— Adventures in Town Government —

February 11, 2013

Keeping Taxpayers in the Dark

Patrick Laverty

I hope everyone was able to keep safe and as warm as they could through the storm. The cleanup has begun, and even probably ended in many towns. However in some places, we hear about the plows' inability to keep up and even still some people complaining that their road hasn't seen a plow yet. For some great updates on cities like Pawtucket and North Providence, the Valley Breeze's Ethan Shorey has been using his Twitter feed to report on conditions

Some of the more interesting tweets from Shorey included:

#Pawtucket resident just informed me that they're hiring private plowing contractors so they can leave their homes.
Pawtucket's cut a lot of staff since the last big snowy winter. In this case, I'm hearing lighter plows didn't keep up during the day so they couldn't get through later on. Shortage of big trucks.
Others were reporting that mayors of Pawtucket and Cranston were asking Governor Chafee for help with the snow removal in those cities.

Wait, what?

These are the cities that had some of the most fiscal problems in the past, due to overly generous municipal compensation packages, and now they're having trouble paying for snow removal? The answer is to ask the state to take state-funded trucks off state roads and put them in those towns to do the town's snow removal?

To be clear, these are drivers and trucks that are paid for by people in all 39 cities and towns being sent to the couple of, at least previously, most fiscally irresponsible cities in the state.

Why does it seem like politicians are able to dodge a major awakening from their citizens just in time? What if these cities weren't able to get help from the state? How angry would the residents get? Would they then start asking questions why there is no money allocated in the city budget for snow removal? Would they then start going over the budget and looking to see where their money is going?

If cities and towns are responsible for anything at all, one could argue that as an absolutely minimum, the responsibility is for safety and infrastructure before all else. Otherwise, you don't even have a city.

I am glad that people are finally going to be able to dig out and get around, but I think some hard questions really need to be asked in some of these towns about priorities.

December 4, 2012

The Deterioration of New England Local Government (and of the United States)

Justin Katz

Paul Rahe's written an excellent essay explaining why libertarians ought to be social conservatives (via Instapundit), which is a point on which I'm writing for future publication. For the moment, though, this paragraph is more immediately relevant:

In America, [Tocqueville] found institutions, mores, and manners antithetical to what he took to be democracy's natural drift. Vigorous local self-government drew the inhabitants of New England townships out of their homes and into the public square. Initially, they made this move in self-defense, but the experience of participating soon became a pleasure all its own, and it induced individuals to abandon what he called "individualism" and to devote themselves to public concerns. In the process, these Americans learned to think ahead, they developed a powerful sense of their own capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of life, and they learned to cooperate with their neighbors and even with strangers in forming private associations for public purposes.

Rahe attributes much of the erosion of American civic society, including the ideas of local governance, private organizations, and moral self-control, to the sort of apathy that arises when generations forget what their ancestors saved them from, and what was necessary in order to accomplish that end. There's certainly a point to be made, in that regard, but I find myself returning to his phrase, "initially, they made this move in self-defense."

On the local level, it doesn't take quite the dramatic threat that is necessary to bring out the self-defense vote (so to speak) in big-time politics, which is one of the reasons pushing governance toward the local level is generally advisable. So why do we not see the apathy of prosperity looping back every now and then to a rejuvenated public engagement?

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

November 3, 2012

A Familiar School Committee Time Line

Justin Katz

"I had the sense that everybody around the table knew that we were part of the same team.” That's how Tiverton School Committee member Carol Herrmann described negotiations with the teachers' union this summer. On August 14, the committee passed the contract extension.

It isn't surprising that the negotiations would be "cordial," as Herrmann put it. Negotiating for management were Herrmann (a union teacher), Deborah Pallasch (Herrmann's campaign partner in 2008), Superintendent William Rearick (formerly a union teacher), and Finance Director Douglas Fiore (who works for Rearick). Chairwoman Sally Black is a retired union teacher.

The committee's "negotiations," so to speak, with the people of Tiverton have been less cordial.

In January 2009, the committee approved a contract with retroactive raises despite residents' fears that the recession would continue. And voters at the May 2009 financial town meeting (FTM) refused to approve the committee's requested budget increase.

The school committee meeting a week later was heated. One guidance counselor told the committee: "I am the last person on this Earth that would want to hurt a child, but you need to make a statement… to get people to the town meeting."

As it happened, the Obama administration's stimulus filled the gap and then some.

In May 2010, Pallasch proposed an increase, as an FTM voter, that essentially made the stimulus a permanent part of the budget. Herrmann's husband, Nick Tsiongas, then made the familiar threats; if her budget didn't pass: "We will begin by closing one of the new elementary schools… eliminating all extracurricular activities… every sport and every after school activity… middle school band, high school chorus… and then five or six teaching positions at the high school."

We'd heard that before, and we've heard it ever since, including before this year's financial town referendum (FTR), which has replaced the FTM.

For the upcoming FTR, the "five-year plan" that the committee mentioned when it approved the teacher agreement calls for a school department appropriation of $29,106,009, an increase of $1.2 million (4.3%), well over the state tax cap.

And the cycle continues. The only way to stop it — and to make the people of Tiverton feel as if they are the ones "on the same team” — is for voters in Tiverton to elect Susan Anderson, Ruth Hollenbach, and me to the school committee. We will insist that the district maintain its programming within the budget that taxpayers feel they can afford, without threatening to "hurt" children in order to "make a statement."

October 4, 2012

Things We Read Today (24), Thursday

Justin Katz

West Warwick for all; the essence of education reform; declines in people births; declines in business births; the easy street to dependency.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

September 28, 2012

Tiverton Toll Meeting Shows Rhode Islanders Have to Stop Fighting Fire with Paper

Justin Katz

Last night, I attended the first organizational meeting for the Tiverton branch of Sakonnet Toll Oppostion Platform (STOP), a cross-community effort to stop the state of Rhode Island from placing a toll on the Sakonnet River Bridge.  If I was skeptical about the ability of residents to prevent the tolls before, I'm pretty well convinced that the people of the East Bay will not be able to stop them, now.

The audience consisted of approximately fifty residents, from a broad variety of local groups and interests — many most often seen in heated attacks against each other over the usual slate of issues that face the town.  Even though the only state-level official in the room was Sen. Walter Felag (D, Bristol, Tiverton, Warren), the opportunity should be there, in other words, for some effective leaders to draw on the strengths of the different groups to affect state-level lawmakers.


Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

July 28, 2012

Against Borrowing in Providence or Anywhere

Justin Katz

In his Saturday column, Ted Nesi makes a point that I'd been thinking about as the week came to a close, related to a proposed $40 million infrastructure bond in Providence:

Governments should borrow to fund long-term infrastructure projects that have a higher rate of return than the interest on the bonds, but [in Providence's past] bond money was used to pay a principal’s salary and develop a restaurant. Buddy Cianci, apparently confusing borrowed money with free money, told Stycos: “This way, we can make the improvements and the tax rate doesn’t go up.” Cianci left off the crucial word “now” — because the tax rate certainly will go up eventually if the projects aren’t ones that will boost the city economy and help offset the interest costs. Taveras would do well to burnish his reformer credentials further by finding a new, transparent way to allocate bond money if voters approve the proposal in November.

In theory, Ted's argument definitely applies. One clarification I would make, first, is that one can't forget the actual cost of the work. The "higher rate of return," as Ted puts it, can offset the interest, but one suspects that new streets and sidewalks will require replacement well before their incremental benefit has compensated for the whole $40 million plus interest.

That said, suppose an accurate projection finds that improved pavement would increase city revenue — through increased commerce, property values, and so on — by three percent. In such a case, even if the interest paid on the bonds were exactly the same, the city might as well borrow the money rather than save it up over the same period of time and then do the work. Residents and visitors would gain the benefit of tomorrow's new sidewalks, today.

There are good reasons to resist that argument, both in practical and in theoretical terms.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...

(Note: edited at 7:48 a.m., 7/30/2012, to clarify that the bond is for roads and sidewalks.)

July 24, 2012

106 Plays Right Into Their Hands

Patrick Laverty

When you're budgeting for a school department, there are a lot of moving pieces. Of course you wish you had money to fund everything really well, but that's not the case. Choices need to be made and sometimes cuts are necessary. But where those cuts should come from is often the topic for debate. We've seen multiple times recently when school departments are using the Washington Monument Syndrome:

The most visible and most appreciated service that is provided by that entity is the first to be put on the chopping block.
In our local examples, the school department cuts school sports. We saw that a few months back when West Warwick cut high school sports which led to hundreds of people showing up to a Town Council meeting and some even getting so agitated, they had to be removed by the police. Of course after all the gnashing of teeth, the money was found and sports were replaced.

Now there's a group in East Providence calling themselves Project 106 that seeks to fund middle school sports in the town. First of all, I've lived in a handful of states and I've never heard of middle school sports before. Usually kids participate in CYO basketball, Little League or Pop Warner Football and the like. Rhode Island seems to have this big devotion to middle school sports. Additionally, quite often these groups won't be so quick to offer up that they're looking to save middle school sports, instead leaving it up to the listener to sometimes assume it's high school sports that are under attack.

Nevertheless, it must be pretty nice to get the heat taken off you as a school board member. You can negotiate these escalating contracts and pay more to areas that don't directly affect the students and cut things that do, like sports. No big deal because some nice group, like Project 106 will step right in and raise money for the sports. The same sports that were already being paid for through taxes!

It's great that these parents want to find a way to fund after-school sports, but why are they letting the administrators off the hook so easily? Why was the money available last year but not this year? Keep their feet to the fire, let them know that you're watching and paying attention. It'd be nice if parents were as keenly aware of all school budget decisions and expenditures, but we'll start here. Once the administrators see that they can cut sports and parents will replenish those funds, what's next? Books? Busing? Supplies? Electricity? Heat? Why not? After all, isn't heating the school even more important than sports? If parents will pay a little more for sports, won't they do the same to keep the lights on?

June 24, 2012

How I'd Fix the School Committees

Patrick Laverty

We have a problem in many towns with how our governance is set up. Towns have an executive and a legislative body that assist each other in running the town. Those two manage the municipal affairs including the Town Hall, police, fire, public works and almost all other parts of the town. However for some reason, we don't trust them to run the schools. Instead, we elect a completely separate body to run that one department. Why?

Along with this setup, we let the school committee negotiate contracts on behalf of the school system and they are responsible for the budget for the schools. However, the school committee has no ability to generate their own funding through taxation. Instead, they rely upon the town council to give them enough money to run the schools. But in most towns (all?) the council and executive have very little to no say in the budgeting and contract negotiations. It's kind of like the school committee is going shopping with someone else's credit card. And then what happens when the town council doesn't give the school committee the amount of money that the committee wants? The school committee sues the town council under the George Caruolo Act. When that happens, you have one group that represents the town's taxpayers suing another group that represents the town's taxpayers. In this situation, only the lawyers win.

Add on to this, the mayor and town council have very little say over how the schools are run and managed. The mayor stands out in front, creates a budget, sets a tax rate, the town council approves it and then just hands the money over to the school committee. When people aren't happy with the schools, they complain to the mayor. When people aren't happy with their tax increases that may be due to budgets created by the school committee, people complain to the mayor. There's little the mayor can do about the complaints.

So here's how I'd fix it. Maybe this change would require a change of the state charter, but whatever it takes, this is the change I'd make.

First, abolish the school committee as it exists today for all the reasons I wrote above. At least to eliminate the ability for one town committee to sue another town committee. That's just ludicrous.

Basically what I'm going to do is make the school committee a hybrid sub-committee of the town council. First, pick a number of members for the new schools sub-committee. For my example, I'll pick seven. I will let the chair or president of the town council appoint three members of the town council to the schools sub-committee. Town councils already have various subcommittees, so this isn't a big deal. Doing this guarantees that the town council has oversight into the schools and is involved with their budgeting and contract negotiations. If they're going to be involved with funding the schools, I want them to have some oversight as well. I can also see where this could be a lot of work and we may want to have some people who are focused on the schools. I am also going to add three at-large seats. These are people who will be on the schools sub-committee but will not be members of the town council. They will be elected by the voters, much like today's school committee members are elected today. So that's six members that I've added. The seventh and the chair of the committee will always be the mayor or town manager. Now the person who frequently receives the questions, complaints and frustrations with the schools will have direct oversight of the school system.

There we go, a whole new school committee system. It seems to work well. It allows the town council to have oversight without burdening the entire council with school management responsibilities and it also dilutes the power of the town council by having an equal number of people specifically elected to the committee. It also has the same people creating the budget and negotiating contracts that have to set the town's tax rate. Best of all, the person who many already believe runs the schools actually does get to do just that.

Why can't this work?

April 30, 2012

Waiting on Senator Crowley

Patrick Laverty

Some of you might remember a few months ago when Senator Elizabeth Crowley of Central Falls wrote a letter to the editor in the Providence Journal excoriating the city's receiver Robert Flanders. Flanders had recently appeared at the newspaper's annual Follies show dressed in an executioner's outfit and touted himself "Lord of the Pink Slip."

Crowley didn't find this too amusing, she didn't see the humor in it. Neither did Bob Plain, as he also wrote about it in his forum. So I guess gallows humor doesn't work for them and they even appear to be somewhat offended by someone making light of a bad situation.

So can we expect them to have at least something similar to say about President Obama and one of his jokes from this weekend's White House Correspondents' Dinner?

"Look at this party. We’ve got men in tuxes, women in gowns, fine wine, first-class entertainment. I was just relieved to learn this was not a GSA conference."
In case you missed it, there has been some concern lately after the General Services Administration (GSA) spent $823,000 of taxpayer money for a 300 person conference in Las Vegas.

Now I'm not going to feign any anger or say that I didn't find some of the President's jokes funny. I'm not that much of a partisan. My point is whether Crowley and Plain will be consistent in their indignation and write similarly about the president?

As another local who shares the Senator's surname would say, the silence is deafening.

April 26, 2012

Transparency Now Equals Union Bashing

Patrick Laverty

I was in my car yesterday afternoon listening to Matt Allen talking about this new ordinance in North Smithfield and talking with town councilor Ed Yazbak about it. The Town Council in North Smithfield will put new contracts up for public review for two weeks before signing. This ordinance will only cover contracts that the Town Council negotiates, so teacher and fire contracts are not subject to this change.

Imagine that. Openness. Transparency. Accountability. All good things in government.

I had a similar experience in my own town a few years ago when my School Committee was negotiating with the teachers union. I emailed back and forth with a few of the committee members sending a few of my own suggestions and to their credit, they didn't respond to me like some crazy person from outer space. When I learned through the media that the committee had come to an agreement with the union on a contract and that it was to be signed at the upcoming committee meeting, I asked to see what they'd agreed upon. I simply wanted to comment on it before its signing. One committee member responded that I could see it after it is ratified at the committee meeting. No one may see the contents of the contract before it is signed.

Well that hit me like a brick wall. I can't see a contract that I have to help pay for before it is signed? This sounds a lot like Nancy Pelosi referring to Obamacare in that we have to pass it in order to see what's in it.

But now, North Smithfield is attempting to make the change toward openness and transparency. Who could possibly be opposed to transparency in government?

Senator John Tassoni, that's who. His claims include "union bashing" as well as

"Not only is the recent action taken by the North Smithfield Town Council a clear and obvious attack on the municipal union, it is also a clear indication that the members of the council who support this action are shirking their responsibilities and avoiding the duties they were elected to perform,” said Senator Tassoni.

He goes on to add:

“The council is the duly authorized body to be voting on these negotiated contracts, and shouldn’t be looking to avoid their duty by seeking public input that they are then able to hide behind,”
Hide behind public opinion? So if the public, the ones paying the bill, decide that the contract is not something that they want, if they feel the value isn't there, then they should have every right to voice that opinion to their town council. If anything, this could put additional pressure on a town council. They spend time working through negotiations only to get hammered by the public? How does that sound like shirking any responsibility?

Also, if the employees covered by the contract are doing a good job and are getting paid fair compensation, then what is Senator Tassoni afraid of? Why does he want the council to continue hiding behind "We can't show you the contract until it's passed?" The only people who look to hide things are those who have something to hide. Clearly the town council in North Smithfield feel they have nothing to hide. So why does Senator Tassoni feel that differently?

Among some of the other ludicrous statements by Tassoni comes this gem:

“These people ran for office knowing that they would occasionally face some tough decisions and difficult votes,” said Senator Tassoni. “If they are not willing to live up to those responsibilities, they should get out of office. Seeking public input on union contracts is not, for them, about transparency. It is about stirring up anti-labor sentiments.”
If anything, it would seem the town council is more than living up to their responsibilities, they are demonstrating how they want to be more accountable to the taxpayers and the voters.

When people think of what's wrong with Rhode Island and more specifically its politics, Senator Tassoni would be one of the poster children. Fortunately however, he announced last September that he will not seek re-election this year. So I guess we at least have that to look forward to.

Congratulations to Councilors Ed Yazbak, Christine Charest and Thomas McGee for voting in favor of good government.

March 24, 2012

Bankruptcy Judge Rules that Central Falls' School District is Separate from the City

Carroll Andrew Morse

Federal Bankruptcy Judge Frank J. Bailey has issued a preliminary ruling that the Central Falls School District is not part of the City of Central Falls. The Projo has the complete ruling available here.

Specifically, Judge Bailey rejected a request from Central Falls receiver Robert Flanders to issue a declaration "that the School District is part of the City and therefore, ipso facto, the collective bargaining process is within the Bankruptcy Court’s subject matter jurisdiction".

Judge Bailey's reasoning is that...

  1. School committees are parts of local government...
  2. ...to which the state legislature, under its Constitutional grant of authority for education, has "vested" "the entire care, control, and management of all public school interests in the several cities and towns".
  3. However, in a 2007 referendum, the people of Central Falls approved changes to their City Charter which eliminated their school committee...
  4. ...meaning that they eliminated the organ of their municipal government authorized to exercise local jurisdiction over the schools...
  5. ...through the process specified in Home Rule Article of the State Constitution for making permanent changes to local forms of government...
  6. ...and that this act, when combined with the laws that placed the Central Falls school system under the control of a Board of Trustees appointed by the State Education Board of Regents and "not mentioned in the City’s charter [or] answerable to City authorities"...
  7. ...fully separated the Central Falls school district from the City of Central Falls.
The judge also goes through a list of factors which he deems irrelevant to this determination, including issues like Central Falls receiving almost all of its education funding from the state, and the school department and the city maintaining separate bank accounts.

Though I am not predisposed to favor the outcome, I have to say that Judge Bailey's reasoning is pretty solid, given the Constitutional structure of Rhode Island government and the laws that have been passed under it. This ruling also strongly suggests that it is only Central Falls' school district that is part of the state, at least until such time as other municipalities begin holding local referenda to wipe out their school committees (though I'm not sure how the regional districts cleanly fit in to all of this).

There are still some process hurdles to be cleared, but where this is likely leading to the bankruptcy court also rejecting a second item that Receiver Flanders asked for a ruling on, "that the Receiver has the power under the Fiscal Stability Act to act on behalf of the City relative to collective bargaining with the Union".

March 12, 2012

Déjà Woonsocket

Justin Katz

Everything going on in Woonsocket sounds so familiar that I had to check back in Anchor Rising's archives for the city. It's worth scrolling down to the summer of 2009; very instructive. First observation, from a liveblog of a school committee meeting (most of which I missed):

I've got to say that the casual atmosphere, here, is almost disconcerting. As I drove in, the lazy summer evening feel of the streets brought to mind the degree to which most residents are oblivious to the actions of their local, state, and even national government representatives. Given the points of levity, it's almost as if that mood has infiltrated even the bodies that those representatives populate.

At the time, the district was cutting everything and seeking 40 furlough days from teachers. Peruse the surrounding posts, and you'll see that the district's teachers had enjoyed unabated raises since at least the turn of the millennium, and the budget problem could have been solved with a 13-14% reduction in pay. But then, fast forwarding through a bunch of Caruolo noise, we get to this very familiar-sounding item:

There's a $6.9 million difference between the School Committee and the City Council over how much to spend on schools in this fiscal year; it jumps to $10.6 million when the 2008-09 deficit is added in. The reconciliation of those numbers is set to start Wednesday at a joint budget workshop session between the committee and the City Council.

Essentially, the school committee plugged its 2009 hole with 2010 money, and the town council, which legal precedent leaves with no authority to stop that from being done, acknowledged as much and agreed to move on to the next budget. The downside is that even the school committee's impossible plan for the next year will come up 62% shy of the budget gap. With the teachers' union digging in, the school committee surely expects the money to be found, somewhere, and that somewhere would have to be the town's taxpayers.

Of course, we all know that the Magic Obama ARRA Money came in shortly after, and although I lost track of its impact on Woonsocket, at the time, I can't shake the feeling that we're really only seeing the fruits of hole-plugging with the blind hope of a rapid economic recovery unrealized.


As if to deliberately emphasize the point: closing the schools in April would be roughly equivalent to the 40 furlough days that the School Committee was seeking back then.

March 10, 2012

RISC Panel Discussion on Municipal Finance

Carroll Andrew Morse

[9:16] Good morning, from the Rhode Island Statewide Coalititon Winter Meeting, where a panel discussion on municipal finance in Rhode Island has been convened. Panel members are Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, Central Falls Receiver Robert Flanders, and the multi-titled Gary Sasse.

[9:18] Central Falls Receiver Flanders is the moderator, and introducing the discussion. He says he'd like to spend some time focusing on the legalities of receivership.

[9:21] CF entered into many agreements with its public employees that were unsustainable over time. $16M in revenue was being collected to pay for $22M in benefits, and that's before the real costs for OPEB benefits kick in.

[9:21] Flanders reminds us that CF petitioned the state for a judicial receiver. The state responded, eventually, by passing the current fiscal stabilization law. Flanders reviews the triggers that allow the state to step in.

[9:23] The triggers, Flanders says he's been told, are present in Providence and Woonsocket.

[9:24] Flanders reviews the 3 layers of fiscal stabilization (overseer, budget commission, receiver).

[9:26] The two powers the receiver has are 1) to take a city or town into bankruptcy and 2) all of the powers that the city government has (this is Flanders' description),

[9:27] Flanders discusses chapter 9 bankruptcy. Little used, not many precedents, but it seems to be generally agreed that a receiver can start making changes immediately after bankruptcy is filed for. Motion to reject all of the problem contracts can immediately be filed.

[9:30] Chapter 9 also requires state authorization. The RI law makes a receiver the only official who can give this authorization.

[9:31] A judge can't appoint a trustee to manage a city in a different way than it is currently be managed, nor liquidate the city.

[9:37] Biggest lesson of Central Falls: It's possible to get over the stigma of bankruptcy, which is just a restructuring.

[9:39] Flanders is discussing "regionalization" and "consolidation" as longer term structural fixes, but it's the lite version of each, incremental sharing of services, school dept./muni consolidation within towns.

[9:40] Other perception problem: City and town officials have to lose all of their powers -- but that doesn't have to happen.

[9:41] In my opinion, Judge Flanders is trying to redefine the concept of receivership as it has so far been applied, so that Providence or Woonsocket would be able to ask for a receiver as a form of power sharing, not as a complete state takeover.

[9:42] Flanders goes on, receivership is the best way to short circuit court interference in the process.

[9:43] Flanders also says, rather directly, RI state judges are ruling on items that could affect their own pensions.

[9:44] Now talking about the bondholder law. Flanders defends it with conventional argument that one muni bond failure in Rhode Island would cause higher interest rates to spread to other communities. This "tempers" concerns that bankruptcy would be bad for Rhode Island.

[9:49] Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine is up next. Starts with a reference to the Declaration of Independence. To have a Tea Party today, we'd need a permit, a detail police officer, and probably get fined by the EPA and start a conflict with the Tea carriers union.

[9:51] We're collapsing under the pressure of bunches of promises made with good intentions.

[9:52] This isn't a problem of one or two cities or towns, this impacts all of us.

[9:52] Woonsocket looked at the same corporate receivership option that CF originally pursued. Woonsocket wanted to wait until the GA was out of session, so it couldn't be quickly contravened.

[9:54] Current receivership law is trying to solve the problem of government by inserting more government.

[9:54] Woonsocket has been trying to solve its problems by cutting costs.

[9:55] Fontaine claims that Woonsocket is one of the highest-taxed communities in the state. (However, I have questions about this claim).

[9:56] Mentions that it's school-side spending that's nout of control in Woonsocket, because of the independence that school committees have been given, again with good and noble intentions.

[9:58] Doesn't think that receivership is the answer.

[10:00] (Note to commenter "John": Mayor Fontaine is making the people of Woonsocket look like they have taken to choosing responsible politicians (at least lately)).

[10:04] Cranston Mayor Allan Fung up next: Cranston is not in as bad a position as Woonsocket or Providence, but it's not out of the woods yet. Percentage of budget going into contracted costs is about the same in Cranston as in other distressed communities. Both the costs, and the "playbook" for dealing with those costs are the problem.

[10:07] Binding arbitration has imposed many structural costs that are now a problem. Serious fiscal analyses were not done, when benefits were offered.

[10:09] Gary Sasse, advisor to the Providence City Council: If we have a sick capitol city, we're not going to have a healthy state. Bankruptcy can be made more predictable -- in public decision making, predictability is very important.

[10:12] Two factors creating difficulties for Providence: #1 State mandates, which make it difficult to treat property taxpayers fairly. 20 pieces of legislation have been proposed to relieve this, they couldn't get a hearing.

[10:13] Factor #2: The payments needed to keep the city pensions solvent.

[10:14] Huge tax increases will be needed, under the current system, just to make pension payments (basically the same argument that Gina Raimondo has explained regarding state pensions).

[10:18] 3 options 1) bankruptcy 2) negotiating with the unions and 3) a supplemental tax increase. It's legitimate to ask, from a tactical perspective, how do you get the unions to come to the table, to renegotiate what are effectively guaranteed annual raises and other benefits.

[10:20] Concept of bankruptcy needs some more conversation.

[10:21] State Rep. Laurence Ehrhardt (whom I neglected in the intro) is the final panelist to speak.

[10:22] Mentions taking back longevity increases and, of course, state-system pension reform as two things the legislature has done, to help RI's finances, that in the past he wouldn't have thought possible. However, there were some unique circumstances of timing and leadership that allowed this to happen.

[10:24] Leadership of the House is facing organized opposition pressure, because of their decisions.

[10:26] "Haven't seen much in the way of requested legislation, to deal with the municipal problem". Legislation that has been filed is mostly taxes on non-profits, that just moves money from one pocket to another.

[10:28] Mentions binding arbitration -- it wasn't clearly dead last session until the last night of the session (suggesting it could come back again this year?)

[10:29] Flanders asks for specific examples of problem mandates. Fontaine: BEP mandates on the school side, DEM mandates impact Woonsocket's waste water plant, mandates on renovating historic buildings.

[10:31] Sasse: 2 types of mandates that unnecessarily drive up costs: Environmental regulations and mandates that public employee unions got added to the law, when they couldn't get them written into contracts.

[10:32] Fung: We need reform, not repeal of mandates, to get the public to understand that cities and towns need more freedom to reduce their costs, e.g. evergreen contracts aren't mandates, as much as they are bad laws.

[10:40] Audience Q portion, based on written questions:

[10:41] Q to Gary Sasse on the specifics of Providence's pension. Sasse explains the difference between statutorially awarded pensions, and contractually negotiated pensions. Mentions state judges are making decisions that set precedents for their own pensions.

[10:42] Would a Providence bankruptcy affect the state's bond rating? Sasse: Bond markets don't just look at bankruptcy. They also look at what will be done, with the new flexibility gained through bankruptcy.

[10:46] A tax-to-the-max strategy would be worse than bankruptcy (from the perspective of the bond markets, I think).

[10:47] Q: Why are there so many school department deficits? Should all school departments be consolidated with their municipal governments?

[10:48] Flanders: "I think so". There should more connection between the tax-raising power and spending on schools in cities and towns.

[10:49] Fung: Cranston was downgraded, with 2 reasons cited 1) the pension system 2) school spending. Cities can't be an ATM for the schools, cities need more accurate info for budgeting.

[10:50] Fontaine agrees with above sentiments. Fung: End the Caruolo act.

[10:53] Q: Can local plans be merged into the MERS plan? Flanders: Courts have ruled that whatever plan someone retires under cannot be changed.

[10:54] Fung: You also need a carefully considered transition plan, to make a move into MERS work.

[10:55] Sasse: In Providence, 16M of 60M in pension costs is to pay COLAs to retirees.

[10:56] Q: could RI become a right-to-work state? Fontaine: Why shouldn't employee service costs be put out to bid, like other costs that cities deal with.

[10:58] Harry Staley wraps up. Bad bills get defeated, but come back the next year. Can the legislature afford to waste time, reconsidering things like binding arbitration every year? Or trying to repeal something like voter ID, that was just passed last year, and hasn't even been implemented yet?

[11:00] The time should be used to consider the real issues that are critical to our future.

[11:01] There's either going to be a voluntary or an involuntary solution to RI's problems. He hopes it's voluntary.

Justin's liveblog of today's RISC event is available at the Ocean State Current.

March 9, 2012

Why Are We Soft on the Assembly?

Patrick Laverty

I'm frequently reading articles about how towns are struggling financially because of millions of dollars less being given to the municipalities. The mayors say that they're struggling because they're not getting as much money. The Assembly is plugging their own budget holes with that money instead.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras has said that a part of Providence's financial problem is cuts to his city's aid. The amount of cuts in aid is more than a town can make up in increases in taxes, especially with the town capping tax rate increases.

More recently, in the Valley Breeze, Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine said:

"I need to give some credit to the governor in that he recognizes that cities such as Woonsocket have been placed in this situation by the actions of the past administrations at the state level that have continually cut funding to cities and towns,"

We've also seen the former governor get blamed:

The deep cuts in aid to cities and towns that Chafee decries so often and so loudly were made by Carcieri

Ok, two points here. First, why don't these mayors put their own Assembly members on the hot seat? Why aren't they being called out directly? The Assembly is at least partially responsible for the situation that these cities are in. Why is it just the faceless "Assembly" that gets the blame? Who is going to be the first mayor to call these people out individually? I could understand this phenomenon a little better if the actions of the Assembly were affecting just one town. But it's not. Virtually every town in the whole state is affected by these cuts. When will the local leadership actually do something substantial and hold their local Representatives and Senators accountable? When will Taveras, Fung, Fontaine and others actually call out Assembly members for their specific votes on the aid cuts? Put a face on the problem and put the blame squarely where it belongs.

Speaking of putting the blame where it belongs, why does Carcieri get blame for cutting aid to the cities and towns? He did no such thing. I recently heard Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien on the radio blaming Governor Carcieri for aid cuts to his city. If you believe that Carcieri had the power to do this, let me ask you something. Remember last year when Governor Chafee wanted to broaden the sales tax? Why isn't that a law now? Answer, because the General Assembly didn't want it. The Governor cannot do anything that the General Assembly doesn't approve of. The Governor merely suggests a budget and then the Assembly, specifically the Budget Committee creates and approves the budget. So yes, Carcieri did suggest these cuts in aid to the towns but it was the General Assembly, those very same people who knock on your door in October and ask to put a sign in your yard, who cut the aid to your town.

Go back to http://www.rilin.state.ri.us and look at the past budget votes. Look to see who voted in favor of the budget, which included the cuts to local aid. Those are the people who cut the aid to your town. When they come knocking on your door this fall, ask them why they did it. Ask them why your taxes have gone up. Ask them why your town is cutting services. When they try to blame Carcieri, you'll see the problem first hand, right on your doorstep.

