— Warwick —

May 30, 2012

Warwick's Pension Numbers Serve as National Example

Marc Comtois

The local efforts by the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity to shine a light on the pension mess have brought national attention:

A locally published interview with a member of the national pension task force, assembled by the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, has caused a stir in Warwick, puzzling the Mayor, confusing the local paper, and leading to an online rebuttal. Even the Providence Journal has covered the action.

On May 24, the Warwick Beacon published an article from an interview with Eileen Norcross, senior research fellow and lead researcher on the State and Local Policy Project with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, attempting to refute her warnings that the City of Warwick is not accurately representing the true scope of the liabilities in its locally administered pension plans.

Norcross published a pie-chart, which she has now updated:

Norcross explains the logic behind her adjustments:
The chart shows Warwick, Rhode Island’s municipal budget (excluding the school budget) carved up according to current costs for funding the town’s pension benefits, Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB), current employee healthcare costs and General Obligation bond payment. The figures come from official budget documents.

My value-added is that I estimate the additional amount needed to fully fund pensions based on the risk-free discount rate. It’s a ballpark estimate backed into based on the plans’ valuation reports. The actuaries, with access to all the plan data, can model the effect of applying the risk-free rate to plan costs more precisely.

Follow the link to read her entire explanation (and here is another national perspective supporting her analysis from National Review), but here is the root of it:
Public pensions represent a secure, government-guaranteed benefit and are not likely to be defaulted upon. Public pensions should be valued like a government bond. The rate to use is the return on Treasury bonds, currently 2.3 percent.

But what policymakers are worked up over is not the economic principles behind discount rate selection. It’s the practical effect that many politicians and plan sponsors protest, as The New York Times story of yesterday highlights. Lowering the discount rate increases the liability and the amount needed to fund the plan. That has a real impact on the budget, as the Warwick chart shows.

Even if you buy the argument that the 3% figure used by Norcross is too low, it's still fantasy-land to use 7.5% as a basis.

May 22, 2012

Warwick Police & Fire Pensions Only 22% Funded

Monique Chartier

... according to actuary results released a couple of hours ago by Councilman Joseph Solomon.

According to the city’s professional actuaries, Warwick’s largest pension plan is just 22.3 percent funded and, as of June 30, 2011, had a staggering liability of $242,127,650.

Police and Fire I is not the city’s only pension plan, but it is by far the largest pension plan in the city. The other three pension plans are relatively well-funded, but when liabilities and assets are combined with Police and Fire I, the city’s four pension plans are average funded at just 51.2 percent.

Not sure what the councilman means by this allusion to the governor.

“Like many of our neighbors, we in the city of Warwick face some serious liabilities. Time is running out. Warwick city leaders need to stop downplaying our significant financial challenges and start getting behind solutions,” said Solomon, an accountant and lawyer.

Solomon continued: “I would hate to think Governor Chafee was misled. I will continue to deliver the truth about Warwick’s financial condition as information becomes available to me from our actuaries and CPA auditors—even though it may not be pleasant.”

March 8, 2012

How Private is Your Property?

Marc Comtois

If your lucky, you don't have to deal with "that house" in your neighborhood. You know, the one with the two or three beat up cars in the driveway (or on the lawn) and the hayfield instead of a lawn. It doesn't look good and brings the appearance of the rest of the neighborhood down. But is it a "conservative" thing to do to force someone to clean up their yard? The discussion is being had in today's Warwick Beacon:

“Frequent flyers,” is the name Annamarie Marchetti bestows on a small group of residents whose names resurface time and again for infractions of the “property maintenance code,” previously known as “minimum housing.”

The habitual offenders, Marchetti believes, don’t do what they do deliberately, said the clerk of property maintenance. She thinks they really don’t understand why their neighbors should be upset with the piles of junk and unregistered cars in their yard. After all, it’s their stuff – andtheir yard.

Debris and unregistered vehicles are two of the three most frequent infractions, says Ted Sarno, director and building official. The third most common relates to “protective coating” which could be peeling paint or siding coming off a house. In the summer, the fourth and fifth sources of complaint are overgrown lawns and standing water that is a source for mosquitoes. With so many foreclosures, Sarno said complaints over uncut lawns have been on the rise.

When negligence towards your private property affects the value of mine, is it any of my concern? Philosophical arguments based on conservative or libertarian principles can be made from both sides.

And there are some pretty obvious extensions, right? For instance, to conflate two, drug legalization and health care: some may say what they put into their body is their own business and also that they pay-as-they-go for health care instead of pay for insurance---until we end up paying for their visit to the Emergency Room and rehab care because they OD'd and didn't have health insurance. So where are the boundaries? Are they all slippery slopes? Part of what makes political discourse interesting is where we all choose to draw our own lines in the sand on issues like this. Where do you draw them?

January 12, 2012

Warwick Government Makes Itself Jump Through Hoops, Taxpayers Pay

Marc Comtois

It's true: the City of Warwick charges the School Department to get multiple building permits for work being done in school buildings that the City itself owns. From today's Warwick Beacon:

School Committee Chair Beth Furtado said, for example, if there were six projects being conducted on one building, instead of getting one permit for the work on the building, six permits would be required, each with a fee.

After learning how the building permit and fee process worked, School Committee Vice Chair Patrick Maloney requested a resolution be drafted requesting the city to reduce the permit fees it charges the school department for construction work and building upgrades on buildings the city owns in the first place.

“We’re being charged $17,000 in permit fees on buildings the city owns and the school department incurs that cost,” he said at the December meeting....Following the December meeting, a resolution was drafted, and approved Tuesday, requesting the city waive any fees and associated costs in regards to building permits for school-related construction projects....“It’s not right to be charged the fees that we are being charged,” Maloney said at Tuesday’s meeting prior to the vote. “The Pilgrim roof permit was $18,000. That’s $18,000 that did not go directly into our students and programs. There are a lot of things we could be doing with that money.”

November 26, 2011

Chafee's Role in Warwick's Pension Mess

Marc Comtois

In a GoLocalProv story that reiterates much of what I wrote about back in April, Russel J. Moore also explains the mess that Warwick's pension system is in and also traces it back to then-Mayor Lincoln Chafee:

Governor Chafee has been an outspoken advocate for municipal pension reform. But several of the issues in Warwick, can be directly traced to his administration. For instance, the Police and Fire I plan, which is dangerously underfunded and acts an as albatross to Warwick’s other pension plans is currently funded on a 40-year schedule. This was implemented in 1995—when Lincoln Chafee was Mayor of Warwick. Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) standards, which are federal guidelines that municipalities are supposed to adopt, and are solidified in state law, (General Law 45-10-15) say that a plan should not be funded over a period shorter than 30-years.
Remember, "no one is to blame" for our current pension problems? Right.

October 28, 2011

Car Tax Evaluation Committee: Typical?

Marc Comtois

Warwick Car Tax Revolt leader Rob Cote has done a great service to the citizens of Warwick and the state by keeping the heat on our elected officials regarding the car tax. Further to that end, he decided to drop in on the annual Car Tax Evaluation Committee meeting, buried somewhere in the State House Administrative building. What he found was an embarrassment (h/t Dan Yorke Show).

Unfortunately, I suspect this is all-too typical of what goes on with other boards in our state government.

August 5, 2011

Point of Order, Mr. Chairman - Did the Committee Actually Vote on This Caruolo Action Litigation?

Monique Chartier

So last week, the Warwick School Committee became a James McLaughlin Award recipient by filing suit against the city to obtain $6.2 million in additional revenue for the school department. (We should take note of a matter that is undoubtedly completely unrelated: the Warwick teachers contract expires at the end of this month.)

A potential problem with the action, however, crops up in this Warwick Beacon article. (Kudos to John Howell for asking the right question.)

Asked whether the committee voted, committee member Teri Medeiros said, “The school committee discussed it and that decision was made.” She did not recall a vote.

Committee member Christopher Friel said a suit was discussed in executive session and a consensus was reached. Committee Chair Bethany Furtado said a discussion had taken place in executive session, but was unable to answer if there had been a vote.

She referred additional questions to school attorney and human resources director Rosemary Healey.

Wouldn't something as momentous as a lawsuit against the municipality require a formal vote, up or down, by the school committee? And if yes, isn't the validity of the lawsuit impacted by the apparent lack of a vote?


Marc points out that this is not a Caruolo lawsuit and also provides the basis for the lawsuit.

My understanding is that this is not strictly a Caruolo action, per se. The Warwick School department is essentially looking for clarification on: 1) Is this considered an education matter or a fiscal matter? 2) If an education matter, then Warwick schools believe the education commish has the authority to interpret the law. Does she? If so, then they argue that they should get the "old" number, etc.

August 2, 2011

Clueless: Warwick School Committee Files a Caruolo

Monique Chartier

The Providence Journal reported this development on the very day (i.e., yesterday) that a Rhode Island municipality was thrown into bankruptcy.

With no clear answer from the state on whether communities that cut funding to their school districts last year have to restore some of that money, the Warwick School Committee is suing the city for about $6.2 million in additional funding for schools.

In a lawsuit filed last week in District Court, school officials contend that the district is owed the money because the law that allowed the city to cut school funding last year was a one-time option and the city, this year, is required to restore its support of local schools to at least what it was in 2009.

Last year, cities and towns had the option of dropping the amount they gave their local school districts to 95 percent of what it was in 2009. The Legislature offered communities that option as a way of dealing with the loss of state aid to municipalities.

I hadn't heard that Warwick has an annual operating surplus of $6.2 million lying around for just such a contingency. Or possibly members of the Warwick School Committee share the larger fiscal philosophy of Rep. James McLaughlin (D-Central Falls) that, to quote Andrew,

just because we have no money doesn't mean we're bankrupt

July 27, 2011

On School Budget Confusion and Arbitrary Authority

Justin Katz

Trying to follow public policy debates — particularly those having to do with the transfer of government money — is like trying to make sense of an incoherent dream. Whenever you hear or read that there is "confusion" or "ambiguity" related to a particular law, it's a reasonable assumption that one or more parties are doggedly asserting false conclusions based on irrelevant information. Such appears to be the case with a recent disagreement between the Warwick School Committee and City Council concerning legislation that allowed towns to reduce their contributions to their schools during the recession.

Normally, towns must follow "maintenance of effort" provisions in the law that require at least the same amount of local money to be appropriated for the schools each year, with some allowance for reduction based on shrinking enrollment. In 2009, the legislature added the following language to the relevant statute:

Provided, that for the fiscal years 2010 and 2011 each community shall contribute to its school committee in an amount not less than ninety-five percent (95.0%) of its local contribution for schools for the fiscal year 2009.

The clear and plain reading of that language would allow a town to hold the schools to 95% of their 2009 local contribution for 2010 and 2011 without regard to the rest of the statute. The fiscal 2012 requirement brings back the requirement to contribute at least as much as "the previous fiscal year." Careful reading of the article (which is confusing, and which, for some reason, doesn't cite the relevant law) suggests that Warwick allocated $123.9 million in local funds for schools in FY10 but took the legislature up on its offer to reduce that amount in FY11, to $117.7 million.

The Warwick School Committee is asserting a legal right to at least the FY10 amount for its FY12 budget. Since the law makes no mention of reverting back to 100% of older budgets, however, it is clear that "the previous fiscal year" (FY11) would be the new baseline. That is, the Warwick City Council is entirely within the law to hold to the $117.7 million, and the leaders of both chambers of the General Assembly have chimed in to confirm as much.

School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado cites a letter from Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist justifying the schools' position and, no doubt, in true Rhode Island fashion has some behind-the-scenes assurances from the Department of Education. Although I can't find the text online, having read a few such "rulings," I'd expect it to be the legal equivalent of mumbling in one's hand before asserting an arbitrary decision. Unfortunately, these things aren't decided by the clarity of the law, but by the willingness of the parties to keep rolling the dice at each successive stage of legal review, up through the Department of Education and then the judiciary.

That's all pretty standard, though. The disturbing aspect is what tends to get lost in these narrow debates and, through accumulation, in civic discourse more generally:

"She is the commissioner of education and she's our boss," Furtado said. "I honestly don't know where we're going to find the money; we're already down to the bone."

Deborah Gist is not the boss of the Warwick School Committee; the people of Warwick are. Too often, elected officials join with the education bureaucracy to conspire against their communities' taxpayers. Rather than muddying the legal waters with strained analysis, Furtado and her committee ought to set about finding a way to live within the restraints that they have insisted must be imposed. Many of the people of Warwick are surely "down to the bone," as well, and very few of them have $150 million annual budgets to comb for savings.

July 7, 2011

How Does New Medicare-eligible retiree Reform Affect Your Community?

Marc Comtois

WPRO's Bob Plain piqued my interest with his story on how the new law (PDF, pg. 145 of file) allowing cities and towns to shift municipal retirees’ from private health care plans to Medicare will save Providence about $11.5 million.

I haven't heard what sort of savings this could mean for my hometown of Warwick's budget numbers, though a look at the 2012 Warwick City Budget (pg.85 of file) shows that there are approximately $6.88 million earmarked for retiree health care for municipal, police and fire retirees (Warwick schools don't pay for retiree health care). Now, this doesn't mean that all of that money can vanish from the books. There are plenty of contingencies built into the new law:

Every municipality, participating or nonparticipating in the municipal employees' retirement system, may require its retirees, as a condition of receiving or continuing to receive retirement payments and health benefits, to enroll in Medicare as soon as he or she is eligible, notwithstanding the provisions of any other statute, ordinance, interest arbitration award, or collective bargaining agreement to the contrary. Municipalities that require said enrollment shall have the right to negotiate any Medicare supplement or gap coverage for Medicare-eligible retirees, but shall not be required to provide any other healthcare benefits to any Medicare-eligible retiree or his or her spouse who has reached sixty-five (65) years of age, notwithstanding the provisions of any other statute, ordinance, interest arbitration award, or collective bargaining agreement to the contrary. Municipality provided benefits that are provided to Medicare-eligible individuals shall be secondary to Medicare benefits. Nothing contained herein shall impair collectively bargained Medicare Supplement Insurance. {emphasis added}
So cities and towns (ie; mayors and city councils) don't have to do this and current collective bargaining agreements may prohibit them from doing so, anyway. It'll be interesting to see who takes advantage of the new law, who ignores it or who makes excuses.

June 8, 2011

The Taxman Cometh in Warwick

Marc Comtois

As mentioned last week, Warwick saw a re-run of last year's budget debate and now has a re-run of last year's budget: flat-funded schools but an increase in city-side spending = property tax increases AND (new and improved!) the (re)imposition of the car tax.

The council approved a budget of about $273.8 million and a new residential property-tax rate of $18.16 per $1,000 of assessed value. The council was able to trim 12 cents off Mayor Scott Avedisian’s proposed 80-cent tax-rate increase by substantially cutting the requested overtime budgets of almost all city departments, except for police and public works.

For the average resident taxpayer with a house valued at $168,000, the new tax rate will mean an increase of about $114. The current residential tax rate is $17.48 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The council’s budget, which passed on a 6-to-2 vote, brings higher car taxes by nearly eliminating the $6,000 exemption on auto values that was state law until last year.... The motor vehicle tax rate, which varies among communities and is locked by the General Assembly, is $34.60 per $1,000 of valuation in Warwick.

The car values are set by the state’s Vehicle Value Commission. A 2008 Toyota Corolla is currently valued at $11,275, according to city officials. A resident will now have to pay taxes on all but $500 of that value, resulting in an annual excise tax bill of about $372.82.

The other tax rates set Monday night are a commercial rate of $27.24 per $1,000 of assessed value, up from the current rate of $26.22. The tangible property tax rate will increase from $34.96 per $1,000 to $36.32.

City Councilmen Steve Merolla and C.J. Donovan (both Democrats) voted against the budget. The biggest cut made by the council was the Fire Department's allotment for overtime--which they have routinely exceeded year after year (so it's of questionable value to "cut" something that is never realistic anyway...). As mentioned, the schools were flat-funded again and will seek to cut $6 million from their budget. Merolla echoed the point oft-made by the Warwick Tea Party (download their analysis here):
The administration keeps bashing the schools for being "top heavy” and spending money, “but the School Department has been cutting costs,” he said.

Most of the tax increases in recent years are tied to bigger city salaries and higher municipal costs, he said. “At the end of the day, the kids get hurt.”

