fire away, Mr. Burk, for the plot needs its Yosemite Sam.
January 15, 2009
A Sakonnet Times article (that doesn't appear to be online) reports on a meeting of "all elected town and school officials and some top administrators" in Tiverton to discuss budget woes. (A van breakdown prevented me from getting there.) Speaking to the reduction in state aid, Town Administrator James Goncalo states, "The municipal side cut is at least $600,000, so we're looking at ways to cut $100,000 per month."
That looks like an insurmountable number, but in context of monthly spending on the municipal side of town government of about $1,370,000, we're talking roughly 7%. For some additional perspective, the town spends over a quarter-million dollars per month on debt service alone.
What caught my eye in the article, however, was the closing quotation from this paragraph:
"The school department is limited in what it can do to cut its budget," said Mr. Rearick. A mandatory minimum retirement age of 59, and other pension and health benefit recommendations affecting retirees, could precipitate the departure of numbers of town and educational employees prior to April 1 "people walking out the door April 1st. They just leave," said Mr. Rearick.
Clearly, such folks would be making a financial decision as employees of the town. That's fine; everybody should do what they believe to be best. What it serves to emphasize, though, is that those who govern the town should feel free to make rational financial decisions, as well, behaving above all as employers acting in the interests of their constituents.
January 13, 2009
The Intangibles of Rhode Island
With taxpayers especially business taxpayers beginning to get uppity, one often hears the invocation of Rhode Island's Political Knot. Nothing objectionable is anybody's fault; it's all a natural construct that can't be changed... at least by the person to whom one would turn for relief.
Take the "tangible tax." I know of at least one local business owner who complained that the "tangible property tax" collected by the town was doing palpable harm to his business and whom the Tiverton Tax Assessor informed that the town has no choice: State law compels him to assess and collect the tax. Presumably, he's referring to Rhode Island General Law 44-3-1:
Real and personal property subject to taxation. – All real property in the state, and all personal property belonging to the inhabitants of the state, whether individuals, partnerships or corporations, and all tangible personal property located in the state belonging to nonresidents, are liable to taxation unless otherwise specially provided.
Exemption of office equipment used for manufacturing or commercial purposes. – (a) The city or town council of any municipality may by ordinance wholly or partially exempt from taxation for a period of up to twenty-five (25) years any items of office equipment, which include, but are not limited to, computers, telephone equipment, and any other items of personal property used in an office and/or any leasehold improvements which are not exempt and are used for manufacturing or commercial purposes and may by ordinance establish the procedures for taxpayers to avail themselves of the benefit of any exemption permitted under this section.
In other words, the town could opt to gut the tangible property tax on business if it chose to do so. Note, also, that the law places no requirements or limits on the rate. My understanding is that a town or city could set its tangible property tax rate to 0%, effectively eliminating it.
Now that we've cleared up the confusion, town councils across Rhode Island can feel free embark on business-saving changes to local tax codes.
According John, in the comments, RI law prevents a town from charging a greater than 50% higher rate for any class of tax than any other, so zeroing one rate would require zeroing them all.
That factor does not appear to affect the possibility of exempting businesses from tangible property taxes for a period of 25 years.
January 12, 2009
Back into the Swing of Day to Day
With the new year and the new dynamic in the town council, I thought I'd best resume the habit of attending all meetings exuding my apparently intimidating presence.
At the moment, there's one of those typical town-level debates about development issues. Somebody wants to develop and needs some sort of concession from the town concerning a road of somewhat ambiguous ownership, and old grievances come to the town microphone. I do wonder whether this is a practice that diminishes as towns move from quasirural to suburban, decreasing the ambiguities and limiting additional development.
TCC member Joe Souza just pointed out that, if the developer is asking the town to cede some land, then the town ought to get some money for it. A reasonable point, although I don't know the amounts involved.
On the other hand, there are road improvements and such involved in the package. As with much else, these "negotiations" could stand to be more explicit about what is given and what is exchanged, for lack of a better word.
TCC member and councillor Jay Lambert just suggested that the town ease the burden on businesses and save processing expenses by enabling various licenses and such to be held for longer than one year terms. Solicitor Teitz explained, first, that the year term is set by the state and, anyway, that it's convenient to have businesses come before the council every year just in case there are any issues for which the town doesn't want to (or can't) go through the appropriate due processes.
Jay Lambert just called for the town council to take the lead on reductions by cutting their $2,400 stipend by 15% or 20%. Cecil Leonard put forward a motion for 15%.
Ex-Council President Louise Durfee expressed concerns that future councils won't be able to attract the poorer of Tiverton's "diverse" residents without the full stipend.
Leonard pointed out that his motion was specifically a one-year action, but Durfee stated that the council can't, in the future, raise its own salaries back.
Joanne Arruda, Don Bollin, and Hannibal Costa all suggested that the action be made a personal option for individual councillors.