February 29, 2012

Imagine Reevaluation of Political Philosophies...

Justin Katz

... It may be more difficult than it seems.
If dislike of dictators
Is contingent on progressive dreams

Over on the Current, I express restrained hope that some noise on the Left about Central Falls' receiver will spur reconsideration of liberals' long-running centralization project.

I note, too, that Anchor Rising's unease with the entire municipal receivership program goes back to a May 2010 post by Andrew.

February 13, 2012

Cranston Pensions: Rhode Island… with Emphasis

Justin Katz

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity had published data covering all of Cranston's public-sector retirees, and I've posted a general comparison of the numbers with those for the state system overall.

February 2, 2012

Legislation to Beat Cities and Towns Senseless with Their Own Amputated Legs

Justin Katz

Fresh on the heels of Governor Chafee's declaration of the Year of the Cities and Towns, Reps. Scott Guthrie (D, Coventry), Roberto DaSilva (D, East Prov., Pawtucket), and John Savage (R, East Prov.) have introduced legislation (H7317) that may win the sure-to-be-tough contest for union-loving lunacy:

28-7-7.1. Representation of towns and cities - maximum legal fees. — Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary contained in any general or public law, rule or regulation, legal fees pertaining to a labor contract entered into by a city or town, shall not exceed two tenths of one percent (0.2%) of the value of the contract.

Says Guthrie in the associated press release:

"My legislation is not intended to interfere with contract negotiations, or muddle the legal process associated with them... My legislation is intended to be a form of property tax relief, by setting a specific monetary cap on legal fees so they do not grow and grow like top seed."

One needn't be but so cynical to think that his legislation just might be intended to add a restraint on the employer in negotiations. They have to fight with the knowledge that a buzzer will eventually go off requiring them to lower their gloves and take whatever beating is coming their way.

Then again, given the lack of a "what then" in the legislation, a municipality surely would gain some immunity to accusations of unfair negotiation tactics if it unilaterally imposes contract terms the day that the law says its paid advocate has to go home.

January 30, 2012

Municipal Pensions as Covenant

Justin Katz

The principles underlying debate about Providence's ability to suspend the cost of living adjustments (COLAs) of its public-sector retirees are fascinating. On one hand, we're told that they're contractual, unlike the state-level pensions, which are legislated:

Unlike state-level public employee pension benefits, which are set by state law, municipal retirement benefits are incorporated in collective-bargaining agreements. Courts in Rhode Island and across the country have ruled that contractual benefits are harder to cut.

On the other hand, Providence is facing legal difficulties because its COLAs are included in an ordinance, at least for most retirees:

In that long-running case, which the Rhode Island Supreme Court decision likened to the Dickens novel "Bleak House," the court ruled that the city could not cut COLAs granted in the early 1990s. Because a 1991 city ordinance had awarded the 5-and 6-percent compounded COLAs, the court said, they were a vested contractual right and not a “gratuity” subject to change.

Now add in the fact that the contracts were negotiated with labor unions that no longer represent retirees, and which cannot negotiate on their behalf, leaving cities and towns to negotiate with retirees one-by-one. (But let's conveniently put aside the fact that municipal contracts aren't permitted to extend beyond three years, in Rhode Island.) One begins to get the sense that COLAs are a bit to RI law what light is to physics. When declaring them inviolable requires them to be particles (ordinances), then that's what they are; when their inviolability requires them to be waves (contract rights), then they're that, as well.

In short, the retirement benefits represent contracts that never expire and that no collective interest has the authority to renegotiate. No wonder "all but 300 to 400 of Providence’s current 2,900 pensioners retired prior to" a 1995 ordinance reining in COLAs. In doing so, they boarded an ark in which the covenant of their corrupt deals could not be touched.

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.”

January 3, 2012

Big Finance Likes Totalitarianism, but Democracy Requires Hard Lessons

Justin Katz

I'll admit that I don't have much new to say about the continuing activities of the state-appointed budget commission now ruling East Providence:

The state-appointed budget commission overseeing the city's finances convened for the first time Wednesday, chose Michael O'Keefe, a former state budget director, as its president, and established its first priority: improving the city’s cash flow.

Essentially, that means debt; the city needs $10 million in tax anticipation notes, and the lowering of its rating to "junk" will make that "more difficult and expensive," as O'Keefe puts it. It all comes back to government debt and charming investors. We've discussed previously that the municipal takeovers are meant as "a statement to Wall Street," and the point merits continued emphasis. What Wall Street likes about state-imposed budget commissions is that they open the door to options that might benefit civic units as economic entities, but not necessarily as self-determinant civil societies. The state can take money from other parts of the state to hand to struggling cities and towns; it can impose taxes on local residents without fearing democratic reaction; it can change policies and, ultimately, contracts to address shortfalls.

At bottom, the problem is that the way in which the state determines a preferred mix of these solutions will depend on the influences on it. That means not only special interests, like organized labor, but also the general priorities of the class of people who occupy the state's bureaucracy and elected positions. The people who actually live in a city or town are not likely to rate very highly, and voters in other cities and towns are not likely to pay all that much attention.

I'd suggest that a healthier solution — in the long term, and with an eye toward effective democracy — would be to let a city or town run out of money. Let it reach the point at which it cannot provide services or pay employees. Or, alternately, that it must raise taxes and impose fees almost immediately. If we're to be a self-governing people, we have to experience, together, the consequences of incompetent leaders and bad decisions.

Of course, if people start learning such lessons on the small, local scale, they might begin applying them at the state and national levels. And we couldn't have that, now could we?

December 31, 2011

Devious Democracy

Justin Katz

This time of year, you can tell quite a bit about a writer or publication by the items it highlights from the past year and wishes it expresses for the coming one. This gem of a wish, from the Sakonnet Times, is an excellent example:

That Tiverton’s new Financial Town Referendum really does bring peace and fair play to budgets (and that it’s not merely a devious way to cut the life out of town services).

As much as I hate to play the villain, I'd like to take a moment to emphasize the deceptiveness of my master plan by revealing my scheme — along with 50 other petitioners — to place a 0%-increase budget on the FTR ballot. Once the petitioners' identities are reviewed and verified by the town clerk and officially in the public record, my next step will be to sneakily make the case for my proposal in every available public forum. Then, on the day of the referendum, perhaps some of my co-conspirators will join me in a stealth operation to stand outside polling places with large, brightly colored signs encouraging voters to consider our case when they engage in the most devious activity of all: entering the privacy of the voting booth to express their degree of willingness to continue increasing their taxes at a rate well above inflation.

I'll admit that ends do not justify all means, but this evil plot at least has as one of its objectives the fulfillment of another of the Sakonnet Times editors' wishes:

That town/school unions grasp the fact that Rhode Island (which is losing population faster than any other state) is in this tax mess because the gold plated benefits they demand cannot be sustained (they need merely glance across the border into Westport and other Massachusetts towns for a dose of contract reality).

Such wishful thinking — that public employees and the politicians whom they help to elect — will simply accept the necessary restraint — and the pain associated with addressing the lack thereof in the past — may play well in editorials, but Rhode Island is among the best examples in the nation of the consequence when wistfulness is treated as a basis for public policy. Sometimes firm action is necessary, and if voters must make the dastardly statement that enough is enough, well, so it must be.

November 8, 2011

A Referendum to Thwart Dishonest Politics

Justin Katz

So, today Tiverton voters will have the opportunity finally to do away with the financial town meeting (FTM) that has allowed a relatively small group of very motivated people to double taxes in the past ten years and ensure that they would continue to climb even during the worst economy that most of us have ever experienced. Not surprisingly, the ringleaders of that relatively small group are in a panic to stop the referendum from becoming a reality, with an astonishingly dishonest last-minute surprise from Budget Committee Chairman Chris Cotta, who is a veritable picture of the Rhode Island Way.

Cotta, who is so Rhode Island that he achieved #34 on GoLocalProv's list of the state's 50 highest-paid staffers, appears to have sent a series of questions regarding the financial town referendum (FTR) to Suzanne Greschner, chief of the state Division of Municipal Finance, signed in his capacity as Budget Committee Chairman. My understanding is that he did not call a meeting of the Budget Committee for these purposes and, moreover, that he did not express his concerns to the local committee charged with creating the referendum despite being asked on multiple occasions.

I haven't been able to get a copy of Greschner's reply, but even through Cotta's spin, it appears that she essentially confirmed that the process for reviewing budgets, in particular with respect to the state property tax cap, will remain as it has been. Here's Cotta:

Of great concern was the proposed concept of permitting elector budgets on a ballot without being vetted and approved by the Office of Municipal Finance. The ballot question and related charter changes offer ballot access to electors without following the same stringent taxpayer protection reviews or notice requirements that the municipal budget must endure. It is now clear through the response that the Department of Revenue will approve only one budget and one tax levy for the town of Tiverton whether such budget exceeds the statutory tax cap or not. The Department of Revenue will not approve several budgets from the town as addressed in the charter change proposed.

What this means is that any budget supported by a tax levy that has not been preapproved, heard and advertised in accordance with state laws can and will be challenged by any aggrieved taxpayer in the town. This has far reaching consequences both legal and financial for the town.

Plainly put, this is bull. Under the FTM, the only budget and levy that receives public notice and state review is the Budget Committee's. That means that the School Committee's proposed amendment, if different, is not thus vetted, that the Town Council's proposed amendment, if different, is not thus vetted, and that the three amendments permitted out of thin air at the FTM are not thus vetted. The fact that voters will have advance notice of all such budgets prior to voting at an FTR allows for more scrutiny and transparency (not to mention dishonest spin such as Cotta and his allies are sure to offer), not less.

Compounding Christopher Cotta's deceit is the timing of the whole thing. According to Town Council President Jay Lambert, Cotta's letter, which (in his words) urged the council to "provide notice to the public that Ballot question No. 2 does not meet the legal standards required for taxpayer protections required under State Law," did not arrive in the Town Clerk's office until 11:26 a.m. Thursday morning. Conspicuously, that timing just makes the deadline for election-related letters to the editor in the Newport Daily News, which paper appears to have published a missive from Cotta complaining that "to date, the Town Council has taken no action."

Curiously, Cotta's public letter to the editor appeared on the opinion pages of the Fall River Herald's Web site at 1:56 p.m. It appears that Cotta submitted his letter to the Town Council calling for action at just about the same time that he sent his letter to local newspapers declaring that no action had been taken in response. Also curiously, the blog for the above-mentioned ringleaders posted Cotta's letter to the council at 1:40 a.m. the previous day — indicating that his intended audience was not, in fact, the elected officials. (Naturally, that blog did not also provide the substantiating letters from the state.)

Look, I realize that to most people all of these fine details seem a bit much, but such is this state's underlying problem: People with extreme self interest in the policies and financial dealings of the state and its cities and towns have constructed a web of fine details that funnels policy toward their preferred ends and taxpayer dollars to themselves and their political allies. What they cannot accomplish through policy, they accomplish through dishonest rhetoric and political tricks.

Thus, they abuse the people of Rhode Island, just as Cotta has been abusing his local elected office. The old FTM plays into this process by increasing the degree to which only those most caught up in the system will exercise their right to vote on the town's budget. The more convenient it is for everybody to vote — and the more notice everybody has with respect to the budgets on the table — the less spellbinding the Rhode Island Way will be.

October 7, 2011

Usurpation Cannot Be Challenged in Central Falls

Justin Katz

This ruling is worth highlighting before it slips in the vast mire of news about Rhode Island's fatally ill civic structure:

The state-appointed receiver running Central Falls can go after Mayor Charles D. Moreau and the City Council to recoup legal fees spent defending the receivership law from Moreau’s unsuccessful state Supreme Court challenge, a special federal bankruptcy court judge ruled Friday.

Look, it stinks that a struggling city would have to pay for both sides in this legal battle, but there's a clear value to ensuring that a law that completely removes local democratic control is at the very least vetted in a court of law. Compare that with, say, Tiverton, where taxpayers are paying the school committee's legal council to argue against the town solicitor, for whom the taxpayers are also paying, over $367,000 that the town treasurer removed from the school committee's earmark on the grounds that it exceeded the local appropriation approved by the financial town meeting and that represented a surplus for the schools, anyway. In that case, the lawyers' bills must fund the process through the education commissioner and the Board of Regents before it even gets to a court of law. (Not surprisingly, the commissioner in charge of the school system found in favor of the schools.)

The controversy in Central Falls reads like a tale out of some third-world backwater trying to fake representative democracy:

The receivership law gave the first state receiver, Mark A. Pfeiffer, and then Flanders the powers of every elected and appointed official in city government. Pfeiffer had specifically refused to authorize the lawsuit and told Moreau and the council not to contest the law. They did anyway.

In the effort to recover the expenses from the appeals, Flanders' lawyer, Theodore Orson, has argued — and a Superior Court judge agreed — that because Moreau and the council disregarded Pfeiffer's orders, they can't claim the suit was part of their official duties.

Well, duh. After a coup, the elected officials have no "official duties," and the usurper will never be likely to grant permission for a legal challenge. Apparently, the judicial system in Rhode Island buys the logic of tyranny (which should be too surprising, considering that the American judiciary has been imposing policy and amending the Constitution via lawsuit shortcut for decades).

August 29, 2011

Car Tax Shame All Around

Justin Katz

It's always appropriate to call for a greater sense of shame among Rhode Island's politicians, but Ed Achorn was a little too specific in his column, last week:

The politicians of Rhode Island would be ashamed of themselves, had they not lost the capacity for feeling shame long ago. Their determination to balance their enormous budgets, larded with stunning benefits for special interests, on the breaking backs of struggling working people is outrageous.

I write of the General Assembly's action in permitting cities and towns to hike property taxes on the most shabby motor vehicles. Now, some municipalities are hammering people who own anything valued at $500 or more (according to the municipalities' highly skewed definition).

The reality must be acknowledged that municipal governments didn't have to increase their revenue from the car tax. Other means exist for them to absorb losses in money that the state, in its mismanagement, is unable to provide. For one, lost revenue is among the exemptions that allow them to raise property taxes beyond the cap; going that route would have given residents a stronger sense and say in whether their hometowns raised taxes at all. More wisely, local governments could simply have cut back spending, even though it might mean reducing the scope of their activities. We can't forget that the General Assembly also gave cities and towns permission to reduce school budgets for a couple of years, temporarily disengaging the statutory ratchet that requires school spending to go in no direction but up.

Yes, state legislators ought to feel shame that the tools that they leave to municipalities to balance budgets are so limited. Taxing clunkers was the easiest and most visible means of compensating for losses in state aid, and the General Assembly should have taken the opportunity of hardship to tone down the demands that it makes on local governments, from minimum manning to basic education plan (BEP) requirements to the way in which labor contracts must be negotiated.

The real shame, however, belongs with the people of Rhode Island, who continue to accept government as it is. Apathetic or on the take, too many voters implicitly agree that this is the way things ought to be.

August 27, 2011

When the Municipal Dictator Has a Political Boss

Justin Katz

Apparently, when a municipal dictator (i.e., a "receiver") deals with those who previously held power locally, it's one thing when that power derived from the voting public, but it's another when it derives from an organization that's politically connected at the state level:

Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, which represents Central Falls, said he had appealed to Governor Chafee.

"We haven't met with the receiver, but we have spoken to the staff of the governor and we told them it was our intention to go to court and get a temporary restraining order," Flynn said. "The governor's office, through the receiver, asserted his authority to intervene."

And since the teachers' unions have such sway in the state:

Receiver Robert G. Flanders Jr., who is overseeing the bankruptcy filing of the state's smallest and poorest city, notified Gallo Friday afternoon that her authority to negotiate with the union was being revoked. He also revoked her plan to unilaterally impose new terms on the school district's 330 teachers on Sept. 1.

The district's negotiation team, which included Central Falls Board of Trustees Chairwoman Anna Cano-Morales and two parents, is also no longer included in the negotiating process.

Instead, Flanders or his designee and Deputy Education Commissioner David V. Abbott will participate in the talks. ...

"I asked him if the teachers' union negotiating team was also being replaced and he said no, they would remain," Gallo said.

Unless Flanders moves to impose new contract terms that are more harsh than Gallo's, the entire process will have further proven the bone-deep corruption of Rhode Island's political system. Voters across the state ought to be concerned at the ease with which democratic processes are being swept aside for the benefit of particular parties. And public-safety retirees from Central Falls ought to be livid.

August 11, 2011

Property Tax Rates Don't Matter

Justin Katz

Reading this article, I thought it worth reminding everybody once again that, given the way local budgeting is done, property tax rates don't really matter:

After voting to take court action against Mayor Charles A. Lombardi's vetoes, the Town Council changed its tune Wednesday night and voted unanimously to set the tax rate for residential property at $24.15 per $1,000 of assessed value.

This was the same rate proposed by Lombardi. For his part, he rescinded his previous veto of the $23.35 tax rate voted by the Town Council, showing a measure of deference to the council’s authority as the town’s tax-setting authority.

The tax rates might matter if cities and towns assessed the value of the property in their towns, applied the tax rate to it, and then figured out how much money they have to run local government. That's not how it works. In practice, the government calculates how much it needs, typically based on projected increases from the previous year, divides that number by the total value of property in the town, and figures out what the rate turns out to be per $1,000 of value.

Assuming that everybody's property increases or decreases at roughly the same rate, the actual dollar amount that every household pays in taxes will increase by the same percentage that the town's budget increases. In other words, it's more of an ownership fee based on the portion of the town's value that the family owns.

One consequence of this method is that you can't really compare property taxes from town to town, because a town with lower property values will have higher tax rates. Another, more central, consequence is that the town has no real incentive to attract additional property owners or try to get homeowners to invest in their own homes.

August 3, 2011

The Government's Monopoly on Garbage

Justin Katz

This fiscal year, residents of Tiverton are paying $580,000 through their tax bills for trash collection. The town dump is approaching capacity, however, and due to decades of poor fiscal management, the local government lacks the funds to pay for its closure and for the initiation of an alternative method of disposal. So, the powers who be have imposed a "pay as you throw" program that adds $2 per thirty-gallon bag in the hopes of, first, encouraging recycling and thereby extending the life of the dump and, second, of collecting the money to pay for capping the landfill.

I've been arguing that taxpayers already pay roughly the equivalent of one bag per household for trash pickup, and that if each were given that bag, recycling rates would skyrocket such that the town would gain plenty of time for better fiscal management. Indeed, when I first realized that the pay as you throw program was probably inevitable, I managed to cut our weekly curbside trash to thirty gallons, mainly through recycling. Alternately, the town could allow residents to opt out of curbside pickup and receive a refund for the portion of their taxes that pay for it.

Unfortunately, the Town Council thought it better to impose this usage tax on its own authority, and I couldn't get the votes at the financial town meeting to grant each household the single weekly trash bag for which we already pay. As reported in the May 26 Sakonnet Times, summarizing events at the prior Town Council meeting:

Heard from Town Administrator James Goncalo that Patriot Disposal Company has reported it's picking up half the trash it had been and needs to add another recycling truck to deal with the increased recycling that residents are engaging in.

Well, there you go. But the best part is the letter that the company sent out to residents:


As you are aware, the Town has implemented a "Pay As You Throw Bag" Program. We would like to offer curbside pickups to residents at a very affordable price with the convenience of not having to purchase bags for all of your waste needs. We will provide trash removal and recycling services on a weekly basis for one low monthly fee. We offer 96-Gallon toters that are easy to wheel to the curbside. Also, unlike bags that rip easily, rodents and animals are not able to access the toters.

A friend who has looked into it found that the service would still come at a little bit of a premium: Using the toters would cost $30 per month, or $6.92 per week, so in the absence of a credit for garbage-related taxes, putting out three 30-gallon bags would be about a dollar less expensive per week — although factoring in the inconvenience of picking up the bags and individually loading them could make a big difference for folks with that much garbage.

Some people in town government apparently fumed when they heard of Patriot's presumption, but I think it's a wonderful lesson that municipal leaders ought to encounter from time to time. In seeking to profit from one of the services that it provides (so as to compensate for past mismanagement), the town has opened itself to market competition and risks breaking the spell that leaves residents feeling as if rubbish removal is something that simply must be a public service.

Were it not for regulations, I'd wager that an few unemployed Tivertonians could make some money competing at an even better rate, driving down prices for everybody.

July 29, 2011

Feedback and the Public Sector Exemption

Justin Katz

A recurring theme arose when the Providence School Board voted to eliminate administrator unionization:

[Stephen Kane, executive secretary of the Association of Providence Public School and Staff Administrators] now worries that the fate of each administrator will be left to "the whim of the School Board. Of course, it's going to get personal. It's going to get political."

You can call it "whim" or "judgment," but granting responsibility throughout any organizational hierarchy is the most effective way to ensure efficiency and productivity. Whether the goal is corporate profit or public education, whether consumers react to policies through purchase decisions or taxpayers through votes, administrators must be accountable to policy makers, and policy makers must be accountable to stakeholders.

Unions certainly change the calculation a bit for their members, but not unlike resistors in an electrical circuit, they inherently distort the feedback loop by distributing some of that responsibility onto labor processes. That can have its benefits, but over the long term, it hinders the organization's ability to adjust to the interests of those it ostensibly serves.

And when the organization is a government entity, it can survive by fiat as problems fester.

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 26, 2011

The Kaleidoscopic Arguments Against Democracy

Justin Katz

Last week, in Tiverton, the committee tasked to create an alternative to the financial town meeting (FTM) held a hearing on its proposal. Basically, the budget process would follow the same steps, with the Town Council and School Committee submitting budgets to the Budget Committee, which puts together a final request for the consideration of the electorate. However, rather than having a few hundred voters (many with direct financial interest in the outcome beyond their tax bills) gather together in the high school gymnasium and offer amendments before voting on final approval by a show of hands, residents would be able to stop by a polling place for an all day referendum during which they would vote on the budget using a private ballot.

The Town Council and School Committee could place alternatives in front of voters, as could any resident, with the signatures of at least 50 people. If no option wins a majority of the vote, either a run-off referendum would decide between the two highest vote getters or the previous year's budget would remain in effect for another year, depending which version of the proposal the current Town Council and special-election voters approve.

Not surprisingly, the most interesting aspect of the hearing was the series of objections offered by members of the Democratic Town Committee, most of whom have been active advocates of the policies that have doubled property taxes in the past decade. Joanne Arruda — a former Town Council member, current Budget Committee member, and plaintiff in a lawsuit apparently intended to punish the leader of a local taxpayer group for his civic activities — complains that (in the reporter's paraphrase) "anyone could get 50 signatures and put a budget before the voters." (Over course, with the FTM, anyone can do the same without any signatures.) And current Town Council member Brett Pelletier thinks it should remain the job of elected representatives to prepare the budget. In short, the referendum would be too democratic.

Meanwhile, Carol Herrmann, currently a member of the School Committee (and herself a public-school teacher, in Westport, MA, I believe), complains that voters will only be able to vote on the budgets as presented on the ballot. That is, the referendum would not be democratic enough.

My favorite commentary is in the "not democratic enough" wing of the attack and comes from former Town Council member Louise Durfee, herself a plaintiff in the aforementioned lawsuit:

"There's an elephant in the room and no one is talking about it," she said. "Both of these proposals give the Town Council power over the budget that it has never had before."

By eliminating the FTM, she said, just two members of the council would have veto power over any budget that goes over the cap, a possibility she saw on the horizon as pension contributions squeeze town and school budgets.

"Despite all the claims that this [referendum proposal] can increase participation, unstated and not disclosed is the other fact that under these proposals the budget control passes to the town council," Ms. Durfee said.

The only reason that's even arguably true is that her Town Council used every trick in the Rhode Island insider playbook, with some help from connections in the state bureaucracy, not to follow the plain meaning of the tax cap legislation. The referendum would close the loophole that allowed the Town Council to squeak by without taking the required 4/5 vote to exceed the tax cap, so the town would have to follow state law. In Durfee's political view, that constitutes a power grab.

The best part is that her justification is a professed need for future money grabs: She expects the pension crisis to drive tax increases well above the state cap and wants as few hurdles as possible to ensuring that residents, not the town government, have to downsize their budgets.

With a referendum, Durfee and her crew would have to dominate town government or at least gather 50 signatures to place a massive tax increase on the ballot, persuade a majority of residents to vote for it, and convince six of the seven sitting Town Council members to let the people's vote stand. With the FTM, as currently practiced, they can just follow their annual strategy of scaring a couple hundred town employees and heavy users of town services into taking a couple of hours to force their will on the other 15,000 of us.

July 24, 2011

An Interesting Whisper from the Governor to the Receiver

Justin Katz

This one nearly slipped through the cracks, inasmuch as I haven't noticed its being developed into a larger story:

The overseer of deficit-plagued Central Falls could be replaced just five months after he was appointed to steer the city through its dire fiscal straits.

Governor Chafee told public radio station WRNI that he is considering replacing the current state receiver with someone who has experience in municipal administration. Chafee appointed retired Supreme Court Justice Robert G. Flanders Jr. to manage Central Falls' finances in February.

You'll recall that Chafee bumped Flanders into the Central Falls dictator role as part of his overhaul of the previously reform-minded Board of Regents for the state's public schools. Interesting that the governor would let this little bird fly just a couple of weeks before Flanders was to bring down the big hammer on the public sector workers retired from the city that he's now running.

June 28, 2011

An A Priori Ruling from RIDE

Justin Katz

Every year, for the past several, Tiverton's Financial Town Meeting has made a distinction between the amount that it was appropriating from "local funds" and the amount that it expected from state and federal aid. For fiscal year 2010, the state aid came in $367,165 less than predicted, and the school department took the money out of the town's general fund, anyway, even though it had a surplus that year.

The town treasurer at the time, Philip DiMattia, returned the money to the town, and the school committee sued. Not surprisingly, given that this is Rhode Island, the first step in such litigation is with the state Department of Education, and even less surprisingly, RIDE ruled in favor of the government body more directly under its control:

In her summary, [Education] Commissioner [Deborah] Gist stated that "[w]hen state aid does not materialize in the sum expected, a city or town must still fully fund the appropriation it has made."

In other words, she said, the Town of Tiverton is required to hold the school committee harmless for the total appropriation if the anticipated state aid does not materialize. The law requires a single sum ("an amount") to be appropriated, she ruled.

In a broad context, the ruling illustrates a huge problem with our modern bureaucratic system of government. The elected legislature passes laws, and the elected governor appoints bureaucrats to implement those laws, but often those bureaucrats make significant changes to those laws while acting as all three branches of government in one unelected body: legislature (by creating specific "regulations"), executive (by implementing the laws), and judiciaries (by, as in this case, ruling on disputes related to its execution of the regulations).

There are two relevant statutes containing the reference to "an amount." 16-7-23 doesn't refer to "appropriations," but to "provision":

The school committee's budget provisions of each community for current expenditures in each budget year shall provide for an amount from all sources sufficient to support the basic program and all other approved programs shared by the state.

The law goes on to say that the "community shall contribute local funds to its school committee in an amount not less than its local contribution for schools in the previous fiscal year," with certain exceptions, and to say that additional state funds cannot displace local funds already appropriated. The simple reading of this statute is that the town's appropriation of its own money must take into account revenue from other sources and then provide enough funding to meet the state's basic education plan (BEP). That this is the appropriate reading is solidified when "an amount" appears again in 6-7-24:

Each community shall appropriate or otherwise make available to the school committee for approved school expenditures during each school year, to be expended under the direction and supervision of the school committee of that community, an amount, which, together with state education aid and federal aid: (1) shall be not less than the costs of the basic program during the reference year, (2) plus the costs in the reference year of all optional programs shared by the state; provided, however, that the state funds provided in accordance with § 16-5-31 shall not be used to supplant local funds.

There's no way around the fact that the law draws a distinction between what a town appropriates and what it receives in state and federal aid. It cannot do otherwise, because a town cannot appropriate money from other, higher government entities. In the case at hand, the schools did not prove that they need that $367k to meet the BEP; it was, after all, a surplus.

So now, to force the law to be applied accurately, the town would have to appeal the commissioner's ruling to the Board of Regents, which is just as likely to be in schools' camp, and then to the state judiciary, all while paying the lawyers on both sides of the aisle. Little wonder citizens become apathetic; the law, as Tiverton's school and municipal government entities have proven repeated over recent years, is whatever you can get away with.

June 1, 2011

This Is Consolidation

Justin Katz

The Providence Journal editorial board highlights a piece of legislation that, while unlikely to become law, illustrates the potential consequences of consolidation for the sake of efficiency and ease:

... Sen. John Tassoni (D.-Smithfield) — a member of the state's AFL-CIO executive board, former business agent for the state's largest public-employees union, AFSCME Council 94, and the publisher of a union newspaper — wants to use his public power to oust Ms. Gallo. He also wants to replace the Board of Trustees that voted to fire those teachers. ...

Clearly, [Tassoni's rhetoric] can be taken with a grain of salt, given that he had not bothered to discuss his concerns with Ms. Gallo, and he has an obvious huge conflict of interest as a union official, elected to public office with the strong financial backing of government unions to promote their economic interests.

Hey, if the state can insert a municipal dictator (popularly known as a "receiver") to oust the elected mayor and make the elected city council less than an advisory body, then why shouldn't it also pass judgment on superintendents and school boards? That's consolidation.

The lesson extends even to less brazen steps. The farther governance moves from voters, as from local development of school policies among neighbors to regional and statewide implementation of policies, the more incentive special interests (notably unions) will have to fill elected positions with the likes of Tassoni. As the Projo editors note, Governor Chafee has already "removed several of the student-focused reformers... from the state Board of Regents," even though large segments of the state did not vote for this governor's election.

May 16, 2011

Still Wary of Consolidation, Even of Pensions

Justin Katz

RI Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (R, Westerly) reminds me that I'm wary of consolidation, even when it's meant to resolve the state's pension crisis. The voices of National Education Association Rhode Island Executive Director Bob Walsh calling for reamortization of the pension system and union consultant Tom Sgouros urging Rhode Island to treat pensions as an annual expense rather than a looming debt keep hovering around suggestions such as Algiere's first point on a list of pension suggestions:

Create one whole-state system that provides state, city, and town workers with comparable benefits.

To the extent that municipal pension programs are struggling, it's because they're more apt to be caught between the unions' demands and the taxpayers' willingness to pay. Consequently, they've been apt to make promises to the former and shirk their responsibility to help the latter understand the real cost (mainly by making them pay it). If final responsibility for public pensions in the state were flipped from the cities and towns to the State House, which side of that coin do you think would be more likely be found facing up?

Some of Algiere's other suggestions, it seems to me, answer the problem without consolidation (perhaps better without it):

* No municipal contract or budget can be accepted if it increases that municipality's unfunded liability.

* A municipality must fund 100 percent of its required contribution.

Don't take the heat off of municipalities; make them face it. Don't move the pension system farther away from the people who must fund it; stop disguising the cost.

May 3, 2011

The Advantaged Class at the Town Level, Too

Justin Katz

Providence Journal reporter Mark Reynolds dipped into the pension situation in Johnston, on Sunday, focusing on this case:

Fire Lt. William R. Jasparro was 41 when he ended his 20-year career as a Johnston firefighter in 1990.

Jasparro's retirement package paid him about $18,255 per year [with cost of living adjustments] — based on half of his final years' earnings. He went to work in construction and later took a job at the state's Central Landfill, which ultimately paid him $80,000 a year.

Most folks would be satisfied with a "retirement" benefit payable for 30-plus years (plus health care coverage for life), assuming he lives to the median age for men and doesn't hand it off to a spouse. Eight years into his retirement (or perhaps "second career" would be more accurate), Jasparro sued to be bumped up to a disability pension, which would have yielded 100% of salary, tax free. At least by the article's description, it doesn't sound as if he had much of a case, but the town settled, giving him 67% of salary, tax free.