As mentioned earlier in the piece containing Merolla's comments, the School Committee have cut 150 full-time equivalent positions over the last few years. On the other hand, the School Administration didn't help themselves any by requesting a 2.75% pay increase for non-union administrative staff--no matter how deserving or how long they've gone without a raise. It just doesn't look good in these times. That being said, going forward, the School Committee does have the "benefit" of having expired contracts with both school unions (WISE and AFT), so they have an opportunity to cure many of the structural ills that contribute to these problems (health care co-pays, reform contract steps, weighting, etc.).

The city-side contracts (municipal, police, fire) expire in June 2012, so no cost-savings can (or will) be negotiated until then. There should be no confusion: the tax increases imposed upon Warwick citizens this year are a direct result of increases in city-side expenditures proposed by Mayor Avedisian and approved by the majority of the Warwick City Council.

June 3, 2011

Re-Run in Warwick

Marc Comtois

Budget time in Warwick, which means the head-butting between the Mayor/City Council and Warwick Schools is essentially the same as last year and will probably have the same results. Without re-hashing the same arguments, here's the quick version.

The schools and city disagree on the baseline number for maintaining the level of effort for school funding. (The "moe" is required by law and the situation is exacerbated by differing opinions from the Education Commissioner and the leaders of the General Assembly, each telling the respective sides what they want to hear...the city solicitor is looking into it). The Warwick Beacon provided a nice graphic to illustrate the difference:

Also still relevant to the conversation is last year's analysis from the Warwick Tea Party, which shows that the City side of the budget has seen the majority of growth--and new tax dollars--over the last few years. Here is an updated chart produced by former School Committee/City Council member Bob Cushman illustrating the budgeting trends in Warwick.

The city flat-funded the schools in 2008 and 2009, then after a stimulus bump in 2010, funded at 95% in 2011. They have again proposed to flat-fund schools this year (based on the "new" moe). Overall, the school budget has increased 20.6% since 2004 and has actually decreased since 2008 (albeit with a one-time stimulus bump). The city side of the budget has increased 49.8% since 2004. The school-side of the budget reached its peak as far as a percentage of the overall budget at 63.89% in 2007. Now it stands at 55% of the total budget, which is a trend that some favor, no doubt. However, as the Warwick Tea Party points out, the fact is that the overall budget continues to grow with new property tax "revenue" generated over the last few years going to fund increases in the city side of the budget, not the schools.

UPDATE: Bob Cushman passed along an updated analysis for this year. You can download the file here (MS Word).

May 20, 2011

Tax Increases in Warwick

Marc Comtois

As reported by the ProJo, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian's new budget includes significant tax increases (both in the property tax and imposition of the car tax) on the city's residents. Additionally, the Warwick Beacon provided this helpful graphic to illustrate what it could mean for your average, two-car Warwick household:

Avedisian blames the 2010 floods, the bad economy and other unforseen events--like the contracts he's negotiated over the past decade--as well as the by-now common tactic of blaming the school department. He asks for nearly $8 million more in spending (almost a 3% increase over last year) and touts the departmental cuts and layoffs he's made to cut costs. In essence, he argues, it's a revenue problem not a spending problem. The truth, of course, is that while nearly every other line item has been cut, the contractual obligations continue to rise higher than the revenue stream. This can be addressed, if the political will is there.

April 13, 2011

Minimal Pension Reform in Warwick

Marc Comtois

Warwick Mayor Avedisian's pension reform proposals are currently in the process of being reviewed by the Warwick City Council. In a nutshell, Avedisian proposes the following:

1) Minimum retirement age of 50 years old for Fire and Police and 59 for municipal workers. Right now, they can retire at any age as long as they've served enough years. Which leads to....

2) Increase the minimum years of service required to retire to 25 for police and fire (up from 20) and 25 years for municipal employees.

3) Unfortunately, any cost savings projections are immediately obsolete because the proposal also assumes the same 8% or so rate of return that is fast becoming obsolete as the new actuarial reports being presented today show. Former City Councilor Bob Cushman broke down the minimal--delayed--savings at the meeting:


Basically, right now, cost-savings are "on paper" and way in the future.

Anyway, taking it for what it is...upping the retirement age to 50 is defensible for police and fire, but 59 for municipal workers? Why not 65 like the rest of us? Average lifespan is what, 75 now? That means 16 years retired, getting full health care to boot. (As far as I know, Mayor Avedisian isn't proposing the removal of lifetime health care benefits for city employees). I've said it before, this is all nice, but it should have been done a while ago. The flexibility of bureaucracy in action once again.

Unions are fighting this reform because they don't want pensions to be removed form collective bargaining. So far, the first phase (police pension reform) has been approved 7-2 by the City Council. Apparently, Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson and Councilman Charles "C.J." Donovan Jr. couldn't even approve of this tepid reform. Vella-Wilkinson is the new City Councilor who said of the proposal:

I personally feel that it's heavy-handed for the city to decide (through ordinance) what pensions should be....We are not giving the unions a chance. They are stakeholders too.... They are not Al-Qaeda. They are not holding us hostage.
Brilliant. I'd urge Vella-Wilkinson to look at the new reports coming out of the General Treasurer's office. How is she going to hyperbolize when current pensions need to change?

Look, something is better than nothing and the wheels of government turn slowly. But forgive me if, again, I'm less than enthused that some fairly common sense modifications have taken so long to come forth. Congratulations aren't in order. This should have been a long time ago.

February 26, 2011

Education Roundup

Marc Comtois

A bevy of education-related stories today. The repercussions following the Providence teacher "firings" continue, with Mayor Tavares getting attention from the New York Times. The ProJo reported that teachers fear it's the end for seniority-based retention, which is kind of a strange way to put it because, as the story also explains, that end was already foreshadowed by Education Commissioner Deborah Gist last year.

In Warwick, a review panel has recommended more transparency on the part of the School Administration, citing communication breakdowns between the City-side and School-side. According to one commission member, there was also "an air of mystery around school finances" that needed to be made more understandable. They also various scenarios for reconfiguring the make-up of the school committee. The report should be available at warwick.org some time soon. Meanwhile, the Warwick School Department unveiled an new electronic records program that will make student data available to all "stakeholders" (including parents!). Warwick also issued the contract-maximum 40 teacher layoff notices (but can only actually fire 20).

In Cranston, the School Committee is asking for $3.5 million in concessions from school unions and asked the City for more money. However, Mayor Alan Fung has already indicated he plans on level-funding the schools this year.

February 18, 2011

Avedisian's Pension Plan and Continuing Problems

Marc Comtois

I noted that Warwick Mayor Avedisian was offering up a pragmatic, if typical, pension reform plan in that it dealt with reforms for future pensions. Avedisian took to the pages of the Providence Journal to explain his plan, but, as Ted Nesi notes, Avedisian tries to get away with shoving the past pension problems aside.

In the 1950s, 1960s, and for most of the 1970s, the City of Warwick did not properly fund its pension plans and make the necessary annual contributions needed to keep them solvent. Some years the city would make proper contributions and in others there would be no contribution beyond the actual benefits paid out. To be exact, if pension payments totaled $500,000, the city leaders funded that amount to pay pensions....in Warwick, the biggest unresolved issue are the[se] original police and fire pension plans. Today, they are funded at only 27 percent of what is needed. So, while people can suggest that the city has failed to do what is right, they instead should be asking the original creators of the pension systems why there was no leadership when the plans were created. Had even a small amount been contributed annually in those years, the unfunded liability today would be very small.
Not so fast, says Nesi (check out his chart for reference):
The question, then, is what Warwick is going to do about the $200 million gap between its pre-1971 plan’s assets and liabilities. It’s plans like those which the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns’ Dan Beardsley suggested to me the other day could be the source of litigation as cities unable to fund them move to take away benefits promised in the past....I suppose we could call up Raymond Stone or Horace Hobbs to ask why they failed to make pension contributions in the ’50s and ’60s. (Actually, we can’t; Hobbs died in 1999, Stone in 2004.) But that’s not going to yield a solution to Warwick’s $200 million pension gap.

Avedisian and his fellow mayors may have inherited this problem – but it’s still theirs now.

As I previously suggested, I don't expect cities to go to court over this, but maybe I'm wrong. One thing that will help is for the public to support pension reform by showing up to city and town council meetings when those items are on the table.

February 15, 2011

On The Other Hand...Warwick Firefighter Cleared After Doing the Right Thing

Marc Comtois

After taking Providence firefighters to task for the remarkable number of them who seem to be retiring on disability, I'd like to turn attention to a Warwick firefighter who did good by the City of Warwick and ended up suffering for it:

Fire Lt. Henrik Dunlaevy, who in 2004 sold his software to a private firm after he had been letting the city use it for free, was the owner of the product and within his rights, states a letter from the state police financial crimes unit....In 2004, Dunlaevy sold his product to PURVIS Systems, a public safety software company based in Middletown.

The state police noted that when Dunlaevy sold the software he insisted that the buyer honor his promise to give Warwick five years of free maintenance and updates.

It was pretty obvious to all that this was exactly the thing we'd want our public employees to do:
Both Mayor Scott Avedisian and Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan said that Dunlaevy, who came to Warwick after serving as a firefighter in Barrington, had already developed the computer software that tracked fire department runs when he was hired by the city.

Sullivan said that Dunlaevy offered to let Warwick use it for free, and did not use city time to work on the product. Avedisian called the council's accusations "ridiculous" and said they would have a chilling affect on any employee who wanted to go above the call of duty by "sharing their own ingenuity with the city."

That wasn't good enough for the "gotcha" lovin' former Warwick Councilwoman Helen Taylor (and this issue stemmed from an earlier p**ing match between the City and Purvis).
At the request of former Councilwoman Helen Taylor in October, the majority of council members asked the state police to investigate the sale, saying they believed the software was enhanced by its use in Warwick and that it was the intellectual property of the city.
So, seven of the nine city councilors joined Taylor (Gallucci and Colantuono voted against) who was convinced that Dunlaevy developed the software on City time and believed that, somehow, the City should get some of the money for "enhanced...intellectual property." The State Police looked into it and cleared Dunlaevy.
"In short, the City of Warwick holds no proprietary interest in the software that Mr. Dudley, alone, developed that would allow the City to criminally complain, in any manner about Mr. Dunlaevy's use or sale of the software," Lt. John Lemont, head of the financial crimes unit, stated in a letter to the Warwick City Council...."After review, the financial crimes unit has found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing and have therefore closed the investigation," concludes the letter.
So, while I complained about firefighters not stepping up and calling out their colleagues, I also can understand that bad things can happen when you do step up, especially if politicians get involved.

February 11, 2011

Warwick NECAP Scores Up: Amazing What a Little Incentive Can Do

Marc Comtois

Warwick schools were pretty happy with the latest NECAP results, which showed improvement nearly across the board. From the Beacon

As for the improvements at the high school level where students were told for a first time that they would need to be proficient to graduate, [Warwick School Board Chair Bethany] Furtado concludes, “Students are taking it seriously. Kids need to know that that’s [school] their job. They need to do well in school.”

Principals at all three high schools agreed with Furtado, saying the fact that students took the test seriously because it counted toward their graduation eligibility was one of the major factors for improved scores.

“There was more motivation for the students to do well this time around because they understood that the scores would have an impact on graduation,” said Vets Principal Gerry Habershaw.

Habershaw said it wasn’t only the students that approached the test with a more serious attitude.

After the teachers saw what happened in Central Falls, they took the NECAP preparation more seriously,” Habershaw said. “I also rearranged the way we did advisory periods because it had become a joke. So every Thursday, during advisory, teachers would submit a NECAP practice test so the students could get used to it.”

...“I’m very, very pleased with those results,” said Pilgrim Principal Dennis Mullen. “This was the first year that students were held accountable and they knew that it really mattered, but from a school and teacher perspective, we did a great deal of professional development.” {emphasis added}

Real consequences tied to failure helped get positive results. Imagine that. They also embraced the teacher development required to get results.
Mullen said writing was emphasized throughout the curriculum at Pilgrim by having each department create writing prompts for the students to perform constructed responses, which was an area the school had fallen down on in the past. He said each department chose a different prompt, such as persuasive writing, reflective writing, or responding to information from a text, in order to ensure that students were exposed to all prompts before taking the test.

...Mullen said one of the programs to improve math scores has already been implemented in all three high schools, which allows eighth grade students who are entering ninth grade that scored below proficient in math on the NECAP test to ramp up their math skills before taking Algebra 1, which will be implemented at all levels in ninth grade.

“We’ve aligned our curriculum to state standards and our expectations remain high,” Mullen said. “I’m very pleased with where we are, but I’m never satisfied.”

Good job and good attitude. Keep it up.

February 9, 2011

Avedesian's Pragmatic Pension Reform

Marc Comtois

I will give credit to Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian for coming up with a plan to save $2 million in pension costs via the extension of retirement ages and reformulating pension payouts for new hires after July 2012.

Avedisian’s proposal would increase the minimum years of service needed for retirement from 20 to 25 for police and firefighters and impose a minimum retirement age of 50. Municipal employees would need 25 years of service and be at least 59 years old to qualify for a pension.

His proposal also recalibrates the formula used to calculate pensions, giving police and fire employees 2 percent of each year’s salary as opposed to 2.5 percent. Cost-of-living pension increases would not be fixed at 3 percent, but would follow a formula currently used for municipal employees that is based, in part, on the Consumer Price Index.

Following a model set by Pawtucket, Avedisian is also looking to reduce disability pensions for police and firefighters who retire due to job-related injuries and currently receive pensions that are the equivalent of about 66.6 percent of their salaries. Avedisian is proposing that those pension payments be lowered to a regular pension payment once those former employees reach normal retirement age.

There are always ways to take a tougher line by reducing the percentages and raising retirement ages even further. Or, as WHJJ's Helen Glover suggests, implementing mandatory physicals for police and fire, which would mitigate many disability claims.

Yet, again, Avedisian's proposal is for future employees and we all know the real costs and problems we're worried about are with current and past pension plans/payouts. Unfortunately, there just isn't much that can be done about those right now. However, Avedisian explains that this proposal lays the groundwork:

Avedisian said that contracts with police, fire and municipal employees expire in 2012 and he wants the ordinance in place to serve as a footing for contract talks. That is also why the changes will only affect employees hired after July 1, 2012, he said.

While many residents worried about taxes would like to see cities and towns make changes in existing pension plans, the problem can only really be addressed on a “go-forward” basis because of the binding language of contracts, according to the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns and the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

“You can’t just go in and break contracts,” said Daniel L. Beardsley Jr., the league’s executive director. “Then, you’ll be looking not only at legal fees, but the possibility of costly settlements.”

Look, it would be great to take a hard line, but the makeup and track record of Rhode Island courts doesn't make one optimistic. Besides, the legal fees required to carry this through the courts would most likely end up eating up any attempted savings (at least for the short term). So, until contract time, this is the sort of thing municipalities are left with. So, it sucks, I know. But as citizens, we need to be ready to buck up our elected officials when the contracts are being renegotiated. Keep your eyes on the long game--the union leaders certainly do.

October 20, 2010

Warwick School Committee Chair Calls for End of School Committee

Marc Comtois

Testifying before the Warwick Charter Review Commission, current Warwick School Committee Chairman Christopher Friel has come to the conclusion that the Warwick School Committee has outlived its usefulness and should be integrated into city government.

Traditionally, school committees were responsible for establishing curriculum and adopting educational standards and policies within their respective communities. The school committee’s traditional roles have all but been eviscerated by both the federal and state government who have, through federal legislation such as No Child Left Behind and through the implementation of various state mandates, assumed the responsibilities once under the control of local education bodies. The local school committees have largely been relinquished to handling fiscal as well as personnel matters....

Having served upon the Warwick School Committee for the past six years, I do possess a unique insight into the operations of local government, and more particularly, those of the school department. While I respect the roles that school committees have played in this country for over 200 years, the continuing centralization of education at the state level has, to a large degree, rendered them irrelevant, and has simply resulted in duplication of functions at the local level. Therefore, if the Charter Review Commission for Schools is to make a recommendation to the City Council to change the role and authority of the Warwick School Committee, I would respectfully suggest that anything short of this proposal would simply be shifting, not solving, any problems.

Friel believes that integrating the management of the schools under the Mayor and moving its budget under the direct oversight of the City Council would streamline operations and remove a lot of the bickering and finger pointing that goes on between the Committee, Council and Mayor.