Lambert's arguing that the people who'll see their salaries cut and so forth won't be able to opt for it.
Durfee wants to wait and see what the finances actually do.
ADDENDUM 8:34 p.m.:
Durfee and Joanne Arruda are both making the argument that the stipend allows them to give to charity. Hmm.
ADDENDUM 8:38 p.m.:
With that motion tabled until next meeting, Lambert is suggesting the compilation of potential projects to put forward for our share of the magic Obama money.
ADDENDUM 8:41 p.m.:
One town official, in detailing "shovel ready" projects, noted that nobody knows the form of stimulus (grants, loans, a combination). But hey, it might be that Obama's going to hook me up to a sewage line!
I ask again: Why hasn't anybody else ever thought of dishing out money to give everybody in the nation somethin' fer nuthin'?
ADDENDUM 8:53 p.m.:
Now Lambert's suggesting that the town council send a statement to the General Assembly asking them to reduce their own compensation and eliminate or reduce their own healthcare. "I don't see any rational relationship between being in the General Assembly and healthcare benefits."
Durfee again: Their salary is set by the constitution of Rhode Island. "I wouldn't want the town to look stupid." She and Teitz are going over the history: The current deal was a compromise with reformers to get rid of expensive pension deals.
ADDENDUM 9:00 p.m.:
Tabled pending conversation witth local legislators.
ADDENDUM 9:06 p.m.:
With no notion of how many people might be involved, Solicitor Teitz suggested that the council (out of its contingency fund) pick up the $90 fee for local officials whose boards have not so budgeted to attend a GrowSmart RI seminar. The council passed unanimously up to $900 in payments.
December 31, 2008
Unsurprising Construction Delays
Working in construction, I really didn't expect the new Tiverton elementary schools to be ready for student occupancy this coming Monday, and indeed, the school committee has held off the transition until February 23:
A unanimous school committee voted Tuesday night to delay until Feb. 23 the move of an estimated 350 elementary students into Pocasset and Fort Barton Schools, where final touches on major renovations still continue.
The vote reflected the "consensus recommendation" made at the meeting by project architect Greg Smolley and builder H. V. Collins, said Douglas Fiore, director of administration and finance for Tiverton schools.
The recommendation was based on the views of over half a dozen inspectors (electrical, plumbing, mechanical, fire, health, elevator, and the town building official), who with the architect and builder and school officials, had toured Pocasset School Tuesday afternoon, punch lists in hand, and were scheduled to do the same at Fort Barton School on Friday afternoon.
Why a two-story school needs an elevator is beyond me; so is the reason the General Assembly hasn't scaled back the ridiculous fire codes, yet. The extra month-and-a-half that Tiverton students will be spending in horribly inadequate surroundings is in large part a consequence of those two factors.
I raised the topic of elevators with somebody in my household who has much more extensive experience with day-by-day life in school buildings, and she pointed out something that hadn't occurred to me: broken legs.
The fire codes are still outlandish.
Saved by Failure
The former Tiverton Town Council violated the state's Open Meetings Act last summer, an assistant attorney general has ruled, but the matter is moot, because a proposed town charter amendment that was the subject of the complaint was not approved by voters during the November election. ...
If voters had approved the proposed amendment that would have replaced the annual financial town meeting with a process that would have given the Town Council the final say on the annual budget, the vote could have been invalidated because of the attorney general's finding, said James Amarantes, a former town treasurer who filed the complaint in July. The answer to the complaint is dated Dec. 17.
Amarantes said he depends on the postings of meeting agendas to know what the Town Council will be discussing at its upcoming meetings. The proposed charter amendment was not on the agenda for a meeting on July 7, when the council first voted to send it and several other amendments to a public hearing that was slated for later that month. The proposed amendment was included on the meeting notice for the public hearing on July 28.
In all honesty, I don't believe the town council was up to anything suspicious by moving to place a newly thought-up amendment in among the rest. Indeed, the fact that the technicality might have led to voters' being overruled had the results gone another way raises questions about the damage that too many specific rules and tight hoops through which to jump can do to a local government's ability to lead in new directions.
On the other hand, in this instance, the new direction entailed a councilor disregarding months of Charter Review Commission meetings and proposing a new budgeting strategy that handed more authority to the town council. As I suggested, I don't think the proposal was planned for introduction thus, but it is telling, and convenient, that the upshot was the arrogation of more power.
The underlying problem may be that local legislators believe in their own good intentions and capacity for sound judgment. They've witnessed the difficulty of doing things that they think ought to be done, and the way appears clear to making it possible for themselves to act more expediently. Thus, a councilor has a brainstorm epiphany that nobody is better suited to develop the town's budget than him and his peers, and it appears perfectly reasonable to slide that thought onto a list of other items resulting from a lengthy formal process conducted by another elected body.