It occurs to me that Rhode Island would profit from a town-by-town investigation, with the results aggregated somewhere to give the public a fair sense of just how pervasive such deals are. How many people are collecting retirement benefits while working in another branch of the state's public sector? It'd be interesting to know. For example, another Johnston retiree, 51-year-old former police detective and union president John Nardolillo, is now a police officer in West Greenwich. Whatever his salary is, there, he's taking home $33,982 based on his previous career.

Growing up, I planned to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and adjust my income expectations accordingly. Rhode Island's public sector clearly has more than its share of people whose focus is mainly on working the system. And there's a lot of system to work. As much attention as I pay to such matters, I don't believe I've ever come across this factor, before:

Also, under Rhode Island law, the state pays the tuition for the disabled firefighter or police officer and his or her children to attend any Rhode Island state college.

It'd be interesting to see a total cost of that benefit and have the list of beneficiaries combed for young retirees who go on to second careers or intensive weight-lifting hobbies.

April 26, 2011

An Illustration of RI's Advantaged Class in Cranston

Justin Katz

Like the swapping of high-paying public jobs for the sons of union leaders, the fact that Cranston is currently paying $67,107-86,778 annual pensions to six former police chiefs feels emblematic of the state's broader systemic corruption:

In the past 20 years, Cranston has hired — and retired — six police chiefs.

Most served three years or less at the helm of the Cranston Police Department and they ranged in age from 48 to 51 when they retired. Their pensions are based on their salaries on the day they retired — with no minimum tenure or averaging of final years of pay.

The retirements placed six top-salaried employees on Cranston's pension payroll with guaranteed minimum 3-percent cost-of-living raises each year for life.

There is clearly a class that lords it over Rhode Island. Get into the club, and you're set for life. Otherwise, you'll spend your years in the state with a target on your back... or rather, on your wallet. All but one of these ostensible community leaders retired in his 40s.

April 18, 2011

Re: Local Governments Founded in Deception

Justin Katz

Rhode Island Association of School Committees Executive Director Tim Duffy commented as follows to the post in which I suggested that pension problems are a self-inflicted wound among governments, especially local governments:

The wound is not a locally self-inflicted one. School committees are not responsible for pension debt. We do not negotiate these benefits with unions. The rates we pay are determined actuarially and that is driven by factors set in state law. How long it takes an employee to become vested, when they can retire, when they can begin to draw down a pension, what % of pay the pension is set at, how much their pension increases annually, COLAs, are all embedded in state statute. During the 1990's recession the state changed the employer contribution ratio, from 60% state – 40% local to 40% state – 60% local. So when the retirement board changes the actuarial assumption, as they should, and it results in an increased unfunded liability, locals get to bill the pay.

A lot of communities are doing less with more, but our hands are tied by collective bargaining statutes that create an unleveled playing field in favor of the unions. Teacher unions can employ work to rule as a protest against management and hurt students in the process. Illegal teacher strikes, while infrequent, don't result in any financial penalty for teachers. Binding arbitration awards for police and fire have largely ignored a community’s ability to pay and in many instances have set conditions for retirement, selected costlier health care providers, and set manning and staffing levels.

When the legislature passed 3050 lowering the property tax cap, a bill we supported, it also required the state to fund mandates passed by the General Assembly or initiated by regulations of a state agency. The FY 2012 budget, like budgets before it, does not appropriate money for mandate reimbursement. In many instances local government is failing, but not necessarily due to any fault of locally elected officials. Rather much of the failure can be laid at the feet of state leaders who have passed the accountability buck down to the locals while denying them the authority to act in the interests of their citizens, taxpayers and students.

That's a reasonable response, but it requires a certain amount of acceptance of Rhode Island's paradigm for governance. Having watched school committees play at bringing negotiations to a close while continuing to promise that any raises would be retroactive, no matter how many times the union scuttled an agreement, I'm not willing to buy into the game.

More importantly, local government has played its role in the system of unions dominating the Statehouse and the Town Hall, as well, cycling taxpayer dollars into public-sector coffers.
As the elected officials closest to the voters, school committees (and town councils) should have pushed back harder. So, "self-inflicted" may be too strong, but only if one excludes passivity.

As the General Assembly has changed the pension system detrimentally to municipalities, those local governments should have taken steps to decline participation in the system altogether. If that didn't prove feasible, they should have insisted that new costs be worked into existing personnel costs, pushing salaries and other benefits down, as well. Let the unions decide whether they'd rather take their winnings in cash, benefits, or retirements.

There are surely dozens of actions, practical and political, that school committees could have taken to fight back. To my experience, they've been content to play along, complaining about labor and the legislature, to be sure, but also observably happy to have places to which to pass blame.

And if the system had pushed back more, then at the very least, those with an investment in the pension system wouldn't have been so complacent about its being sacrosanct.

April 15, 2011

Local Governments Founded in Deception

Justin Katz

One can't call the vote "party line" because Rhode Island's Pension Review Board is technically non-partisan, but as Marc observed on Wednesday, the vote to bring investment estimates closer to what the pension fund has actually been earning nearly fell along what might be called a "union picket line" vote. Basically, the question was about whether to give Rhode Islanders a better sense of just what their elected officials have promised, and that's not a reality that the unions want the public to face.

The perspective of one public figure who often falls on the other side from the unions is very interesting:

With school districts now facing a $55.5-million hike in pension costs in 2012-13, beyond the increases they were already expecting, Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said: "I don't know how local government is going to continue to exist, given all the financial stresses."

If it's true that the pension promises of government amount to a self-inflicted and fatal wound, maybe local officials should lead the way in accepting reality, especially school committees. That's going to mean completely rethinking the way in which they structure compensation. Like countless private-sector organizations, families, and individuals, they're going to have to begin doing much more with much less. If that's an impossibility, as Duffy seems to imply, then local government is a failed experiment, anyway.

April 12, 2011

CORRECTED: The Minutia of Getting Your Way Locally

Justin Katz

Among the oddities of local politics is the stuff that you have to care about and pay attention to. A number of years ago, Tiverton opted to build three new elementary schools. I wasn't around for the debate, but at least a significant portion of the electorate believed that the old schools would be sold at the highest possible price to offset the cost.

At last year's financial town meeting, the voters gave the Town Council authority to transfer ownership by the following language:

RESOLVED, that pursuant to Section 204 of the Town Charter, the Town Council is hereby authorized to transfer ownership of any of the following of Tiverton’s municipally owned buildings: Nonquit School, Old Ranger School, Judson Street Community Center, Senior Center, Town Hall, and DPW facility; provided however that the Municipal Facilities Committee shall have completed its study of the current use and structural status of such buildings and submitted its recommendations to the Town Council; and further provided that any such transfer is at not less than Fair Market Value (FMV); and provided that any such transfer be subject to such conditions as required by the Town Council. This approval shall expire as of the second Saturday in May, 2011.

The resolution was explicitly amended to eliminate the clause: "or if less than FMV, to a non-profit or government entity acting for the public good." Well, wouldn't you know, with the deadline fast approaching, the Municipal Facilities Committee still has yet to submit its study and recommendation. But it has put together a request for proposals for one building that would, among other things, express preference for land uses that would allow public access to any building built on the property and give purchase price only 25% weighting in the decision process.

And the wheel goes 'round and 'round. Guaranteed: the reauthorization for the sale will attempt to allow the building to be given away to a nonprofit again. They'll keep on trying until their preferred result slips through.


Thanks to Councilor Brett Pelletier for correcting me with regard to the significance of the 25% figure. I had written that offers with 25% of value would be considered, but the proposal is actually that purchase price will only count for one-quarter of the decision when comparing offers.

April 5, 2011

Doubling Expenses Through Fees

Justin Katz

For this week's Patch column, I took on Tiverton's new Pay as You Throw (PAYT) garbage-bag fee:

Granted, of all of the factors contributing to this increase, the proximate end of the landfill's usable life is among the most legitimate. Town leaders have spent decades inadequately preparing for the day that the dump was full - so much so that we'll be shy of the $6.8 to 8.2 million needed to cap the dump around 2015 by between $2.4 and 3.8 million. That's a real problem, and it still doesn't include the costs of implementing another solution for Tiverton's refuse. Moreover, the estimated $500,000 per year that the PAYT program is supposed to generate will still cover only half of the shortfall.

These are just the numbers, though. The point that has not been adequately considered is that the lack of preparation has not been caused by a refusal to raise taxes. This has been proven dramatically as the tax levy doubled over the last decade. In other words, the money that should have been saved in order to close the landfill was not given back to taxpayers; it was spent on other things, most significantly labor costs. Why, then, should the pain for this error be felt among those who've been forced to increase town revenue, these many years, rather than those who've benefited by the profligate spending?

April 1, 2011

Using Transparency to Know What Administrators Should Be Investigating

Justin Katz

My Patch column, this week, notes that school administrators in Tiverton appear to analyze differences between their approach and that of one of the most successful districts in Rhode Island (neighboring town, Portsmouth) only to the degree that they can formulate excuses why their own students and community in general are to blame for the disparity in results:

It's typical, among public officials, to focus on others' mystery resources and sunnier demographics and to insist on the impossibility of comparison and accountability. The fact remains, though, that Tiverton pays $1,290 more per pupil. Yes, Portsmouth's budget is 33% bigger, but its student body is 46% bigger. And even if it were accurate to suggest that Portsmouth has expenses that it doesn't report to the Department of Education, its unlisted expenses would have to amount to $3.6 million, not $300,000-400,000, for the per pupil spending to match Tiverton's.

Moreover, the UCOA shows that one needn't imagine phantom revenue, because the lines in the budget show that the "philosophical shift" is reflected in how the district spends the money that it does declare. The two districts spend about the same percentages of their budgets on regular education (73% Tiverton; 72% Portsmouth) and special education (both 24%), and Tiverton throws another 1% in for vocational and technical education. The strategies for allocating those budgets makes all the difference.

A lower median income surely has some effect on educational outcomes and the strategy used for achieving them, but it doesn't explain why Tiverton appears to focus on higher-cost employees and, say, health education over math education.

March 30, 2011

Where's the Money Supposed to Come From?

Justin Katz

On Monday night, the Tiverton Town Council finally let the ax swing on a new trash collection system that will at least double the cost of curb-side pickup for residents. (The metaphor is meant to indicate an executioner, not a lumberjack.)

The Tiverton Town Council approved a contract on Monday night to begin a trash metering program on May 16. Town officials state they will notify the more than 7,000 residents who use Tiverton’s trash service that they [must] purchase and use special bags for the pay-as-you-throw program, or else their roadside rubbish will not be taken a few weeks after that date.

Yes, prior councils have not adequately prepared the town for the expense of closing the dump in a few years. Yes, it's only a hundred, or a couple hundred, dollars more in expense per year. Yes, provisions have to be made. But this sort of fiscal responsibility is real easy for folks whose oil tanks don't dry up on Christmas Day, as mine did. For the rest of us, where is this money supposed to come from?

Inasmuch as a some hundreds of dollars per year are already collected, per household, to pay for garbage pickup via property taxes, this is not truly a pay-for-use reform. We cannot opt out of 50% or so of the cost. What remains is not sufficient for us to make other arrangements.

Moreover, this new fee structure is essentially a 2-4% tax increase added to what is sure to be a 4-5% increase in regular property taxes, which comes on top of last year's 7-8% increase. To my knowledge, no public contract is going down in cost; no departments are seeing their budgets reduced, and yet homeowners are presumed capable of tightening their belts ever more. If my experience is any indication, many residents have seen their income stagnate or even decrease over the past few years; many have been unemployed.

Where's the money supposed to come from? Guess we'll just notch our quality of life down accordingly.

March 22, 2011

"It's Just Enough" vs a $3 Million Increase

Monique Chartier

They get it up north; in one corner of East Bay, not so much.

Last night, the Woonsocket City Council unanimously confirmed Mayor Fontaine's shift restructuring of the fire department in an effort to alleviate a seven figure overtime overage. From the Woonsocket Call.

The council voted 7-0 to roll the 124 members of the fire department into three platoons instead of the current four, with an average work week ballooning from 42 hours to 56. Instead of working two 10-hour days, followed by two 14-hour nights with four days off in between, firefighters would work endless loops of 24 hours on duty followed by two days off.

Clad in blue and red, some 45 firefighters packed the hall to protest the proposal, but nearly as many citizens — some affiliated with the Woonsocket Taxpayer Coalition, a local government watchdog group, cheered the council on.

“I'm not faulting the firemen — they do a great job,” said Steve Lima, the president of the group.
“But $1.2 million in overtime is unacceptable in any economy. We can't keep working our overtime to pay for them. It's just enough.”

Concurrently, a sub-committee of the Woonsocket School Committee is struggling mightily to find ways to close a budget gap opened up by a pending reduction in state aid.

Contrast with the work product of the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee last week.

Superintendent of Schools Melinda Thies presented the school committee’s approved budget proposal to the Joint Finance Committee on Tuesday evening, asking the towns to share a requested increase of $2,916,164 for the school budget that begins July 1. That’s a total request of $21.7 million from Bristol and $12.2 million from Warren.

In defending this $2.9 million increase to the budget in a time of shrinking revenues and a lousy economy, the school committee pointed out that they had made cuts and balanced the budget last year.

In his opening statement to an audience of 250 people, Mr. Barboza noted the school district’s positive end to last year’s budget. A $22,700 surplus and over $2 million in funds reserved for cash flow and emergencies, he said, is the result of “doing more with less.”

* * *

To achieve the surplus, Ms. Thies said the district has made sacrifices, including an administration pay freeze, accepting a 20 percent co-pay to keep medical premiums lower, and a reduction in full-time employees. These measures were taken in the past year while the district experienced “an uptick” in student enrollment, she said.

Question for the B-W School Committee: what do you see as the frequency of the obligation to balance a budget? Once a decade? Every five years? Or is this, like, a one shot deal and you're pretty much clear of the whole thing going forward?

To the Woonsocket Mayor, City Council and School Comm: Roses and our heartfelt thanks for all of your efforts.

To the Bristol Warren School Committee: Raspberries and a nice, spacious drawing board. The job is not nearly finished yet.

March 16, 2011

A Lesson for the Town's Educators (and Parents)

Justin Katz

Not surprisingly, a majority of Little Compton parents would prefer to keep the town's students flowing through one of the state's best high schools, in Portsmouth, rather than move them over to Tiverton's facility right next door. I've explained why I would feel the same, were I among them, but the number of reasons that the parents gave makes for a stunning rebuke to Tiverton and its leadership:

Some factors favoring Portsmouth are its 13 Advanced Placement classes. Middletown has 11 and Tiverton has nine, respectively. Portsmouth also offers 74 extracurricular activities and sports. Middletown offers 28 and Tiverton offers 22, respectively.

Portsmouth scored 70 percent proficient on their New England Common Assessments Program tests. Middletown scored 69 percent proficient and Tiverton score 63 percent proficient, respectively.

For the 2012-13 tuition, Portsmouth offered Little Compton $9,000, while Middletown offered $9,602. Crowley said Tiverton could not provide a cost, but instead, a range of $14,187 to $15,954. For the 115 slated pupils to attend high school during that first year, with tuition at a 3 percent annual increase, Portsmouth was the lowest. Middletown's would have increased approximately $69,000 and Tiverton’s approximately $596,000. ...

Another parent said one can’t ignore Tiverton High School's 827 suspensions, while Middletown has 252 and Portsmouth has 85.

Perhaps most stinging is the impression of one Little Compton School Committee member that Tiverton High School, alone among the three, lacks a "sense of community."

Joining the most limited offerings with the highest price (by far) is not a winning combination. One wonders why Tiverton tolerates that which Little Compton looks likely to decline to accept. Yet, scarcely a word can be heard or read from Tiverton parents demanding better results from the town's public schools.

March 11, 2011

Once Again Re: The Direction of Imposition

Justin Katz

This started out as a comment to my previous post on the topic, but it began to feel more like a post in its own right.

As usual, our left-leaning readers have got me all wrong. I have absolutely no problem with any religion having an exclusive prayer posted in public schools, even with required recitation each morning provided there is no national policy that prevents the same for other religions. That is, let some community somewhere implement daily Muslim prayers, as long as there is no longer an ACLU veto on Christianity elsewhere.

If God blesses a minority-religion community with smarter, better adjusted, and more economically productive young adults as a result, perhaps the rest of the country would benefit from the example. (Go ahead and argue against that proposition without founding your argument in some article of faith.)

For my own community — that in which I pay taxes and am registered to vote — I would advocate for support (maybe even encouragement) of individual exploration and articulation of beliefs, with all given equivalent rights to public expression, and the added proviso that traditions already in place require the democratic process (not threats of lawsuits or judicial fiats) to change. If there's a banner, if there's a traditional appearance by the Easter Bunny, if there's an annual Hanukkah festival, then the entire community should agree to ending it.

As much as it pains me to use the "m" word with reference to my own stance, you don't get much more moderate than the above. Unfortunately, ideologues have succeeded in convincing a broad swath of people (especially in the Northeast) that their extremism is the default for all right-thinking people.

Re: The Direction of Imposition

Justin Katz

I've been at a loss as to how to respond to the comments to my post this morning about the Cranston school prayer banner, because those who advocate for the removal of the banner are so extreme in their beliefs (even those who are typically reasonable and moderate in their approach) that they appear to lack any sense of proportion or capacity for compromise on this issue. Fortunately, Mangeek has phrased the position in a way that facilitates my response:

I'm an atheist dues-paying member of a conservative Christian church (figure that one out).

It would be one thing if there was a prayer/religious group in the school that met weekly and put something like this up in their 'wall space', but it's not. When a school itself puts a banner up that starts with 'Heavenly Father', it's an overt endorsement of religion, and it gives people like me the willies.

I've also been omitting the (recent) McCarthyist addition of 'Under God' line from the pledge since I was twelve. When I was a scout leader, I made an effort to drop the 'God stuff' from our various daily oaths and sayings. I also allowed my scouts who weren't religious to stay back at the campsite during mandatory 'religious hours' at Yawgoog so we could engage in somber, silent reflection of the week's successes and failures.

Keep in mind, I'm in no way anti-religious, I'm anti-authoritarian, and putting 'heavenly father' banners up, adding 'God' to a pledge spoken at the opening of school, and mandating religious service attendance at camp all fall under the 'authoritarian' category for me.

You want religion in school? Fine, have it from students on the same terms that groups meet to discuss the environment or school governance, but keep it firmly separated from school administration.

By what conceivable measure is it possible to see the first of the following as more authoritarian than the second?

  • A local school committee, with the apparent backing of a majority of town residents, keeping in place a banner that has been with the school since the very beginning, even though it hails from a time when it was acceptable to urge prayer in public
  • A national advocacy organization (and certain commenters from Pawtucket, Providence, Arizona, and other places that are not the town in question) trying to use the expense of legal action as a means of bullying the district into taking the banner down on the grounds that a handful of residents do or might object to it

I'm especially confused about how Mangeek could choose the former as more authoritarian because he also believes it's authoritarian for a religiously founded private group (the Boy Scouts) to require prayers and attendance at some kind of religious service).

The Direction of Imposition with Cranston Prayer

Justin Katz

The debate over a banner with a prayer in a Cranston public school — which the ACLU attempted to bully the district into moving with the threat of a lawsuit and which the school committee has voted to defend — makes very stark the contrast of the sides. On one side is the fact that public statements of religion were once part of the culture, and that this particular prayer is interwoven with the history of the school:

The students picked the school colors and the mascot and, following models from other schools in the district, a prayer and creed.

Originally, Bradley said, the prayer banner and creed were stored in the school building. In 1962, Bradley said, students started reciting the prayer instead of "Our Father" as part of their morning exercises. And, in 1963, when the auditorium opened its doors, the prayer and creed were affixed to the walls of the auditorium as a gift from the first graduating class.

On the other side is the assertion by an aggressive minority that merely being in the presence of such a banner somehow forces them to do something against their religious nonbeliefs:

"This prayer endorses religion. It endorses a specific religion," said [sophomore Jessica] Ahlquist, who is an atheist. The prayer, she says, "is discriminating against us."

For "a majority to say that you can take away a minority right, it's wrong," Ahlquist said. "It's also un-American."

There is no minority right being taken away. Students are not forced to recite the prayer. They are not forced to stand silent while others recite it. They are merely required to acknowledge that belief in God is a significant part of the school, city, state, nation, and civilization's heritage and, indeed, present culture and accept that they have no right to unilaterally erase its markers.

That's what really underlies the broader movement to strike religiosity from the public square: a claim to a special right to forbid the majority from acknowledging its shared faith, even to the degree that historical expressions thereof must be completely erased — wiped out. The zealotry of this movement is so strong that the ACLU will now harm real, present students in the Cranston district, as well as the employees and taxpayers of that community, by forcing the district to pay for a legal defense simply because the most local, discrete tier of government — where the inherent self-definition of democracy should be greatest — refuses to bow to a powerful national cult.

March 9, 2011

A Process That Binds

Justin Katz

As an applicant for an interim town treasurer job in Tiverton, I found the process to be peculiar:

One can objectively question some of the more peculiar aspects of the process. For instance, in every blind selection process that I've encountered --- whether for employment or, say, for college admissions --- the identities of the candidates are withheld from the people making the decision. In Tiverton's hiring practice, they are the only people permitted to know who the candidates are.

It is certainly reasonable of candidates to expect some level of public privacy. Indeed, Personnel Board Chairman James Camara related an anecdote about a previous applicant who lost his or her current job after being mentioned in the local press. (Of course, this didn't stop the journalist in the room from publishing my name without seeking either permission or statement.) Still, how can the public have confidence that the Personnel Board isn't applying political litmus tests or stacking the pool of interviewees when they alone have access to the identities of applicants?

That problem compounds into others.

March 8, 2011

Maybe the Mistrust Is Indicative of Knowledge, Not Ignorance

Justin Katz

Here's an interesting tidbit from last week's Political Scene. The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, which collects dues from the state's municipalities in order to act as their advocate to the state — thus lightening the necessity of representatives and senators to do their job, one suspects — held some focus groups while stratagizing about its legislative agenda:

And Daniel Beardsley, the league's executive director, says he was surprised by what he heard: "I was absolutely shocked at the disappointment, disgust and cynicism that those 30 people, representing a broad spectrum, showed for local and state government," he said during a recent taping of Rhode Island PBS' "A Lively Experiment."

Typical symptom of the problem that he appears to be, Beardsley's conclusion isn't that his organization should strive to help local governments figure out the ways in which they aren't satisfactorily doing their jobs. It isn't to seek legislation that would force local governments to operate in more admirable fashion. Rather, the league is thinking that it might spend the taxpayer money that it collects as dues in order to persuade taxpayers that their local governments are making good use of their tax dollars.

Elected officials would do well to take another approach. A public that does not share an undying love for government might be asking for better execution of public duties — and perhaps a smaller scope of activity — when it expresses "disappointment, disgust, and cynicism."

In related, news, I note that, two items down, Political Scene also mentions four state Representatives who attended a labor union rally at the State House. David Bennett (D, Warwick) said he was there both as a union member and as a government official. "We have to stand up and speak for ourselves," he declared, not apparently hearing the question in the air: Against whom?

March 2, 2011

Another Acronym to Track

Justin Katz

My Patch column, this week, discusses the latest acronym with which active citizens must acquaint themselves:

... OPEB stands for "other post-employment benefits" and, in Tiverton for example, includes health, dental and life insurance covering employees and their families after their retirement.

According to a press release announcing the issuance of the final report from the Rhode Island Senate Municipal Pension Study Commission, the unfunded OPEB promises that cities and towns have made to their employees amount to $2.4 billion. As the Providence Journal highlighted when reporting on the release, this is on top of about $2 billion in unfunded pension liabilities that cities and towns have incurred. ...

Eventually, of course, the bills begin to come due. Tiverton currently covers its OPEB responsibilities on a year-to-year, pay-as-you-go basis, amounting to nearly a million and a half dollars annually. For fiscal 2010, the expense was $1,362,886. That's more than 4% of the tax levy, for that year. It's also only 42% of the GASB-suggested payment (technically called an "annual required contribution"), which was $3,222,448. A payment of that size would have been 10% of the levy.

In fact, if Tiverton were to make the "required contribution" to all of its post-employment obligations, it would be storing away about 18% of its tax levy, each year, to keep public employees retiring young.

March 1, 2011

Proving the Unprovable in SLAPP Response

Justin Katz

You may recall the legal battle between Tiverton Citizens for Change (TCC) President and current Town Council Member David Nelson and form Town Council Members Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda. The latest development is thut Superior Court Judge Melanie Thunberg has denied Nelson's request for a summary judgment. According to a Sakonnet Times article, not online:

Lawyers for both sides said in separate interviews that the reason Judge Thunberg ruled as she did was that she believed a key fact was in dispute.

Jeffrey Schreck, who represents Ms. Arruda and Ms. Durfee, said the "critical disputed fact was whether Mr. Nelson knew that what he was saying was false."

Jennifer Azevedo, the lawyer representing Mr. Nelson, said Judge Thunberg believed "there were facts in dispute with respect to whether Mr. Nelson did or did not know that the statements he made were false."

One needn't be intimately familiar with the case to wonder how it could even be conceivably true that Nelson knew the offending statement, which follows, to be inaccurate (if it was, indeed, inaccurate, which is similarly impossible to prove):

Still worse are the efforts of Ms Durfee, Joanne Arruda and their allies, in deliberate cooperation with the Town Administrator to avoid a Town Council vote exceeding the State Tax cap. They have submitted false documentation to the State to facilitate a tax increase of at least 9%.

It is simply beyond debate that Durfee and Arruda worked "to avoid a Town Council vote." And it wouldn't be possible to prove that they weren't, in some way, included in a group of "allies," with Goncalo as the point person, that submitted false documents to the state — much less that Nelson knew that when the events were still fresh.

The concern that Dave has, which I share, is that so immense would be the scope of communications necessary to determine that he knowingly fabricated the cooperation that Durfee, Arruda, and their political allies would gain access during the discovery process to a veritable book of politically relevant communications between Nelson and his own allies.

February 28, 2011

The Hot Issue of Taxation

Justin Katz

Tonight's Tiverton Town Council agenda includes a public hearing on a proposed tax cap process for the town. The Town Hall is about 20% over capacity (meaning 120 people with a capacity of 100). The fire chief notified the council that, if some people don't clear out, he'll have to call the meeting off.

Only a few people were willing to leave, and taking faces that I recognize as a representative sample, the bulk of the audience was only too happy to see anything that might limit tax increases tabled and held off for a number of weeks. A number of teachers, for example.

February 19, 2011

When the Numbers No Longer Add Up

Justin Katz

The timing of Wisconsin's contribution to the era of global protest coincides profoundly with a new report on pensions from the Rhode Island Senate:

The new report also factors in the cost of other post-employment benefits, which cities and towns, as well as the state, have only recently begun to show on their accounting statements. With those costs added to the pension costs, whether state-managed or locally managed, the annual payments needed to keep pace with current and future retirement benefits begins to eat up a significant portion of some local tax levies.

What sorts of numbers are we talking about?

While the unfunded liability for locally managed pension plans totals about $2 billion, the unfunded liability for other post-employment benefits totals another $2.4 billion, according to the report. This does not include the millions of dollars in retirement obligations that cities and towns share with the state for teacher pensions.

From the sampling of numbers reported in the Providence Journal, there appears to be significant variation from municipality to municipality, but the average city or town would have to devote about one-quarter of its annual budget to support employees who are no longer working. Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Johnston would need 59%, 57%, and 47%, respectively. And, again, that's excluding payments that the state subsidizes.

Keep in mind, too, that government continues to operate and to grow. This is an after-the-fact payment to those who've already retired.

February 17, 2011

Ending the Caruolo Act

Justin Katz

This being Rhode Island, one expects it to be a long shot, but it's worth noting that Patricia Morgan (R, Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick) has filed legislation to repeal the Caruolo Act:

The Caruolo Act allows school committees to file suit against their taxpayers when they overspend their budgets. Rep. Morgan’s legislation would eliminate this costly and lengthy method of resolving funding disputes.

"Quite simply, the Caruolo Act has been a costly and detrimental policy," said Representative Morgan. "What this law has done is increase the cities' and towns' costs of education, reduce their councils' ability to control spending, and drive up property taxes. It has done nothing to promote accountability for the efficient and effective education of our children. I believe that continuing this failed policy is foolish and the time has come to repeal it."

Her preemptive reply to those who might criticize her lack of alternative is that school committees should learn to live within their budgets. I'm not sure that goes far enough. As former Majority Leader George Caruolo has argued that the law that his displaced put judicial authority on these matters in the hands of the Department of Education, which is likely where school districts would argue it should return upon repeal of Caruolo.

The current and perennial makeup of the General Assembly (not to mention the governor) likely puts Caruolo beyond reach, but raising the subject of its repeal is a start to a start of some fiscal sanity for municipalities. Another route, or perhaps a next step, would be to put the taxing and spending authority in the same hands — whether with school committees or town councils — thus allowing more direct control by local taxpayers of school budgets.

February 1, 2011

Taking Past Excess Off the Table

Justin Katz

Some elected officials, in Tiverton, are encouraging their fellows to ignore the past while constructing the next budget. My Tiverton-Little Compton.Patch column, this week, I suggest that such an approach is, well, improper:

It certainly shouldn't be a foregone conclusion that a tax base that grew by 2% over a period of 28% inflation can afford a 78% increase in the cost of local government services. All else being equal, the community for which $17.5 million was the affordable levy in 2001-2002 should only have been asked for $22.9 million in 2009-2010 [instead of $31.1 million].

Obviously, a panoply of other considerations come into play, but it's awfully convenient of Cotta to insist that Tiverton's leaders should weigh the upcoming budget in isolation from the past. Moreover, it brings to the fore the error in government budgeting processes.

January 28, 2011

"Surplus" Just Means They Haven't Spent It, Yet

Justin Katz

Gary Trott tries to apply too much common sense to public-sector budgeting:

What should a Rhode Island city or town do if it suddenly finds itself with a surplus of unspent funds amounting to nearly $6 million? You'd think that it would do the responsible thing and not spend those funds in order to ease up a little bit on the taxpayer.

Well, that's not what the School Committee in Warwick did during the final days of December when it voted unanimously to take the $6 million surplus from the previous year and spend it by giving raises to teachers and also by cutting the 20 percent contribution that the teachers were to pay toward their health care benefits (ProJo 7 to 7 News Blog, Dec. 29).

The problem is that this isn't just spending for spending's sake, as Trott takes it. Rather, all of the incentives push government bodies in the direction of spending everything and, in particular, spending as much as possible on raises and benefits for employees.

Obviously, the electoral threat implicit in public-sector unionization is one incentive. So is the likelihood that unspent dollars won't just be considered a windfall to be kept, but will be targeted (rightly, in my view) both for a direct return to taxpayers and for a reduction in subsequent years' budgets. When the money isn't given freely as an economic exchange, but is taken under threat of law as taxation, the emphasis shifts from claiming as much money as a consumer can be convinced that the service is worth to providing cover for the claim that so much, and more, is needed, or even required by law. The process becomes one of budget tricks.

In Tiverton, for example, the school department claims that the town is required to make up for any difference in the amount of state aid that is estimated at the financial town meeting. (Naturally, extra aid is never reduced from the local appropriation.) So, say the local appropriation is $20 million and the FTM estimates that the schools will get $5 million in state/fed aid. If the aid comes in at $4 million, then the schools take another $1 million from the town's property tax pool.