Retiring School Committee member Lucille Mota-Costa disagrees with the idea and believes the current bad economic times could be clouding long-term judgment:

I believe our school age children and their families need direct representation to keep the issues clear for them (good or bad) as well as all taxpayers of Warwick.

The present system affords them that distinction. The students in our city number 10,505 [and] their direct voice is limited to 5 publicly elected officials (nine would make more sense). These officials are also directly responsible to the parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles and general supporters of education which total number could easily represent 40,000 of the 52,000 (Beacon 2006) active registered voters/taxpayers in the city of Warwick, an obvious majority. And also given that the school department expenses represent 58 percent of our total municipal budget, the present system makes good sense to me.

Mota-Costa further would accept the idea of the School Committee sending residents a separate school tax bill, but a major change in the Warwick charter would have to be made:
Warwick and North Providence are the only two remaining districts with legislative charters in the state of Rhode Island. All the rest have home rule, which affords the local resident the opportunity to approve or disapprove annual municipal budgets. Therefore I have deep concerns about a charter commission that wants a school committee to respond to gaining taxing authority that neglects to discuss the primary issue first, which is home rule and greater voter representation during the budget process.
Personally, I can't imagine not having a School Committee and think its very important that voters elect people who will be advocates for the education of city's children--even expanding the committee as Mota-Costa suggests. But I'm also intrigued by the idea of consolidating collective bargaining and budgeting under one entity, if for nothing else than that it helps to clarify which entity would be responsible for property tax increases!

September 24, 2010

Lifetime Health Care for 6 Years of Work

Marc Comtois

As a Warwickian, I'd be remiss not to call attention to the latest Hummel Report:

While unfunded public pensions have gotten the lion's share of the headlines recently - the unfunded health benefit liability for retired employees is a much bigger problem here in Warwick, to the tune of more than $300 million. Part of the reason: promises made years ago to give lifetime health coverage to many - including city council members.

Warwick is one of a handful of communities in Rhode Island that offers city council members medical coverage. All but one of the 9-member council take it - seven have family plans.

And up until last year, if you served three consecutive terms on the council - or as mayor - you qualified for lifetime health benefits. That's six years for lifetime health coverage.

That means taxpayers this year are paying for 16 former councilmen, mayors, or their widows - to the tune of more than $50,000.

Not a lot in the big picture, sure. But it's the principle of the thing. Six years? Well, the current City Council has made some changes--exempting themselves, of course:
Council President Bruce Place said the council last year voted to eliminate the lifetime benefit for elected officials, saying it is a move toward reigning in the city's obligations on healthcare costs across the board.

Place: ``It's one of the highest costs we incur, especially with retirees. I firmly believe that people that were hired by the city 20 years ago and retired, you don't change the rules on them in the middle of it. But you have to be proactive and think ahead, you have to think about new contracts in the future. What you sign and what you don't sign and we just can't afford those kinds of benefits in the future.''

But what about benefits for current city council members? Employees of the city must work more than 20 hours to get the same benefit, but council member don't punch a clock so it's difficult to quantify how many hours they actually put in.

What is clear: The Blue Cross plan they receive is one of the best available. The council members now pay at least a 10 percent co-share; some volunteer to pay more.

Only in the public sector does "reform" mean providing full health-care coverage to employees who--if they worked any other place--would be considered part-time. Finally:
But the premiums are only part of the real cost of the benefit to the city and its taxpayers. The Hummel Report has learned that last year the claims against the city's policy for the current council were more than a quarter of a million dollars.
Not surprising. If it's "free" (or cheap), you'll use it more. That's how we got into the current health care mess. Private sector employees have been dealing with burgeoning costs and cuts in health care for at least a decade. It must be nice to work in the public sector where economic reality can be ignored.

August 22, 2010

Power Politics Illustrated

Marc Comtois

In a recent column having to do with Warwick GOP infighting, former Democrat City Council and School Committee Chair Bob Cushman explained the machinations that go on at the party level amongst the power brokers in Warwick.

[Councilman Steve] Colantuano in 2006 ran and was defeated in the Democrat primary by me. In 2008, he once again met with the Democrat Ward 1 chairperson and was unsuccessful in his attempt to acquire the endorsement. Fearful of losing in the Democrat primary again, he switched to the Republican Party at the last minute, receiving their endorsement along with the promise of a legion of volunteers and thousands of dollars to support his campaign. Mayor Avedisian personally contributed $1,000, the maximum amount allowed by law, to his campaign....

The old political adage – make your adversary your supporter – has been a key to Mayor Avedisian’s success since Republicans haven’t had more then two members on the City Council in over 10 years. The mayor has been so successful that he has literally crippled the Democrat party, and in the process, undermined the concept of separation of powers.

The legislative branch has effectively become a yes-man for the mayor. In return for not only political support but also for the jobs and appointed board positions the mayor has given their family and friends, these candidates, once elected, support his legislation, sponsor his appointments, and give him control over the legislative process....With new first-time Republican candidates for City Council in Danny Hall in Ward 5 and Mike Mulholland in Ward 6, who seem to have a mindset independent of the administration, challenging pro-Avedisian Democrats, will they receive the same campaign cash from the mayor and support from Warwick’s Republican Party that Mr. Colantuano received two years ago? I seriously doubt it.

Setting Cushman's obvious personal stake aside, the machinations he describes are illustrative and indicative of a sort of insider politics that outsiders are sick of. We'll have to wait until November to see if voter disgust rises high enough to change the status quo. I've got my doubts.

August 4, 2010

Warwick School Committee Chooses the Tough Path

Marc Comtois

Faced with an insurmountable $13 million cut in state and local funding, the Warwick School Committee voted to freeze pay and impose a 20% health care co-pay for all of its employees last night.

Before the vote, School Committee Chairman Chris Friel stressed that these are not actions the district wants to take but it has no choice faced with insufficient funding for its budget of about $161 million for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

He said the district did not want to cut programs that directly affect students, such as sports, gifted classes, mentoring and all extracurricular activities.

Unions are not happy.
The action is in apparent violation of the School Department's contract with its roughly 1,000 teachers represented by the Warwick Teachers Union, with teachers slated to lose a 2.75 percent raise this year....The leaders of the two unions that represent almost all school employees - the teachers union and the Warwick Independent School Employees union - vowed that they will respond with swift court action.

"I feel stabbed in the back," teachers union president James Ginolfi said, noting that the first he and other union executives heard of the School Committee's plan was less than an hour before it took action in executive session.

"We listened to what they had to say and said we'd get back to you," Ginolfi said, adding that the school board is sending a public message that it has no regard for a legal agreement. "I am shocked," he said.

The union has been playing the "we'd get back to you" game or the "we're willing to listen" game for some time now. The School Committee is obligated to have its budget finalized shortly after the City Council approves the school budget and was already late in doing so. They couldn't wait any longer. The situation called for urgency and the unions seemed to be content with playing the same collective bargaining games that worked in the past (see the "Addendum" in the extended post for a timeline). That isn't working any more. It's apparent that the Warwick School Committee felt like there wasn't much expeditious movement occurring on the other side of the table and felt like the only path left open--a tough one--was to unilaterally make these cuts and changes. That's something that the Warwick City Council backed away from. Whether the solution is viable depends on the next stop in the process: the courthouse.

Continue reading "Warwick School Committee Chooses the Tough Path"

July 8, 2010

20% Health Care Share in Warwick

Marc Comtois

It took them a year and a half, but it looks like the City Council has realized that municipal employees are going to have to pay 20% of their health care (and not a flat dollar amount) every pay period (via Warwick Beacon).

The city, which is self-insured, meaning it pays its own health insurance claims on an ongoing basis, would save roughly $3.7 million in costs if employees paid 20 percent of the premiums.

Currently, Warwick City employees pay $14 per week for an individual plan and $28 per week for a family plan. Last year, that made up for roughly 10 percent of the cost. With the double-digit rates of medical industry inflation, that means employees will be paying at least double that amount under a 20 percent co-share premium payment.

Warwick teachers are paying $11 a week for health care.

In addressing how schools could cope with a projected $9 million budget shortfall, Superintendent Peter Horoschak suggested a 20 percent health insurance co-payment for all school workers that is estimated to save $3.7 million.

Mayor Scott Avedisian said yesterday in an e-mail that he would speak with his advisors before taking a position on the proposal.

As I mentioned back in March of 2009, "Mayor Avedesian explained that his Administration's analysis indicated that--because Warwick is self-insured and that co-share payments are largely affected by the management costs--the city will actually do better" than previous years by going with the increased flat fee. I'm not sure if the numbers show that, but one thing for sure is that a percentage would have been a much wiser move over an increased flat rate. Further, as some may remember, there was also some naive hope that the General Assembly would pass a statewide, mandated 25% health care co-share. Right.

The bottom line is that this was all predicted a while ago and it finally took the worst economic crisis in most of our lifetimes for local politicians to wise up. Even a blind squirrel, or a pack of 'em, finds a nut every once in a while.

July 1, 2010

Warwick Teachers Union Balks at Talks

Marc Comtois

The Warwick Teachers Union (WTU) leadership continues to look for and (surprise) find reasons to not meet with the Warwick School Committee to help resolve the district's $8.9 million budget deficit. As reported by Russel Moore in the Warwick Beacon, the School Administration had proposed to consolidate and eliminate some department head positions in the City's schools (estimated savings of $300,000), which "infuriated union members." Enter WTU President James Ginolfi:

"We were more than willing to sit down and talk until they took that unilateral action. It's like they want to talk right after they violate our contract," said Ginolfi....[U]nion members...wanted to address the budget deficit through negotiations. Ginolfi said it would be illegal to eliminate the department heads without the union's consent because the positions are contractually protected. The union has since filed a grievance....Meanwhile, the school committee had scheduled a meeting with the union's executive board last Tuesday. The purpose of the meeting was quite open-ended, Ginolfi said.

"[School Committee Chairman Christopher Friel] said that we were going to talk about everything. What does that mean? I wanted to set some parameters before we met," said Ginolfi.

Ginolfi then notified the school committee that unless they rescinded their plans to eliminate department heads — there would be no meeting, at least so far as the union was concerned. No progress was made and neither side would budge. The school department wouldn't rescind the notices and the union didn't show up. Tuesday came and went without a meeting.

Apparently, the WTU leadership isn't able to multi-task. Ahh, that's not really true. It's all about perception and rights and contracts, you see. Gotta save face, show power, get your agida up over being "insulted" or slighted. Ginolfi was also upset that the Administration had publicly stated that all school employees should have a 20% health care co-pay before coming to the WTU. It's not exactly a newsflash that co-pays are on the horizon, whether you've been officially informed or not. Grow up and get in the room and talk. Sheesh.

Meanwhile, there still doesn't seem to be any negotiation movement between the School Deparment and the Warwick Independent School Employees Union (WISE), whose members have been working under the old contract for 4 years, which means no raises but also no health care co-payments. Makes me wonder if the East Greenwich model is being looked at for implementation in Warwick.

June 15, 2010

Warwick Dips into Reserves, Cuts School Budget

Marc Comtois

The Warwick City Council approved a $267 million budget and avoided raising car taxes (as proposed by Mayor Avedisian) by dipping into reserves to the tune of $2.7 million to offset city-side cuts. They also basically agreed with Mayor Avedisian's budget proposal and funded schools at 95% of last year ($117.7 million), which was $9 million less than the school department requested ($126 million). In the past, municipalities could not fund schools at a level less than the previous year, but the 95% level of funding for schools is allowable thanks to a new state law passed this year by the General Assembly.

The City Council also followed Mayor Avedisian's lead over the objections of the School Commitee and Administration and decided to sequester an earmarked $850,000 for funding school sports and activities. Based on information provided by the city, the Rhode Island Interscholastic League had no problem with the city funding the sports instead of the school department. I expect there will still be some contention regarding this money.

The end result is that the Warwick School Committee has little choice but to renegotiate the contract with the Warwick Teacher's Union and to come to a contract agreement with the Warwick Independent School Employees Union, who's contract expired in 2006. Based on looking at the numbers, the only way to achieve savings will be to increase the healthcare co-pay and to remove raises for the next fiscal year. The School Committee meets on Thursday at the School Administration Building to formally begin dealing with their downsized budget.

Overall, as research by the Warwick Tea Party shows, the city managed to foist off most of the reduction in state funding back onto the schools. Thus has been written yet another chapter in the ongoing contentious saga between the city and school department. Because there appear to be few options, as explained above, I suspect that at the conclusion of negotiations, the school employees--both unionized and non--will be paying more into their health care than their city-employed counterparts and that they will not be receiving raises (outside of the regular step increases, of course!) this year, unlike their city employed counterparts.

These are the common sense savings that Warwick taxpayers demanded, but they expected the city to do its part, too. For while it's true that the city did renegotiate contracts over the last year or two (as did the school department), those savings consisted of short-term reductions that would be made up in future years or reductions of previously promised increases. Additionally, it is plainly obvious that those renegotiated contracts still fall short given the current economic climate: things have gotten worse and what looked like "serious concessions" back then to some don't really even pass muster when compared to the private sector realities (if the ever really did). There is still plenty of room to cut. The City Council recognized that to be the case on the school side of things. It's too bad they didn't look in the mirror.

June 14, 2010

Tonight's the Night in Warwick

Marc Comtois

As the ProJo 7to7 reports:

Increased car taxes and deep cuts to the school systems are two likely options Monday night as the City Council has to come up with a budget for fiscal 2011 that is not only balanced but fills a roughly $14 million hole caused by slashed state aid.

Council members put in marathon sessions last week as they combed through the roughly $267 million budget that Mayor Scott Avedisian is proposing for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Under the City Charter, if the council cannot agree on amended version of Avedisian's budget, then the mayor's budget will stand. The public hearing on the budget ended Thursday and the council is expected to take action at Monday's meeting which begins at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

Once the Council acts, the School Department will have an actual number from which they will have to decide how to move forward. Cut sports, activities and other things that directly affect students or go to the Warwick Teachers Union (WTU) and Warwick Independent School Employees (WISE) and ask to renegotiate (or negotiate, in the case of WISE) their contracts.

June 11, 2010

Another night in Warwick

Marc Comtois

The City Council met with the Warwick School Department and School Committee, represented by School Committee Chair Chris Friel and Superintendent Dr. Peter Horoschak, respectively. They explained to the City Council that for the past two years they had been flat-funded from the City at $123 million and were requesting approximately $126 million this year. Councilmen Steve Merolla, Joseph Solomon and Steve Colantuono all worked to narrow in on the problem. Mayor Avedisian helped clarify his proposal, explaining that he had proposed $117 million initially, but that was modified down to $115 million in light of further cuts from the State House last week. It was concluded that, assuming that the schools accepted flat funding again, the difference was approximately $8 million that had to be made up on the city side. It was basically agreed that the way forward lay in re-opening contracts with the Teacher's union and in finally negotiating a new contract with the WISE union (secretaries, custodians and other support personnel--the old contract expired in 2006).

Then the incoherent portion of the evening kicked off with Councilwoman Donna Travis bringing up non-budget related items (traditional end-of-school cookout at Oakland Beach shut-down by school food vendor and a cheerleader getting an "absent" for attending a mandatory competition) and Councilwoman Helen Taylor focusing on various budget line items that were either minor (a couple thousand dollars) or were for programs that she knew nothing about, like the West Bay Collaborative, a regional program for troubled students that Warwick hosts, thus defraying some of the cost for Warwick's own students. Taylor also personally called the integrity of the Superintendent into question for which she was chastised by Council Chairman Bruce Place.

The performance by Travis and Taylor is nothing new: over the past week--and through the years--both have taken every opportunity to grandstand at the expense of the school committee and administration. Criticism is warranted, of course, but Travis and Taylor consistently focus on minutiae for the sake of scoring cheap points. Apparently they are unaware that their performances reflect more poorly on them than the school department.

During public comment, various members of the Warwick Tea Party explained that it was time for the elected officials to stop pointing fingers at each other and to work with each other and the city's workers and teachers to make the needed adjustments, such as health care co-pays of 20-25% and pay freezes for this fiscal year. As WTP member Bob Cushman explained, mistakes had been made in the past, but the can can't be kicked down the road anymore. Further, Cushman, the former School Committee Chair and member of the City Council, was well versed in the history recent Warwick budgets and he was able to highlight that most of the cuts in Warwick's budget (around 90% or more) were being shouldered by the School Department while most of the budget increases since 2004 had gone to the city side of the budget. After a criticism from Solomon that he had a hard time believing the School Committee would be able to renegotiate with anyone if they couldn't resolve a 4 year expired contract, Bob Cushman had explained that it takes two sides to bargain and that they had turned down an offer of 9% raises and an $11/week co-pay four years ago.

There were also members of the WISE union who were in attendance and pled their case for being willing to negotiate their contract, which expired 4 years ago. They explained that every year they worried because they heard rumors about the privatization of their jobs. One worker explained that a 20% health care co-pay on a salary in the mid-$30 thousand's would be tough to take.

Other members of the public reiterated the call for everyone in City government to make sacrifices and one speaker chastised the members of Warwick's legislative delegation for never coming to these meetings and not fighting hard enough for more state aid. Finally, Councilman Merolla explained that while cuts in spending were certainly on the table now, going forward the city needed to work to get more businesses up and running. Good point, hard to do. And not something that will solve the immediate problem facing the city.

The City Council will meet again on Monday and it is expected that the budget will be passed at that time. Then it will be up to the various departments, including the schools, to make the cuts needed to abide by the budget. Stay tuned.

June 10, 2010

Warwick Schools: They Know Where to Cut, but Will it Get Done?

Marc Comtois

Warwick Superintendent Dr. Peter Horoschak knows where to go to make budget cuts that would save sports and other activities:

Superintendent Peter Horoschak calculates that even with the mayor's plan to save sports and extra curricular activities, the schools still face a $6.1 million budget deficit. In his opinion, the best place to start plugging the hole is with an across-the-board 20 percent health insurance co-payment.

"I advocate that because I think it is the most sensible and fairest thing to do," Horoschak said Tuesday. He estimated if all school employees paid 20 percent of health care costs, the department could save $3.7 million.

Currently teachers are paying $11 a week for health care as are administrators and middle management. Members of the Warwick Independent School Employees (WISE) that have been unable to reach a contract since the last one expired four years ago have no co-pay.

But while the superintendent favors a uniform co-payment for all employees, implementing it is another matter. Co-payments are a part of the Warwick Teachers Union contract that doesn’t expire for another year and unilaterally imposing higher co-payments, Horoschak believes, would lead to a court battle that he doubts the schools would win. Likewise, the superintendent said the department could save about $3.1 million if it eliminated teacher raises next year. Again, however, this would violate the contract unless the union was to agree to revisions.

Horoschak said schools have asked the union to reopen the contract following Mayor Scott Avedisian's announcement that schools would shoulder about $6 million of the $10 million cut from the city's state aid projections.

Similar concessions could be made on the city side of things, too, where workers pay a flat rate, not a percentage, of their salary for Health care. Back to the school budget, though. A salary freeze for FY 2011 would also be a good move. But--surprise, surprise--good luck with any of it.
Teacher union president James Ginolfi said yesterday that he had received a letter some weeks ago about reopening the contract, but heard nothing until yesterday when Horoschak called.

"We've been waiting and waiting. There hasn't been much talk; it"s been in their hands for a response," Ginolfi said.

"I guess I have a problem that they tell you what they're looking for and not me and they have had plenty of opportunities," he added. He did not comment on Horoschak's proposals, saying those discussions would have to take place at the bargaining table.

The School Committee, Superintendent, Mayor and City Council will all be meeting about this tonight at 6 PM at City Hall.

June 9, 2010

Warwick Tea Party Budget Analysis

Marc Comtois

At the Warwick School Committee meeting last night--in a virtual repeat of Monday night's City Council meeting--residents and students voiced their dismay over the idea of cutting school activities, including sports, to make up looming budget deficits. Perhaps the most insightful, eloquent and forceful defense of sports was given by former Pilgrim standout and Syracuse University football player Emerson Kilgore, who is now an assistant Principle in Providence. All will get another opportunity to let all of the entities hear it at 6 PM on Thursday night, when the City Council, Mayor and School Committee will meet over the school budget.

In anticipation of the meeting, the Warwick Tea Party has provided their analysis of the 2011 Warwick City Budget (Download file). According to their research, since 2004 Warwick taxes have continued to increase with the majority (57%) of the increase going towards city-side (municipal, fire, police, etc.) spending, not schools. In 2011, 91% of Mayor Avedisian's proposed cuts are from the school-side of the budget. Overall, if memory serves, schools account for approximately 63% of the city budget.

That being said, the WTP's analysis also confirms what we all know: most of the area ripe for cutting is in employee salaries and benefits in ALL departments, by far the largest line-item in ANY budget--private or public sector. That doesn't necessarily mean firing anyone, just pay freezes, step freezes and implementing fiscally responsible health care and pension plans NOW, not in 2012.

June 8, 2010

RE: Warwick School Activities Latest to Face Cuts

Marc Comtois

Students protested against a potential cut in school sports and other activities outside of Warwick City Hall last night prior to and during the scheduled City Council Budget hearing. One of the prime movers was information provided by Warwick Schools Superintendent Dr. Peter Horoschak explaining the budget crunch and the various budget scenarios being floated. The best case scenario for the schools would have them level funded at $123,968,068 (which is $2,814,466 below the School Committee's budget request).

To make up this difference, the Superintendent outlined the few areas of discretionary funding available for cuts. Line items categorized as discretionary funding included such things as field trips (which are mostly covered by PTO/PTAs these days, frankly), gifted and talented student programs, student mentor and assistant programs and, the largest item, school activities, including sports. All together, these cuts would total $2,475,126, which was still not quite enough to cover the shortfall. However, the Superintendent did include an important qualifier that was missed by many. "Any further reductions will require negotiation of concessions from the two school department collective bargaining units." That is where the real cost savings can be made up.

Mayor Avedisian spoke to the issue and explained that he had found $850,000 in his budget to fund student programs and would ask that the money be earmarked for that purpose only, not to be sent to the School Committee to be spent at their discretion. Where did he find the money? The car tax, of course.

Dr. Horoschak also addressed the meeting last night and explained that the School Committee and Administration would consider a Carullo action depending on which version of the budget was approved. That would be unfortunate and probably quixotic, given the recent history of such attempts. A Carullo action would not be needed if the contracts are reopened and responsible fiscal steps--no pay raises and a 25% co-pay on medical insurance, for instance--were negotiated. That is why it behooves students and parents to keep the pressure on the city council and the school committee to go into the areas of the budget where there is the most spending--and potential savings: personnel costs. Many speakers made this point to the members of the City Council and the Mayor last night. There is a School Committee Meeting tonight. Now it's their turn.

Continue reading "RE: Warwick School Activities Latest to Face Cuts"

June 7, 2010

Warwick School Activities Latest to Face Cuts

Marc Comtois

The story reported by NBC10 focused on proposed cuts to Warwick school sports. In fact, all school activities and a few other discretionary items are all that is left to cut out of the Warwick Schools budget (around $2.5 million if my memory serves correctly) if they are to begin to meet the funding limits proposed by Mayor Avedisian. Even then, more cuts will be required. The focus is on cutting discretionary spending because all other cuts require the re-opening of contracts.

However, if the public expresses their outrage over such potential cuts, the chances that the School Committee, Administration and Unions will re-visit those line item(s) that dominate the school budget (87%)--salaries and benefits--are greatly increased. The Warwick City Council will be dealing with this (and many other items) tonight at 6 PM.

May 20, 2010

Teachers Skeptical Over Race to the Top

Marc Comtois

As we've learned, the state American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union has decided to support Race to the Top (RTTT). It isn't too much of a leap to see the link between the recent Central Falls agreement and the AFT sign on, but there also can be little doubt that rank-and-file teachers remain skeptical about RTTT, particularly the teacher evaluation component. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist was in Warwick last week to speak about RTTT and it was clear that the prospects of a new evaluation system seems to be causing the most heartburn in the teacher ranks.

What teachers wanted to know Thursday evening was how they would be evaluated and whether such measures would be fair.

Toll Gate English teacher Darlene Netcoh asked if she would be held accountable for the performance of teachers who shaped students since they entered the system in kindergarten?

"What are these hardworking teachers not doing," queried Toll Gate history teacher Kate Rauch.

Netcoh's concerns are valid, which is why any student performance component of a teacher evaluation system has to account for the "raw material" the teacher is starting with. In other words, each student will have a baseline performance score (or something like that), which will be used for comparison at the end of the year to determine progress.

Teachers and union leaders have also complained that there haven't been enough details given out regarding a new teacher evaluation system. As Gist explained, it hasn't been developed because RIDE wants to include teachers in the development process. As she said, if she had developed an evaluation system without teacher input, she would be accused of forcing a system on them. More fundamental is that the reason she hasn't started that process is because she hopes to use RTTT funds to develop that system. However, as she has said, whether or not RI gets RTTT funds, a new statewide teacher evaluation standard will be developed by 2011.

February 17, 2010

Some Fundamental Fixes Need to be Done in Warwick

Marc Comtois

Yesterday, a report in the Warwick Beacon compared the Cranston and Warwick school systems (the teachers for both districts are represented by AFT). By the numbers:

Warwick Budget: $164.6 million
Cranston Budget: $121.4 million.

Warwick Students: 10,507
Cranston Students: 10,774

Warwick cost/pupil: $15,666
Cranston cost/pupil: $11,272

Warwick # Schools: 24 (3 high schools)
Cranston # Schools: 23 (2 high schools)

Warwick Full-time teacher positions: 1,038
Cransont Full-time teacher positions: 944

Warwick salaries/benefits: $144 million
Cranston salaries/benefits: $105.3 million

A review of the most recently available Warwick School budget (via the Transparency Train) reveals that the amount spent on direct payment to personnel has decreased around .5% since 2008 (during that time 4 schools were closed--basically, to piggyback on Justin's point, Warwick already traded schools--as well as teachers and administrators jobs--to keep raises in place). Meanwhile, costs in benefits has increased 10%, which can't be dealt with unless the contract is reopened for negotiation.

Warwick School Committee Member Paul Cannistra said yesterday there needs to be a better balance of student needs against financial realities.

Cannistra, who voted against the teachers’ contract in 2008, arguing it would cost too much money for taxpayers, said that the district needed stricter health insurance co-share premium payments from its employees. Warwick teachers pay $11 per week for both individual and family plans.

Teachers in Cranston pay a 15 percent co-share of the premiums for health care. The Cranston School Department’s bus drivers pay health insurance co-share payments of 10 percent.

According to Warwick School Business Affairs Director Len Flood, the Warwick School District receives about $600,000 from its teachers due to the $11 per week co-share payment. A 10 percent co-share payment would mean the district would receive $2 million. With a 20-percent co-pay, the district would save $4 million.

That's the key: a percentage co-pay, not a flat amount. (Incidentally, Mayor Avedisian made the same mistake on the municipal side last year).

Further, as the Beacon reports, another primary cause for the difference is the practice of weighting students with IEPs (Individual Education Programs), whereby a student with an IEP is counted as 1.5 or 2 students for the purpose of determining class size limits (this is something unique to Warwick's teacher contract). According to Rosemary Healey, the school department’s director of compliance, the practice of weighting is also a magnet:

According to Healey, that might explain why despite having a smaller total student population, Warwick has 460 more students on IEP’s than Cranston. Cranston has 1,700 students on IEP’s whereas Warwick has 2,160.

“I think we provide quality education here. I think our special education program is second to none. I think the affirmation of that is that people want to move here for it,” said Healey.

“Is it very expensive? Yes. Is it necessary? Yes. I think we owe it to our students.”

The Beacon calculates that if no weighting was done, Warwick schools could save about $11 million per year. While he agrees that weighting helps students, Warwick School Committee Chair Chris Friel thinks it may be too costly:
“The question becomes, can the Warwick School District afford to continue the weighting procedures as currently enacted,” said Friel.

“I think that it is becoming cost prohibitive when you take into account the financial situation we currently find ourselves in.”

Whether or not to maintain, discontinue or scale back the practice of weighting is a cost/benefit exercise worth going through.

The bottom line is that there are some fundamental items in contracts and benefits that need to be completely revised, not just patched for now. And while the schools need to do the majority of the work, municipal contracts need to be re-opened (besides the limited, short-term give backs just negotiated) to make co-pays a percentage of costs, not a flat rate. (If I was a dreamer, I'd include revamping the contract step scheme....)

February 1, 2010

Formulas, Formulas....funding, weighing and otherwise

Marc Comtois

I was surprised to learn that Warwick is alone in "weighing" its students based on whether or not they have an IEP (Individual Education Plan). It goes like this: kid with normal educational needs = 1; kid with IEP = 1.5 (and sometimes 2). So, as the Warwick Beacon reported last week, "there are 10,482 students enrolled in Warwick schools. Or are there 11,582 students?" Obviously, with a cap on class size of 28, this can affect how many teachers can be hired. To use an extreme example, If there are 28 IEPs, that really means there are 56 kids, and thus two teachers are required.

[T]he school administration is looking at all ways it can save. Increasing class sizes by eliminating weighting isn’t likely to occur until after the teacher contract expires in August of 2012, if then. Nonetheless, the weighting system that is unique to Warwick is being considered. It’s not the first time.

For as long as school human recourses and counsel Rosemary Healey can remember, elimination of weighing has been on the list of School Committee demands at the opening of contract negotiations. That demand has always been dropped for some other concession.

She said the weighing system was introduced in the 1980s and has been a part of the teachers contract ever since.

How expensive is it?
No one has figured out the precise cost of weighting students, but it is estimated to have resulted in the hiring of an additional 110 teachers. Each teacher is estimated to cost the department $100,000 based on salary and benefits. That’s an annual cost of $11 million.
According to Richard D’Agostino of the Warwick School Department, 20% of Warwick students have IEPs. And that's down a few percentage points since Warwick instituted a more comprehensive screening process! I don't doubt that there are legitimate benefits to IEPs for those who truly need them, but I don't like the way this emotionally-loaded "bargaining chip" is being played.
Teachers Union President Jim Ginolfi likewise acknowledges the prevision may be unique to Warwick, but also in part credits it for making the system outstanding.

“I think Warwick is in the forefront. Warwick has always been in the forefront with special education students”, he said. Elimination of weighting would not correlate into a reduction of costs since the district would still be obligated to meet the requirements of those students with an IEP, says Ginolfi.

“They’re going to need more time to devote to those students”, he reasons....Ginolfi argues that there is flexibility with weighing.

He observes the district has options. It can put all special education students in a single class; it can move IEP students into resource classrooms for special instruction, and it can introduce special education teachers into classrooms where there is a mix of IEP and regular students.

Until they enter negotiations Ginolfi can’t say whether weighing is one of those issues the union would hold out for. As for trimming costs, Ginolfi offered no suggestions.

“Education is expensive”, he said, “and that is why we need a (funding) formula at the state level.”

Ginolfi's "options" are calculated to be unappealing to parents of kids with IEP's, who (understandably) won't be happy about what sounds like "warehousing." But that will all have to wait, because the real unionist solution boils down to: "Sorry, can't help ya...let's wait for contract negotiations or a funding formula."

January 21, 2010

Warwick Beacon Looks At Firefighter Pay/Contracts

Marc Comtois

The Warwick Beacon's Russel Moore has a piece on the 32 Warwick Firefighters who make more than $100,000/year (salary and O.T.--benefits NOT included) .

The Beacon recently requested a list from the City Treasurer of the number of firefighters in Warwick earning $100,000 or more, and a brief description of how those firefighters are paid.

There are 217 firefighter positions in the city, with 200 of those positions filled. That means 32 members of the 200-member fire department make a total of $3.5 million before factoring in benefits like pension or health care insurance.

The list is comprised exclusively of the Fire Department’s ranking officers, including the Chief, Assistant Chief, Fire Marshal, Superintendent of Fire Alarms, Rescue Captain, EMS Coordinator, Battalion Chiefs, Captains, and Lieutenants. There were no privates on the list.

Meanwhile, John Howell has another piece on how the the firefighter's contract is too complicated to make cutting easy.
With the exception of schools, Fire is the costliest of city departments. The department’s operating budget is almost $20 million this year, seemingly making it the best place to start to look for savings.

But cutting costs isn’t simple.

Remarkably, even though closing a station would free up a minimum of 12 firefighters, it wouldn’t save on overtime payments. The most the city would pocket are utility costs, perhaps $20,000 to $30,000, if that much.