Here's the best part: for the purposes of calculating the state-imposed cap on how much additional money it can request, the school department considers the $21 million to be part of its new baseline. It then begins the performance of declarations about what it will have to cut, close, and eliminate if the town doesn't bust the cap.

The process doesn't begin, in short, with the question of what the payer will bear, but with what the payee can take. The only way to change the incentives and the outcome would be to organize enough voters to place better candidates on the boards, councils, and committees and counterbalance the corrupt symbiosis between elected officials and labor.

January 25, 2011

Failure With or Without Tiers

Justin Katz

The idea of a tiered diploma system is causing much teeth-gnashing in Tiverton and elsewhere. My Patch column, this week, explains the effect of the proposal and points out that a related topic really ought to be the controversy to which every School Committee meeting is dedicated:

In light of that change, a cynic (or, the cynic would say, a clear-eyed observer of Rhode Island politics) might suggest that the "certificates" are being introduced to ensure that non-proficient students receive something for their efforts, with the new diploma tiers layered in to disguise the fact that Rhode Island's public educational system has failed to live up to its own standards. Those resisting both the tiers and the certificates are (by this interpretation) effectively playing chicken with the Board of Regents, holding them to their prior, more-dramatic regulations in order to force the Department of Education either to be lax in judging exceptions to NECAP proficiency or to postpone or scrap the current reforms altogether.

Rhode Island voters and parents should look beyond the blurry bureaucratic dances and focus on the truth behind all of the rhetorical agreements and semantic disagreements. When it comes to high scores on standardized math tests, Rhode Island trails the nation of Turkey.

January 24, 2011

Pursuing Business Friendliness

Justin Katz

The Tiverton Town Council meeting has already been running very long, and there's still a full agenda page of meaty topics. On the floor, right now, is a discussion of what the Town Council can do to make the town more "business friendly." I touched on this topic not long ago.

The first to speak, tonight, was Tax Assessor David Robert, who addressed the topic from the perspective of increasing tax revenue by bringing in businesses. Solicitor Andrew Teitz subsequently made the point that business activity doesn't necessarily indicate a "net gain," once the costs of the business to the town (fire, police, streets, etc.) are considered. I'd correct that: The "net gain" must include other advantages to the town, such as increasing opportunity for residents and their children, improving their quality of life, defining the town's character, creating employment for locals, and making it easier for locals to start businesses.

Resident Joe Souza took the microphone to speak from his experience on the Zoning Board, noting that zoning is so restrictive that businesses want to come and to begin within town. Specifically, Souza described his aunt's former business cutting hair in her basement, which allowed her to stay home and bring in some money. According to Souza, such a use of her property would no longer be allowed.

9:02 p.m.

Appropriately, the next item on the agenda is a presentation by Councilor David Nelson, proposing a cap of 2.5% on the town's tax levy. He noted the town's rapid increase in taxes and the state's poor standing economically and for business and taxpayer attraction. Councilor Cecil Leonard noted that the budget process for next year is already well underway, with work done without regard to a new tax cap. Nelson noted that there's plenty of time to accommodate changes. I'd note that, whatever the budget activity, the financial town meeting can undo all planning anyway.

9:44 p.m.

We just moved through a long presentation and discussion of a zoning/development plan being developed by Town Planner Chris Spencer for Tiverton's Four Corners Village area. From my perspective, living on the other side of town, it seems to me that the urge to tie up and continually delay development plans with objections about environment and such is indicative of the very problem that is making economic development very difficult in the modern era. Nobody wants changes in their own neighborhoods, but everybody's got a neighborhood to protect, which pushes anything potentially undesirable (typically by increasing the liberty of property owners) to the less politically active, less procedurally aware, and less financially backed neighborhoods.

Those neighborhoods simply cannot offer all of the opportunities that the town should allow or even pursue.

10:02 p.m.

Among a flurry of policy proposals, Councilor Rob Coulter suggested that the council request General Assembly legislation delaying the state mandate for a town-wide property revaluation. The tax assessor is against the move, and other council members didn't seem to have much stomach for it. I say it's worth sending every possible message to the legislature that mandates are a problem and putting the topic in the public repeatedly.

January 18, 2011

Why I'm Suing the Town

Justin Katz

My Tiverton Patch column this week explains why I'm suing the Town of Tiverton:

The entire episode was further evidence that government in Tiverton, as in the rest of Rhode Island, has long been characterized by an insulated cooperation. Officials and bureaucrats willingly making things happen for each other, connecting the letters of the law in retrospect when called on their improprieties.

If the town and the state are to pull out of the spiral toward which such corruption has pushed them, residents will have to insist that the rules by which we operate must be followed, even when political insiders find them inconvenient and even when it's their judgment that taxpayers can afford the extra bill.

January 13, 2011

Controversy Continues in Tiverton

Justin Katz

Among the first items under discussion at the Tiverton School Committee meeting is whether the School Committee should subpoena Town Treasurer Phil DiMattia to appear before it, since he has opted not to attend their meeting at their request. Committee Member Carol Herrmann noted that it might be worth waiting to see whether the fact that he (for some undivinable reason) changed his voter registration to Middletown precludes his continuing as treasurer.

Interestingly, Committee Chairwoman Sally Black requested that this discussion be moved to the beginning of the meeting because there are Town Council members in attendance, presumably for this purpose. However, when Committee Member Danielle Coulter brought up a related letter from the Town Council President, Black stated that they'd be discussing that at the end of the meeting.

7:34 p.m.

Strange turn to the discussion. Town Council Member Dave Nelson asked whether the committee would be releasing a list of questions that was referenced earlier. Superintendent Bill Rearick got testy and said that the list was his and that he didn't bring it to a meeting that had on its agenda "FY2009/2010 Treasurer's Audit Adjustments," because the treasurer had indicated that he wasn't going to come.

There's been much debate about what questions to ask when, whether the treasurer will know what information to bring with him, and so on. What's strange is that there's simply no question about what happened. If a lowly wannabe Internet pundit like me can figure it out, then these folks ought to be able to. Why pretend that it's a mystery? Is it just a matter of getting it out of the treasurer's mouth for legal reasons.

7:43 p.m.

This is unbelievable. The next topic on the agenda is that of transporting so-called "restricted" aid to the general budget. In summary, the school department has heretofore left money from the state and federal governments that's earmarked for specific purposes completely out of their budgets, claiming the irrelevance of dedicated funds to general revenue. Now, with aid being cut and the state changing the way it handles it, well, in Supt. Rearick's words: "Previously restricted aid will have to be integrated with our regular budget."

So now, they're going to engage in a campaign to make sure that voters, prior to the financial town meeting in May, "realize that it's not part of a new funding stream." This even as they're filing litigation to keep almost $400,000 in extra local tax money that the school department spent, last year, arguing that their state aid was cut by that amount and the town has to cover it — but the increase in their "restricted" aid more was nearly double the loss in general aid.

It's worth noting that the committee managed to maintain all of its lost aid, this year, by raising local taxes (after threatening to close schools and so on).

One gets the sense that our money is their money — they just need to figure out how to take it. Somehow, the people who pay the bills seem never to get a break.

8:16 p.m.

Now on to an actual education issue: They're expressing unanimous disapproval of the Board of Regents and Education Commissioner's plan to change to a three-tier diploma system, based on standardized tests, with a fourth tier of "certificate" for students who don't make the grade for the lowest.

Everybody's speaking as if this ratchets up the stakes, but my interpretation is completely opposite. Back in August, the news was how many Rhode Island students would not be graduating at all (in 2012) under the current system. It seems to me that the introduction of a third tier was mainly to disguise the fact that the Dept. of Education is adding the certificate, so that all of the students whom Rhode Island public schools failed to educate to the current standards would get something.

It may be too cynical, but it strikes me as plausible that certain groups would like to play chicken with the state — daring the commissioner and regents to allow almost half of Rhode Island students to get nothing at all.

Party Games in "Non-Partisan" Tiverton

Justin Katz

Back in 2007, I argued against non-partisan elections in Tiverton. Those who disagreed took a very community-oriented view:

ARGUING AGAINST asking Tiverton voters whether they'd like to return to partisan elections after one cycle of nonpartisanism, Charter Review Commission member Frank "Richard" Joslin made two points that have the ring of Rhode Islandry: First, that residents who actually vote (or get involved) know who belongs to what party, and second, that Joslin's fellow members of the Tiverton Democratic Committee are so ideologically diverse as to make party labels of negligible value. At the previous meeting, Commissioner Frank Marshall had asserted that everybody elected to local office is there simply to work hard and do right by the town.

Thus do Rhode Islanders like to believe about themselves. Everybody who cares knows, so inside information is by definition public, and everybody votes for the person, not the party, because the individuals are so independent and well intentioned.

That's all well and good, and to large extent true. But party isn't nothing; otherwise, there would cease to be a Tiverton Democratic Committee.

I raise the debate now because it came to light in the comments of my liveblog from Monday night's Town Council meeting that the lone Republican in Tiverton's delegation to the State House, Dan Gordon, was not informed that his peers would be briefing the local governing body. In fact, the same thing happened at the last regular School Committee meeting.

There are certainly legitimate reasons that the relevant clerks for the municipal government and the school department did not contact the only non-incumbent elected representative that Tiverton has sent to the General Assembly for this session. His contact information might not have been readily at hand or accurate. And the Democrat senators and representative might have merely forgotten to mention the meetings, even after the Republican's absence at the School Committee meeting.

It is conspicuous, though, that Rep. Jay Edwards is a member of the Democrat committee... as is Town Clerk Nancy Mello... as are three of the five School Committee members... as is, I believe, the Democrat candidate whom Gordon defeated in the last election. As Joslin once said, everybody knows who belongs to what party, especially those who continue to operate as members thereof.

January 10, 2011

State Reps in Town

Justin Katz

The Democrat trio of Tiverton's state representation — Rep. Jay Edwards, Sen. Walter Felag, and Sen. Louis DiPalma — appeared before the Tiverton Town Council tonight. Here are my notes:

Edwards started out by noting his request for legislation enabling biannual licensing reviews (or longer).

Felag: The budget is the major issue, and Governor Lincoln Chafee must submit a 2012 budget by February 3, and he could also submit a supplemental 2011 budget.

Town Council President Jay Lambert: has heard that school aid may be cut.

DiPalma: State aid to schools only indirectly affects town (mainly affecting the school department). RIDE is reworking funding formula; Little Compton, for example, was going to lose money but is now gaining money [funny how nobody ever loses money, given time]

Edwards: Tiverton's projected loss is about $165,000 per year, "give or take"

Lambert: Referring to the current controversy over whether the town must indemnify the schools against losses in state aid, then cuts certainly do affect town.

Edwards: Has proposed to increase construction aid. Also noted that it would cost only $13 million per year to "hold harmless" suburban communities from changes in the funding formula, and he's put forward legislation to do so for two years.

Felag: The funding formula that passed last year doesn't go into effect until next year, and it will see multiple legislative attempts to change it before then.

Coulter: Asked about mandates from the state: how would we formally appeal them.

Felag: Until 2006, there were about 280 mandates from the state. "It's easy to say I'm going to get rid of state mandates, but there are a lot of good mandates." Solution: "submit a list that you'd like us to work on."

Edwards: "Doesn't have to be formal; you can just send us an email."

Felag: Trying to get state to have budget by beginning of June, but municipalities should think about having some 13-month budget needs.

Resident Joe Souza: The state should repeal the funding formula. The governor's legislation to eliminate mandates died in legislature, last year. Souza illustrated by requesting a show of hands that there's no support on the council for binding arbitration for teachers, and he opined that fire and police arbitration should be non-binding.

Felag: [Changing the subject.] Already have in legislation for no tolls on the Sakonnet River Bridge and the Mount Hope Bridge.

7:38 p.m.

To continue the liveblog with material that's mainly of local interest: Town Solicitor Andrew Teitz has researched who has authority to act on behalf of the town administrator when he's not able to be reached (for signatures and so on) and, finding nothing satisfactory, drafted a resolution that would allow the council to appoint somebody (e.g., the town clerk).

Councilor David Nelson asked whether Mr. Teitz thinks that President Lambert acted inappropriately by signing a request to the state auditor general for an extension. Teitz said he believes so.

8:06 p.m.

Town Administrator Jim Goncalo presented his first draft of the municipal budget; some notes:

  • 2% increase in salaries for department heads.
  • No increase for any bargaining units.
  • Addition of a 1/2 clerk in treasurer's office.
  • Blue Cross/Blue Shield advised that they include a 10% general increase in costs, plus 2.5% for a "health reform" increase
  • Tax base has increased from $2,183 million to $2,191 million; motor vehicle tax from $1,192 million to $1,150 million.

Council Member Nelson: 3.8% increase in budget = $644,002

Goncalo: The application of the projected near-million-dollar surplus from FY10 would be taken up by the Budget Committee as a recommendation to the financial town meeting

Council Member Coulter: If we're increasing the budget even as we're collecting more in taxes than we need, then we can change the increases.

Council Member Ed Roderick: If we have liabilities, we may not be able to access the surplus.

Council Member Cecil Leonard: Surplus only brings town up to 3% reserve required in the charter.

Goncalo: Regarding "so called" increase [so called?]

  • $10,000 in debt service

  • $225,000 for mandates revaluation

  • 15,000 general government

  • $257,000 financial administration

    • health insurance/liability: $128,000

    • pension costs: $76,000 (50 in police)

    • unfunded liabilities: $40,000

    • half-clerk in treasurer's office: $20,000 (not including benefits)

  • $62,000 for fire and police combined increased

  • $74,0000 for DPW ($30,000 for engineering study for new license for landfill, and landfill closure engineering study)

Lambert: Budget should reflect full liability to the schools, if we're obligated to pay for state aid shortfalls

Goncalo: The best place would be as a FTM docket resolve. [an astonishing suggestion, I think, that would write that interpretation explicitly in town policy, if approved at the FTM]

Talk of folks on fixed income (meaning, typically, Social Security) is common in these discussions. I didn't get a chance, but I wanted to point out that retirement income isn't the only way to have "a fixed income." The amazing thing about public budget discussions is that increases such as labor and utilities are presented as things that must be passed on to taxpayers. I can't go to my boss with the assumption that he'll cover my increased costs of living; what's the equivalent restraint on public budget setters? (Elections, of course, but that should be a more explicit consideration.)

8:49 p.m.

Councilor Coulter proposed the following resolution:

WHEREAS: The Town Council is responsible by Charter for a long-range plan which includes the development of goals, objectives, strategies, plans, and policies in furtherance of such planning; and

WHEREAS: Rhode Island General Laws also place responsibilities upon the Town Council, among other things, to generally manage the affairs and interests of the Town and specifically partake in financial and budgetary matters concerning the Town; and

WHEREAS: Long-range planning will better assist the Town in meeting its current financial obligations and future needs and facilitiate improved financial and budgetary decision making all for the betterment of the Town’s financial stability and security;

IT THEREFORE BE RESOLVED, by the Town Council of Tiverton, Rhode Island that:

(1) That the Town Council supports and approves in concept the development of a Long-Term Financial Plan to be in the best interests of the Town;

(2) That the Town Council hereby expresses its intent to further investigate, develop, and as appropriate, implement a Long-Term Financial Plan;

(3) That such Long-Term Financial Plan will include the Capital Improvement Plan and may also include a Financial Corrective Action Plan to address the known outstanding obligations of the Town; and

(4) That all Town departments, boards, commissions, and officers shall be so notified and invited to assist in the investigation, development, and as appropriate, implementation of the above.

It passed. Coulter will start by collecting known liabilities.

9:02 p.m.

Now, they're discussing a new controversy related to school budgets.

President Lambert in previous discussion spoke about school committee's claim of indemnification against loss of aid. Now, he wants to discuss a second issue under potential litigation. School lawyer Robinson's letter to the education commissioner requesting a hearing and a ruling says that the town has "taken control" of $75,000 in tuition from Fall River students attending Tiverton schools. School Committee Chairwoman Sally Black's related letter calls the move "illegal."

Lambert summarizes the school department's argument as follows: The town must include Fall River students in its budget and then hand over Fall River tuition directly to the schools, effectively paying the schools twice for the same students. No town official was aware that there was an issue. The treasurer says they're handling the matter just as they always have (at least for 8 years). The town budgets for the students and then puts the money in the general fund. Indeed, Lambert cited a requested deposit from the schools into the town's general fund of one of last year's checks from Fall River. The school committee has never discussed the matter in an open meeting.

In Lambert's opinion, "This dispute has nothing to do with tuition for students coming from Fall River." It is no coincidence that this issue arises during discussion of Little Compton students' possibly attending Tiverton High School (paying over a million dollars per year). "This is simply an attempt to set a legal precedent that would have Tiverton taxpayers paying for Little Compton students through the school budget, while the district still receives payment from Little Compton."

Frankly, under Chairwoman Black, with the advice of Solicitor Robinson, one begins to get the feeling that the School Committee is hungry for lawsuits. Some might call it out of control.

9:46 p.m.

It's been a long meeting. One interesting note: Treasurer Phil DiMattia has submitted notice that he's "temporarily" changed his voter registration to elsewhere, although his wife maintains property in town. There was some discussion of whether he can keep his elective job; Solicitor Teitz is researching it.

What School Choice Is Already Telling Us

Justin Katz

For several generations, Little Compton, RI, has been practicing a community school choice by sending its teenagers elsewhere for high school. The obvious choice should be Tiverton, just over an indistinguishable border, but at least since the '70s, the kids of LC have been traveling to Aquidneck Island. My Patch column, this week, looks at the probable reason and suggests that the implied changes would benefit local kids, too:

In his presentation to the Little Compton School Committee, available on his district's Web page, Tiverton Superintendent William Rearick made the case that Tiverton has the excess capacity to accommodate its neighbors. He noted that the high school is in compliance with state requirements. And he pointed out that Tiverton's students outperform the state average on all four of the New England Common Assessments Program (NECAP) tests - albeit, just barely in math and science.

Tiverton's advanced placement course and SAT data, Rearick presented without comparison, leaving no context by which to understand whether the results are admirable or unimpressive. The absence of competitive spirit only highlights the presentation's avoidance of the choice that Little Compton actually faces.

January 5, 2011

Deflate the Bubble — There's Only One Way

Justin Katz

John Kostrzewa sees municipal deficits as "the next big bubble," specifically related to municipal bonds. If cities and towns begin to default, then investors will stop considering them so safe and, per those who support public debt, the sky would fall.

In outlining options for Central Falls, Mark Pfeiffer, the state receiver, said bankruptcy should be a last resort because a filing in federal court would ripple across the country, sending a message that Rhode Island is a risky place to do business. Investors would demand more interest on any municipal bonds sold here, or they could pull out and not buy at all.

Investors would also be spooked because the federal courts could change the terms of bond sales, leaving investors with more uncertainty and less safety about what they had purchased.

I say, "good, let it happen." It's time that financially incompetent politicians learned to stop treating debt as a revenue source. Those playing with public dollars ought to be the most financially conservative; saving up for investments and improvements, rather than passing bond issues in political blasts and obligating future taxpayers to cover the expense.

Diplomats and Accountants

Justin Katz

As I write in this week's Tiverton-LittleComptonPatch column, the two aspects of a local budget controversy are diplomacy and accounting. That is, one controversy is over communication and process, and the other is over actual tax dollars and how they should be allocated:

The starkest delineation of this dynamic came during a special meeting of the Town Council, last Thursday evening. Council President Jay Lambert opened with an (overly) extensive review of the who-said-whats with regard to a joint meeting of the Town Council and School Committee, after which Councilman Dave Nelson (also president of Tiverton Citizens for Change) offered to walk the council and the audience through a presentation explaining the origin of the financial disagreement. (See clips 1 and 2 of the included video.)

Before Nelson could project the relevant spreadsheet for public viewing, Councilman Brett Pelletier interrupted to express his own intention for the meeting: "I'm trying very hard to prevent people who want to fight with each other to fight with each other, because I won't have it." In patrician fashion, Pelletier began his plea not with an olive branch of good will, but by describing Lambert's monologue as "tainted with smug, cavalier, and disingenuous terminology." (See clip 3.)

December 29, 2010

Self Governance in a Diverse Community

Justin Katz

I got a little philosophical on the topic of small-town New England democracy for my Patch.com column this week:

At such times, one marvels at the brazen perpetuation of democracy in a society so diverse that even some few dozen square miles contain irreconcilable lives. New England, with its proud tradition of town meetings, raises that dogged practice to the status of an organizing principle. In his classic 1942 painting "Freedom of Speech," Norman Rockwell portrays a grubby-handed working man standing among his fellow electors at the annual financial meeting of an unidentified Vermont town. The styles of those around him suggest that they inhabit distinct social strata.

As different as the WWII-era lives of the town banker and the dairy farmer may have been, however, they still bore commonalities that technology has largely erased.

December 21, 2010

Setting Up the Failure

Justin Katz

Although the majority of the teachers probably just wanted to keep their jobs, observers with a cynical (I would say "realistic") opinion of labor unions likely foresaw the Central Falls teacher absences issue back when Superintendent Fran Gallo unfired the high school faculty back in May. There is no way union organizers want the transformation model of reforming the school (or any model, really) to work, particularly as it's been initiated from the education commissioner down, and I'd suggest that the employee attendance record at the school proves that enough teachers are willing to pull the union rope to cause problems:

The high rate of teacher absenteeism has sparked a new wave of outrage and fed the ongoing debate about how to improve the nation’s worst-performing schools.

Bitterness remains over the mass firing of all the school’s teachers in February, jobs that were eventually won back through a compromise agreement in May. In exchange for their jobs, the teachers agreed to a list of changes administrators said were necessary to turn around the school, which has among the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the state.

Some teachers resent the new requirements, which include tutoring and eating lunch with students each week, attending after-school training sessions and being observed by third-party evaluators. In all, about 15 teachers resigned between June and November; two others retired. One position remains unfilled, according to school officials.

As you may recall, the other alternative was the "turnaround model," by which the entire teaching staff would have been fired, and no more than 50% could have been rehired. One suspects substantial overlap among three groups:

  • The retirements and absentees
  • Teachers who look to the union playbook for ensuring the failure of reform
  • Central Falls High employees who would not have been rehired under the turnaround model

The lesson for Rhode Island administrators and commissioners is clear: Making those who oppose reform integral to it is not likely part of a formula for success.


And let's not allow the issue to slip into the background without marveling at this deal:

According to the contract, teachers receive 15 sick days a year at full pay and are allowed to accumulate up to 185 sick days — which takes slightly more than 12 years of service to accrue. They also receive two personal days each year.

Veteran teachers with at least six years of service are also entitled to 40 days of extended sick leave at full pay; teachers with 15 or more years are entitled to 50 days, also at full pay.

If I'm reading that right, in a (give or take) 180-day school year, a Central Falls teacher can theoretically have 237 available paid days off. Presumably, there are procedures in place to review extended sick leave, but by the numbers, a teacher could work just six weeks a year for two years.

Local Budgets and Generosity at Christmas

Justin Katz

A local controversy with statewide implications is the subject of my Patch.com column, this week. In short, the Tiverton school department spent $367,165 in local funds to make up for estimated state funds that didn't materialize, and now the municipal government is taking it back.

Of course, given the season, I couldn't treat the topic without working in a moral:

The largest portion of my workdays, over the last decade, has been spent remodeling houses in neighborhoods of Newport that appear zoned to require airy names rather than street numbers. Tourists who venture away from the Breakers, Chateau-sur-Mer, and the rest of the Bellevue arcade of opulence may spot plaques and embossed stones labeling the homes of families still in the flesh and still in the money. My sense of humor being what it is, I've dubbed my North Tiverton cottage Piddlinghouse and await only the free time and resources to whittle a name-post at the end of my driveway.

The title would be apt, given the Dickensian feel of this Christmas season. Most of the presents under our tree will be a testament to the generosity of my children's extended family - as well as the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Claus. The legendary couple made an appearance at a recent family gathering, and the next day, the person who arranged the visit swung by Piddlinghouse with a box of like-new used clothes that the jolly Mrs. had thought we might put to good use.

Does Santa Claus exist? I'll offer an unequivocal "yes."

December 14, 2010

Defining the Terms of Economic Development

Justin Katz

Everybody supports economic development, even in a proudly ruralish town like Tiverton, but as I suggest in my Patch.com column, the details are decisive:

At least in the recent past, it has seemed that Tiverton's policy for economic development has been that it should occur only in places in which businesses struggle to succeed - mostly Stafford and Crandall Road along the eastern border and Main Road in North Tiverton. It's only a mild exaggeration to suggest that Town Council members of the past have been loath to fell a single tree for the benefit of the private sector. Meanwhile, residents in such neighborhoods as Four Corners have arisen in opposition to any attempts to nudge planning and zoning codes a little bit closer to the sweet spot between quaint and flourishing. ...

In this respect, the grocery store symbolizes the error in our very concept of economic development. Councilor Ed Roderick came closest to correcting the error when he noted that the town must "offer something that [businesses] can't get somewhere else." Truth be told, there are really only two things unique to Tiverton: Tivertonians and the town itself. The geography is what it is, and the inclination to protect its rural, coastal New England character is well placed, which leaves only the character of the people. ...

In short, the objective of luring attractive residents to a town comes down to making it a great place to live, which brings us right back to all of those issues in contentious disagreement. Clearly, for one, our schools must be top-notch. A district's threat that a large tax increase is necessary to avoid shuttering a brand new elementary school indicates that the town is already having difficulty funding schools as they are, and Tiverton is currently producing high school classes that are only 31% proficient in math and 21% proficient in science, as measured on statewide NECAP tests. Knowledge-working parents are unlikely to be impressed by such results.

By the way, while I'm posting Tiverton content:

Last night, the Town Council came out of executive session around 11:00 p.m. and voted unanimously to support Town Treasurer Phil DiMattia as he recoups $367,000 from the school department. Apparently, with state/federal aid coming in lower than budgeted at last May's financial town meeting, the schools did exactly as Tiverton Citizens for Change and I explained that they would: They've taken the position that the town is now responsible for every penny that it budgeted, regardless of the fact that it broke out that budget into "state/federal aid" and "from local sources."

Readers may recall that the controversy centered around a potential 22% tax increase. As I explained here and here, that's the outward boundary, should the schools lose all state and federal aid. That's not likely, but unless the municipal government cuts its own budget by an equal amount — and municipal is much more strapped than the school department — every $300,000 will require a 1% tax increase.

December 7, 2010

Positions: One Per Resident

Justin Katz

My Patch.com column this week takes up a minor local controversy over residents' holding multiple town positions, in light of the relevance to local politics to larger political battles:

The potential for conflicts of interest and corruption is remote between the school district and oyster farming; it is less so between those who draft the school and municipal budgets and a committee addressing the method by which those budgets are approved. However obscure these specific instances may be, the principle that transforms minor town hall expectorations into webs of state and national intrigue is easy to see: The people invest every office, council, committee, board, panel, and subcommittee with a certain amount of its collective power. Factions inevitably labor to collect enough of them to achieve their ends, and the competition can, itself, be healthy...provided they must find enough politically palatable members that each need only hold one government position at a time.

December 1, 2010

Miles to Go Before Tiverton Sleeps

Justin Katz

I'll be writing a weekly column called "15 Miles of Main Road" for the Tiverton-LittleCompton Patch.com, and my first offering seeks to set the stage for what could be an extremely interesting couple of years in Tiverton politics, perhaps with implications for politics across the state:

The infamous Tiverton Financial Town Meeting of May 2010 was fundamentally a two-tone affair. There was the red and the yellow, and while individual residents are more likely to be shades of orange, the debate was defined by the purer hues toward which each side tugged. As reductionist as it may be to posit two, simple, opposing forces, doing so allows a model for understanding what has come and what may be expected in public affairs.

November 29, 2010

A Right-Reform Fly on the Wall

Community Crier

Remember when a raucous School Committee meeting in East Providence gave reason to hope that the game might be up for the National Education Association's unchallenged control of Rhode Island education? If so, odds are that Anchor Rising plays in that memory. We liveblogged, photographed, recorded, and analyzed. And it made a difference.

Two days later, East Providence union president Valerie Lawson and NEA lawyer John Liedecker were on the Dan Yorke show, with Jim Hummel filling in. Lawson was explaining that the teachers would never shout down a member of the public who held the microphone; rather, teachers were a little overenthusiastic in cheering for the next person in line to speak. Hummel played a clip of audio from the recordings linked, above, that proved Lawson to be lying, and Liedecker had to jump into the conversation to change the subject.

The point is that we were there, and because we were there, people had access to the truth about what happened. That is why it's so important that Rhode Islanders who want to pull the state back from the brink help us to create a full-time job within Anchor Rising. So that we'll be there when it matters.

Please email or call (401-835-7156) Justin to pledge support for 2011. We're still a long way off, but pledges only commit you to payment if we achieve our goal.

November 26, 2010

East Providence as Emblem of Rhode Island

Justin Katz

Ed Achorn laments the political reality of East Providence. Noting that voters supported a local tax cap, he points out that they removed from office the very people who would strive to meet it.

The unions, in short, outhustled, outspent, out-deceived and out-organized the public-spirited incumbents in East Providence, making sure that they won't be an impediment for the next two years.

I know, I know. That's democracy, and there is no way to constrain special interests from swamping elections in that manner without undermining the whole system. If people are ill-informed or apathetic enough to let them get away with it, they deserve everything they get — good and hard.

Personally, I think Achorn's a bit too bleak and cynical. It's true, as he writes, that special interests have larger individual financial stakes in each election than the average voter, but it's also true that their political opposition has a better, more salable message. It ought to take fewer dollars and less repetitive action (advertising, stumping, and so on) to mount a defense.

Other than hoping that voters might someday become better informed and take their duty a little more seriously, or that good-government groups might somehow find the resources to fight fire with fire, I don't really have an answer for all of this. Wish I did.

It wouldn't take a "fire with fire" match of investment for good-government groups — and Web sites (ahem) — to compete. A relatively small, sustained investment with motivated individuals and organizations, even outside of election season, could create an atmosphere in which voters are better informed, not only about the minutia of local government, but also about the players and principles involved.

November 22, 2010

Oh Goody; a Surplus

Justin Katz

I just learned, during tonight's Town Council meeting in Tiverton, that Town Treasurer Phil DiMattia is projecting that the 2010 fiscal year brought nearly $1 million surplus. During a recession. With a large tax increase for the current fiscal year.

That, by the way, doesn't include federal funds given to the school department by the federal and state governments. Nice to know as I go through the weekly exercise of figuring out which bills will be least punitive not to pay, even as I try to figure out how to afford some Christmas presents for my children.

November 11, 2010

A Town Story Being Missed at the State Level

Justin Katz

In all of its coverage of the election, thus far, including an "Election Digest" published last Thursday, the Providence Journal — like every other major news outlet in the state — has neglected to report on the fact that my local taxpayer group, Tiverton Citizens for Change, has taken a commanding role on the Town Council. Granted, we're out here on the edge of the state, but the fact that a much-vilified group has placed its president, David Nelson, who happens also to be the target of an outlandish slander lawsuit filed by two outgoing council members, has taken a public office, along with enough of his allies to constitute a majority, is surely newsworthy.

From Receiver to Totalitarian

Justin Katz

Curiously, giving somebody total power over a municipality seems likely to do nothing so much as expand the scope of "total":

The state-appointed receiver who assumed Mayor Charles D. Moreau's powers in July announced Tuesday that he was appointing a three-member advisory council to act in place of the five-member elected City Council.

A mayor's role is administrative, so it's not surprising (although it's still objectionable) that a state-appointed receiver would assume the mayor's responsibilities. But what's a city council do?

Pfeiffer's advisory council will review business licenses, zoning and other matters that normally go before the City Council.

This is character-of-the-town stuff. This is the heart of self-governance. And the single-person-receiver, accountable, ultimately, to the state Department of Administration and the governor has now handed it off to yet another layer of unelected officials, accountable to him. The explanation of this usurpation of the democratic process offers no comfort. The elected council rejected a demand from receiver Mark Pfeiffer:

[Council President William] Benson said the council voted to reject the policy plan because it believed that October's court ruling had already put it in an advisory role and approving a policy could have exceeded that role and possibly put the council in contempt of court.

The policies included requirements that Pfeiffer be informed of agenda items three days ahead of a council meeting, that he had the right to strike or add agenda items and that he be provided with copies of materials the council received during its meetings.

One needn't know anything about the day-to-day issues that face the Central Falls City Council to see danger in this development and to believe that Governor Don Carcieri should rein in his appointed dictator. Unfortunately, insinuation into town operations isn't the only direction in which the receivership idea is expanding:

Pawtucket's finances have drawn the attention of state officials. Rosemary Booth Gallogly, the state Department of Revenue director, sent a letter to Doyle focused on the city's deficits, saying that "savings haven't materialized" despite a deficit-reduction meeting held with Pawtucket officials.

"The state reserves its rights to examine the city's finances," Gallogly's Sept. 29 letter said, in part. The letter also referred to a new law that lets the state intervene in a financially distressed municipality, as it did in Central Falls where a receiver is in charge. However, Amy Kempe, a state Department of Administration spokeswoman, said last month that the state does not at this point expect to intervene in Pawtucket.

In passing, note that Ms. Kempe is also cited repeatedly as spokeswoman for the Central Falls receiver. Whether the state currently has plans to take over Pawtucket, as well, the power of the threat is the matter of concern, because threats tend to grow and eventually must spill into action.

Nonetheless, right-leaning reformers in the state might be tempted to accept the bad with the good, in the case of the government's new right of receivership. After all, the threatening letter in Pawtucket has inspired the mayor to push the School Committee to pressure the teachers' union to begin talking, at least, about financial easing of contractual requirements. Consider, though, that in mere months, the person who will ultimately appoint any new receivers will not be Don Carcieri, but Lincoln Chafee — he with the left-wing head of the state National Education Association branch on his transition team.

November 5, 2010

Union Theory Proven

Justin Katz

The best election-results quotes from Rhode Island conservatives/reformers came out of East Providence:

[Soon-to-be-former School Committee Chairman Anthony] Carcieri laughed in the face of defeat and said, "The public has spoken, so get your checkbooks out. We'll be paying a lot of taxes in the near future."

Soon-to-be-former Mayor Joseph Larisa points to the deeper lesson of the election:

... Larisa said the results show "East Providence is now bought, owned and paid for by organized labor. This election proves that misrepresentation and money can buy elections in East Providence."

Actually, the more significant proof that the results offer is of the rationale for banning public-sector unions. In this case, the unions didn't like the parties with whom they were negotiating, so they've elected themselves new ones. Union members are fully within their rights to do so, but to allow them an organized — often statewide or national — movement funded via negotiated salaries and mandatory dues tilts the balance to an unjust degree.

In effect, public-sector employees are doubly represented, as employees and as employers taxpayers. Since it would be contrary to principles of democracy to disenfranchise them, it would be fair and reasonable to bar their unionization.

October 19, 2010

Towns Serving at the State's Pleasure

Justin Katz

Ted Nesi reports that Superior Court Justice Michael Silverstein has found the Central Falls receivership to be constitutional:

As I mentioned back in July, the big constitutional question here was whether or not putting a city or town into receivership represented a permanent change in a municipality's form of government. Administration lawyers and Pfeiffer argued it does not, and therefore the new law would withstand judicial review under a 1994 R.I. Supreme Court precedent. Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau and four out of five City Council members argued the opposite, and lost.

Permanence, by Silverstein's lights, appears to mean that municipal voters will be able to return to a representative form of government... someday. Moreover, the justification for the law remains broad:

The judge also noted that cities and towns' right to self-government "is not unfettered," because matters of statewide concern remain in the General Assembly's hands even if they affect municipalities. With that in mind, he agreed with the administration that an individual community's financial collapse would be a matter of statewide concern because of the cascade effect it would have on other places' finances.

In a state the size of Rhode Island, there's very little that a city or town can do that doesn't affect the others. Consider even the union strategy of leapfrogging benefits from town to town — with each district's local pointing to increases elsewhere in the state as a reason for increases. Or, to pick a topic of current interest, consider whether a wind farm controlled by a handful of municipalities that dumps energy into the grid will long be free of the state's groping fingers.

Basically, municipalities are subdivisions of the state, permitted autonomy and democracy only insofar as it's convenient to the powers in the statehouse. Of course, local leaders have been at the head of the herd in promoting that notion — especially around budget time — so it's hardly a one-way affront.

August 30, 2010

How Central Falls's Property Tax Rate Nearly Doubled Year Over Year

Justin Katz

There's been some question, in the comments sections, about differing tax rates reported for property in Central Falls. John Hill explains what happened:

Last year, the total value of residential, commercial and industrial real estate in the city was just under $685 million. The new valuation, based on sales figures from the past year, was $411.6 million, a loss of $273 million, or 40 percent.

The drop in the value of taxable real estate meant the city had to increase the 2010-2011 tax rate just to generate the same amount of revenue as last year. Last year, the property-tax rate was $10.78 per thousand of assessed value; this year it went to $19.22 per thousand.

State receiver Mark A. Pfeiffer, who oversees the city's municipal finances, announced last week a 10-percent increase on top of that, to $21.14.

This is one of those ambiguities of taxation that comes up from time to time. Is the amount that you are taxed, for your property, better thought of in context of the rate or of the amount? Most RI towns treat your property essentially as a share in the government's cost and tax you according to your share more than directly according to the value of the asset that they're taxing. Personally, I think that slyly saddles homeowners with all of the risk for local property values, insulating municipal governments from the effects that their own policies can have thereon. But given all of the other things wrong with the way government operates in this state, it's not really worthy of a crusade.

August 20, 2010

You're All Missing the Point on Central Falls

Justin Katz

I don't know if it's a Rhode Island municipality v. municipality thing or massive frustration with the insider v. outsider structure of our civic culture, in this state, but the commenters to my Central Falls post are marching all around the point. Patrick writes:

... I understand the point that you're making, but I think it's quite a leap to think that Cumberland, Lincoln, Coventry, North Kingstown is going to receivership anytime soon. If a city goes into receivership, it means it has been so badly managed that this is what it deserves. Clearly the voters don't want good representation, they don't know what's good for them.

This is true under normal circumstances, but the trampling on principle that the General Assembly has done in Central Falls is at least somewhat likely to start wheels turning in different directions. That brings us to commenter riborn:

You are missing the first costly misstep that was taken down this path Central Falls now finds itself on - the filing of the receivership. At some point the question has to be asked why receivership in the state court and not bankruptcy in the federal court. The estimated fees of Savage and Larisa may shed light on that decision. Do you have any inkling of the fees they would have reaped had they terminated union contracts and battled it out in state court? Do you think either of them cared if they won or lost that battle? It's about the money - nine lawyers and five staffers, and a firm spokesperson, all being paid by those CF taxpayers you are so concerned with now. In receivership Savage and Larisa would get paid whether they won or lost that battle with the unions, whether they benefited CF or not. And while it presented an interesting intellectual exercise to keep nine lawyers busy for a good long time and many billable hours - who decided it was a good move on behalf of CF? Did the elected officials have any idea of the costs that were going to be incurred in that exercise? In RI, receivership is primarily a money making business for a small group of receivers/lawyers.

Yes, the GA absolutely protected their main constituents, the unions, in drafting and passing the Pfeiffer appointment bill, what is the news in that? It was begging to be done when CF was advised to seek and then filed for state court receivership. And Mr. Savage, who can't seem to speak to the media now and must hide behind a spokesperson, was front and center on the TV and ProJo front page telling everyone he was going to terminate union contracts. Did the elected officials think that was a good strategy? This is RI, who didn't know the GA would come in and save the unions?

So far there appears to be one "winner" in the CF receivershp debacle - after 60 days the $191,000 prize goes to Mr. Savage. Second prize to Mr. Larisa, who probably never made $54,000 in two months in his life.

Patrick's point only holds if receivership is an unattractive end of the line for badly run town and city governments. But as riborn highlights, the General Assembly's version has plus sides for important constituencies. With the judicial receivership, the power brokers of a municipality are rolling the dice that the self interest of the lawyers involved won't turn against them. With the new legislative receivership, unions and their elected and appointed government pals are protected, giving the decision a strong plus for a powerful constituency.

There is now, in short, a safety net for the union–municipal-government scam. Don't be surprised should the next example fall far short of Central Fall's degree of mismanagement.


Contra riborn, I think the first costly misstep was allowing Central Falls to be so thoroughly state subsidized in the first place — at least without some pain involved. Had the state funds come with the requirement that Central Falls must match the highest tax rate in Rhode Island, the locals might have had reason to put more competent people in office.

The People of Central Falls Should Fire Their Receiver

Justin Katz

... only they can't, because the people who govern Rhode Island have decided that bond ratings justify a sort of economic martial law. They simply don't believe that democracy works. So, bond rating agencies' threat to devalue Rhode Island's ability to borrow more money (which it shouldn't be doing, anyway) has given a single man, retired judge Mark Pfeiffer, the right to do this without recourse for those subject to his dictats:

City taxpayers can expect a 10-percent property tax increase and higher taxes on the cars they own as the receiver appointed to reorganize the city’s troubled finances tries to close a $2.1-million deficit in last year’s city budget and a $6.3-million hole in the current one, the state receiver running the city’s finances announced Wednesday.

Anyone inclined to object that Central Falls is already at its 4.5% tax cap needn't worry, because:

The 10-percent supplemental bill is legal, Pfeiffer said, because the taxation cap legislation allows a municipality to exceed it if the governing council votes to ask the state for permission and if the state allows it.

Pfeiffer said the receivership state law gives him the power to act as the council, and he would do that when he asks the state Division of Municipal Finance to approve the increase.

Of course, the tax cap law — naively presuming that a "governing body" isn't a single man — requires a 4/5 vote of that body. Such is the distortion of language that one gets when the rules are suspended.

That suspension of rules, by the way, seems conspicuously to benefit a particular group. Note this tidbit from a sidebar to the current story:

[Judicially appointed receiver Jonathan] Savage was appointed May 19 after the city went to court for the state-law version of federal bankruptcy. Savage was replaced July 16 after a new state law put municipal receiverships under the Department of Revenue. [Spokesman Bill] Fischer said that was a mistake because under the old system Savage could have imposed new contracts on the city’s unions. The new law forbids that.

[Gubernatorial Spokeswoman Amy] Kempe disputed that, saying the law wasn't clear and had Savage tried to change contracts, it would have led to a months-long court battle.

So, before, Savage could have addressed unreasonable expenditures on and promises to labor — much like East Providence's School Committee did — and taken the likelihood of a lawsuit into consideration. The actions of the state government, however, have taken that off the table, so it's an historic tax increase without representation one of the poorest communities in Rhode Island at the behest of a very well paid dictator.

August 19, 2010

A Question on Pensions

Justin Katz

I actually agree with former Johnston Policewoman Michele Capelli's lawyer that the town has no right to demand that she repay a disability pension excess that was given to her erroneously — much less simply remove it from her bank account — unless there was some criminal activity involved in giving her the money in the first place. Johnston should improve its system for tracking such things and move on from here.

But the same article gives some information for which, I realize, I've no basis to know how to feel:

As of June 30, 2009, the town had 27 disabled retirees earning an average monthly disability pension of $3,088, according to records.

An average of $37,000 per year isn't all that much, assuming the retirees aren't actually receiving the money as gravy on top of other income, and we should definitely provide for public servants who are hurt in the line of duty. But is that number of retirees high? I don't know. Compared with my own experience in construction, it certainly seems like a lot of people to be paying for not working, but I wonder if a study has been done of other Rhode Island towns as well as municipalities in other states.

That's really the relevant question, and it seems like the sort of thing that somebody in the press, the government bureaucracy, or a think tank should be concerned about. Oh, to have a think tank's resources!

August 16, 2010

Injustice Seen Across the Political Board

Justin Katz

By way of an update on the local situation, here's a press release from Tiverton Citizens for Change (TCC) President David Nelson:

Citing the important free speech issues involved in the case, the ACLU of Rhode Island today announced it has agreed to represent Tiverton resident David Nelson, the president of a local tax reform group, who has been sued for defamation by two Town Council members. Nelson, head of Tiverton Citizens for Change, was sued for making public comments alleging that Council members submitted "false" documentation to the State Department of Revenue relating to an unapproved proposal for a tax increase. The ACLU called the complaint against Nelson "a classic SLAPP suit designed to intimidate town residents from speaking out on political matters."

Nelson made the comment after the Town Council filed what it called an informal "checklist for eligibility" with the state to see if the Town could get permission to impose a tax increase beyond the 4.5% cap authorized by state law. The Town Council made this request without the knowledge of the town's Budget Committee, the entity officially authorized to recommend a budget to the Financial Town Meeting, and which had formally proposed a budget below the cap. Arguing that the request was never publicly authorized by the Town Council and was prepared on the state documents necessary to formally apply for a state waiver from the tax cap, Nelson publicly charged town officials with submitting "false documentation to the State to
facilitate a tax increase."

Last month, two Town Council members, Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda, sued Nelson for punitive damages, calling his comments "false, defamatory and harmful to plaintiffs' reputation." Their lawsuit is also against unknown individuals the council members say participated in preparing and sending the letter. Interestingly, in a letter to state finance officials after the Town Council's actions came to light, the chair of the town budget committee also called the submission a "falsified document," but he has not been sued.

Nelson has filed a counter-claim for damages under the state's SLAPP suit law, and the ACLU has agreed to represent Nelson in getting the lawsuit against him dismissed. SLAPP suits ("Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation") refer to lawsuits brought to chill people from exercising their freedom of speech on matters of public concern.

Concerned about the use of SLAPP suits to try to stifle public debate on a variety of issues, the Rhode Island ACLU has succeeded in getting a number of similar suits dismissed since an anti-SLAPP statute was enacted in 1995. In the first such case handled by the ACLU, the R.I. Supreme Court ordered dismissal of a defamation suit brought against North Kingstown resident Nancy Hsu Fleming for critical statements she made about a private landfill. Shortly thereafter, the ACLU also helped the South Kingstown Neighborhood Congress in a suit filed against it for public comments its members made against a local developer's activities.

RI ACLU volunteer attorney Karen Davidson, who is representing Nelson, said today that the councilors' suit was "a classic SLAPP suit designed to intimidate town residents from speaking out on political matters. The SLAPP suit statute was enacted in order to prevent just this type of litigation, and we are hopeful for a quick dismissal of the suit." Nelson added: "Our bedrock constitutional rights allow us to express disagreement with elected officials and report on matters of public concern. l will not cower from this attempt to intimidate my public participation in local budget and taxation issues."

Honestly, it's difficult to understand what Durfee and Arruda are thinking, and the fact that support of Nelson spans from the ACLU to RISC suggests that they should reconsider. Several of us made comments in multiple venues calling out the documents sent to the state as "false," because they absolutely were. It was actually Town Administrator James Goncalo who submitted them, and when we brought the matter to the Town Council's attention, none but Jay Lambert thought it much worth discussing.

That doesn't mean that Durfee and Arruda were in on Goncalo's action, but as part of the generally fishy attempt to exceed the tax cap without actually voting to do so, the documents certainly fit a pattern. And that pattern, in my view, suggests that six out of seven current Town Councilors do not deserve their positions.

The two who filed the lawsuit should resign immediately and take a graceful exit from public office.

August 2, 2010

Standing Up to That Old Time Political Bullying

Monique Chartier

Justin's post announcing Arruda and Durfee's despicable lawsuit against Dave Nelson here.

The following press release from the defendant was in my in-box this morning. Note well the second paragraph describing a demand that Dave rat out his fellow concerned citizens, apparently for the crime of behaving like ... concerned citizens.

A principle of democracy is public participation in local government. The right of such participation is found in the First Amendment, which includes the right of free speech. These fundamental rights are at the core of our political system and permeate our society. It seems that not everyone likes this-please read on.

About two months ago, and only 3 days before Tiverton's second FTM, I received a letter threatening legal action from Councilors Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda's private attorney. This letter included a demand that I hand over names of people who received a letter to the editor from Tiverton Citizens for Change which highlighted tactics used by Tiverton's Town Council to request a 9% tax increase in the weeks before Tiverton's 2010 FTM. TCC views this as an attempt to intimidate, to silence the voice of dissent, stifle public debate and transform Tiverton's public debate into a lawsuit.

Durfee and Arruda filed this politically motivated civil suit, also known as a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation (SLAPP) suit, against me and Tiverton Citizens for Change in apparent retaliation to the April letter to the Editor which described 'false' documents filed with the State Department of Municipal Finance. The suit seems to be part of a larger strategy to intimidate and silence critics of Durfee and Arruda, and chill public debate.

The issue originates from Tiverton's Town Council's efforts to obtain an 'advisory' opinion from Rhode Island's Division of Municipal Finance by filing a Notice of Proposed Tax Rate Change which was not approved by the Town Council or Budget Committee. I, along with other TCC members spoke against this effort during an April 26 town Council Meeting. See our website
TivertonCC.com for the video of this meeting. The request was subsequently denied by Susanne Greschner, Chief of Division of Municipal Finance.

Our bedrock constitutional rights allow us to express disagreement with elected officials and report on matters of public concern. l will not cower from this attempt to intimidate my public participation in local budget and taxation issues. I am vigorously fighting this blatant attempt to intimidate TCC and have filed a countersuit under the State's anti-SLAPP law protections.

Dave Nelson
President of Tiverton Citizens for Change

July 28, 2010

Of Rates and Levies

Justin Katz

This intra-conservative debate in East Providence points to one of those issues that tends to slide under residents' awareness:

[Mayor Joseph] Larisa is now trying to solidify tax limits by putting language into the city's Home Rule Charter. Charter amendments have to be approved by voters in a referendum, while ordinances are approved — and can be repealed — by a council majority. ...

But Bill Murphy, spokesman for the East Providence Taxpayers Association, said the charter language isn't identical to the ordinance and the changes, although "subtle," are a "step in the wrong direction."

Larisa has changed the limit from one on the total tax "levy" to one on the tax rate.

I've noted before that, in Tiverton, those who set policy treat the tax rate as entirely incidental to the levy, while in Providence, the change in tax rate has been a major fight. On one hand, focusing on the rate more closely aligns with the meaning of the tax; you're paying based on what your property is worth, and if you property values decrease you have less wealth and should therefore pay less. On the other hand, focusing on the levy insulates the town from downturns in the market, but it also prevents the town from taking upturns in the market as well as the fruits of economic development as an excuse to grow — which could become a huge problem when the market contracts or the tax base decreases.

For the record, I'm with Murphy, on this one.

July 23, 2010

The Government They Prefer

Justin Katz

It's always notably plausible that there's a larger truth in the mix when I agree with Bob Kerr, but while his column lamenting the possibly fatal restrictions that the Tiverton Town Council has placed on an annual charity event, this year, counts in that regard, I'd suggest that he should think on the larger lessons that the controversy teaches about government. As Kerr describes it:

For seven years, Jane Bitto, who owns Evelyn's Restaurant with her husband, Dominic, has gone to Town Hall to get the permit for "Singing Out Against Hunger," three days of music in September that has raised a lot of money and a pile of nonperishable food for East Bay Community Action’s food pantries. Last year, in a bad economy, it raised $25,000. ...

There have been complaints. That's what Bitto heard when she went to Town Hall. There have been complaints from people living on the opposite side of Nanaquaket Pond from Evelyn's. The music is too loud and it goes on too long, they say.

As Kerr touches on — and as I've seen occur time and again in local politics — the process wasn't one in which people with complaints were asked to step forward to make them and confront those whom they wished to restrict. Council members made general statements about hearing complaints — complaints submitted through the typical Rhode Island method of a note, visit, or phone call to people with power — and blindsided their target only when the time to the event was too short to mount an effective response.

Kerr calls it "the flip side of small town charm." Over on the Tiverton Citizens for Change Web site, I beg to differ. This turn of events is the entirely predictable consequence of small-town fiefdoms. "Community minded" tends to mean a town or neighborhood conforming with a small group's personal preferences, with differences resolved through imposition rather than compromise. Just like we weren't the ones who turned this year's financial town meeting into an offensive circus, or who strove to ban the Easter Bunny from the public schools a couple of years ago, it isn't us selfish tax-hawk newcomers who aren't willing to tolerate a little prime-time music come a late-summer evening.

Rather, it's the same folks who regularly squash businesses' attempts at economic development. It's the same contingent who skirted the law to raise taxes by an oppressive amount and who then sued TCC President Dave Nelson for having the audacity to complain about their tactics, including Town Administrator James Goncalo's sending of false documents to the state. In other words, Kerr and his sympathizers should look at their concept of a government that cares and question whether it's possible to preserve such an entity from people who care above all about themselves.

I've heard it stated many times that those who hate the town — as indicated by an aversion to massive mid-recession tax increases — should leave. Oddly, I don't expect to hear similar suggestions when the indication of that hatred is aversion to live music in a public place for an excellent cause.

July 13, 2010

That Old Time Political Bullying

Justin Katz

Government reform is, ought to be, and may have to be a coherent movement from the municipality to the federal government. Here in Rhode Island, it's easy to see how a broad set of principles and tactics applied across government tiers have corrupted (and expanded) government and hobbled our society, and mutual support and encouragement across town and state borders will be critical to building a lasting reform movement.

It's wonderful that national tea party activities have been putting pressure on elected officials at the federal level. It's also important that, in Rhode Island, the Ocean State Policy Research Institute has formed as a think tank following issues of statewide concern, that the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition is taking an increasingly active role in highlighting bad legislation and reviewing candidates for office, and that the Rhode Island Tea Party has directed its activities toward statewide issues as well as national. I've maintained, however, that individual activism should begin at the city and town level, where government office is most accessible and where basic political principles have an immediate and local effect on voters' lives.

We're certainly finding, in my hometown of Tiverton, RI, that members of the political establishment who operate locally are willing to act as the vanguard in intimidating active residents (of the undesirable sort) to get out of politics.

The same week* Tiverton Citizens for Change President David Nelson officially put his name down as a potential candidate for Town Council, two current members of that body, Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda, filed a defamation lawsuit against him (and an unnamed group of John and Jane Does that may turn out to include me). Their lawyer, Jeffrey Schreck, sent the initial threat of litigation to Mr. Nelson shortly before this year's contentious financial town meeting, and I'll have more to say about the suspicious timing of these events, as well as the lack of merits to their claim, in the future, but on first review, I have to express my disappointment at the level of thinking that the resources of our public judiciary must be expended to address.

The substance of the complaint made by Arruda and Durfee — the latter a former director of the state Department of Environmental Management and one-time candidate for governor — hardly has grammatical grounds, let alone legal ones — from a PDF of the summons:

6. The Letter accuses plaintiffs and their allies of submitting false documentation to the State of Rhode Island to support a tax increase. The Letter further states that this accusation of official misconduct by plaintiffs is "not an idle charge" and is "well-documented." The Letter accuses plaintiffs and others who constitute a majority of the members of the Town Council of making "a practice of sending secret, falsified documents to the state government."

7. Mr. Nelson's statements in the Letter accuse plaintiffs of wrongful, criminal conduct, and assert that TCC has written evidence to support his charges.

Here's the relevant section of the offending letter from Mr. Nelson:

Still worse are the efforts of Ms Durfee, Joanne Arruda and their allies, in deliberate cooperation with the Town Administrator to avoid a Town Council vote exceeding the State Tax cap. They have submitted false documentation to the State to facilitate a tax increase of at least 9%. This is not an idle charge, and it is well documented. Town Administrator Goncalo has stressed that the documents are secret except for him, the Town Treasurer, Budget Committee, and the State. In fact, he promised “to find out who put that form on the Internet”, as if posting public documents is now a matter for witch hunts and suppression of transparency. We have this on tape.

It is astounding that a town official would make a practice of sending secret, falsified documents to the state government based on information that distorts the current status of the town’s budget process. More astonishing is that a majority of the Town Council supports it.

Either Durfee and Arruda have skin so thin that it pains them even to be in proximity of accusations, or they're twisting the facts in order to present themselves as victims. Their names appear in the letter specifically with reference to efforts to "avoid a Town Council vote exceeding the State Tax cap," which is irrefutably accurate, given the months of public debate in which they took precisely that position. The "they" who submitted false documents to the state is the whole group of "allies," including Mr. Goncalo, and it is simply a fact that he did so. Whether Durfee and Arruda's cooperation with the larger effort extended to direct prior knowledge of Goncalo's act is immaterial, although it's reasonable to have suspicions.

Furthermore, as evident in video of the Town Council meeting at which TCC brought this matter to a public head, the town administrator clearly did stress that his act was meant to be secret. And Nelson's letter explicitly faults "a town official" — that is, Town Administrator James Goncalo — for this particular action within the larger campaign to avoid the letter of the tax cap law.

Lastly, as is also evident in the video, the lack of outrage from the majority of the Town Council implicitly lends their support. If, as their lawsuit implies, Durfee and Arruda believe that Mr. Goncalo's actions were "criminal conduct" — an accusation that Nelson's letter does not make — then they are guilty of shirking their responsibility by not censuring their employee when the matter came to their attention.

That local elected officials — who deserve partial blame for the town's thinning tax base and demand for massive tax increases in the midst of an historic recession — would twist language for political purposes is to be expected. That they would seek to leverage the overburdened court system in an effort to cost a candidate for local office time and money during campaign season is one more example of the methodology by which political insiders have fostered public disengagement from the political process.

* This post initially and incorrectly stated that the suit had been filed the day after Nelson submitted his intention to run for office. The actual filing appears to have occurred the day before his official submission, although he had inquired at the town hall about the process and requirements previously.

June 11, 2010

A Formula, but It's Just Numbers

Justin Katz

It looks like the General Assembly actually did get around to passing a state aid formula for Rhode Island's schools. As we've been pointing out all along, folks at the local level have seemed to assume that a "fair funding formula" would be one that gives them, specifically, more money, and this legislation does acknowledge some districts as "over funded," therefore reducing their aid.

From a taxpayer perspective, though, this is a critical component:

Besides correcting inequities in state aid distribution, the legislation would help local communities by providing predictability for school district and local budget planners. Without a predictable formula, school districts and municipalities have been forced to guess at the amount they will receive when they are preparing their budgets each spring. Their budgets must be created in time for the start of the fiscal year on July 1, but the amount of state aid they can expect to receive is in flux until the General Assembly passes the state budget, which usually happens in late June.

In Tiverton, for example, the School Committee predicted a low aid number and frightened parents into believing that schools were going to be closed and every program cut. As it turns out, our 8% tax increase could have been almost to the state cap of 4.5% without a change in the practical outcome. Now, ostensibly, school districts will have to find other ways of creating doomsday scenarios to shake down property owners for money to keep up with the promises of inadvisable contracts. In particular, it will be more difficult for districts to compensate for losses in "restricted" — about which they tend to be less vocal — without acknowledging that they are doing so.

There is a reason for concern, though. The current system hasn't been unpredictable because the General Assembly has heard pleas from individual districts and shifted money around on a whim. It's been unpredictable because the state is in perpetual deficit and long-term economic decline, leaving the state government ever in need of places to cut. Although the existence of a big scary formula might make legislators a little more timid about reducing aid to cities and towns, it will hardly prevent them from doing so, whether on a permanent or this-year-only basis.

May 27, 2010

Getting to Details on Regionalization

Justin Katz

As is common among advocates of regionalization in Rhode Island, Joseph Paolino proclaims savings as if they should be obvious:

There is much to be gained from consolidation; unity and taxpayer savings go hand-in-hand. Why should the trucks plowing snow in Pawtucket stop at the boundary with Central Falls? Why should six purchasing agents be buying the same kinds of supplies instead of one? In this age of computer automation, why should there be finance divisions in six city halls, all processing revenues and expenditures? Why should police, fire and rescue personnel be overworked in the busy cities during business hours, while suburban personnel survey nearly empty neighborhoods? Undoubtedly, there would be major gains if public-safety forces in the six communities served under a unified command and were dispatched, wherever needed, throughout the county.

At the very least, one can say that answers to these hypothetical questions are possible. The very fact that snow plows stop at town borders means that there's no overlap in the service, so consolidation would only help in some minimal planning sense. A purchasing agent for an entire county would have more work to do determining who needs what, when, and why, requiring more input (and potential for waste) among underlings, and requiring the agent him or her self to be compensated for the greater authority. The same dynamic plays into finance divisions; as the overall authority moves up the tiers of government, more must be done by subordinates, who have more incentive to waste, not being ultimately responsible, and the person who is ultimately responsible is that much farther away from the individuals whom they are supposed to represent, directly or indirectly.

As for safety personnel, I wonder whether Mr. Paolino believes that the suburbs ought to have no coverage. If not, then regionalization provides no mechanism for reducing excessive staffing beyond that already available to the townsfolk who pay the bills. What regionalization could accomplish is to give city dwellers the chance to load up their staffs at the expense of the suburbs, either increasing the cost all around or decreasing the services available outside of the urban ring.

Regionalization and consolidation sound good, and they'll surely be a common theme as politicians strive to prove their fiscally responsible bona fides, but I'd wager that the effects would, at best, be neutral, but more likely detrimental to the cost and services outcome.

May 12, 2010

Bringing the Town to the State's Attention

Justin Katz

I've got an op-ed in today's Providence Journal placing Tiverton's budget battles in the context of community and different notions thereof.

In one version of "community," it's a good thing to be a slob, thereby creating a need for other residents to pay somebody to clean up, and it's a bad thing to take an idle moment to clean where children play.

May 8, 2010

Punch Drunk from Local Politics

Justin Katz

I just got home from Tiverton's financial town meeting and a lunch decompression session. I'll attempt a more thorough report for the TCC Web site once my disorientation dissipates. I'll say this, for now: I really did not imagine how far — how dirty — the Democratic Town Committee/union coalition was going to be willing to go. Their strategy, as it emerged, was to scare parents into showing up, delay away half the allowable meeting time, rearrange the order of the meeting in completely convoluted ways. distort the meaning of adopted rules to erase all distinctions between amendments and motions so as to pass their preferred budget, get in one talking point about all the horrible things that will happen if they lose, shut off debate on the expenditure of $25 million — by far the greatest expense of the town — so that their newly frightened contingent (parents) wouldn't have a chance to hear contrary arguments, and vote for more money for themselves and their pet causes.

If you've been to a heated school committee meeting during negotiation season, this was that on steroids. As it happened, we didn't actually get to a single budgetary vote. But that's more of a summary than I intended, for now. My intention was to mention an anecdote from the end that will likely amuse Anchor Rising readers:

Not wanting to fight the traffic on the way out, I was hanging around the gymnasium while the crowd dissipated, and I couldn't believe the amount of trash that people just left lying around. So, I grabbed a garbage bag that was hanging next to a barrel and began walking the bleachers policing the area, as we used to call it in Boy Scouts.

This is so predictable that I wouldn't dare make it up: An older guy (clearly with family under the town's employ) berated me, in front of a janitor, for doing his work for him. I remarked how selfish the people who took their garbage with them must have been, at which point, a woman in the same group let loose the common riffs: if you hate the town, leave it, etc. She suggested that I send my children to private school, to which I agreed, if she'd vote for a voucher system.