In addition, points out Warwick Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan, minimum response times would be increased heightening the risk to the residents and property owners of Warwick. Sullivan also raises the question of what station to close. His point is twofold. First, what neighborhood is going to accept a reduction in fire and rescue service – a choice that would certainly meet strong opposition from that ward’s council member and elected representatives? Second, Sullivan points out that Green Airport makes Warwick unique. Its placement in the geographic middle of the city makes it difficult to supplant or augment service from one area by another. It is like a chain where each link is connected to two others rather than a weave were links are interconnected on multiple sides.

Interesting point about the bi-furcated city that is Warwick. Basically, economies of scale may not translate as well due to the geography of the city. As for Chief Sullivan's warning about response times, well, you can spin it any way you want, but that (self-fulfilling) legitimization is why Warwick is exemplary of the rest of the state.
On average, [a RIPEC] report showed that Rhode Islanders spend about $6.24 on fire services for every $1,000 of personal income, or just under double the national average of $3.21 per $1,000 of income.
Look, where there's a will, there's a way. There just has to be a real will. Other states seem to do just fine at half the cost.

January 7, 2010

Warwick Sick Pay Imbroglio

Marc Comtois

UPDATE (bumped): Jim Hummel and the ProJo have now covered the Warwick sick time controversy. The ProJo reports different figures--$358,000 in total sick time bonuses--than those previously reported by the Warwick Beacon (a combined $694,000).

The contract language that grants these incentives for the three separate bargaining units dates back more than two decades, according to city officials, but the topic is percolating again these days as the City Council reviews an accounting of the roughly $358,000 the city paid out in bonuses for 2009.

Mayor Scott Avedisian said Wednesday he is issuing an executive order that will eliminate the benefit for non-union classified employees. That group includes most division heads and will save about $54,000 this year, he said.

Mayor Avedisian was on the John DePetro show to briefly discuss this and stated that the ProJo numbers were correct as opposed to those earlier reported by the Warwick Beacon. (On the other hand, Jim Hummel's report is in line with the Beacon's, including links to pertinent documents--PDF1, PDF2). Mayor Avedisian explained that it would take a re-opening of contract (PDF) negotiations to remove the provisions for union employees. The disconnect between private and public sector is all too obvious:
Daniel Beardsley, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, said that paying benefits to employees for unused sick time “is a very common contract provision” in the public sector and, in many cases, dates to the late 1970s when many cities and towns were having financial problems and were looking for things other than pay raises to offer employees....

Bob Eubank, executive director Northeast Human Resources Association in Waltham, Mass., said that giving bonuses for unused sick time is a rarity in the private sector.

Not to mention getting 15 sick days (3 weeks!) a year. Who gets that in the private sector?

Original post "below the fold".

Continue reading "Warwick Sick Pay Imbroglio"

October 10, 2009

The Thinking Behind It Is the Thing

Justin Katz

Most folks, including Marc, seem to agree that opposing $5 per year parking for students at a Warwick school is unreasonable but is likely to have its roots in frustration with a system that has slowly but surely been bleeding educational programs in order to bloat employee contracts. The aspect of the story that strikes me is the professed thinking behind the program:

Secondly, [Toll Gate Principal Stephen] Chrabaszcz said, the parking privilege would be used as a way to discourage tardiness. Any student who is late for more than 10 days would lose their parking privileges for 30 days.

So the punishment for tardiness will entail increasing the difficulty of arriving in the classroom on time. The foolishness of such a program on its face suggests that it's more of a post hoc excuse for exempting the well-paid grown-ups to whom justifications of safety and orderliness of parking would also apply.

October 9, 2009

Tollgate's Five Dollar Revolution

Marc Comtois

For the price of a $5 footlong, Tollgate High students can park their car for a year in the school parking lot.

Toll Gate Principal Stephen Chrabaszcz said he decided to institute the policy for two reasons. First, to make the campus safer and reduce auto break-ins. Students would have to register their cars and license plates and use a sticker that will mark their vehicles as belonging in the Toll Gate lot.

Secondly, Chrabaszcz said, the parking privilege would be used as a way to discourage tardiness. Any student who is late for more than 10 days would lose their parking privileges for 30 days.

The $5 fee is being collected to cover the cost of the stickers and the recent striping of the lot; each student would have an assigned space, Chrabaszcz said.

But that's too much to pay for some.
Michelle Foss, whose daughter is a senior at Toll Gate, said Wednesday that she already knows what she thinks of the plan. “I think it’s ridiculous to make students pay for parking at a public school we pay for and in a community where we pay taxes,” she said.

Foss, who has registered her complaints with school officials, said it’s mostly a matter of principle, but the school should be aware the many teenagers will have to pay the fee themselves.

“My daughter’s working for minimum wage,” she said. “Are they also going to charge the teachers who make a lot more than that? And is Mr. Chrabasczcz going to pay for parking?”

Foss told the Warwick Beacon:
She questioned what right the school has to implement the charge; whether faculty and custodians would be required to buy stickers and whether she would have to buy two stickers since her daughter would use her car or her father’s car depending which is available.

Chrabaszcz had some answers. He said she would need two stickers.

“He didn’t want to hear any of it,” she said. “‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ he said.”

Foss’ daughter Sharon, who is a senior at Toll Gate and enrolled at the Warwick Area Career and Technical School, said she needs a car in order to complete her internship program. She said students are talking about boycotting driving to school, an action she claimed would require the School Department to put on additional buses that they can’t afford.

Again....$5. But setting aside that Tollgate used to charge for parking and that other schools, include Warwick Vets, charge for parking, there is a deeper anger being exposed here.

You see, some of the parents argue that their problem with the fee is more over principle than the $5 price. They rightly point out that parents are asked to buy more school supplies than ever; pay more via PTO's and PTA's for school activities; pay more in property taxes year after year. And now $5 for parking? C'mon!

They have a valid point, but it seems remarkable that these parents who have, for the most part, grumblingly acquiesced to previous piling up expenses are finally inspired to revolution over five bucks a year. Perhaps this is the straw breaking the camel's back. Be that as it may, the deeper problems cited aren't going to go away if the Tollgate kids "win" this battle and keep getting their free parking.

For the simple fact remains that most school budget money is going to keep being put towards payroll and benefits, leaving less for everything else. That's just the way it is. Yet, I'm betting that while the school budget or teacher contract haven't brought parents to a school committee meeting, this $5 annual parking fee will. Who knows? Maybe that will get them interested in the deeper financial issues and they'll start being more active in the future.

But I'm guessing that, if they win, the free-parkers and their parents will go back to spending their minimum wage money on their D-n-D coffees and $5 footlongs and won't want to be hassled with that other stuff. How could we blame them? After all, they will have won their Five Dollar Revolution.*

*Credit to Dan Yorke for coining the term during his show yesterday.

ADDENDUM: We have these "$5 Revolutions" from time to time: little outrages--often stemming from larger problems--that put people momentarily over the edge. Yet, when the minute issue is resolved, the anger is alleviated and the outraged people feel as if they accomplished something...when they haven't, really. It's a form of populism and it helps illustrate an inherent problem within populism. A movement built on emotion (anger) or feelings (hope) instead of a concrete philosophy is resting on a perilous foundation. Maintaining emotion--or passion--at a high level is exhausting, especially if it is unfocused or unsupported by a framework of cogent thought.

October 8, 2009

AG: Warwick City Council Violated Open Meetings Law

Marc Comtois

Flashback to June, during budget hearings held by the Warwick City Council:

School Committee member Paul Cannistra has made good on his promise to file an open meetings violation complaint with Attorney General Patrick Lynch, and the AG has agreed to look into it.

Cannistra was recently ejected from a City Council meeting in which the council was deciding whether to cut the school committee’s budget by $2.9 million, after Finance Committee Chairman Ray Gallucci admitted that he had a meeting at his residence with council members Donna Travis (Ward-6), Steve Colantuono (Ward-1) and Council President Bruce Place (Ward-2). Gallucci said the four council members worked on amendments to the budget at the session.

Immediately after revealing this, Cannistra popped out of his seat and asked Place if he would “indulge” him on a point of order. After Place refused, Cannistra shouted out that the council had just admitted to a violation of the state Open Meetings Law because the full council finance committee had met at Gallucci’s house—a private residence—and without proper notice.

Place then asked a police officer on detail to remove Cannistra from the meeting.

The Attorney General's office has rendered a decision (PDF) in favor of Cannistra: the Warwick City Council's Finance Committee did violate the Open Meetings law. Further:
....this Department is troubled by Councilman Galluci's statement at the June 2, 2009 Council meeting that, "[t]he reason that I could not ask more than four members, at my home to discuss this, is that would be breaking the Open Meetings Law." The obvious implication of this statement, and the evidence set forth above, is that one or more members in attendance at the May 31, 2009 meeting was cognizant of an appreciable possibility that the OMA may have applied to this meeting and did not take reasonable steps to resolve that doubt. In fact, the evidence could be construed that despite their awareness of the OMA [Open Meetings Amendment], Finance Committee members took steps, which were unsuccessful, to avoid the mandate of the OMA.
Clearly, the mistake the Finance Committee members made was actually admitting their private meeting during the course of a public one. I'd be willing to bet that the OMA is violated routinely in Warwick and across the state. And this is one of two legal binds the City Council got itself into in June. It has also been sued by United Healthcare for violating its own rules regarding contracting out municipal/school department healthcare management services.

July 9, 2009

Warwick Payrolls

Marc Comtois

Over the weekend I was at a neighborhood July 4th get-together. The group was a mixed one. If I had to guess, most were either a-political or run-of-the-mill Rhode Island Democrats. The topic turned to the recent closing of a local Warwick elementary school and how property taxes just got a big bump (believe me, they did). There was anger over the tax hikes and the school closure. One parent questioned why a school would close when money could have been saved elsewhere, mentioning the fact that the teachers make a lot of money and that you could find it all out at the "Ocean State Policy" website.

The parent then listed off some of the salaries of teachers from the local elementary school. There were a few surprised faces amongst those who heard the numbers, to which the parent then said, "Yeah, I know...I thought they made like $45-$50,000 or something, not that much!"

In an attempt to shed some more light on the situation, I decided to take a ride on the Transparency Train to analyze the actual school payroll numbers for Warwick. It's more time consuming but also more illustrative of the actual situation than the teacher contract.

I looked at the 2007-08 salaries of full-time teachers in a variety of categories. The below table, based on the 2007-2008 Payroll, summarizes my findings. It shows the number of teachers in each category, the total amount of money dedicated to their salaries and then average salary, average low and high salaries (the average high salary at the Jr. High and High School level reflects the pay received by department heads), and the average median salaries.

If you compare these numbers to the salary schedules in the teacher contract (page 109 in this PDF), you'll find that that, for the most part, the median Elementary and High School teacher salary in Warwick is the equivalent of a Step 10 (or more) with some longevity and probably some advanced education bonuses thrown in. Overall, elementary teacher salaries are the highest, followed by High School and then Junior High.

Given that most people think teachers make about as much as the average Rhode Islander, around $50,000 - $54,000 a year (in 2007), it's understandable their surprise when learning about these numbers. While it is true that new teachers enter the work force at the average income level, that doesn't last for long. It is apparent that the majority of teachers are compensated at a level at the top or above the traditionally negotiated step scheme. While the teacher salaries are arguably commensurate with other professionals of similar background and training, the benefits they earn--in addition to the shorter work-year--are something those in the private sector don't enjoy. In addition to their salaries, teachers also receive $10.5-$12,000 in pension contributions from the district in addition to $15,000 in medical/dental benefits.

But these numbers also help explain some other things, too. In general, teachers at the Junior High level are paid less than their Elementary or High School colleagues. This is unsurprising given the additional challenges faced when teaching this age group. In short, once they get they're time in, a lot of teachers go to Elementary or High School, where the kids are generally more receptive or, in the case of High School, you know what you're dealing with. In Jr. High, every day is a mystery with a cohort that is feeling their oats. Unfortunately, that they are so challenging is the very reason to keep the best, most experienced teachers at the Jr. High level. If only they had incentive.

It can also be inferred that, because Warwick has closed a few elementary schools in the past two years, the job openings are in the secondary education area (Jr. High and High School). This means that the elementary schools are "top heavy", with the result that the median income is higher at the elementary level. It would take some additional analysis of other school districts that haven't experienced so many school closings to determine if this is indeed a factor.

As I was looking at the teacher payroll, I thought a comparison with the payroll of the other big ticket items--Fire and Police--would help add some context. The data available was for 2008-09-- a year later than the teacher info I used-- so the data isn't contemporaneous. (The actual low, high and median salaries for each position are given, not an average as with most of the teacher data).


I don't have much analysis to offer for these last examples. They are what they are. Additionally, a quick survey of the municipal payroll reveals a lot of salaries that fall within the "average Rhode Islander" pay range or below, with a few high-salary, supervisor positions, as well. (For further comparison, this site purports to supply salaries for a range of private sector jobs in Warwick). I'll conclude with this: taxpayers should be aware of these numbers so that they can determine whether they think these are legitimate wages to pay for the jobs being done or not.

June 16, 2009

United Healthcare Sues City of Warwick

Marc Comtois

United Healthcare is suing the City of Warwick, as reported by Russell Moore at the Warwick Beacon:

United Healthcare of New England...claim[s the City of Warwick] violated its own ordinances in awarding a healthcare administration contract for its employees without seeking a joint bid with the school department.

The suit asks the State Superior Court to declare the council’s award of the city’s health insurance administration contract to Blue Cross Blue Shield R.I. invalid.

The city council passed an ordinance in September of last year that required the city to go out for a joint bid for a health insurance contract with the school department.

The basis for the ordinance, sponsored by former Councilman Robert Cushman was that the city would save on administration costs if its bid specifications included all of its employees due to economies of scale.

The ordinance was passed by a wide margin.

However, last fall, the School Committee renegotiated a contract extension with the teachers in which Blue Cross was designated as the health care provider. According to United Healthcare, when the Warwick City council requested bids for a health care provider for city-side contracts, they were already in violation of the just-passed ordinance.
“The city has an ordinance that expressly states that all contracts - city and schools - must be bid together to get the best price for the city. We have asked the courts for a declaratory judgment declaring that the city did not comply with this ordinance in the awarding of a contract for health care administrator (insurer),” said Deborah Spano, United’s spokeswoman.
City Councilman Steve Merolla stated that he warned the rest of the Council that they were making themselves vulnerable for a lawsuit by conducting business in this manner. City Council President Bruce Place was apparently unaware of the lawsuit, but Mayor Scott Avedisian said he wasn't surprised that the losing party in a bid procedure had followed this course of action.
“We expected it. There was a bid process. We went through it. United wasn’t awarded the bid,” said Avedisian.

June 5, 2009

Taxes Go Up in Warwick

Marc Comtois

In Warwick this week, after all was said and done, the average homeowner will see an increase of $146 to their annual property tax bill. Ultimately, despite an attempt to cut more, the schools were level-funded, largely because--with 86% of the school budget locked in--the remaining 14% of cuts would directly affect the students. Think about that for a second: 86% of the school budget is related to contractual obligations or fixed costs (heating, electric, etc.). For his part, School Committee Chair Christopher Friel's seemed exasperated:

“I’m just absolutely flabbergasted that all the talk about budget has centered around reducing the school department budget when the city is raising property taxes by $8.7 million and none of it is coming to the school department.”
He's got a point, but the level-funding is going to a School department that has one less elementary school now (and 4 less over the last 2 years). That being said, it was very much a case of the City Council and the Mayor continuing to point the finger of blame at the School Committee and Administration, who lay outside of their direct control. Well, they have a point. And that's the, um, point. There is plenty of blame to go around. Warwick is just another example of the larger systemic problem we have in the state, but all our leaders seem willing to do is nibble around the edges and wait for someone else to make the tough decisions.

June 2, 2009

They Said, They Said

Marc Comtois

Last night, members of the Warwick Schools Administration and School Committee attended a public hearing in front of the City Council to discuss the 2010 budget. Blame was cast, fingers were pointed and recent contracts approved by the School Committee and City Council were compared and contrasted:

Under a contract extension negotiated last year, teachers gave back part of their pay raises for the current school year and will receive a 2.25-percent salary increase next year.

In return, their health-insurance premium co-payments were kept status quo at a flat rate of $11 per week per employee.

When council members repeatedly pointed out that the School Committee had won no health insurance concessions in that renegotiation, Committee Chairman Christopher Friel countered that the schools' health benefits pale in comparison to what the city gives its employees.

Avedisian was recently able to renegotiate the labor pacts with all city unions in which employees not only made wage concessions but agreed to increase their health-insurance payments to $28 per week.

Friel said that while that is true, the schools do not provide lifetime health insurance like the city does and it requires co-payments from retirees while the city does not. If the School Department's benefits matched what the city gives it employees, it would cost tens of millions of dollars, he said.

Nothing new, but the public sector mindset is still obvious to see. Concessions bartered still result in better deals than in the private sector during these tough economic times. Real concessions would have entailed--at the very least--wage freezes and pragmatic benefit adjustments all-around. (Instead, for instance, neither Council nor Committee saw fit to make health insurance co-pays or co-shares a percentage rather than a flat fee). So while the pols point fingers at each other, the taxpayer is left to shake their head and wish a pox on both their houses. For the bottom line remains: real fiscal sanity cannot be restored until the accumulated, negotiated detritus of the past 30 years is cleaned up and simplified. Until then, we're just nibbling at the edges and praying for pennies from heaven.

May 27, 2009

Airport Expansion Details

Carroll Andrew Morse

Paul Edward Parker's story in today's Projo on the Green Airport runaway expansion and the very good accompanying map mention only the expansion to the Southwest that will force a relocation of Main Avenue (Route 113) in Warwick. Only 11 homes will be required to move, but a number of others will be close to new runway lights and/or within a loud engine-noise area.

However, Dan Jaehnig's story from WJAR-TV (NBC 10), as well as the environmental impact statement available from the Projo website, mention a second phase of the expansion, where the section of Airport road that intersects with Post Road (near the old Ann & Hope, to give the location in the traditional Rhode Island way) will also be relocated, not as much as some of the other proposals had called for, but still forcing a number of businesses to move.

As best as I can tell from the Channel 10 story, Republican headquarters in Warwick will not get bulldozed as part of the current expansion plan. At least not in the construction-industry sense.

May 5, 2009

Town as Big Business

Justin Katz

One could understand, perhaps, the city/town being its own biggest employer in a rural area or suburb with little by way of industry. But Warwick? Bob Cushman writes:

According to Warwick’s 2007 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, the City of Warwick was the No. 1 employer in Warwick, with 2,900 employees. Number two was Kent Hospital, with 2,050 employees. Number three was Metropolitan Life/Property Insurance, with 1,450 employees. Number four was United Parcel Service, with 1,000 employees. Number five was Leviton Manufacturing, with 840 employees.

In 1998, the population of Warwick was 85,427 citizens. By 2007, the population had increased slightly, to 87,365 citizens. In 1998, the number of full-time municipal employees was 875. By 2008, the number of municipal employees had increased more than 6 percent, to 929 employees.

In 1997, the number of students in Warwick’s schools was 12,124. By 2008, the number had decreased to 11,150 students. In 2012, the projected student population is expected to further decrease, to 10,442, or a 14 percent decline from 1997 levels. In 1997, the number of teachers employed was 1,056. By 2003, the teaching staff had increased more than 7 percent, to 1,133.

Since then the teaching staff has been reduced to 1,088 teachers, still an increase of 3 percent over 1997 levels.

Little wonder public-sector unions do so well, as a political constituency, when the biggest employer in town receives its revenue through force of tax.

May 4, 2009

Warwick Closes School, Approves Budget Number

Marc Comtois

The Warwick School Committee voted to accept the recommendation of the School Consolidation Advisory Committee and close John Greene Elementary School. Prior to the vote to close John Greene an amendment to redistrict a portion of the area that feeds Warwick Neck school from Warwick Neck to Oakland Beach was approved 5-0. As to the vote to close Greene, there was some confusion as, at first, it appeared as if the vote was unanimous (5-0). However, School Committee member Patrick Maloney asked for a re-vote so that he could clarify that his vote was against closing Greene.

Four of the five School Committee members (Maloney, Paul Cannistra, Chair Chris Friel and Vice-Chair Lucille Mota-Costa--Bethany Furtado did not explain her reasoning) explained their reasoning throughout the decision-making process, which was much the same as I've previously blogged about.

Once the vote to close Greene was finalized, some members of the public--comprising parents of John Greene students and members of the Parents of Warwick Schools--stood up and then turned their backs to the School Committee in protest. Throughout this process, several have indicated frustration with the lack of two-way communication and, without being able to get direct answers from the Administration, have attempted to answer questions on their own. In some cases, this led to misunderstanding and, eventually, deep distrust of the School Administration.

For example, there had been much concern and talk concerning expenditures at the Crowne Plaza hotel and for "champagne" that were listed in the check registers available on-line. As explained by Mota-Costa, the hotel bills were evidence of a requirement by an accreditation organization (I believe NEASC) that the School District house them and feed them while they assess the city schools. (Like it or not, a cost of doing business--hopefully one that can change). The bill for "champagne" was actually money paid to an employee with the last name of Champagne.

While having access to open records is manifestly a good thing, records are only part of a bigger picture. Concerned parents, taxpayers and bloggers should use this information responsibly as they seek to propose alternative solutions. And they (we) should refrain from making assumptions before making accusations.

By the same token, the Administration and School Committee could have better refuted these claims if they had addressed them in a timely manner--ie; at the public comment sessions--instead of waiting until the end of the process. Perhaps some limited response should be allowed at public comment sessions in the future (not just after the session, when some answers were provided to those who asked--but not the public). Instead, the time lag between question and answer resulted in the two groups talking at each other. As is so often the case, a lack of communication caused distrust and fomented suspicions that were, and will be, hard to overcome.

For his part, Maloney has explained (on the Parents of Warwick Schools forum) that he was confused by the way the voting was handled and thought that he would have had another chance to explain himself prior to the actual vote. Part of the proposed budget is to pay the City of Warwick back for the cost overruns of the School Department last year. Maloney wanted to split that payment over two years, which would have enabled keeping Greene (or any school) open while a more comprehensive school consolidation plan was studied.

Cannistra expressed his empathy for the parents and students involved. He also cast blame for the current problem on the past decisions of previous School Committees who took the easy road when it came to making tough decisions. As he said, now that road "has come to an end." He emphasized that he had a fiduciary responsibility to all of Warwick's 85,000 residents and that, unfortunately, nothing in life was guaranteed. Something we should all know and that, like it or not, our children must learn. Friel discussed his thought process at length, particularly the dropping demographics and increased costs, and also noted that 90% of the savings in closing a school comes from reducing the staff.

Once these presentations were over, the vote on the amendment was called and approved 5-0. The vote to close Greene was called, and after some confusion, the final tally was 4-1 in favor.

After the vote, in what was perhaps the most politically charged incident of the night, Paul Cannistra called out Councilwoman Helen Taylor for grandstanding at one of the Public Comment sessions last week. He stated that her facts were wrong, that she was irresponsible in her presentation and that it was ironic that she would call out the School Committee for being fiscally irresponsible when she had voted against savings (via city employee contract negotiations) herself and that she had not even seen fit to attend a meeting where the School Committee spoke to the City Council last year. He said he wouldn't stand for her grandstanding any more. (For his part, Cannistra voted against the recent teacher contract re-negotiation because he felt it didn't go far enough).

Finally, the School Committee voted to accept the School Administration's budget request and moved it to the city-side for review and approval. Line-by-line review will be done at a later date (once the city approves the actual amount for appropriation).

ADDENDUM: ProJo story here. ABC 6 video here.

In Warwick, Voting on School Budget, Maybe Closing a school?

Marc Comtois

The Warwick School Committee will be meeting to vote on the FY 09-10 School Budget and will also render its decision on whether or not to close a school. The meeting is at Winman Jr. High and starts at 5:30, but the Committee will go into executive session almost immediately and the public portion is slated to start at 7 PM.

One of the big questions surrounding the school closings was how much money was saved by closing/reconfiguring 3 elementary schools last year. This information was finally released late last week (PDF). In short, the estimated savings was $2,683,424 and actual savings totaled $2,695,008. That's pretty close, though there was an overestimation of savings associated with cutting personnel (salary, benefits, etc.). Most of the difference was made up by re-mapping bus routes, which necessitated only one additional bus instead of the 5 that were estimated. One quick note: it has been proposed by several parents at these various meetings that all school employees (admin, teachers, janitors, etc) take a 1% cut across the board to help save a school. It's just not that simple in a collectively bargained world, though.

Whether a school is closed this year or not, tight budgets and school closings lay in Warwick's future for the next few years. This is due to shrinking student population and a need to become more efficient and cost effective in educating students. Because past Warwick School Committees (on which some of the current School Committee members also sat) acquiesced (or kicked the can down the road) in negotiations with the Warwick Teacher's Union, they are left to nibble around the edges of their budget to find savings. There are always cuts that can be made, including in the Administration, but employee payroll and benefits make up the lions share of any entity. This is not "going after" school employees, it's an unfortunate reality. When times were good, their contract negotiations reflected that. Well, now times aren't so good.

May 1, 2009

Warwick Schools: City Council to the Rescue?

Marc Comtois

It was open-mic night at Gorton Jr. High in Warwick last night. The School Committee gave the public a chance to voice their opinion regarding the proposed closing of John Greene school. Several of the issues generated by a meeting earlier in the week were brought up last night. Of particular interest was the appearance of Warwick City Council Woman Helen Taylor, who stated she had gone through the School Department's proposed budget and, after 30 hours of study, had found approximately $3 million in savings. Addressing the crowd, she told them to "hang in there" and that the Council was working for them so that all of the schools could stay open. She also mentioned something about pending legislation in the General Assembly giving town and city councils oversight of school committees (I couldn't find any). Was this political grandstanding or is real action imminent? We shall see.

Regardless, the Warwick Beacon's recent editorial is spot on:

A RIPEC report from several years ago predicted 5 percent declines in student population for years into the future, which Warwick has experienced.

The student population decline requires fewer buildings be used to accomplish the department’s goal: educating students.

School districts have to use the resources they have to the best of their ability to educate students. With that in mind, School Committee member Paul Cannistra is right on target in saying that he’d much rather close a school building than eliminate educational programs. Why would the School Committee continue spending in excess of $800,000 in energy and maintenance costs per year to keep students in an underused building?

To say that no schools should close in light of declining enrollment is illogical. A school isn’t a building, but a group of students, educators and programs.

That being said, it would have been preferable for the school department to undergo a citywide redistricting. The process of pitting one community against another has been counterproductive at best and why it’s being done piecemeal is beyond understanding.

Where is the long-term plan?

Demographics and fiscal responsibility require a leaner and more efficient school department, even via this piecemeal approach. The major problem with putting together a comprehensive plan is the uncertainty surrounding the prospect of airport expansion, which will affect (probably close) one school. The feeling I get is that, once expansion is set, the school department will proceed with the inevitable city-wide redistricting.

This all points to the inter-related problems we have here in Rhode Island. This is linked to that, which is linked to another thing. And everyone is frozen until someone makes a decision somewhere else. Perhaps the best thing would be to just take the bold step of closing the one school--Wickes--that will probably be closed anyway and proceed with a city-wide restructuring. But it's apparently too late for that now.

April 30, 2009

Warwick School Closings

Marc Comtois

There will be two public comment sessions regarding the potential closing of an elementary school in Warwick: both will be at Gorton Jr. High and are tonight from 6 to 9 PM and tomorrow from 3-6 PM. I discussed the initial presentation of the consolidation advisory committee last week (and the Warwick Beacon had a good report, too). My major complaint was how the Administration seemed to be caught flat-footed by some rather obvious questions.

The three major bones of contention revolved around Title I funding, the cost of a roof and what sort of savings did the city realize from last year's school closings.

The School Committee submitted questions regarding these issues and others and the Administration responded (PDF).

There was some concern expressed that, because John Greene is a Title I school while the schools to which its students would go are not, overall funding could be negatively affected. I thought the explanation was satisfactory last week (it was explained there would be no practical affect), but many were unwilling to accept the "short answer." The administration appears to have answered the question as to funding satisfactorily. However, some Title I related issues may not be acceptable (for instance, the loss of access to pre-K schooling and other programs for Title-I kids and their families).

A major taxpayer concern was the apparent need to replace the roof of Warwick Neck school, which, with other costs factored in, made it appear as if closing Warwick Neck would save approximately one-half million dollars more than closing Greene. As I wrote last week, "while they did explain that John Greene's roof was the same age as Warwick Neck's, and had in fact been patched a few more times in recent years than Warwick Neck, they never provided a dollar figure for potential roof repairs to Greene." This is the explanation that should have been provided in the first place. The bottom line is that both roofs are of similar age and in similar shape. The cost to replace Warwick Neck's will be $471,650 and to replace John Greene's will be $405,888. Overall, it still appears as if closing Warwick Neck vice Greene will save $100,000 more (back of the envelope), but that's just in this one area.

Finally, perhaps the big question yet to be answered is what sort of savings did the city realize by closing two schools last year. Hopefully, that will be answered tonight.

April 23, 2009

Warwick School Committee Hears School Closing Recommendation

Marc Comtois

Faced with a shrinking revenues (ie; state aid), dropping enrollment and increasing costs, the Warwick School Department has proposed, for the second straight year, that part of the solution lay in closing an elementary school (the School Committee already renegotiated the teacher contract--though the amount of savings could have been more). Last year, two schools were closed and another converted into a city-wide learning center. Throughout the process, the administration was taken to task for not being transparent enough and accusations that they had already had their mind made up contributed to an already inherently negative process.

This time around, the Consolidation Advisory Committee (CAC) held several open meetings (though with no opportunity for public comment) and posted information to their website as they investigated which of 6 potential elementary schools should be considered for closure. They eventually narrowed their list down to two schools, John Greene and Warwick Neck, for further review. In the end, the CAC voted unanimously to close John Greene*.

Last night, as scheduled, the CAC presented their findings and recommendation to the Warwick School Committee. Several John Greene parents and a few students and staff were in attendance and, regardless of the fact that the meeting was not scheduled as a "public comment" session (those will be April 30th, 6-9 PM and May 1st, 3-6 PM), they intended to be heard (a radio ad campaign aired over the last few days probably contributed to the attendance and the feeling in the crowd). Despite an explanation from School Committee Chair Christopher Friel that this was a presentation--not a forum for public comment--audience members interrupted the presentation several times with shouted questions and comments. At least two people were removed for continually disrupting the proceeding.

According to the information presented, while closing Warwick Neck would save $17,000 more than closing John Greene (closing either would save in the mid $800,000s, according to updated numbers presented last night), other factors favored closing Greene over Warwick Neck (most important, it seemed, was impacting the least amount of students--in both sending and receiving schools--as possible).

However, information provided to the School Committee last night seemed to undermine the contention that cost-savings for closing either school was equal. In 2006, Warwick voters approved a $25 million bond to address school infrastructure problems (the fact that the money has yet to be appropriated is another story and a major bone of contention between the School Department and Mayor Avedisian). As part of that process, the School Department canvassed all of the schools and asked personnel and parents to identify any work that needed to be done and could be funded via the bond. This "wish list" was used by the CAC to evaluate what costs could be avoided by closing each school. One of those items was $471,650 for repairs to the roof of Warwick Neck. In all, John Greene reported $157,025 in prospective repairs and Warwick Neck reported $646,255. To the average taxpayer, that approximately half-million dollar difference in "avoided costs" seems like a substantial amount and, on the face of it, indicates that Warwick Neck should have been the school selected for closure based on cost-savings alone.

They did, in fact, get a report specifically concerning Wawick Neck's roof:

Paul Jansson (sic), Construction Coordinator discussed the projected improvements from approved bond 2006 (high priority). He noted that the Sherman and Warwick Neck roof projects were included for repair with this bond money. If the funds do not get released, Mr. Jansson said that both elementary schools (and Pilgrim HS) would constantly need to be watched and local personnel would be required to continue to patch work as necessary.
Mr. Jansson addressed a letter which challenged the estimating methodology for re-roofing. In reference to the Warwick Neck Elementary School roof, Mr. Jansson said the first issue is the existing roof condition. According to his records, the last roof replacement was in 1989 and 1992. His staff has evaluated the roof as one of the top 5 that will require replacement in the future. He prepares “conceptual” or “ball-park” estimates due to the unknown conditions that will affect a new roofing project. For instance, asbestos, adequate roof drains, condition of the structural deck and when will this work be done…one year, two to three years, five years. All of these factors will dramatically impact the roof cost. Upon completion of investigations and new designs prepared, the estimates are then adjusted accordingly.
Again, the administration didn't adequately justify why this half-million dollar difference was apparently not a factor. While they did explain that John Greene's roof was the same age as Warwick Neck's, and had in fact been patched a few more times in recent years than Warwick Neck, they never provided a dollar figure for potential roof repairs to Greene.