On Anchor Rising, we talk a lot about the high perspective manifestation of this mentality, and we debate the folks in ties and the organizers, but it's really something to physically step into a world in which it is actually poor etiquette to get off your butt and pick up trash in the school gymnasium. Not surprisingly, that's the same world in which opposing people who threaten to cut every program in the district unless they get money to float around to the unions is evidence of hating the town.

I have to say though, that I had it easy, even as one of the most vocal folks on my side. The town moderator and budget committee chairman actually needed uniformed protection as the meeting dissipated.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's quite a face for the people who "love this town" to put forward. And now we have to do it all again next Saturday.

April 30, 2010

Different Towns, Different Compassion for Taxpayers' Plight

Justin Katz

According to the Newport Daily News, some elected officials in Middletown are willing to acknowledge the economy in which constituents are having to struggle:

Councilman Edward J. Silveira said he submitted a docket item to discuss the issue [of a zero percent increase] after hearing from residents and businesses about the increased hardships they're facing. Silveira, Councilwoman M. Theresa Santos and Robert J. Sylvia said this week they will recommend deep cuts to line items across the board because most people cannot afford any additional expenditures. ...

"When I look and see what residents are going through and the fact our foreclosures are the highest they've been in years and families are going through so much right now, we need to do everything we can to make sure we're being reasonable," Sylvia said. "I will say this, however: Given what's going on out there, I will actively be campaigning against any member of the Town Council who votes for any tax increase. I'm a businessperson and I look at the town like a business and we can't beat up our residents any more than we already have."

The initially proposed budget represented a 2.7% increase, although some town officials are citing decreasing state and federal aid as justification for an 8% increase. Meanwhile, in Tiverton, we're having to fight to keep a compromise budget at a 4.39% tax levy increase, with town officials like the superintendent of schools proclaiming the end of our local civilization unless home owners accept a 9% increase in taxes.

Spurred by the Tiverton School Committee, rumors are flying around town declaring to parents that their children's schools will be closed, and students as early as fourth grade will be forced into the middle school, riding the bus with eighth graders. There is simply no way that will happen. For his part, Superintendent Bill Rearick warned at a public hearing, Wednesday, that even more extreme measures may be required — like forcing a reduction in teacher pay. (The only reason I didn't put the italicized phrase in quotation marks is that he may have said, "more egregious," and I haven't had a chance to check the tape.)

Hard economic times bring such clarity about who's on whose side.

April 27, 2010

Shady Maneuvers in Local Government

Justin Katz

One periodically hears the complaint that Republican candidates, in Rhode Island, too often shoot for the bigger state and federal elected offices, rather than starting local. Each person has to determine his or her interests and preferences for participation, but I've been finding local politics, here in Tiverton, to be extremely instructive in helping to form my understanding of governance in general.

As I mentioned on Anchor Rising, recently, Town Administrator Jim Goncalo has modified official documents with false information for the purposes of an "inquiry" to the Department of Revenue Division of Municipal Affairs. What he and some members of the Town Council are attempting to do is to get the state to promise to certify a tax increase above the 4.5% cap (over 9%). In that way, they avoid going on record voting to request a waiver of the tax cap before the financial town meeting but effectively achieve the same thing.

At last night's Town Council meeting, which I liveblogged on the Web site of Tiverton Citizens for Change (TCC), some of us concerned citizens raised the matter under the agenda item "financial town meeting," to which it is clearly relevant. What we confirmed immediately was that the Town Council had not seen the document (officially, anyway) and did not approve it for sending to the state as part of an "inquiry." The notable exception was that Council Member Louise Durfee was clearly very familiar with the package, suggesting that she might be working independently without council participation in the background.

That's when the education really began.

The strategy of the key players — Durfee, Goncalo, and Council President Don Bolin — was to insist that, in the context of the package, it really wasn't a big deal that the town administrator had misrepresented formal documents submitted to the state, apparently without authorization to do so. They then engaged in misdirection and personal attacks against those of us who took the public podium to speak.

Town Administrator Goncalo stressed that nobody was supposed to see the documents except for him, the town treasurer, the Budget Committee chairman, and the state. In fact, he promised "to find out who put that form on the Internet" (I did), as if posting public documents is now a matter for witch hunts and suppression of transparency. As if it would be preferable for town officials to make a practice of sending secret, falsified documents to departments of the state government in order to receive promises of certification based on information that does not accurately reflect the current status of the town's budget process.

The fact is that the budget, as it stands, is currently below the tax cap, an inconvenient fact for those who hope to confiscate more tax dollars.

Council Member Hannibal Costa then objected that the item wasn't on the agenda. President Bollin slammed down his gavel and ended the meeting.

For the final lesson of the evening: Even though the subject of falsified documents from a town official that had ostensibly been inappropriately released to the public was clearly the most newsworthy development of the evening, neither Tom Killin Dalglish, of the Sakonnet Times, nor Marcia Pobzeznik, of the Newport Daily News, both in attendance, approached any of the principal speakers for further information.

Now extrapolate this drama to the state and federal levels. The one hope, it seems to me, is that truth and principle will shine through, no matter the breadth of the issue or the complexity of the obfuscation.

April 24, 2010

A Little Consideration During Budget Season

Justin Katz

You'll want to keep this in mind as your town wades through budget season:

The current budget dedicates $37 million in these stabilization funds this year, leaving a balance of $32 million to be used next year — the final year of the stimulus package from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. ...

School districts are going to have a hard enough time absorbing the 3.8-percent cut proposed for the 2010-2011 school year, she said.

I've emailed Commissioner Gist's office for clarification about the amount of stimulus Tiverton, specifically, should expect and the title under which the ARRA money will be distributed. Our district, for example, received three separate categories of ARRA funds, and it has left all three as zero for the purposes of next year's budget. And somehow they're coming up with a 6% increase of local contributions.

April 19, 2010

More Shenanigans in Tiverton

Justin Katz

Somebody in town really wants a waiver of the state-imposed property tax cap, which currently limits the total property tax levy to a 4.5% increase. As I reported in a liveblog from last Monday's Town Council meeting, the council voted to send an extra-statutory "letter of inquiry" (meaning that there's no such thing in the law) to find out how much the town could exceed the cap, if it so chose.

I've tried to find out, from Jill Barrette, Acting Chief of the Division of Property Valuation and Municipal Finance, in Providence, how her office could possibly give a hypothetical number with an implied promise without the town's following the process of requesting a waiver. That would mean a 4/5 vote of the "governing body" claiming that the town's budget exceeds its allowed increase, as well as a majority vote of the financial town meeting.

The problem is that the Tiverton Budget Committee, which ultimately determines the budget on which residents will vote on May 8, managed to get it below the cap, negating the need for a waiver. To skirt this difficulty, Town Administrator Jim Goncalo has apparently reworked official documents to show a higher proposed budget, with a 9.04% increase in taxes.

Budget season, this year, has certainly been a lesson in politics, and I can't help but extrapolate local behavior to government more broadly. The law is what you can get away with, it seems, and without a bottom-up re-engagement of the electorate, it's hard to see how this tangled up mess can do otherwise than sink.

In the meantime, if anybody's got a line to the State Division of Municipal Finance, the Department of Revenue, or the governor's office, I'd love to hear some official opinions on issuing non-waiver promises of waivers based on documents that are arguably falsified. I expressed my concern, back when the tax cap was new, that it would, first, present a goal for which budgeters would shoot, every year, even if they were able to come in significantly lower and, second, regularly be waived with little difficulty. If the process of acquiring a waiver is indeed as some folks in Tiverton would like it to be, the law is little more than smoke and mirrors to give the impression of concern about taxpayers.

April 12, 2010

Government in Miniature

Justin Katz

With Tiverton's financial town meeting (FTM) fast approaching, I've been having to attend multiple town meetings per week to keep an eye on the local powers who be. For anybody who's interested, the resulting liveblogs and videos are up on the Tiverton Citizens for Change Web site.

The experience has been a real education in the functioning of government — which clearly operates in a separate and distinct reality from the rest of us. From the rhetoric being flung at those of us who wish to halt the perpetual tax increase during a time of economic hardship — that we're "destroying the town" and so forth — you'd never guess this to be the case:

The school side of the budget is particularly disconcerting. According to state law, school committees cannot request "municipal funds (exclusive of state and federal aid) in excess of one hundred four and one-half percent (104.5%) of the total of municipal funds appropriated by the city or town council for school purposes for fiscal year 2010." As far as General Assembly language goes, that couldn't be clearer. Yet, the committee actually requested 106.17%.

Its stated reasoning was that last year's FTM "appropriated" both the local funds and the estimated state funds, and since the state cut its contribution by about $300,000, that money ought to be figured into the budget. Nevermind that the above legislation contains language making all laws to the contrary "notwithstanding." Nevermind that the state actually did give the school district all of its expected aid, just using federal funds to fill the gap.

Over the past week, TCC finally managed to learn the district's revenue from all sources. Until now, the school department has kept millions of dollars undisclosed on the grounds that it was for "restricted" purposes. Working that data into the mix reveals that direct state aid to Tiverton schools actually went up. Moreover, federal money exploded, moving the total state and federal aid from $6,150,846 to $6,967,039.

The problem, from the school department's perspective, is that total aid is expected to drop back to $5,848,725 this coming year — mostly through a drop in those secret "restricted" funds. The end result is that all of the declarations of hardship and of a danger of the schools' being "gutted," "destroyed," and "decimated" represent an attempt to pressure the town into making up for "restricted" money that the district built into its budget. It seems to me that money for special purposes — of which townsfolk supposedly had no reason to be informed — should bring those special purposes with it when it goes. Otherwise, it wasn't really "restricted," was it?

Of course, we all know where most of the money actually goes:

What makes the battle all the worse is the creeping suspicion — rather, confidence — that government functions like this all the way up the chain, only exponentially more expensive and exponentially more deceptive the broader its reach.

April 9, 2010

Another Unlikely Budget Provision

Justin Katz

I'm surprised nobody else has highlighted this provision noted in the Providence Journal's summary of the RI House Finance Committee's supplemental budget plan:

The budget would also change a school funding "maintenance of effort" provision that requires cities and towns to provide at least as much local money for school as was provided the year before. Instead, cities and towns would be able to cut that amount by 5 percent for the current year only.

Maybe it's only because I'm up to my ears in budget details for Tiverton, but I'd say this is among the most significant changes that I've heard proposed, which is why I'll be very, very surprised if it makes it into law. Requiring town councils to approve teacher contracts is also significant and unlikely to make it into law.

On a different note, I have to say that I'm still not a fan of mandating health coshare percentages. All we're doing by pushing these changes up to the state level is increasing the power of the General Assembly and consolidating the target for which the unions have to shoot. As grassroots reformers, we'd do much better to concentrate on local elections and make the contractual changes where they belong: within the cities and towns.

Lastly, every time the General Assembly mucks with one of the governor's proposed budgets, the same dynamic applies: They reduce the hit to everybody, and the game becomes finding out where they're getting the money from; that's the hand that they don't want us to watch in their magic trick. In the current case, this appears to be it:

Budget hawks, meanwhile expressed concern that the package included a measure to "reamortize" the state retirement system's $4.3 billion in unfunded pension liabilities over 25 years, a move akin to refinancing a mortgage that costs less now, but more over the long term. The state had been in the ninth year of a 30-year plan to pay off the massive debt.

The overall cost to taxpayers is $2.2 billion, according to House fiscal adviser Sharon Reynolds Ferland.

All they'll be doing, with such a strategy, is making Rhode Island's inevitable judgment day even more painful.

April 1, 2010

The Two Basic Solutions

Justin Katz

Two approaches to returning services to Cranston schools have emerged, and it's conceivable that they highlight the natural line dividing all various budgetary disputes at the town level:

[Mike] Stenhouse's admittedly "more aggressive" stance on political issues caused a rift this week with an earlier local partner, BASICS (Benefiting All Students In Cranston Schools), a group that bills itself as a "blame-free" organization looking for practical solutions to Cranston's financial crisis.

On one side are folks who've identified the ever-growing tab for union personnel as the culprit in stealing the services that we once expected away from our students. On the other side are folks who think that if we just raise a little more money everything can go back to the way it once was. Some (as in Tiverton) see taxes as the most expedient route. Some (apparently like the BASICS group) want to exact a voluntary tax supplement.

Anchor Rising readers know where I stand. I simply don't think union bullying and scheming should continue to be rewarded.

March 29, 2010

Tiverton Budget Talks Inch Forward

Justin Katz

For those who are interested, I'm liveblogging from a special Tiverton Town Council meeting, which is including discussion of proposing legislation to the General Assembly that would allow cities and towns to delay final budgetary decisions for up to 90 days in order to procure more accurate information about revenue.

March 15, 2010

More Re: Committee Wins

Justin Katz

Here's the decision from Superior Court Justice Silverstein: PDF.

About halfway through the document, it appears that Silverstein would draw his lines very tightly around his ruling in favor of the school committee:

Under the language of § 16-2-9 a school committee must bargain in good faith with certified public school teachers in accordance with Title 28 and honor current collective bargaining agreements. However, under a narrow set of circumstances, when such collective bargaining negotiations have reached an impasse and there is no longer a valid collective bargaining agreement, a school committee must comply with the mandate in subsection (d) and avoid maintaining a school budget that results in debt.

However, in most of the substantive ways in which Anchor Rising readers might want a little bit of breadth to the ruling, they won't be disappointed. For one, the judge determined that a never-ending contract is not implied by existing laws (citations deleted):

Although the Union contends that the Committee was under a statutory duty to continue to adhere to the terms and conditions of the expired CBA until a successor agreement was realized, the Court disagrees. Title 28 does not contain such a mandate pertaining to school teachers' labor contracts, and in fact under § 28-9.3-4, "no contract shall exceed the term of three (3) years." Further, when previously discussing the effect of an expired contract this Court found it to be no longer valid and cited to Providence Teachers Union v. Providence School Bd., City of Cranston v. Teamsters Local 251, In Providence Teachers, when discussing the effect of a general arbitration clause in an expired contract, the Court stated that "[a]n expired contract has by its own terms released all its parties from their respective contractual obligations, except obligations already fixed under the contract but as yet unsatisfied." Here, the CBA by its terms expired prior to the implementation of the disputed salary and benefits changes. Therefore, the Court finds that the CBA was no longer binding and the Committee did not "abrogate any agreement reached by collective bargaining."

And when a school committee finds itself facing a budgetary shortfall (determined as a measure of its best knowledge on the date that it takes action), and when the contract has expired, employees don't have an overriding claim to district money beyond other line items under the committee's control (citations deleted):

The Union has continually argued that there were other avenues that the Committee could have taken to reduce the FY 09 deficit. However, this Court remains mindful that under § 16-2-9 the Committee is vested with the entire care, control, and management of the interests of the East Providence public schools. Further, under the same provision the Committee has both the power and the duty to adopt a school budget. Accordingly, this Court will not discuss whether the changes to the teachers' salary and benefits were the only or even the best possible way to comply with the balanced budget mandate of § 16-2-9(d). However, this Court does note that the parties stipulated that the teachers' salaries and benefits consumed 63% of the Committee's total revenue from all sources for FY 09. Therefore, given the mandate in § 16-2-9(d) that a school committee "shall be responsible for maintaining a school budget which does not result in a debt" and the evidence before this Court that the Committee was, in fact, facing a debt for FY 09, this Court declares that the Committee acted lawfully under Title 16 by implementing the teachers' salary and benefit changes.

Lastly, Siverstein found that the State Labor Relations Board cannot, in effect, make law to suit its rulings (citations deleted):

The Court is mindful that when deciding such questions, the SLRB is empowered under § 28-7-22 to issue orders and award the relief it deems to be appropriate. However, our Supreme Court has cautioned that "[n]o state official by administrative action can affect the substantive rights of parties as they have been set forth by an affirmative act of the general assembly." Further, as indicated supra, administrative agencies are bound by statutory schemes and a decision or award is invalid if the decision or award contravenes a statutory scheme.

March 8, 2010

Building the Easy Road

Justin Katz

A certain faction in Tiverton, working with the town solicitor, is striving to make it as easy as possible for the town to exceed the 3050 statewide cap on municipal tax levies. I've got background and video up on the TCC Web site, and I'll be liveblogging over there during tonight's town council meeting, at which the solicitor is going to try, once more, to slip the objectionable interpretation of the law into town policy.

March 7, 2010

Peculiar News from Lincoln

Justin Katz

What's this?

[Lincoln] Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond is recommending a $70.1-million budget for the next fiscal year that would reduce the tax levy and scale back the School Committee's budget request.

The bottom line for the municipal and school budgets would increase by $123,015 in the fiscal year that starts July 1, but Almond said it would decrease the amount raised through local taxes by $531,616. Finance Director John F. Ward said that’s about a 1-percent levy decrease, but that the budget could still be affected by proposed state aid cuts.

And this?

Frank Champi, a partner at Providence-based Lefkowitz, Garfinkel, Champi & DeRienzo, P.C., the firm that did the audit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, said the town's operating budget had a $538,828 surplus, and the school budget, a $919,258 surplus. He said the audit put the town among the least financially stressed communities in Rhode Island.

Has Lincoln been doing something right, or has it simply been over-taxing its residents and businesses? I see that it's tax rate is relatively high, and without corresponding to an obviously low median house price, so it looks like an even larger cut would be just. (And that's before taking into account Lincoln's unique circumstance of having gambling revenue from Twin River.

March 4, 2010

Issues on Suburban Minds: Regionalization and Arbitration

Justin Katz

I know many of the right reform crowd in Rhode Island disagree with my general take on regionalization, but I'm relieved to see this, from Tuesday's Newport Daily News:

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, and Rep. Deborah L. Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, met with members of the Town Council and School Committee before the regularly scheduled council meeting to discuss legislative issues. Both legislators said they would not support any regionalization of municipal functions unless the communities involved agreed to the consolidation. ...

Weed and Ruggiero both agreed that the impetus should come from cities and towns.

I'm even more relieved to see this:

When Weed asked school officials for a list of their legislative priorities, several members held up wrists bearing plastic handcuffs.

"No binding arbitration," Kaiser said, referring to legislation that would require binding arbitration for teachers. "This is not the time to handcuff school committees."

Council President Michael Schnack agreed. "There is no negotiating with binding arbitration," Schnack said. "You get a terrible contract and terrible results."

Weed said she did not think the idea had a lot of legislative support.

Of course, continual vigilance will be required. A lack of legislative support is not necessarily a good enough reason for legislation to fail.

February 28, 2010

February 27, 2010

Town Democrats Just Say Whatever

Justin Katz

I've meant to address a letter in the Sakonnet Times (not online) that attacks Tiverton Citizens for Change, not because it's particularly worthy of response, but because it's such a clear illustration of the up-is-down rhetoric that our local opposition has decided to pursue as a political strategy. The letter, expressing concern about an "extreme right-leaning campaign," is by Charlie Moran, arguably the town's most partisan Democrat, and Nick Tsiongas, arguably the town's most prominent left-wing radical:

The Tiverton Democratic Committee believes we need to work together to solve our problems rather than making unfounded accusations and turning residents against each other. Our town council and school committee need our support and input as the make difficult financial decisions, which will include negotiating concessions with all our unions.

The letter itself is an attempt to turn residents against each other, and its substantive claims are based on unfounded accusations. On the latter count, there are two examples:

First, Tsiongas and Moran bring up the controversy, mostly out of public view, around an attempt by some to change state law such that a simple majority at the financial town meeting could vote to exceed the cap on budget increases. That story culminated in a town council meeting at which not only a large number of concerned residents, but also Harry Staley of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition showed up in opposition. In a curious maneuver that I've seen before, the solicitor raised the issue during his comment period (just about dead last on the agenda) and Councilor Louise Durfee practically jumped out of her seat to pivot the discussion away from where everybody expected it to go and toward an attack on TCC. Had we not been there, the result may have been quite different. (I'll have video of the strange moment up later this week.)

Specifically, Tsiongas and Moran note a press release from TCC President Dave Nelson citing "months of negotiation behind closed doors" and an effort at "keeping the effort under wraps, with the topic quietly inserted into the agenda." They emphasize that the negotiations were part of a lawsuit, and so were kept secret for that reason, but the legality of secrecy does not negate the fact that it is, indeed, out of public view. Moreover, it is entirely true that the issue was slipped onto the agenda in a surreptitious way, appearing on the published agenda just a couple of days before the meeting and, as I said, raised during the solicitor's segment at the tail end of a predictably long meeting.

Second, the Democrat duo raise the school committee meeting at which Dave Nelson and I suggested that freezing or slightly reducing salaries/benefits would be a preferable approach to resolving financial difficulties to cutting pencils, technology, and programs:

... the TCC called on the school committee to unilaterally impose contract terms on our school employees, a strategy that is not only illegal in Rhode Island but also not in the best interests of our community. A similar strategy pursued in a neighboring town has resulted in legal fees in excess of $750,000 and has torn that community apart.

What is tearing communities apart is the ever-increasing tax burden that goes to the benefit of highly paid adults, a majority of whom often live out of the town in question, even as children cannot grasp simple mathematics and science. The citation of East Providence's legal bills is misleading, inasmuch as that town has already blazed the trail. The law is such that each town needn't reinvent the wheel every time. Additionally, as the court battles in East Providence prove, it isn't a statement of fact that its methods (which are currently in effect, saving the town much more money than the litigation costs, I believe) have been "illegal." That is the question that the judiciary is considering.

Most conspicuous of all, however, is Tsiongas and Moran's complaint about Harry Staley's presence at the town council meeting. Shall we expect the Democrats to speak out every time a union fills the school gymnasium with out-of-town hacks who jeer at residents who have the courage to speak up? Are we to believe that they would hesitate to bring in state-level interests when local bodies are considering matters of statewide concern?

No. We need only understand that the letter is mere political calculation that will disappear into the continuing noise of the left-wing and partisan political strategy bent on attacking Tiverton residents with opposing views, tying the hands of grassroots groups that seek to counterbalance entrenched interests, and distorting the issues to the benefit of unions.

February 25, 2010

Re: Times of Drasticness

Justin Katz

By way of follow up, I asked Director of Administration and Finance Doug Fiore a couple of questions after tonight's school committee meeting, here are various interesting data points derived from our conversation:

  • Approximately $130,000 of the $450,000 increase in health insurance costs would have been erased from the next budget if the union hadn't blocked the intended coshare increase from 12% to 18%. I assume (but did not clarify) that $260,000 would have been saved if that percentage had been applied to this year and next.
  • The layoffs and reassignments that the district is leaving open as possible by sending out notices to teachers would, in total, save $1.3 million.
  • That same amount could be saved by reducing combined salaries and benefits across the board by approximately 8%.
  • That means that the current shortfall of $750,000 could be covered with an across-the-board reduction of about 4-5%.

I want to stress that these are ballpark figures provided while wrapping up a meeting, so they shouldn't be taken as working numbers. I'm merely trying to illustrate comparative options for covering the budget shortfall that, for some reason, aren't aired publicly.

Times of Drasticness Begin

Justin Katz

I was a few minutes late to tonight's Tiverton School Committee meeting, and it was already underway. The high school library is pretty well filled, which means probably about 30-40 people, an apparent mix of students, teachers, and residents. The topic: closing the high school. Of course, when the union is looking for a juicy raise, the teachers pack the gymnasium, which means three digits rather than two.

Frankly, I can't help but recall the first school committee meeting after the financial town meeting at which the electorate restrained the school district's budget by $627,000 or so. At that time, the message coming from people associated with the district was that the committee had to do something drastic to drive parents to the financial town meeting and vote for lots of money.

Now Superintendent Bill Rearick said, just now: "Folks in our community need to decide what they want." He says they should go to town meetings, including the financial town meeting. This is just a dance to drive a few hundred more people to the FTM to raise taxes by double digits for everybody else.

7:25 p.m.

Rearick argued that adjustments to labor would only solve this year's problem, not the systemic problems that are yielding such high deficits, ignoring:

  • That one of our problems is that raises are compounding.
  • That the committee spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in "stimulus funds."
  • That he really shouldn't leave such things as pensions out of the labor costs.

We're something like $750,000 short for next year. Had the committee frozen compensation rather than giving out retroactive raises, it would now be only about $150,000 short, and the federal stimulus money was much beyond that.

7:36 p.m.

Deborah Pallasch just read a letter on behalf of the Democratic Town Committee urging rapid resolution of negotiations with the union. No doubt some of the Democrats are urging the union to secure the maximum as they can right now, because they see that things are only going to deteriorate.

7:39 p.m.

A resident whom I don't know just said that the retirement communities that moved to town in recent decades are "cancers on our community." He must be among the faction calling for unity and cooperation in town.

7:41 p.m.

If he's talking about Tiverton Citizens for Change, I can testify that a majority of the core members are not gated community types.

Jan Bergandy took the opportunity to say that people have to turn out for the FTM

Dave Nelson is now addressing the committee. As he's began speaking, he turned periodically to face the audience. Unbelievably, Deborah Pallasch shouted from the audience: "You need to address the committee, not the audience." Who does she think she is?

7:49 p.m.

Here's an interesting angle: A resident just asked whether there's been any communication about bringing Little Compton students into our system. I know they used to do that, and I'm not sure what happened. But it does raise the interesting point that the district has an opportunity if it concentrates on making its programs attractive.

That means getting more for its money.

The next speaker talked about hiring maintenance staff who keep the property up, rather than merely cleaning it. Again: The upshot is that the district now allocates its money poorly. It needs to shift some of its per-pupil expenditures toward new programs, some to maintenance, some to technology, and so on. That will mean holding existing labor flat or somewhat decreased to make the school more attractive — especially with the possibility of increased student choice in the near future.

7:58 p.m.

School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy just pointed out that the argument that some have made that losing the high school would make property values plummet has the problem that Little Compton's property values are much higher even though the town has no high school. It's not really a valid comparison, because the two towns are very different, but it's interesting that he argued that way.

Deb Pallasch just suggested that the committee "do whatever it can do" to drive people to the FTM.

8:12 p.m.

They've moved on to talking about possible health insurance switches. The upshot is that it would take a lot of money and research even just to find out whether switching would make economic sense.

8:17 p.m.

Health insurance increases account for $450,000 of the current shortfall. Not sure what percentage of that is due to the union's argument that it didn't have to negotiate a new contract this year and would not accept the budgeted increase of health insurance coshare from 12% to 18%.

Now they're discussing the 31 pink slips and 15 displacement letters that the district will send out to meet the legislative deadline of March 1 for such notices.

How absurd is it that the district must simply pick the junior employees for all layoffs. Are there no older teachers whose absence would save more money and whose absence would minimally affect the students (or perhaps not at all)? Moreover, I just don't understand how the union can make all of the arguments for class size, solidarity, and basically its entire argument for existing if it would rather cut young teachers loose rather than give concessions.

A young librarian is making an extended argument for what her department accomplishes. Good for her. None of these programs should be cut.

8:35 p.m.

Just an observation: Supt. Bill Rearick is offering a conciliatory lay-off-related speech, encouraging more participation in the leadership process, but his tone of voice is confrontational. His tone isn't always so, which makes me wonder who, in his mind, he's confronting.

8:41 p.m.

A recent graduate of the high school just argued on behalf of the library staff, and she closed by expressing the opinion that "a more critical eye" should be applied to the layoff process. Perhaps it's an introduction to the effect that the union system can have on a professional workforce. It's plainly wrong and strategically ludicrous.

8:47 p.m.

Bergandy mentioned that there's been no movement with NEA negotations, except the scheduling of a March 4 mediation.

8:49 p.m.

I'm increasingly persuaded that union-friendly legislators set the deadline for layoffs so early precisely for the angst and disruption it causes among teachers and the community, even though budgeting can't possibly be complete by this point. The law should change, and teachers should be leading the charge.

February 23, 2010

The Same Old Local Political Roundabout

Justin Katz

As circumstances deteriorate, it's instructive to observe the varying reactions and strategies for handling them. In Tiverton, the established order, so to speak, has redoubled its efforts to keep the negative focus on Tiverton Citizens for Change in the hopes that people won't notice that the plans for improvement bear a striking resemblance to the plans that got the town into its current mess. I've got a letter pointing out the 'round-and-'round nature of the debate:

On January 27, 2009, the school committee approved a largely retroactive contract for teachers that ate up about $300,000 of that year’s budget, added approximately $150,000 to the current year’s, and is contributing more than that to the $600,000-plus increase in salaries and benefits budgeted for the next fiscal year. At a November 2008 meeting, Ms. Pallasch argued for approval, saying, “Let's start working on the new one, and give ourselves a little bit of room to refocus on the classroom and away from the adults.” The argument was that we should resolve the running dispute while there was still time to negotiate the subsequent contract amicably.

At the time, I spoke up to predict that the union would not negotiate. Rather, it would wait out the recession based on the obvious reasoning that it could avoid concessions during hard economic times and — as we’ve taught its members to expect — receive retroactive raises when times improved. I also handed out a chart showing that there had been no abatement of the increases in teacher salaries and benefits in the past decade. Indeed, the per-pupil dollar amount had gone up more (54%) than the same number for the state as a whole (40%). Over the same period, the chart showed that most other expenditures had hardly moved.

Well, negotiations did not resume with an amicable tone. Indeed, in August, the union pointed out a clause in the contract extending it for another year. The school committee had somehow missed the trick that it was supposed to notify the union of its intention to negotiate the next contract a full month before the previous one was actually approved. Changes in healthcare copayments for which the committee had budgeted went out the window. So did negotiations.

And the usual suspects are back, making all of the union's arguments for it in advance of the debate. Wealthy people wanting to increase taxes rather than stand firm with the organized labor behemoth that has soaked up a growing portion of our educational and municipal funds.

The system is broken. Revving it up for another season is not the solution.

February 22, 2010

The End Is Near; Blame Somebody Else!

Justin Katz

Reading about the budget woes on both the school and municipal sides, in Tiverton, I find it somewhat striking that none of the elected or appointed officials appear to worry that they'll face accountability for the things about which they're complaining. For example:

Tiverton's schools could also take a $386,286 education aid hit next year, said Doug Fiore, chief finance officer for the schools.

Officials are confounded by the depth of proposedfunding losses, and the uncertainty.

I'm not directing this to Fiore, but to "officials": How could they be confounded? They can read the papers. They know what's going on in the state and in the country. And yet they approved a substantial retroactive raise for teachers last year. And yet they spent every dollar of the magic Obama money. I personally suggested to Superintendent Bill Rearick and School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy that they put that money aside for the current budget, and they explicitly told me that their intention was to deal with the forthcoming budget as a separate matter. In other words, they didn't want to let the future infringe on the spending of the present.

Incidentally, apparently the superintendent and school committee are going around proclaiming that Tiverton Citizens for Change "cut their budget" last year, a claim that is false or irrelevant for two reasons. First, the budget cut originated with a handful of angry residents, not with TCC. Second, current budget documents available on the district's page state that its "surplus of $229,546 [is] to be included in next year’s budget."

In other words, had there been no reduction in the local contribution to the district's budget, last year, it either would have found something on which to spend the money, or it would currently have a $900,000 surplus. If the administrators and elected officials are complaining that struggling residents didn't hand them an extra million dollars to leave lying around in the worst economy in a century, then their contempt for the people for whom they work is astonishing.

Also astonishing is this sort of thinking, which one hears across local government:

"I think the concept of closing the high school is ridiculous," said Leonard Schmidt, chairman of the town economic development commission. "There are many ways to save money other than by closing schools." Mr. Schmidt suggested reopening contracts for teacher concessions, and centralization of school functions, but cautioned against looking to the schools to resolve the crisis.

The teacher's contract does not have to be "reopened," because there currently is no contract. At the very least, one can say that it is not "closed."

February 19, 2010

A Negative Approach to Governance

Justin Katz

And around and around not-my-town goes:

Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth), whose district encompasses neighborhoods on both sides of the Sakonnet River Bridge, has introduced legislation that will prohibit tolls from being charged on the bridge. ...

Instead, Rep. Edwards proposes placing a toll on Interstate Hwy 95 (I-95) in Westerly and in Pawtucket as an alternative revenue source.

As a political matter, it's an easy call to reject state-level policies that will affect one's subregion negatively. And sure, perhaps there are marginal justifications for putting a toll in one place rather than another. However, this is just gamesmanship. If Rep. Edwards wishes to submit legislation that will solve the acute problem of a toll proposal while addressing the underlying difficulty, he should propose that the General Assembly allocate money from its general revenue to the basic infrastructure matters to which it ought to be going before anything else.

Of course, that would require the risk that people in his own district might dislike the decreased revenue for the ancillary government expenditures that would have to be cut, such as nanny state programs, inside deals, and union giveaways.

February 6, 2010

The Window and the House of Cards

Justin Katz

Apart from the complications of Rhode Island law, as a matter of political theory, this strikes me as a reasonable argument:

The lawsuit [by the city of Woonsocket], which also names State Controller Marc A. Leonetti and General Treasurer Frank T. Caprio as defendants, said the money [that the state was supposed to give towns for automobile excise taxes] was appropriated by a legislative act of the General Assembly and that means Carcieri, Leonetti and Caprio have "a clear legal duty" to pay it.

"He may submit the budget, but he does not have the authority under the state Constitution or state law unilaterally to change the General Assembly's budget after it has passed," [Woonsocket Mayor Leo] Fontaine said.

I've long been including, among my complaints against Governor Carcieri, that he is far too passive about describing the ownership of the budget. Even though we're into the second month of the calendar year — and the legislative session — legislators have yet to act on the supplemental budget. So, the governor should pay out whatever money is due, to whomever it's due, until the money runs out and then just shut down. "I'm bound by law to follow the General Assembly's budgeting," he could say, "and they've chosen to spend the account dry rather than take corrective action." It's their responsibility.

WPRI's recent poll data gives reason to hope that the public is coming around to an understanding of the political dynamics, in this state. Overall, 53% of Rhode Islanders blame the GA for the budget crisis, with another 25% splitting blame between the legislature and the executive. Perhaps based on relative degrees of attention, the General Assembly fares worse as the age of the respondent goes up. Moreover, 61% of respondents want cuts in spending and services and not in taxes.

If increasing understanding is to translate into the appropriate electoral actions — rather than merely contributing to the general grumble — the governor must make the necessary political decisions crystal clear. He should declare that the General Assembly's failure to act has been an open window next to the budgetary house of cards and then get out of the way of the inevitable.

February 4, 2010

A Conservative at the Library

Justin Katz

On the Matt Allen Show, last night, Andrew admitted to using the public library (albeit a couple of times per year) and suggested a reason for RI towns' fiscal profligacy. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

My two cents: Public libraries are wonderful resource for students and people who don't work. During a period when my wife's job gave her summers off, she took our children to the library all of the time, where the books and various programs kept them engaged and learning. Other folks seeking to find ways to fill their days, and perhaps those who work from home, also benefit from the system. Whether that's enough of a reason to fund libraries is up to each town to decide. Personally, I think a certain baseline access to knowledge, especially now that libraries can be a public portal to the Internet, is worth maintaining.

February 1, 2010

Too Big to Fail Towns?

Justin Katz

Along with a table with the statewide results, Providence Business News has an article describing the results of "fiscal stress tests" that a state panel ran for cities and towns:

Pawtucket, North Providence, East Providence, Central Falls, Warwick and West Warwick are in the most serious trouble, the Municipal Fiscal Stress Task Force reported Friday after examining municipal reserves, property tax rates, pension liabilities and public employee health care benefits, among other factors. ...

Task force members -- made up of financial experts, CPA and several municipal finance directors -- have asked that a permanent commission be formed to monitor local spending and develop recommendations.

Peder Schaefer, chief of the Department of Revenue's municipal finance division and a member of the task force, told reporters Thursday that the report would lead to legislation that would "beef up oversight by the state."

For instance, one bill that being worked on would require local school departments to file quarterly financial reports with the R.I. Department of Education, he said. Another would give municipal councils or chief executives the authority to approve school department spending plans, administration officials said.

I remain skeptical about the urge to consolidate and control from above. The state is hardly in a condition of fiscal health, and residents have more access to change their local government than they do their municipal leadership. Indeed, the policies of the state are a contributing factor to the difficulties of the towns. It would be a mistake to assume that the people leveraging this greater influence, at the state level, would be the same people who took the initiative to study the numbers in the first place.

I say this as an active taxpayer in the most fiscally stressed "rural" town, by far. Tiverton's Fiscal Stress Test score is in company with the state's "urban" communities and fares only slightly better than the "urban ring" municipalities about which the state is so concerned.

January 25, 2010

Mainstreet Loses an Anchor and the Council Looks to Tax

Justin Katz

So, Bank of America is abandoning the Main Street location in North Tiverton that it has inhabited for decades (most of the time as Fleet bank). According to somebody in a position to know, the branch remains profitable, but corporate executives have analyzed the prospects of Tiverton, Rhode Island, and determined that there will be insufficient small business activity to justify a presence in the town. Municipal officials may dream of a down-town-style business district, but when one of the two institutions that would anchor the community with access to capital and money management expresses its skepticism by packing up and leaving, residents should stop daydreaming and look at what's happening in reality.

In reality, Town Solicitor Andy Teitz has put it on tonight's agenda (PDF) for the town council to discuss the state law that places a cap on the amount that towns and cities can increase their taxes. At issue is this statutory language:

Any levy pursuant to subsection (d) of this section in excess of the percentage increase specified in subsection (a) of this section shall be approved by the affirmative vote of at least four-fifths (4/5) of the full membership of the governing body of the city or town or in the case of a city or town having a financial town meeting, the majority of the electors present and voting at the town financial meeting shall also approve the excess levy.

What the solicitor is expected to argue is that the town should entirely disregard the word "also" and accept it as town policy that a simple majority of the electorate in attendance at the financial town meeting should be able to authorize an increase above the tax cap. A lawsuit is already in process, in the town, to test that reading of the law, so one avenue that the solicitor and certain town councilors may be interested in pursuing is to change the above language, through the General Assembly, to remove the "ambiguity" of the law to conform with their reading.

Residents should decline to join in the imaginative exercise of pretending there's any ambiguity at all beyond the grammatical error of using "or" rather than a semicolon in the statute. The town council ultimately approves the baseline budget that the residents consider at the town meeting, and elected officials should therefore have to submit themselves to accountability. Otherwise, voters should take it to be their duty to reconstruct the budget line-item by line-item, perhaps with constituencies developing complete and competing budgets.

Also at tonight's town council meeting, by the way, will be a vote on the "pay as you throw" policy by which the town is seeking to more than double the cost of trash pickup for residents. Not coincidentally, I'm sure, its plan to charge households for the garbage bags that they use will not figure into the tax cap. Put it all together, and over the course of a few Monday night hours in January, Tiverton's council of seven could lay the groundwork for a truly massive increase in taxes and fees in the midst of a deep economic recession in a town and state in long-term economic decline.

January 24, 2010

Towns on the Teat, Too.

Justin Katz

This article is a few weeks old, but I've been holding on to it because the statement contained therein really requires philosophical correction:

One by one, mayors and municipal managers from Cumberland to Westerly told the House Finance Committee on Thursday that the midyear aid cuts proposed by Governor Carcieri will wreak havoc on local services and tax rates, shifting a state budget crisis onto the backs of municipal employees and property owners already feeling the bite of previous state-aid cuts.

If the towns and cities have allowed themselves to rely heavily on the state for financial support and the state is having a budget crisis, then the crisis isn't shifted, it's shared. We should expect our municipal leaders to be more self-motivated, active, and demonstrative than welfare queens.

What really irks me about the attitude expressed in the article, though, is the degree to which government operates as if behind a wall of glass. Mayors and managers shouldn't be wasting time on their knees at the state house. Even were groveling successful in staving off cuts to "state aid" this year, circumstances are only going to be more dire in the next budget unless things change dramatically in Rhode Island.

In other words, officials should be turning to the people who elected them (or who elected the people who appointed them), explaining what the state must do to turn things around, and more importantly, encouraging residents to get involved — not to join in the groveling, but to run for office and join taxpayer groups and the like. After all, they pay the taxes whether it's to the town or the state, and when revenue improves for the state, it will improve for the municipalities, as well.

Of course, this assumes that municipal leaders have a clue about what might save Rhode Island — an optimistic assumption if ever there was one.

January 21, 2010

Hummel Report: The Abuse of Power of the Emergency Board-Up

Monique Chartier

Jim Hummel's original report available here.

In addition to the issue of Mayor Moreau's third party billing arrangement for his new furnace, Hummel's report throws a spotlight onto the Mayor flexing emergency powers to deal with empty, foreclosed houses.

These – and more than 200 other houses – were boarded up by Bouthillette’s company, under the mayor’s ``emergency powers’’ – which meant Bouthillette was the only game in town. The Hummel Report has also learned it meant Bouthillette’s company had the building official and in some cases the police department, behind him when he went to board up a house – sometimes charging more than 10 times what other companies we spoke with would charge for the same job.

By keeping emergency powers in place, the Mayor was able to avoid putting the work out to bid. Competition drives down prices. But when you're designated as the only company for the job, you set your own rates. Property owners, then, were at the mercy of Certified Disaster Restoration Corporation, which was

one of several companies owned by Mike Bouthillette, a close friend and campaign contributor to Mayor Charles Moreau.

Except that, at ten times the going rate, Certified Disaster did not show much mercy.

I called City Hall this morning to ask how long the emergency powers were in effect. The Mayor's Executive Assistant, Kristin Sullivan, did not know, which is puzzling because she works for the man who put them in place and couldn't avoid being familiar with this detail. Kristin did inform me that the Mayor himself could not answer my question because is presently away at the US Conference of Mayors in DC. Why the City Solicitor, who presumably assisted the Mayor in establishing the emergency board-up powers, is also attending this event is not clear.

I also reached the Central Falls Building Official, Todd Olbrych, and asked him the same question: how long were these emergency powers in effect? After two "no comments", he abruptly terminated our conversation.

By the time the Mayor had lifted the emergency powers, the company of the "close friend and campaign contributor to Mayor Charles Moreau" had boarded up over 200 buildings. This turned out to be, in Hummel's words, the "lion's share" of foreclosed buildings. Interestingly, then, while everyone at City Hall is studiously refusing to 'fess up to the duration of the state of "emergency", we know that, at a minimum, it was long enough to allow a close friend of the Mayor to vacuum up most of the high priced work.

Hummel reports today that the RI State Police have visited Central Falls City Hall to check into various details of this matter, including the strange billing arrangement for the Mayor's new furnace. Possibly they can also establish the duration of the "emergency" and whether the Mayor was more entranced with exerting power than he was by the definition of "emergency" or with preventing a "legal" mugging of property owners that he purportedly represents.

January 19, 2010

Mandated Monitor Waste

Justin Katz

Here's the scene: Shortly after 7:00 a.m. on a semi-rural road that locals often use to avoid a mile or so of Middletown's two main roads, the school bus pulls up to a modest split-level house, and the driver opens the double doors. A middle-school girl skips up the driveway and stops a few feet from the bus. She waits. She hooks her thumbs in her backpack straps. Motorists crane their necks to see what's going on.

Finally, first one leg then another appear. An elderly woman in an reflective vest climbs backwards onto the street. With one arm still attached to the handrail, she leans a little out of the way, and the young girl bounds effortlessly up the stairs. The bus monitor bows her head, takes a deep breath, and begins the laborious climb back up to her seat.

Now, if the people of Middletown feel that the benefit of intergenerational cooperation is worth the expense of such morning-time chaperons, then I'm hardly in a position to object. However, we have, here, a living, breathing example that the arguments proffered for a state-level bus-monitor mandate are not actually the most significant motivations. The woman in question makes no pretense of inspecting the underside of the bus for suicidal children, and were a child about to enter into danger crossing the street, or something, she would likely prove physically unable to prevent the calamity. The bus driver and the horn would be more effective.

This, folks, is one small emblem culled from daily life explaining Rhode Island's deterioration.

A Fortieth Municipality

Justin Katz

At a time when common wisdom is marching straight toward a cliff labeled "consolidation" (at the bottom of which are sharp rocks of incumbency, special interests, and political corruption), I'm encouraged to see that the independent spirit lives on in some corners of the state:

Started in early December by Prescott Avenue resident and Riverside native William J. Hurley, a group officially titled the "Coalition to Secede The Riverside from East Providence" has expanded over the last five weeks to include more than 100 members. While many have joked in the past that Riverside should become it's own town, Mr. Hurley and his peers say they want to see the idea come to fruition.

Of course, Riverside residents should be made aware of the huge additional cost of going it alone, but if they're comfortable bearing it, then the desire for more local control is a healthy one. One East Providence city councilman puts his finger on the most prominent benefit (emphasis added):

City councilman Bruce DiTraglia, whose ward is contained entirely to Riverside, said the idea definitely has its advantages.

"I would like it," he said. "I would think it would be a lot cozier and a lot more personal. I think you could get a lot more people involved. I think it's a good idea."

When the playing field to change policies is smaller, more people will think it worth their time. As gravity pushes control out to state and national governments, more and more people conclude that the possibility of change is so remote as to make civic engagement fruitless. Moreover, as the pain of errors in governance spreads more broadly, it takes a higher degree of incompetence to teach the electorate the lessons that it needs to learn.

January 12, 2010

Budget Season Begins

Justin Katz

Tonight's the first meeting at which the Tiverton School Committee will address next year's budget. The upshot is that Superintendent Bill Rearick is offering, as an initial budget, an increase at the state cap (4.5%). Of course, he included in last year's budget "surprise" federal "stimulus" cash, so this budget is actually 7.13% above the allocated amount at last year's FTM.

ADDENDUM (from home):

My coverage of tonight's meeting wasn't exactly comprehensive, because I was following the conversation with especial intentness and offering comments from time to time. A few points:

  • I was incorrect about the reason, but correct about the result, when it comes to budget discrepancies. The "stimulus" money wasn't included in the number for last year's budget, but it shows up as a deficit in the coming budget, meaning that current projected spending exceeds the amount laid out in the budget by $892,268.
  • Superintendent Rearick mentioned several times that the taxpayers' attempted level funding (thwarted by the federal gift) was to blame for the large shortfall, but it fell to me to point out that the district could have planned for that when it discovered itself flush with revenue.
  • Owing to pension changes, the district currently has something like $235,000 lying around, but since midyear cuts in aide from the state are on the table, the committee and administration are inclined to leave that completely out of the picture, for now.
  • The teachers' union, which is currently without a negotiated contract, is concentrating on "ground rules" and such rather than taking up actual dollar amounts and negotiations.
  • The currently proposed budget assumes no changes to healthcare-copays and zeroes out salary increases, excepting steps and an AFSCME raise scheduled at 2%.
  • There does not appear to be much support from the folks on the state (metaphorically speaking) to impose labor policies unilaterally.
  • Rearick was not shy about speaking the phrase "program cuts."
  • I estimated that a 3.5-4% across-the-board cut in combined salaries and benefits would entirely erase the deficit, and nobody contradicted my math.
  • Tiverton Citizens for Change President Dave Nelson was not happy.

So basically, we're looking at a district administration that's pushing for the maximum tax increase that it can secure, a school committee that isn't ready to commit to anything, a union that wants to delay, delay, and delay until the economy improves, as I predicted they would do back when the school committee made the ill-advised give-away that the last contract represented, and the TCC is not going to simply watch this budget float away.

January 7, 2010

Rule by Funding and Memoranda

Justin Katz

I'm one of two people in the audience of an "emergency" Tiverton School Committee meeting, which was called in order to approve a memorandum of understanding from the Rhode Island Department of Education for the state's Race to the Top application, and the sense that I'm getting from the discussion is not encouraging.

Here's the upshot: School committees are under a lot of pressure to sign the MOU so that the state can prove "political will" to implement the program to the federal government. The problem is that the document that the local officials are being asked to sign is apparently not wholly inclusive of the information on which they believe they're voting. Some supposed facts are in a repeatedly changed FAQ document. Others were conveyed during in-person meetings. Some of it is in documents from the federal government. And the really-honestly-truly final document won't be released until Monday.

So, in the name of chasing after taxpayer money, the people whom taxpayers have elected to guide their local investment in childhood education are being asked to sign on to mandates and requirements from state and national officials without, as far as I can understand, even receiving assurances that the higher tiers of government will provide more money than they're requiring districts to spend.


Here's an interesting point from School Committee Member Leonard Wright, who seems extremely suspicious of this whole thing: There is language in the memorandum that the district agrees to comply with the terms of the federal grant and a "RIDE subgrant" that apparently has not yet been produced.


And isn't this FAQ point interesting:

Are there "supplement, not supplant" requirements for Race to the Top?

Race to the Top contains no "supplement, not supplant" requirements.

Furthermore, the language that Mr. Wright cited about a state "subgrant" suggests to me that the state could take advantage of the lack of "supplement, not supplant" language while still imposing that very rule on individual districts.

Another point that's coming up is that the town is probably going to be subject to increasing regulations and mandates whether it signs on for Race to the Top or not. It's the old "nothing to lose" lure. But imagine this outcome: The collapsing state causes a political surge for reform, among which is the elimination of state-driven mandates... except, of course, where those mandates are part of contractually agreed grant programs.


The school committee has added, as a condition of its agreement, stipulations that all program requirements will be fully funded and that the funding from Race to the Top would supplement, not supplant, allocated state and federal aid to the town.

December 28, 2009

Tiverton's Forthcoming Garbage Tax

Justin Katz

It appears to have fallen through the online cracks, but I've got the following letter in the current issue of the Sakonnet Times:

On December 14, Tiverton's town council meeting included a public hearing concerning a proposed "pay as you throw" trash program to fund the closure of the town landfill in five or so years. Basically, residents would have to buy garbage bags from the town at a cost of $2 for a 33 gallon bag or $1 for a 15 gallon bag.

Figuring a ridiculously low single bag per household, the Landfill Committee estimates that the program would generate $520,000 per year. Taxpayers currently allocate an annual $573,000 for trash pickup. In other words, the cost of rubbish disposal for residents of the town of Tiverton would more than double.

It's too little known, around town, that the local government has failed to adequately prepare --- over the half century of the landfill's usage --- for the millions of dollars in expenditures that loom just over the horizon. Without action, the restricted account set aside for that purpose will be several million dollars short when it's finally needed, even without considering the additional cost to develop and build a transfer station to process trash on its journey out of town.

Clearly, something must be done, but as currently constituted, the "pay as you throw" program would be nothing other than a massive hidden tax increase that skirts the Paiva-Weed tax cap, leaving homeowners open to another large increase on top of the new "fee." Even residents willing to forgo pickup and bring trash, themselves, to the landfill would have to buy the bags and pay for pickup, anyway. In other words, it's a fee for a service that most residents have no choice but to utilize. It's a tax.

The more straightforward approach would be for the town to place an increase in landfill-related savings within its next budget. Of course, that wouldn't answer a secondary (and supremely advisable) purpose of the program: encouraging recycling and more conscientious trash disposal. Perhaps curbside pickup could move to a fee system, or residents could "opt out" and receive a refund of that portion of their property taxes.

Or there might be another solution. Whatever the case, the council continued the hearing to its regularly scheduled meeting on January 25. If residents tune this issue out now, the next they hear of it may be when official instructions arrive in their mailboxes explaining how to pay for trash pickup a second time.

December 21, 2009

Garbage Goes Straight to Video

Justin Katz

Mostly for the edification of Tiverton residents, I've posted the portion of the last town council meeting that represented the public hearing on a pay-as-you-throw trash program. Nine of the 10 video clips are in the extended entry.

Continue reading "Garbage Goes Straight to Video"

December 15, 2009

The Fight Moves Outward

Justin Katz

The General Assembly will no doubt search for tricks and methods of denial, but the state is going to have to continue cutting its budget, and according to the Providence Business News, Governor Carcieri is looking toward the cities and towns:

The state budget would be balanced by cuts in spending for local education, aid to cities and towns, one-time land sales that include the Veterans Memorial Auditorium and other savings, under a plan Gov. Donald L. Carcieri was expected to submit on Tuesday.

The amount in reimbursements for vehicle excise taxes that the state would keep for its own use would go up to $65.1 million (having previously been about half that, as I recall). School districts would also see a $41 million cut, offset in part by the end of cost-of-living adjustments for pensions.

In general, sending the fight out to the cities and towns is a positive development, from a taxpayer perspective, because it's easier for engaged residents to rally against entrenched forces at that level. The missing components, however, are statewide regulations and mandates, which limit what municipalities can do and which restrict economic activity.

December 14, 2009

Garbage Talk

Justin Katz

There's an unusually large crowd for tonight's town council meeting... unless, of course, the recession has made this a more common form of entertainment than was the case back before I stopped attending regularly. It seems a handful of attendees are here to discuss increases in mooring fees (for late payment). Hopefully, a greater number are here to object to the proposed pay-as-you-throw trash program that would more than double (or more) the amount that residents pay for trash pickup.

8:44 p.m.

I took the podium to suggest that I'll not be able to avail myself of trash pickup if its cost more than doubles for my household, and Department of Public Works Director Stephen Berlucchi hastened to correct my misunderstanding: Residents will have to buy the bags to dispose of trash in the dump, whether it's picked up or dropped off. There'll be no way around it.

In other words, this is just a massive hidden regressive tax increase during the worst recession since the Great Depression, implemented because the town did not adequately budget for the closure of the landfill over the half-century since it emptied.

One other observation: Over the phone, my wife mentioned to a friend in town where I was headed tonight, and the friend had no idea this was coming. If people have to start buying garbage bags, I'd wager they'll be in a budget cutting mood come the financial town meeting, this spring.

8:58 p.m.

It sounds as if some sort of tax offset will be created. Councilor Louise Durfee suggested that some portion of the revenue from pay-as-you-throw should offset the budget line item for the landfill. Council President Don Bollin suggested that one $2 bag per week should be considered included with one's taxes.

9:18 p.m.

The public hearing on this issue has been continued to the second town council meeting in January.

December 9, 2009

Bad Government, Sneaky Taxes, and Garbage

Justin Katz

This coming Monday, December 14, the Tiverton Town Council will (hopefully) be hearing from residents concerning a proposed "pay as you throw" program for garbage pickup. The nutshell background is that (despite regular and significant annual tax increases) the town has not been putting aside adequate resources to close the landfill when it runs out in five or so years, and it's going to have to come up with around $4 million one way or another.

The proposed solution is to charge residents for the garbage bags that they may use — $1 for a small bag (15 gallons) and $2 for a large bag (33 gallons). With an extremely conservative estimate of one bag per household per week (my household will probably burn through two or three large bags on an average week), the Landfill Committee is estimating gross revenue of $520,000.

The catch is that, even if we go with that ludicrously low number, the cost of garbage pickup to residents will pretty much be doubling, because the budget line item for "rubbish/recycling collection" currently runs us $573,601. The new bag fees would amount to a massive tax increase that isn't subject to the tax cap. Worse still, families (like mine) that cannot afford another regular household expense and opt, instead, to lose weekend time going to the dump, will end up subsidizing the trash pickup of those who are better off, because we'll still be paying the initial taxes.

Personally, I'd support ending curbside pickup altogether. That's not politically feasible, though, so if the town council goes forward with this proposal, it should allow households to "opt out" and receive a refund of that portion of their property taxes that support rubbish collection (around $105, on average).

December 7, 2009

We Need a Taxpayer Grievance

Justin Katz

How can an entity — whether a business, a town, a nonprofit, whatever — operate like this?

[Little Compton Firefighter Fred] Melnyk was off duty at the time, out of uniform, and had been in the fire-station earlier at 11:16 when the medical incident in question was called in. An emergency medical technician (EMT) with cardiac training, Mr. Melnyk immediately responded to the call by himself, driving the Rescue 1 to the scene at John T. Martin Road, one mile from the station.

He later found himself stranded there when two other firefighters, who had arrived in two separate fire trucks, fresh from finishing another nearby incident, took Rescue 1, with a patient inside, and drove to Charlton Memorial Hospital, 30 minutes away.

That left Mr. Melnyk with the two parked fire trucks that needed to be returned to the station. With him was the fire chief and his command car. A decision was made (that Lt. Woods later grieved) that Mr. Melnyk, still off duty and at no cost to the town, would drive the two trucks back to the station, and not leave them parked on John T. Martin Road, a task Mr. Melnyk accomplished in two trips, ferried back to the residence by the chief in the command car.

Lt. David Woods has filed a grievance claiming that he should have been called in for his four-hour minimum of overtime pay, receiving $127.36 for around twenty minutes worth of work.

December 3, 2009

About That Status Quo

Justin Katz

Meeting with East Greenwich town officials, Sen. Leonidas Raptakis (D, Coventry, East Greenwich, Warwick, West Warwick) spoke against state mandates:

"We have so many archaic statutes, contracts and mandates, unless we start deleting these mandates or give cities and towns latitude, we're going to start this revolving circle again, and it's going to get worse," he said. "If we don't get tough this year and next year, things are going to get worse for many years to come."

And House Minority Leader Bob Watson (R, East Greenwich, West Greenwich) made this interesting suggestion:

He also said he was intrigued by the idea of cities and towns protesting by withholding the funds they collect on behalf of the state.

That, he said, would get the General Assembly's attention. "I think that would create a great dynamic."

But missing from their comments — or at least reportage of them — is an explanation of what they would do to make up the difference for the cuts to municipalities that they oppose:

"I do not support any idea of taking monies off the table that have been earmarked for communities. I take that as irresponsible, particularly because we didn't give any relief from state mandates," said Watson. "I think there will be enough pressure to at least preserve the status quo."

The "status quo" is a deficit. It's a state with insufficient funds to pay its bills. Senators and representatives, especially, have a responsibility, if they oppose cutting one area of spending, to explain what area ought to see the cuts instead. When they meet with local officials, they ought to take the opportunity to explain the reality of that situation; perhaps they'll begin to loosen the logjam of apathy and ideology that's flooding the state.

November 29, 2009

Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 6

Justin Katz

Continue reading "Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 6"

Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 5

Justin Katz

Continue reading "Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 5"

Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 4

Justin Katz

Continue reading "Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 4"

Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 3

Justin Katz

Continue reading "Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 3"

Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 2

Justin Katz

Continue reading "Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 2"

Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 1

Justin Katz

So when I arrived at last Tuesday's Tiverton School Committee workshop on merit pay for teachers, I set up such that I could capture the faces of speakers in the audience. But the committee out-thought me and positioned a microphone at the table typically set aside for the stenographer, and by the time I realized it, the more-appropriate side of the room was filled (and with my political opposition). Consequently, my video features mainly the backs of non-committee member participants. Consider it an effort to make the viewer feel as if he or she is actually there.

Each of these posts will include three videos, two in the extended entry.

Continue reading "Tiverton School Committee Merit Pay Workshop Video, 1"

November 24, 2009

A Merit-Based Meeting

Justin Katz

Thankfully, the Tiverton School Committee's workshop on merit pay is much better attended than has been, well, any other meeting since the poorly considered passage of the retroactive teacher contract. Maybe 50 people.

School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy mentioned some communications that he's received from teachers to the effect of: "How dare you let people discuss this."

Superintendent Bill Rearick just suggested that adding money to payroll may not be necessary, if the goal is to sort through teachers. He suggests stronger evaluations and the ability to dismiss bad teachers. I don't think anybody from Tiverton Citizens for Change would argue against that strategy.

7:27 p.m.

Some discussion has passed, but I was participating, so I couldn't be posting, as well. Former School Committee Vice Chairman Mike Burke is speaking against spending any further time discussing merit pay. He's clearly presenting his prepared remarks as a direct political response to some initial thoughts by Tiverton Citizens for Change. But that's what one is to expect from the people who've been running Rhode Island and its cities and towns: His position is that all change is blocked at contractual, legal, and budgetary considerations.

Tiverton Establishment: "No change. Keep funding a failing system. Let's do some research."

One interesting point that he's made is that the financing of the districts is too closely integrated for a district's merit pay system to work. I'd argue that a system that has relatively low pay for just showing up to work, but high pay for good teachers would tend — within the static system that Burke describes — to attract the better teachers within the state. Not surprisingly, he wants to wait for the state to act and force something from union-controlled top down.

8:24 p.m.

I haven't written much because the conversation has gone along pretty predictable lines, and there's been no deep investigation into specifics of a program. One notable thing is that merit pay does reshuffle the ideological deck, some. I know I've had behind the scenes arguments on my side, and it's clear that the other side is (or should be) having their own.

One lesson, perhaps, could be that merit pay isn't its own issue, apart from broader reforms, especially in Tiverton, which is currently working through the first stages of a strategic plan. I'll agree with some of the suggestions of folks with whom I generally disagree, that we don't want to derail other initiatives. So, perhaps merit should be built into the evaluation system currently in development. (I happen to be on the evaluation committee...)


Overall, the workshop had a productive, cordial tone, so one thing that stuck out felt inappropriate to explore — mostly because it could have devolved rapidly. Comments were made several times that, essentially, teachers aren't really motivated by money. Indeed, School Committee Vice Chairwoman Sally Black said that she found the idea insulting that teachers would work harder for money. A teacher in the audience said the same. School Committee Member Carol Herrmann suggested that perhaps "merit pay" could be refigured as a sort of merit acknowledgment, with no money necessary.

Having sat through school committees watching teachers visibly shaking with passion over raises that amounted to a few thousand dollars, I find tonight's assertions kinda hard to square with experience. Boiled down, they seem to be suggesting that it is insulting not to give them annual increases (on top of step raises) simply for being teachers, but that it is also insulting to promise them additional money for proving themselves to be good teachers.

I honestly believe that the teachers do hold these views sincerely and with honorable intentions, but it just goes to show how infantilizing union membership and propaganda can be.

The bottom line on merit pay, from my perspective, is that it shouldn't be just a bonus, but an entire system aligning compensation with performance. And it shouldn't be based solely on test scores, but on job performance as broadly written as is appropriate. Just like career advancement is in the private sector.

Sure, some component would have to be related to students' actual performance. But other components could be tied to district targets. For example, one argument that I hear all the time is that parents simply aren't sufficiently involved, so perhaps some component of the evaluation and merit increase could kick in for teachers who do something to bridge that divide. A perfect example: retired music teacher (and TCC member) Anne Parker spoke of her experience doing extra work with a parent/student choir. Or, if a target area is math, a shop teacher could prove merit by integrating lessons with the students' math classes, thus improving immediate understanding while illustrating the practical utility of an abstract subject.

When it comes right down to it, though, none of this is going to be free, and the real test of whether teachers are "motivated by money" is whether they think a system of objective, useful evaluations to be worth a few years of very minimal raises.

Losing Sleep Over and Paying Attention to Education

Justin Katz

I've got a letter in the online version of the Sakonnet Times (prospectively in the print edition out tomorrow) that begins thus:

Residents who wish to understand the gradual deterioration of Rhode Island's public school system need only contrast school committee meetings addressing two issues: teacher contract negotiations and abysmal standardized testing results. The passion that sets the auditorium on fire when adults' high pay and lavish benefits are threatened with mild budgetary restraint is nowhere to be found when, say, only 25.8% of eleventh graders prove proficient in science (down from 30.5% the year before).