Thus, instead of having the foresight to proactively conduct an updated review of infrastructure needs for both Greene and Warwick Neck, they relied on an old report (though with updated numbers) that implies that Greene's roof is OK and heard testimony that bolstered the argument for closing Warwick Neck because of the roof costs. So the half-million dollar bill for Warwick Neck was left out there to dangle and, in the eyes of the public, serves to undercut the financial impetus for closing a school at all.**

Perhaps, during next week's public comment section, they will be prepared to answer that question.
*There was a minor controversy surrounding the difference between the initial, ballot vote of 6-1 in favor of closing Greene and the public re-vote that was 7-0. As was explained last night, the person who voted "nay" was confused by the ballot the first time around. The reason for the confusion stemmed from the final vote being between John Greene and John Wickes (not Warwick Neck). There are considerable questions surrounding the impact that potential airport expansion will have on John Wickes and the CAC apparently thought it worth considering getting ahead of events and closing a school that may eventually need to be closed. However, they unanimously decided to stick with closing one of the schools that was initially considered and extensively reviewed.

**Similarly, Chairman Friel asked if there were any figures to indicate what the actual savings were after closing the two schools last year. The administration was unprepared, but promised to forward those numbers to the committee. Again, a lack of foresight: one would think such a question would be anticipated.

March 12, 2009

Mayoral Academies Going Forward

Marc Comtois

Amidst all of the bad news, there are some encouraging things happening in our state. As reported in the ProJo, Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee recently announced that he is going ahead with his Mayoral Academy.

McKee said if his proposal wins approval by the Rhode Island Department of Education and secures $700,000 in state financing, he wants to open an elementary school this September in his town’s Valley Falls section, in a former parochial school building.

The school would serve 80 kindergarten and first-grade students from Central Falls, Cumberland, Lincoln and Pawtucket. A middle school would open, starting with a sixth-grade class, in fall 2010. Eventually, the schools would cover K-12.

If there is a delay with state funding or approval, McKee said he plans for both schools to open in 2010. He hopes more regional mayoral academies will open, mixing urban and suburban students.

A 12-member board, a mix of mayors, community leaders and education figures chaired by McKee, would oversee the schools. But national charter school operators would run and staff the schools. Democracy Prep, which runs a middle school in Harlem, has already applied to the Department of Education to run the first mayoral academy.

In addition, McKee said his group has received financial support from nonprofit organizations and private donors to help pay start-up costs, including a $2-million commitment from the Raza Development Fund of Arizona to purchase a building.

Several other mayor's were with McKee. For his part, Warwick's Mayor Scott Avedisian told the Warwick Beacon that he thinks a Mayoral Academy may be feasible in his city:
Mayor Scott Avedisian said he supports a proposal to use the former Potowomut School for a Mayoral Academy at a press conference to announce the formation of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (RIMA) board yesterday.

“As a mayor, I have a responsibility to ensure our children receive a quality education which will allow them to compete in the global marketplace,” Avedisian said in a press release. “Mayoral Academies represent our firm commitment to providing the best education possible for the students of our cities and towns.”

Mayoral Academies are a form of charter schools created last year. The brainchild of Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee, the schools won legislative approval last year despite steep opposition from powerful teacher unions.

Yesterday Avedisian saluted McKee for his hard work and effort to make the schools a reality.

“We’ve talked about governance reforms for years and years and they’ve never gone anywhere. This is a real opportunity to see that governance reform takes place,” said Avedisian.

Avedisian talked about how Warwick spends 70 cents of every tax dollar on schools, which the City Council has no control over. A Mayoral Academy, he pointed out, would be controlled completely by the city side of government.

The teachers in the schools wouldn’t be subject to the same mandate as the regular public school system, and wouldn’t be teachers’ union members.

March 8, 2009

Robert Cushman: Unfunded Liabilities, Warwick’s “Subprime” Crisis

Engaged Citizen

A few years ago, the dream of owning a home and planning for a comfortable retirement wasn’t just a promise--it was guaranteed. A growing economy was fueling a new "ownership society". We were told to invest, take a chance, buy a home, and don’t worry about the risk it will all work out.

What happened? Today the stock market is below 7,000 points, after experiencing a high in the 14,000 point range. Home foreclosures are at record levels, the value of our homes have dwindled, our 401Ks and other investments have suffered significant losses. The promises were false and the dreams have vanished, thanks in large part to the irresponsible action of the so-called "Masters of the Universe" on Wall Street. Our economy is in meltdown mode and taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars in losses. How could this happen? Where were the warnings?

During the years of irrational exuberance, a few individuals at the country's largest financial firms warned of the consequences of providing loans based on faulty consumer information. They raised the alarm that some of the mortgages being offered would be difficult for borrowers to repay and they called for responsible assessments of risk. But where were the government leaders to protect us--to watch our tax dollars, protect our future and our children’s future?

Subprime mortgages were fueled by mortgage brokers and bankers who were happy to keep writing mortgages as long as they were being bought up, chopped up and resold by Wall Street financial institutions in the form of mortgage backed securities. The risk of default was someone else’s problem.

Today you and I, the taxpayers of the United States, are sacrificing our hard-earned tax dollars to rectify these false assumptions. If Warwick's Mayor Avedisian assumptions regarding recent contract extensions with municipal employees prove to be false, will Warwick taxpayers be asked to make the same sacrifice?

With the city’s unfunded pension liability at $200 million before the market crash, why would city leaders promise to increase municipal employee pension benefits without demanding current actuarial reports to determine pension valuations based on market conditions? With the unprecedented crash in the financial markets, Warwick’s pensions have lost more then 30% of their value and the unfunded liability has grown substantially. But apparently believing that ignorance is bliss, the Avedisian administration is cheerfully using 2006 actuarial numbers to determine how much employees will pay for the increased pension benefits being granted in these future contracts. Just as subprime mortgage lenders used faulty information and unrealistic assumptions in granting reckless loans, the Avedisian administration is committing taxpayer dollars with no clue as to the real consequences of their action. If future pension shortfalls occur, municipal employees are indemnified from the risk and they will receive the enhanced benefits they have been promised by the Mayor. It will be Warwick taxpayers once again stuck with paying the bill for any future liability.

Shockingly, Mayor Avedisian also is taking $500,000 budgeted to city pensions to help balance this year’s operating budget based on the same antiquated information. Can we continue to underfund these future obligations? Are we being fair to future retirees, if we can’t afford to pay their promised benefits?

Although they have been labeled as savings by the administration to promote ratification of these contracts, the city is deferring almost $2 million more in employee holiday pay and uniform allowances. No matter how it is spun, a deferred expense without a plan to fund it, is nothing more then another unfunded liability.

The unfunded health care liability in Warwick is $365 million. These contract provisions promise employees a fixed rate healthcare co-pay of $14 per week for individuals and $28 per week for families. The city council chose to approve these fixed rates, guaranteeing that taxpayers will pay 100% of any increase in health care costs for the next three years, another unfunded liability that will draw more and more tax dollars away from other vital programs in the city.

Warwick’s unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities are approaching $650 million. That equates to about $7,500 in debt for every man, woman and child living in the city. The time will come when these liabilities will have to be paid.

Already we are seeing financial conditions in the city deteriorate, a dangerously low surplus, frozen bond money, school building in disrepair and crumbling infrastructure. Can we continue to ignore the risks associated with making more and more costly promises, creating more and more obligations, deferring more and more expenses and sinking deeper and deeper into debt? How much longer can taxpayers sustain new tax increases, cuts in city services, and deferred improvements to school buildings and city streets? What impact will these IOU’s have on our children’s future and the promises we have made them?

Like the subprime homeowner unable to afford their mortgage, will we soon be viewing a field of broken promises in Warwick and see the dreams for our children shattered and be left wondering, why anyone didn't warn us this was coming?

Robert Cushman is a former Warwick City Councilman and former Chairman of the Warwick School Committee.

March 2, 2009

Warwick City Council Approves Contract

Marc Comtois

To no one's surprise, the Warwick City Council passed contract extensions with the City's fire, police and municipal workers on Friday.

The extended contracts, which will run through June 30, 2012, were approved on votes of 7 to 2, with council members Joseph J. Solomon and Steve Merolla dissenting.

Council members who favored the new labor agreements cited not only savings, but the fact that the unions’ willingness to negotiate spared Warwick the strife and legal wrangling being seen in other communities struggling with dwindling resources.

“This was reasonable men and women making reasonable decisions at a very difficult time for this city,” council President Bruce S. Place said in an interview Saturday.

The details of the deal are the same as what I've detailed already, so nothing new there.

I was able to attend the early part of the meeting and it went about as expected. The general feeling was that the city employees had come to the rescue of the city because of these tough times. There was a lot of verbal back-slapping as the three union heads got up to speak and all were met with generous applause from the crowd, which was 90-95% city workers.

A few Warwick taxpayers did get up to speak, and the two primary concerns were:
1) The wisdom of doing a long term deal in these tough times, when no one can forecast what's going to happen.
2) A set dollar amount for health care co-share's versus a percentage.

As to the former, Mayor Avedesian explained that a long term deal allows them to more accurately project their costs. Councilman Joseph Solomon countered this line of argument:

Solomon said he voted against the extended contracts because he does not feel it is wise for the city to lock itself into specific benefit language when there are so many financial unknowns and the fiscal pictures for all cities and towns is changing so radically from year to year.

“I could have maybe seen one-year extensions … but I did not want to mortgage our taxpayers long term,” Solomon said after Friday night’s meeting. “Our taxpayers simply cannot afford any more tax increases, and though I appreciate the hard work of our employees, I think we need to look at our current fiscal situation and not too far out into the future.”

...Like Solomon, Merolla said the new contracts obligate the city too far down the road, particularly when it is considered that labor costs account for about 85 percent of the city budget. “What we’ve done is lock in 85 percent of our budgets at a time when the city hasn’t set aside any money to pave roads and our bond money is frozen,” he said. “This vote is more important than any one budget vote.”

As to the health care provision, Mayor Avedesian explained that his Administration's analysis indicated that--because Warwick is self-insured and that co-share payments are largely affected by the management costs--the city will actually do better thanks to increased competition (Blue Cross/Blue Shield, United Health and now Tufts) for health care services. The City's health care contract expires and is going out to bid shortly (if it hasn't already).

Still, banking on that seems like a bit of a gamble when simply shifting from a set dollar amount to a percentage would be a more financially sound solution for the long term. The Mayor also restated that the Legislature is discussing the 25% statewide co-pay and clarified that any such measure would be applied to all contracts negotiated after January 1, 2009 (at least for now--hey, we can have faith in the GA, right?).

In the end, while there is much to be said for the spirit of cooperation that embodied these contract talks, there was still too much left on the table by the City, especially considering the length of the deals. Yet, even then, there still seems to be little stomach for fundamentally changing the nature of these contracts--such as getting away from their hidden step/longevity increases--much less with dealing with pension reform. We continue to muddle along.

February 27, 2009

Warwick Contract Update

Marc Comtois

Russel J. Moore at the Warwick Beacon has an updated story on the pending Warwick union contracts:

The concessions from unions were originally reported in newspapers, and on televisions newscasts and on radio stations to save taxpayers just over $9.7 million. But the actual concessions from the city bargaining units (police, fire, and municipal workers) will save taxpayers about $6.35 million.

The remaining $3,375,398 will be attained from savings from the city’s management employees. The savings will be attained from the 28 retiring management employees that would go unfilled, a 3-percent pay cut they will receive for the rest of the year, and a required increased pension contribution by employees.

While those savings represent a clear benefit to taxpayers, they’re not part of the bargaining agreements the city council will be asked to ratify on Friday evening. The administration, as it did last July when it mandated management employees increase their healthcare co-share payments to 10 percent, can unilaterally impose these cost savings measures on them at any time. {Emphasis added.}

The City Council meets is tonight at 6 PM at City Hall. There is some skepticism:
City Councilman Steve Merolla (Ward-9) said while the co-share payments are increased in this agreement, he’s still not thrilled with the fact that they’re still much lower than most private sector employees pay. The co-share payment for a single plan for all city employees will increase from $11 per week to $14 per week. For a family plan, the cost will increase from $11 per week to $28 per week.

While it will increase the percentage of the cost for a single plan to just over 12 percent, and the percentage of the cost of a family plan to about 10 percent, those percentages will decrease in the future years as the cost of health insurance continues to spiral, Merolla pointed out.

“These health insurance co-pays are structured so that they’ll be paying a lower percentage of the cost in future years,” said Merolla.

State workers pay 20-25 percent of the cost of their healthcare based upon seniority.

City councilman Joseph Solomon (Ward-4), while never one to tip his hand, seemed skeptical about the deal. Solomon said he has “many questions” about the tentative agreement that he plans to ask at Friday night’s meeting.

“I do have many questions with respect to what he’s given to us and when I receive the answers to those questions I will be able to make a decision based on that knowledge, not what I got from reading newspapers, watching television, or listening to the radio,” said Solomon.

February 25, 2009

Comparing Warwick Contracts

Marc Comtois

For perspective (which ever way that you, dear reader, wish to take it), here is a quick comparison of the re-negotiated Warwick contracts. Warwick Mayor Avedesian and his administration re-negotiated the fire, police and municipal contracts (pending City Council approval this Friday) and extended them to 2012. (In September 2008), the Warwick School Committee and Administration re-negotiated the teacher contract thru 2011.


* For Fire, Police and Municipal workers, this is the effective annual raise after salary give backs for the last four months of Fiscal Year 2009, which amounted to 5% for police, 3.5% for firefighters and 3% for municipal employees. The teachers renegotiated on the heels of their new contract just taking affect. This took them from their original 3.5% raise to a 2% raise with differential deferred.

Health care co-pay is for individual/week and is a set dollar amount, not a percentage.


1) Health care really needs to become a percentage of salary, not a flat dollar amount.

2) Don't forget the STEPS. Raises are built into step increases.

UPDATE: I took some time and, utilizing the "Transparency Train", looked at the current contracts that are being extended. Currently, the Police (p.14) and Fire (p.36) have this step increase structure built in:


Now, these aren't year-to-year steps--as with the Teacher contract (p.107)--and the impact isn't as great. For example, those in the middle years of each step are really just getting the publicized raise (0% and then 2.25%). Those lucky enough to make the jump will receive more. (The municipal union contract--p.72--is similarly structured ).

February 24, 2009

Nothing in Warwick Tonight

Marc Comtois

Citing various rules, laws and those pesky "open meeting" requirements, the Warwick City Council moved to consider the tentative agreements between the City and the members of the municipal, police and fire unions at a later date so that the public would have a chance to review. The Finance Committee will hold a hearing on the matter on Friday, February 27 at 5:30 at City Hall. The full City Council will meet at 6 PM the same night to fully consider the matter.

Quick Synopsis and Analysis of Warwick Agreement

Marc Comtois

Here's a snapshot analysis of the tentative agreement between the City of Warwick and the fire, police and municipal unions, based on info from various sources.

The Good:

Pay cuts: Pay cuts of 5% for police, 3.5% for firefighters, 3% for municipal employees for the duration of this fiscal year. No raises in FY 2010; 1.5% pay increases every 6 months from July 1, 2010 through January, 2012. These are reasonable.

Consolidation: According to Mayor Avedesian, approximately 40 retirements are anticipated and those positions won't be filled and the duties will be consolidated. He framed this as a concession from the union, which would usually insist on filling these positions. It is a step in the right direction, especially considering past history.

The Sketchy:

Deferrals: Reduced holiday pay which can be exchanged for compensatory time or taken at retirement. A deferral of clothing and uniform allowances. We won't pay now, we'll pay later.

The Disappointing:

Health Care: Increase in employees’ contribution to health insurance premiums of about 10%. Edging towards reality in this area is a must, but this falls far short. The increases are in set dollar amounts, not in terms of percentage. Today's 10% contribution could very well be down to 5% by the end of the contract. However, should the General Assembly pass the quickly-becoming-mythical 25% statewide public-employee healthcare co-share, the City of Warwick (and the Mayor) will be bailed out.

The Missing:

Pension/retirement adjustments: I haven't seen any information regarding raising retirement ages, etc.

A "No Layoff" clause: There isn't one and that is obviously a GOOD thing. According to Mayor Avedesian, the wrong version of the tentative agreement was passed to the City Council.

Passing the wrong agreement to the City Council was a major fumble, but so was the overall failure to get ahead of the news cycle on this. The days of information not getting out to the public until the Monday Morning Presser are way over. The internet and email don't take a break over the weekend.

ADDENDUM: Relatively speaking (here, for instance), its understandable why Mayor Avedesian is happy with the results. A lot of animals have gotten out of the barn over the last few decades, so to speak, and to expect to get them all back in at once isn't realistic. Some real concessions were made by the unions and it is worth noting their willingness to negotiate in comparison to those in other communities. So, it's a step in the right direction even if it doesn't go far enough for many of us (like the health care portion). That being said, it hasn't been approved yet and perhaps the City Council will make some improvements (from a taxpayer's standpoint).

February 23, 2009

Mayor Avedesian w/WPRO's Jim Hummel

Marc Comtois

Warwick Mayor Scott Avedesian was on WPRO with Jim Hummel (filling in for Dan Yorke) to explain the recent tentative agreement between the City of Warwick and the municipal, fire and police unions. (What follows is a raw, running liveblog)

Mayor Avedesian stated that the negotiations started before Christmas based on how it looked economically. Then a lull until a couple weeks ago. Mayor told the unions he could either lay off people or we can negotiate. Situation similar to No. Providence (ie; potential, protracted legal action). In the end, salary reductions equaling 5% for fire, 3.5% for police, 3% for municipal.

Hummel mentioned the potential 25% co-pay requirement currently sitting in the Legislature. Did it factor. Avedesian said, yes, should the legislature enact the 25%, it will supersede this contract agreement.

Hummel noted difference between public/private. Latter would say this isn't going far enough.

Avedesian said this is more than Health Care, also pay, holiday pay, uniforms, pension costs going up.

$1.9 million savings for rest of FY09.
$9.7 million for entire thru 2012

Expect more retirements from jobs that won't be filled (about 45 people). Consolidations in various departments will occur.

Hummel, mentioned that some people would think that, if you can absorb that now, maybe we shouldn't have had those positions anyway. Avedesian, stated the difference is that usually the union will push us to fill it. Now the unions don't have as much hand.

Hummel asked about the fact that this looks like a rush job to some people, to which Avedesian replied that it was time critical. Additionally, the Council could move to suspend rules to have public hearing (sounds like they probably will). Avedesian says the normal process would have been too slow.

Avedesian pessimistic about Obama bucks and bemoaned the lack of control with regard to the schools.

Finally, prompted by a caller's question, Hummel clarified that he was told by the Mayor's staff that lay-offs HAVE NOT been negotiated away.

Warwick Taxpayers on Alert

Marc Comtois

Following up on Justin's post "Avedesian Locks in...Savings?", only a government official would consider "savings" to be a reduction in the "normal" INCREASE that the public sector has come to expect as essentially a birthright.

Despite what Mayor Avedesian says, this isn't a "savings" of $10 million, it is a reduction in what the "normal" spending increases would be if business-as-usual is followed. The Mayor is touting the willingness of the Warwick municipal, fire and police unions to work together with the city. OK, fair enough...but it's up to "management" to keep the best interest of the taxpayers in mind. In these tough financial times, that means holding the line at the very least. And the unions have a strategic interest in making these limited concessions now, before things get worse. (A similar thing occurred last October when the Warwick teacher's contract was renegotiated and extended).

Reducing "normal" increases ain't reduction! Real cuts mean spending less...or at least not spending more!

But while the pay increases in these troubled times are enough to tick taxpayers off, there are some other--some might think bigger--issues. No layoffs, guaranteed? That's another management right surrendered. Pay increases if funding resumes at "normal" levels? Following that logic, shouldn't these actually be pay cuts since funding has been reduced?

And then there are the health care provisions.

Former Warwick City Council member Robert Cushman has analyzed the contract with respect to the potential passage in the General Assembly of a 25% co-pay of health care insurance. If Warwick waits for the GA :

The total three year saving with all police, fire and municipal employees paying a 25% health care co-pay over the current $11 per week co-pay is $6,270,552
The total three year saving with all police, fire and municipal employees paying a $14 per week for individuals and $28 per week for family is $1,644,304

If this contract is signed and the General Assembly passes the 25% health care co-pay it will cost Warwick Taxpayer $4,626,248
Yes, how often does "waiting for the GA" actually work out? But the thing is that it's still better than rushing this deal through.

Cushman's complete analysis after the "jump".

Continue reading "Warwick Taxpayers on Alert"

February 21, 2009

Avedisian Locks in... Savings?

Justin Katz

Out of Warwick comes a "tentative agreement" with the municipal unions in which Mayor Scott Avedisian purports to have secured $10 million in savings between March 2009 and June 2012. The dollar amount is measured against the current contracts, expiring at the end of June, and an assumption that a subsequent contract covering the next three years would otherwise have been substantially the same.

The specifics of the "concessions," however, give the impression that the objective is to lock in some very modest changes to help the unions weather the escalating economic storm. Furthering the impression that the taxpayers of Warwick may not be getting the best of deals, here, is the fact that the city council has called for a special meeting on Tuesday night to ratify the contracts, which (according to my sources) will require "unanimous consent" among the councilors, because the required procedure will have been circumvented.

According to a cover letter to the above-linked packet by Personnel Director Oscar Shelton:

... the bulk of the savings comes from increasing health insurance copayments, temporary wage reductions, deferring holiday pay and clothing allowances and from the FOP and Municipal Unions' willingness to reduce their ranks through attrition. The police union is amenable to allowing the City to reduce their force from 180 employees to 163 without filing for arbitration or any other types of litigation. The Municipal Union's workforce will be reduced by at least 12 employees and the Management/Non-union employee Group will be reduced by at least 16 employees (28 total).

The salient points are as follows:

  • The health insurance savings come from an increase in the weekly pay-check reduction from $11 for all employees to a whopping $14 for an individual plan and $28 for a family plan, which is minimal to say the least, by current standards.
  • The wage reductions vary in significance from one contract to the next:
    • The police will see a 3.25% salary reduction for the remainder of this year (which began, last July, with a 3.75% increase). Unfortunately, my documentation is missing the page that lays out the raise schedule for '09 to '12.
    • The firefighters will see a 5% salary reduction for the remainder of this year (which again began, last July, with an approximate 3.75% increase, although I didn't check the increase for each position). Come July, they'll get that money back as their raise for the first year of the new contract, and then they'll receive a 1.5% increase every six months until June 2012 (equivalent to 2.25% annual increases).
    • Municipal employees will see a 3% decrease for the remainder of this contract year (which began with a roughly 3% raise, although again, I didn't calculate every grade). As with the fire department, a return of that money will be their raise for the '09-'10 year, followed by 1.5% increases every six months.
  • In all cases, the deferred holiday pay and clothing allowances are redeemable as paid days off (with clothing allowances converted thereto) — timed, at least, so as not to trigger overtime costs — or as cash payments upon retirement.
  • The ability to secure attrition of workforce comes at the cost of no-layoff clauses in the police and fire contracts. (The police contract specifies the current contract period, but as I said, I'm missing an important page.) Moreover, none of the attrition or staff reduction language that Shelton cites is actually in writing within the document that I have.

The most insidious part of the agreement, however, is that it is absolutely contingent upon the city's revenue shortfall. As the police section of the agreement puts it:

In following, the parties hereby agree that should the City become able to partialy or wholly fund the above-referenced Budget Shortfalls for the (current) Fiscal Year ending June 30, 2009 and/or the Fiscal Year ending June 30, 2010 through the receipt or generation of additional revenue through:

(a) its receipt of any reinstatement of or new source of State of Rhode Island State Aid/revenue sharing,

(b) its receipt of any applicable funding from the Federal Government, or

(c) its reduction of applicable costs and expenses from the implementation of any legislatively and unilaterally reduced wages and benefits levels affecting those wages and benefits levels set forth in the parties' current 206-2009 CBA or the successor 2009-1012 CBA (i.e. such as those changes proposed in Article 33, Article 45, etc. of the Governor's proposed Supplemental Budget);

the parties will re-open negotiations concerning the 2009-2012 CBA in order to reinstate levels of benefits reduced in said CBA (i.e. the Holiday Pay and/or Clothing Allowance deferred in the 2009-2012 CBA) in amounts that are commensurate with the level of additional revenue received or generated.

In other words, should budgetary matters turn around in a way helpful to the city, the unions will be first in line for renewal of their money flow. Part C goes so far as to require renegotiation should, for example, the governor and General Assembly implement a statewide minimum healthcare copay; Warwick's savings from that measure would be cycled back to the unions. If only Rhode Island's cities and towns could draft their contracts contingent upon the continuation of short-term market booms and annual windfalls!

As I suggested above, the agreement has an air of union protection in a disastrous and unpredictable time, and the people of Warwick should insist that their elected representatives protect them instead.

January 20, 2009

Local Governments Must Lead

Justin Katz

With reference to his native Warwick, Bob Cushman makes a call applicable to all of Rhode Island's cities and towns in varying degrees:

Those who wail and gnash their teeth in response to the governor's proposals are more interested in playing the blame game than recognizing the reality of the situation and making the tough choices necessary to get our economy back on track. The change we need to protect the rights of taxpayers will not be easy. But it cannot even begin until our leaders recognize their complicity in this crisis and get serious about fixing things.

The simple fact is that Warwick taxpayers cannot afford another year of tax increases in this economic environment. To do so may very well force people into the streets. Delinquent property tax collections are already increasing. Tax revenues are down everywhere because people don’t have the money to spend.

It will take political leaders with the courage to confront these challenges with honesty, diligence, and a sense of shared purpose. But the first step is to stop pointing the finger of blame elsewhere. You were elected to lead. So lead. Have the courage to adopt the position of creating a more efficient government by cutting spending and pledging "no new tax increases in 2009" so all Warwick citizens can survive this economic downturn and share in the wealth of the recovery when prosperity returns.

Anchor Rising readers have likely furrowed their brows at suggestions that the governor is merely shifting the tax burden toward property taxes — forcing local governments to raise them. A whole lot of people in this state don't want the notion that government spending can be cut to enter the public discourse. Yes, even at the town level.

January 6, 2009

Three Communities Work Towards Consolidation

Marc Comtois

In anticipation of the Governor's address tomorrow, in which it is likely he'll announce some pretty deep cuts in aid to cities and towns, it seems like a good idea for communities to embark on the sort of potential cost-saving projects that Warwick, East Greenwich and North Kingstown appear ready to try (couldn't find link to Warwick Beacon article online):

Consolidation efforts between Warwick, East Greenwich and North Kingstown appear to offer the three municipalities the best of all worlds--reduced costs, improved services and even lower costs for the homeowner.

Mayor Scott Avedisian disclosed last week that talks are being held between the fire departments of the the three municipalities with the thought that Warwick would handle dispatch operations for East Greenwich and North Kingstown. Revenues generated by the service would offset Warwick costs while freeing personnel in the other two departments.

The article goes on to explain that some infrastructure differences still need to be figured out and that, at least in East Greenwich, upgrades to 911 dispatch (for instance) could lead to lower homeowner insurance rates. Hopefully, ideas like these will bear fruit. There really isn't much of an alternative.

December 23, 2008

RE: Warwick Schools Cancellation

Marc Comtois

Following up, the ProJo has their report on the situation today:

School officials said that few members of the union that represents custodial, maintenance and secretarial employees — the Warwick Independent School Employees (WISE) –– responded to calls to come to work late Sunday afternoon even though union workers had showed up for snow duty on Friday and Saturday.

The School Department and the WISE union have been stalemated over a contract for more than two years, but union leaders last night said that there was no concerted attempt to avoid working on Sunday.

Mayor Scott Avedisian, who was in contact with both sides yesterday morning, said he did not care which was in the wrong and that it is “absolutely unacceptable” that Warwick schools were not ready to open along with almost all other public school districts yesterday.

To prevent a repeat occurrence, Avedisian said that after talking to School Committee Chairman Christopher Friel in the morning, he issued an executive order forming a special committee to deal with efficient snow removal at the schools. He said that he and Friel agreed that if school employees are not available to clear the drives, parking lots and walkways, the city will do the work and bill the School Department.

December 22, 2008

Looking for Answers on Warwick Schools Cancellation

Marc Comtois

UPDATE: Mayor Avedisian called Dan Yorke and unequivocally stated that there was a concerted effort on the part of the school maintenance union (WISE) to not come to work. The union president is claiming that 11 of the 15 people involved didn't get a phone call from the school administration. Avedisian stated that, phone call or not, WISE workers should have figured they'd be needed to work on Sunday to prep for school on Monday. He also resolved that if this occurs again, then the city will simply meet the need with city employees and back-bill the school department.

Dan mentioned that combining maintenance positions seems like a good idea and Mayor Avedisian agreed and said they'd been trying to negotiate that for some time. However, there has been resistance.

Avedisian also implied that perhaps the Superintendent and the Director of Buildings and Grounds needed to take action against the employees who didn't show.

A follow-up caller "with knowledge of the situation" (and was sympathetic to the WISE guys) essentially confirmed that the workers were making a statement.

No one has a clear answer, but Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian called John DePetro this morning and tried to explain why the Warwick Schools were closed today. Apparently, Superintendent of Schools Peter Horoschack called school department maintenance employees in on Sunday to clean up the school grounds (parking lots, sidewalks, etc.) but got little response.

In Warwick, the independent school employees union (WISE - Warwick Independent School Employees) has been operating without a contract for a couple years and Avedisian openly speculated that the ongoing work-to-rule mindset was to blame for the large number of no-shows. Additionally, Mayor Avedisian explained how many school events have been moved, canceled or manned by volunteers (I know, I've been one of them) because janitors wouldn't come in to open schools or clean up after the events.

As in other cities and towns, the city maintenance workers and the school maintenance workers are two different entities. Situations like this make a strong case for unifying the administration of all maintenance workers, be they city-side or school-side.

December 18, 2008

Removing Unfunded Mandates

Marc Comtois

As John Howell reports in the Warwick Beacon, cities and towns are going to be clamoring for a reduction in unfunded mandates (ie; rules or laws imposed by the state on municipalities without the concomitant funds).

“There’s slim hope that the legislature would relieve schools of providing textbooks for non public schools or special education busing,” said Daniel Beardsley, president of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns. Textbooks, busing and much more are on the radar screen, although there was a reluctance on the part of most contracted for this story to disclose too much. Efforts appear to be directed at arriving at a consensus and drafting an agenda before going public....

Timothy Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said yesterday the group has forwarded a list of mandates that “hopefully” the governor will consider lifting as part of his supplemental budget. They include eliminating step increases for teachers; lifting the requirement that school nurses are also certified teachers and revising requirements that public schools provide out of district transportation for private and parochial schools. He noted that often private and parochial schools operate on different school calendars yet municipalities are required to provide busing at times when public schools are closed.

Ha. Yeah, "eliminating step increases for teachers", that'll happen! Regardless, I'm all for removing the various transportation requirements. Warwick Mayor Scott Avedesian also recommended removing the school bus monitor requirement. He also had a pretty convenient complaint (conspiracy alert!):
Mayor Scott Avedisian had a...suggestion: the requirement...for the city to conduct a full revaluation every nine years with a statistical revaluation in three year increments. When the revaluation requirement was enacted, the state underwrote the cost. That’s no longer the case and cities and towns are faced with the burden.
In Warwick, the most recent revaluation was conducted at the peak of the housing market. So removing that revaluation requirement would probably keep current tax rates on individual properties the same, which is to say artificially high. In tight economic times, I'm guessing that would be fine with Avedesian who is already faced with decreasing revenues. But it would stink for Warwick property owners. I'm with Mayor Avedesian on this one, though:
The mayor also targeted the potential inconsistency between legislation that caps how much municipalities can increase the tax levy and the Caruolo Act that gives school committees the power to sue a municipality for additional funding.

“If it goes to Caruolo we really need to change the law so a judge can’t do something that doesn’t fit within the cap,” he said.