I go on to make some general suggestions regarding the necessary shifts in attitude and policy.

While I'm on the topic: The Tiverton School Committee's workshop on merit pay is tonight at 6:30, in the high school library.

October 13, 2009

The Science of Running Schools

Justin Katz

The Tiverton School Committee meeting has gotten around to the abysmal NECAP science scores, which I described when they came out. Superintendent Bill Rearick has run through the process of evaluating the problem, yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda. It takes some years to turn things around. The East Bay Collaborative is attempting to come up with money to fund new "kits." The district is applying for grants.

News flash: There are kids graduating every year. There are students taking inadequate classes right now.

This is a bottom-line kind of thing for me. Screw contracts and hierarchies and standards and all the other grown-up junk. The district has resources allocated to it within which it must work. This is a basic function at which it is utterly failing. Expand the time that science teachers must work, if it's necessary. Fire anybody who isn't willing to put in the same degree of effort that any other professional who is utterly failing would have to put in.

Everything must stop until students are receiving the education that they deserve, and for which the town is already paying.

7:51 p.m.

Chatter. Starting the conversation with the statement, "this is obviously unacceptable," isn't sufficient. I don't want to hear what balls the district has started to roll. I want to hear what they're doing to roll them faster.

7:55 p.m.

Committee Member Danielle Coulter is trying to push the conversation toward what can be done immediately and what further effort can be pushed. You know, any private company, in any industry whatsoever, seeing a public release of this level of badness would be out in the public with a plan for repairs within a day. The tone of the administrators of Tiverton school district is what one unfortunately expects in the public sector. Essentially: "We're doing all of the steps that you're supposed to do. We need money. We're looking into tools."

These results (and not just science, either) should be keeping administrators across the state up at night.

7:59 p.m.

Supt. Rearick just said that there is no local money left to invest in this. Earlier in the evening, Director of Administration and Finance Doug Fiore proclaimed that the budget is balanced. I hate to contradict that, but there are clearly holes therein.

September 22, 2009

Taking Care of Trash

Justin Katz

On my way home from the school committee meeting, I caught part of Matt Allen's conversation about towns (including Tiverton) requiring residents to put out their recycle bins in order to have their trash picked up. I share Matt's impulse to decry the nanny-state aesthetic, but having sat through a number of town-hall discussions on the topic, I have to disagree about the impulse's validity.

I can't speak to other towns' issues, at this high detail, but in a few years, Tiverton will be facing a multi-million dollar budget wall when its landfill is full. Proper budgeting would have left the town better prepared, but we are where we are, and residents' choice not to recycle brings the doomsday that much closer. If we're going to have the town offer house-to-house trash pickup, we have to accept that certain terms will apply.

Personally, I'd do away with the "free" pickup. The town should provide a place to drop off garbage, perhaps at a compactor, like Portsmouth has, and residents can pay for pickup services. Perhaps private service providers could offer a more expensive plan for those who opt not to recycle, thus not sticking neighbors with the bill.

Where Competition Ought to Happen

Justin Katz

I hadn't intended to attend tonight's school committee meeting in Tiverton, but I saw on the agenda that they'd be discussing the item on the floor today: full-day kindergarten, rather than the current half day. Superintendent Bill Rearick put the additional cost at $223,953 per year, although he noted that, with next year's financial difficulty — by which he means the budget hole approaching $1 million resulting from a failure to hold over any of the magic Obama money — make it financially infeasible.

It's a shame. Rather than year after year paying more for the same or fewer services, the public schools should start to add services — to increase the value of the system to the town, rather than to the employees.

7:47 p.m.

It's the theme of tonight's meeting. Now they're talking about the district's inability to adequately monitor and coordinate curriculum development across all grades because they can't afford the extra hours for teachers. Committee Member Carol Herrmann presented the choice as between canceling classes or monitoring the classes we keep.

Superintendent Rearick put the price tag at about $100,000, saying, "We know how to build a Cadillac. We know what we need. We just can't afford it. We have a survivalist budget."

And yet the committee approved retroactive raises in the middle of an open-ended recession earlier in the year.

September 14, 2009

Vlogging About Open Negotiations

Justin Katz

My latest video blog is about open negotiations, drawing on material from Tiverton, but applicable elsewhere.

I'd be especially interested in feedback on this one, inasmuch as I tried some new tricks (in an effort to throw myself at the learning curve) and am still trying to get a sense of appropriate content for the medium. Let me know your thoughts on any aspect of video that might inspire comment. In advance, I'll say that this is probably about as long as my vlogs will ever be, and yes, next time, I'll take a few minutes to shave beforehand. (Hey, it was a busy weekend.)

September 12, 2009

Open Negotiations in Tiverton

Justin Katz

Yes, this is a local instance, but I've no doubt whatsoever that similar opinions exist — and the same arguments would be made — in towns across Rhode Island, were school committees to begin considering a demand for open negotiations.

I've posted video of the discussion about the topic at the last school committee meeting in the extended entry.

Continue reading "Open Negotiations in Tiverton"

September 11, 2009

East Providence Moves Forward in Another Way

Justin Katz

From a press release just out from the East Providence School Committee:

The proposal calls for a collaboration among "stakeholders" in developing the system of evaluating teachers that will be the basis for paying them beginning in 2011. The "stakeholders" would include parents, teachers, administrators, the teachers' union and educational experts from Rhode Island and beyond.

The proposal would pay a top step "Master" teacher a base salary of over $80,000, higher than any other school department in the state.

"We're not just willing to pay for excellence, we want to pay for it," said Carcieri. "We have many, many teachers who are worth their weight in gold. It's time to stop pretending that all teachers are the same, and to reward those who go the extra mile, who really bring the best out in their students."

The details are the difficulty, of course, and the trick is getting the union to agree, inasmuch as folks will tend not to abandon a really good deal (as the teachers currently have) if there's any risk at all that obtaining a better deal will require work and will not be a sure thing. But this is a direction that the United States must pursue if it is eventually to cease its dereliction when it comes to educating younger generations.

My guess, though, is that it's yet another obvious and necessary change that is going to have to be implemented unilaterally.

Continue reading "East Providence Moves Forward in Another Way"

September 10, 2009

Mixed Messages from School Districts, and Final Decisions from the Judiciary

Justin Katz

Doesn't it seem that school districts somehow always just happen to find money? I mean, sometimes a car's brake lines just happen to go the day after it's been in the shop for a tuneup, but it's difficult to know what to make of the Woonsocket superintendent's claim that the district can now hire a few new teachers, as the state insists, without increasing the budget deficit:

Gerardi said those positions could be paid for with money that the district was receiving from the Northern Rhode Island Collaborative and by consolidating classes elsewhere in the system because of lower-than-expected enrollments that became apparent after the start of school.

For two other positions — an administrator for part of the literacy program and a librarian at the high school — Gerardi said the district believes it can show that more qualified people already on staff will be capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of those positions.

So was that collaborative money just going to be used for red balloons? Were those "qualified people" just going to be employed blowing them up? One begins to sympathize (just a little) with unions' feeling that school committees and the administrations that they direct preserve plenty of fat in their budgets that they can trim when required.

That impression adds a little bite to Education Commissioner Deborah Gist's reference, in this context, to state law requiring "maintenance of effort." It would be disconcerting to think that Ms. Gist sees the maintenance of effort clause as license to force districts to adhere to her demands.

Meanwhile, in East Providence, the embattled school committee is seeking a 3.5% increase in the municipality's contribution to its funding, even as the state demands that the city revise its plan for balancing its budget. Look, I'm thrilled about the list of items slated for increases:

The proposal calls for a 210-percent increase, from $250,000 to $776,962, in what was allocated for textbooks and instructional supplies this year. It also has more money for building and classroom maintenance (from $289,500 to $820,500); technology (from $214,682 to $489,682); and athletics and extracurricular activities (from $46,453 to $146,453).

But not only are these things that Rhode Island's townspeople should be considered as already paying for, but it can't do otherwise than leave it to judges to decide between this spending and increases in adult compensation packages. Maybe they'll rule the right way, maybe they won't. But it's way too easy to envision their joining with Gist in affirming the principle that budgets may always be balanced with an increase in taxes.

September 9, 2009

East Providence Plan Not Good Enough

Justin Katz

General Assembly Auditor General Ernest Almonte has rejected East Providence's budget balancing plan (PDF):

The City of East Providence and the School Department have a well established history of deficits. Unfortunately, the City has failed to adequately resolve its financial dilemma. The current Plan is similar to prior deficit reduction plans which proposed the sale of school buildings and dedicating meals tax revenue. I find this Plan does not provide sufficient detail. It includes speculative and uncertain elements, and does not provide calculations in support of the savings you assert will be realized. A serious deficiency in your Plan involves the teachers' union complaint pending before the Rhode Island Superior court and the State Labor Relations Board. The Plan's failure to provide for a contingency in the event the union prevails in this litigation is unacceptable. Clearly, a ruling adverse to the City would undermine your Plan. I expect the city to address its course of action if the union prevails in this litigation. The Plan also fails to eliminate the accumulated deficit by annual appropriation, over no more than five (5) years, in equal or diminshing amounts as required by law. ...

The school deficit has been accumulating for too many years and must be immediately addressed in a financially responsible fashion.

So, the school deficit must be addressed, but the city can't count on its being done via the single greatest expense in that budget.

September 8, 2009

Public Business in the Open

Justin Katz

Arriving at tonight's Tiverton School Committee meeting even a few minutes before the usual time wasn't sufficient for me to catch most of the meeting. According to the current agenda, an executive session began at 5:30, with the public meeting scheduled thereafter, and the committee is almost all the way through the scheduled topics. Luckily, I didn't miss the planned discussion of holding NEA negotiations in the open.

To be honest, I thought there'd be more people here, for that item, but perhaps the prospect of waiting out a closed session of indeterminate duration dissuaded some folks.

7:15 p.m.

I brought the video camera, although I don't plan to tape these sorts of meetings from start to finish. The particular discussion, though, is one to which I'd like to be able to make reference later.

But it does raise an interesting new problem: Contrasted with a small audio recording device, a camcorder (plus tripod) cut a figure in the room, and while it isn't my intent to be a hidden-camera guy, I also don't wish to become a focal point in the room.

Consequently, I'll have to figure out how to choose seating. The current arrangement in the high school library pretty much forces me to capture any speakers in the audience from behind.

7:38 p.m.

This isn't a complaint, but there's an extended conversation going on about AP classes and exams. The conversation began because the trends in Tiverton aren't the best, but the conversation has become general about the essential concept of AP. It's more like something from a social gathering than a meeting of an elected body. Just an observation; I wouldn't have expected the interest to be so high.

9:44 p.m. (from home)

What an astonishing conversation about open contract negotiations. Some familiar faces — none of them direct NEA union members, as far as I know — came forward to argue that the school committee shouldn't even bring up open negotiations with the union because it would start things off on the wrong foot. Put the degree of assumption aside; the committee is already in court over something about union claims that Chairman Jan Bergandy is openly declaring to be lies. The notion of good faith in these negotiations is a fantasy, a sham.

But the same people went on to argue that giving the public more information is intrinsically bad, in part because of the possibility of differing interpretations. In other words, it's better to allow participants in closed-door discussions to tell the public what their interpretation is than to let we dolts in the electorate decide for ourselves.

The kicker was when school committee member Carol Herrmann argued that if Mr. Bergandy feels that he cannot trust the union negotiators, then perhaps he shouldn't be participating in the negotiations! Think about that. The union lied about something that he said (in his view), and he is now openly and fairly raising ways in which trust can be regained and ensured, and the response — from an ostensible representative of the public! — is that he's been tainted and ought to take himself out of the picture.

It was like watching the lunchtime supervisors in middle school argue that a beaten and bloody student should proceed into a dark corner with the bully in good faith, because, honestly, really, truly, this time the bully is interested in calmly resolving differences.

Some folks expressed concern that requesting open negotiations would create costly delays in the contract creation process, but let's be honest: As I warned the committee before it made the ridiculously poor decision to approve the last contract, the union is simply not going to negotiate until the economy recovers. Precedent has proven that they'll receive retroactive pay from the economic perspective of the date that the contract is approved (i.e., in good times), and as long as they're able to hold out, they will.

August 29, 2009

Conflict Is a Big Black Marker

Justin Katz

Developments in Woonsocket are fascinating:

Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist has warned School Committee members that they could be sued and Supt. Robert J. Gerardi could have his superintendent's certification questioned if the committee follows through on its threat to defy state rulings on hiring new staff for its literacy program. ...

She warned the committee that willfully failing to comply with state and federal education laws could provide "good cause" to examine Gerardi's state certification as a superintendent. It could also leave the School Committee members personally liable under federal and state laws that require government officials to fairly discharge their duties and enforce the laws that apply to their positions.

School Committee Chairman Marc A. Dubois said the response to the committee's Wednesday night vote was not a surprise, but the tone was.

"I expected a reaction," he said, "but not as harsh or personal."

It would be easy to scoff that Dubois had a small-town understanding of the role and responsibility of municipal school committees and didn't comprehend the powers with which he was contending, and there may prove to be a certain amount of accuracy to that assessment if he is unwilling to face consequences of which is legal council should have been able to warn. More central, though, is his apparent expectation that the conflict would more immediately be addressed at a higher level of authority. If Commissioner Gist had moved the conflict up the chain in the form of an inquiry — perhaps to the judiciary — it would have entered the purview of somebody able to dictate a broader range of changes. Hearing Dubois's complaints, a judge might have gone so far as to prescribe a course of action for the school committee or the town council, thus absolving the locals of the blame.

But Gist chose to halt the process with a test of her own remedies' strength. Inasmuch as she lacks a police force, threats will have to be carried out from above, anyway, but her order for the town to address the issue will be first in line. In other words, before a judge decides whether the Woonsocket School Committee is correct in its claim that the members are merely choosing between conflicting laws and resolves the matter for them, he or she must consider the weight of the education commissioner's assessment that they are shirking their responsibility as government officials.

In essence, the question will be whether the committee's responsibility to taxpayers, and the authority deriving therefrom, or its obligation to enact state education policy is primary. Opinions about which outcome would be preferable likely break along the lines of reform strategies:

  • If the commissioner's authority is such that she can manage municipal finances under threat of superintendent decertification and challenges to elected officials' execution of their legal duties, then we've got a system of de facto regionalization, with Gist as the statewide executive.
  • If the commissioner is unable to assert her authority in this way, towns across the state will be more inclined to test their capacity for unilateral decisions, expanding the range of options open to local officials when setting policies for cities and towns.

Those who see locals as too weak and incompetent to stand against powerful interests (mainly the unions) should welcome the stronger hand of a state-level administrator. Those who see municipal offices as the most accountable to voters and available for change should prefer an education commissioner whose authority extends pretty much to the setting of guidelines and performance of assessment.

Personally, I'm of the latter mind. An authoritarian commissioner may, at first, mix forced property tax increases with new restrictions on union power, but the unions are massive organizations with endless resources, and after the initial round of hits, they'll direct those resources toward controlling the single seat in which the power of public education in Rhode Island will have been made to reside.

August 28, 2009

A Union Gotcha in the Contract

Justin Katz

Given recent developments, I thought I'd review my notes and the audio from the Tiverton School Committee meeting at which the members approved a largely retroactive contract. Several townsfolk warned the committee that approving the contract in the current economy was reckless. I specifically suggested that, former Vice Chair Mike Burk's suggestion to "hold the line" with the subsequent contract notwithstanding, the union would have every incentive to avoid negotiations at this time. But four of the five committee members thought it would be the fair, community-minded thing to pass the contract (PDF) and move on to negotiations for the next one — which should cover the upcoming school year — in a spirit of collegiality.

Well, the union must have been snickering behind its hand, with Article 31 of the approved document (carried over from the previous contract) in mind:

The provisions of this Agreement shall be effective as of September 1, 2007 and will continue and remain in full force and effect until August 31, 2009. Said Agreement will automatically be renewed and will continue in full force and effect for additional periods of one (1) year unless either the School Committee or the Association gives written notice to the other not later than December 1 of the year prior to the aforesaid expiration date, or any anniversary thereof, of its desire to reopen the Agreement and to negotiate over the terms of a successor Agreement.

Never mind that the contract wasn't approved until after the deadline, the union is insisting that notice was not given, so the contract remains in force until next year. As the Newport Daily News reports, that serves to keep all salaries where they are — with step increases continuing, of course — and prevent the school committee from realizing the increase in healthcare contributions for which it had budgeted.

Even union-friendly committee member Sally Black was "surprised" by the move. Gotcha.

See, to the union, talk of community, fairness, openness, honesty, education, and the good of children is merely a pack of cards to play. It's all about the adults and their remuneration and their benefits and their occupational comfort and soaking taxpayers for the maximum amount possible. If I were a teacher, I'd be ashamed to be associated with such an organization. As a taxpayer, I've certainly got my eye out for school committee candidates who won't be so easily fooled.

As services for students begin evaporating and taxes go up, parents and their neighbors should be careful to allocate blame where it belongs: With the calculating, manipulative union that represents the single largest expenditure in either of the town's budgets.

August 27, 2009

Two Sides of the Budget

Justin Katz

So I note from the town-by-town chart (PDF) showing the amounts saved by Governor Carcieri's plan to withhold motor vehicle tax reimbursements from the towns that Tiverton stands to lose $344,616 this year. From where, I wonder, will the money come to replace it?

As much as I don't wish to darken a potential dawn arising from the school committee, it strikes me as worth mentioning that the district received $500,951 in stimulus funds, above and beyond the explicit cap that voters placed on its appropriation at the financial town meeting. The law being what it is, it's probably not worth a taxpayer group's time and resources to fight the committee's decision to ignore that cap (even to the point of declining to put some of the windfall aside for next year), but with the municipal side of the budget suddenly short hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps the town council should consider an objection.

Just a thought.

August 25, 2009

A Quiet Rumble in the Tiverton School District

Justin Katz

As I pulled up to the Tiverton High School at the usual time for a school committee meeting, I saw two of my Tiverton Citizens for Change co-conspirators leaving. The committee scheduled an executive session for 5:00 p.m. and had worked through all of tonight's interesting public discussions before 7:00. The key results, as conveyed to me in the parking lot:

  • Chairman Jan Bergandy read a letter from local union President Amy Mullen that suggested that the union and school committee had agreed to accept the current contract as expiring next year (a brazen ploy that surfaced out of nowhere a few weeks ago). Mr. Bergandy declared Mullen's statement to be an outright lie, and the committee authorized its lawyer to take some sort of action.
  • The committee agreed to issue a statement to the General Assembly opposing any sort of legislation calling for binding arbitration.
  • The committee also put on the agenda for its next meeting discussion of conducting union negotiations openly and in public.

August 11, 2009

Strange Moments in Liveblogging and Support for School Choice

Justin Katz

It probably isn't even accurate to call this "liveblogging," but I'm at the Tiverton School Committee meeting, mostly researching contract issues online while the committee handles small matters of the sort in which most people in the world would have no interest. On the agenda are two families seeking permission to send their children to Rogers High School in Newport, and the committee and Superintendent Bill Rearick were discussing with the parents the option of handling the matter in executive session for the sake of their children's privacy.

Out of nowhere, committee member Leonard Wright "warned" the parents that I'd be putting their statements on the Internet. Not sure how I feel about that. Presumably, the meeting is being recorded for the public record anyway, and the notion that I'd dip into private details on Anchor Rising suggests that Mr. Wright has been dealing with unions for too long.

As I listen, though, it occurs to me that this sort of discussion is probably among the most important for residents, and especially parents, to be able to hear. The crux of the matter is the parents' right to enroll their children in academic programs in other districts that would better suit their needs. Their personal circumstances are largely irrelevant.

These students are already on track to participate in a part-time vocational program at Rogers (periods one and two every day), which is apparently their right under Rhode Island law. At least one of the parents is extremely disappointed in the education that her child has received over the past four years in Tiverton Middle School — specifically with the lack of helpfulness and motivation among multiple teachers — so she wants him to enroll full-time in Newport for high school.

School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy has made the argument that other parents will come forward and request to send their children to other schools — public and private — under the same logic. Good. This friction is utterly unnecessary and should be alleviated with the implementation of a statewide voucher program.

What all parents should witness is this group of five people — the school committee — standing in judgment of parents' circumstances. I don't mean this as an insult to them, but to a system in which towns collect property taxes and the state collects various other fees and taxes for the purpose of educating children, but only those who can afford to pay an additional tuition on top of that can make decisions for their own. Otherwise, they have to beg the school committee.

The district should be in the position of selling the value of their programs, not explaining why they cannot permit students to go elsewhere.

8:34 p.m.

Nobody wanted to make the motion, so Chairman Jan Bergandy took it upon himself. Carol Herrmann seconded. The vote to deny the appeal was unanimous. (They actually took a separate vote for each student, but the results were the same.)

8:36 p.m.

I wonder if the reduction of students to such utter despondency that they kick over chairs when five strangers deny them the ability to attend a school of their choice will be part of the new teacher evaluation standards. Perhaps contracts could fund the out-of-district tuition of students who've been poorly served locally.

August 7, 2009

Challenges Must Be Issued in Woonsocket

Justin Katz

Amidst all the talk about what can and might be cut in Woonsocket, this paragraph stands out:

The 40 no-pay days were intended to save about $5 million. Council President Leo T. Fontaine questioned why the committee considered that approach, saying it was a violation of federal labor law. Schools Supt. Robert J Gerardi Jr. said the plan was dead anyway, after an official notice from the Woonsocket Teachers Guild that it would not agree to it, leaving the committee trying to find other big-ticket items to eliminate.

Oh well. The union issued an "official notice"; gotta look in other places than the — by far — single greatest expense that the school district has in order to shave 10% of its budget. If that's the case, then elected officials in the town must, of course, take into account changes in the work environment in light of the cuts that have to be made.

For example, Superintendent Robert Gerardi suggested canceling all busing for all students except those classified as special education. Clearly, accommodations for parents would have to be made, to assist them in transporting their children. One helpful tweak might be to give them an extra two hours to get their kids to school in the morning, moving the lost hours to approximately twenty weekdays in the summer. On page 19, the teachers' contract (PDF via Transparency Train) states only that "the maximum hours of the school day and the number of school days shall coincide with the minimum established by the RI Board of Education."

Unless I've missed it, nowhere in the contract or in the law is a "school day" defined as occurring in tandem with a "calendar day." So, each school day would be scheduled to correspond with two calendar days, with an overnight recess. According to regulations (PDF), Commissioner Deborah Gist would have to sign off on any non-standard schedule, but she does have the authority to approve plans that maintain the number of classroom minutes over the course of the year.

I'm sure there are a number of similar... adjustments... allowable within the contract and the law that might persuade the union to be a little more altruistic. Call the strategy "employ to contract" or "employ to rule." A secondary benefit is that flooding the commissioner's and regents' offices with requests for waivers would shine a great bright spotlight on the degree to which the state is conspiring with unions to increase property taxes.

Moreover, it ought to go without saying that the school committee has an unequivocal mandate to change the terms of the contract that it offers the union next time around so as to reinstate all of the sports, extracurriculars, busing, and whatever else it shaves to meet its budget, in addition to a healthy cushion. That future contract ought to be compiled and published for the public's approval within a week. Six, ten, twenty million dollars would be easy to shake out of the deals that teachers currently get when their financial comfort is measured against the decimated education experience of young Rhode Islanders who can never have their childhoods repaired.

August 6, 2009

A Fireside Chat with Dan

Justin Katz

Alright, there wasn't really a fire, but since we're talking radio, I like to imagine that there was one. Dan Yorke and I had that sort of conversation, yesterday, on 630AM/99.7FM WPRO. Those who missed it or who would like to revisit something (for kind or scurrilous reasons) can stream the whole segment (about an hour, without commercials) by clicking here, or listen to portions:

  • On Anchor Rising, my writing habits and schedule, and blogging specifics (traffic, money, etc.): stream, download (5 min, 49 sec)
  • On our blogging mission (or obsession) and the effect that AR and blogs in general are having: stream, download (3 min, 46 sec)
  • On profiting (or not) from online writing: stream, download (4 min, 03 sec)
  • A call from Mike and discussion of "excellence" in Rhode Island and the effects of local participation, with Tiverton Citizens for Change as an example: stream, download (12 min, 45 sec)
  • On Dan's opinion that RI reformers need a "big win" and my belief that we focus on smaller victories: stream, download (2 min, 52 sec)
  • On hopelessness and a magic wand policy change in Rhode Island (public sector union busting) and the problem of regionalization: stream, download (6 min, 48 sec)
  • On what to do about unions: stream, download (2 min, 18 sec)
  • On the coalition of problems in RI and whether all are addressable by the same principle (dispersing power and building from the community up, as well as a tangent about binding arbitration: stream, download (6 min, 2 sec)
  • On the Republican Party in Rhode Island and awareness of reform groups: stream, download (4 min, 7 sec)
  • On prescriptions for Rhode Island and the lack of leaders: stream, download (6 min, 34 sec)
  • A call from Robert and discussion of Republicans and the Tea Party as a political party: stream, download (3 min, 14 sec)
  • On the Moderate Party: stream, download (2 min, 9 sec)
  • A call from John and discussion of Steve Laffey's plan: stream, download (1 min, 42 sec)

August 5, 2009

What It Means to Settle in Woonsocket

Justin Katz

It may be that news coverage of municipal issues falls into a cycle of confusion leading to disinterest leading to ignorance leading to confusion. Yesterday, John Hill and Richard Dujardin reported an event in Woonsocket as follows:

The City Council on Monday night gave its unanimous approval to a proposed out-of-court settlement that could stave off continued litigation by the School Committee over $3.69 million that the School Department is seeking from city coffers for the fiscal year that ended in June.

Today, the story has moved from the Rhode Island section to the front page with a more thorough explanation:

The good news for the city administration Tuesday was that the School Committee agreed to drop its lawsuit over a $3.69-million deficit in the last budget year.

The bad news: The anticipated deficit in the current school budget is much bigger.

There's a $6.9 million difference between the School Committee and the City Council over how much to spend on schools in this fiscal year; it jumps to $10.6 million when the 2008-09 deficit is added in. The reconciliation of those numbers is set to start Wednesday at a joint budget workshop session between the committee and the City Council.

Essentially, the school committee plugged its 2009 hole with 2010 money, and the town council, which legal precedent leaves with no authority to stop that from being done, acknowledged as much and agreed to move on to the next budget. The downside is that even the school committee's impossible plan for the next year will come up 62% shy of the budget gap. With the teachers' union digging in, the school committee surely expects the money to be found, somewhere, and that somewhere would have to be the town's taxpayers.

Of course, it's possible that all of the committee's proposed cancellations that are not protected by contract and law — sports and extracurricular activities — will remain in the final result of the wrangling to come. The people of Woonsocket, in other words, will have their elected representatives to thank for the inexorable trend in Rhode Island government of paying much, much more for much, much less.

It seems to me that taxpayers and the parents of school children should begin negotiating contracts with those whom they elect. Union contracts are held up as inviolable, while, as we're learning in Tiverton, even democratically mandated expenditure caps may be dismissed with a puff of administrative hot air.

July 22, 2009

The Travesty of the School System

Justin Katz

The union's response to the Woonsocket school committee's approved cuts — which, as Monique suggests, it hopes the judiciary will obviate — was predictable and probably wouldn't have merited mention except for the closing words of Woonsocket Teachers Guild President Richard Dipardo:

"They've cut all sports but track, all extra-curricular activities," Dipardo said. "It's just survival."

Yeah. Survival for the kids, and the minor discomfort of a pay freeze for the grown-ups, some six dozen of whom (I'm told) are approaching retirement with free healthcare grandfathered from a 1994 contract change, and after several years of 7-10% raises.

And let's not leave retired Superintendent Maureen Macera out of the mix. Here's Valley Breeze publisher Tom Ward, writing in January 2008:

A few years ago, Macera was Woonsocket's assistant superintendent, earning on average $103,000 per year for her final three years of service in that post. Three years ago, she was promoted to superintendent. Upon her promotion, she called for the elimination of the assistant superintendent's post, asking the School Committee to fold those duties into her own and asking for a much larger compensation. The School Committee agreed, and in the past three years, Macera earned $152,900 in year 1, $162,900 in year 2, and now earns $172,900 this year.

In Rhode Island, a pensioner like Macera, with more than 35 years service, receives 80 percent of their highest three years' pay. ...

Had Macera retired as assistant superintendent three years ago with a top three-year average pay of $103,000, she would have a pension of $82,400 per year.

Instead, she took the promotion and worked for a new three-year average wage of about $163,000. Her annual pension now? $130,320. For those of you without a nearby calculator, that's $2,506 per week. Oh yeah, she gets a 3 percent raise (about $75 per week) every year, too.

That deal puts Macera on the list of public employee retirees taking home six figures as a lifetime "thank you for service." A few months after Ward wrote the above, Macera retired, and the school committee hired Robert Gerardi at $150,000, with up to ten weeks of paid time off per year.

Reaching a state of mere survival, in this context, isn't typically a quirk of circumstances; it's the consequence of years of incompetence and greed. Vicious, drooling, self-fondling greed.

Turn your attention, if you can stand it, to an April 2008 article titled, "Woonsocket schools show surplus":

Macera and other urban educators are pinning their hopes to a proposed bill called the Fair Share Education Funding Formula, which Macera says would distribute state aid more equitably. The bill proposes redistributing state funds to towns and cities bases on the wealth of the community, student enrollment and the the number of special education students, English language learners and children from poor families. The bill is sponsored by Representatives Edith H. Ajello, D-Providence, and John A. Savage, R-East Providence, and Senators Rhoda E. Perry D-Providence, and Hanna M. Gallo, D-Cranston. "The formula has been used across the country. It does not increase funding but redistributes it based on these factors, making it fairer," Macera said.

Under the new system, Woonsocket would stand to get an additional $13,164,914 to be phased in over three years. Pawtucket would receive an additional $10,772,350, Providence would receive $49,674,333 and Cranston would get $14,604,658.

The Woonsocket district is already spending half of that amount, in deficit, can there be any doubt that the extra would be filched, as well?

July 19, 2009

A House of Zoning Cards Turns into a Trap

Justin Katz

Come on. You've got to laugh at the irony:

... a pitched zoning battle — ostensibly over a single sign — has horrified more than two dozen merchants and property owners who have invested their savings and their futures in this country crossroads [at Tiverton Four Corners]. ...

The hearing — over whether a tenant of Sakonnet Purls can put a second free-standing sign up on the property — has droned on for hours and involved arcane legal arguments and thousands of dollars in attorney's fees. ...

... the idyllic tableau conceals tension between the shopkeepers and a zoning ordinance which some say works against the people whose enterprises maintain the character of the village, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

The problem, as reported by Gina Macris:

For one or another reason, like size, or setback from the road, [property owner James Weir] said, none of the signs conform to the sign ordinance, which Weir asserted was written to protect the town from shopping centers and is not tailored to the historic village. ...

While the village commercial district went through [in 2000], it did not expand, leaving more than half the properties in Tiverton Four Corners — including the yarn shop — in a residential zone.

Donald Bollin, president of the Town Council then as he is now, cast the deciding vote in 2000.

At the time, Bollin said, he was swayed by residents who "thought the commercial district was already too much."

"In the end, enough of the residential people were concerned about the traffic," said Bollin.

While Bollin believes he made the right decision nine years ago, some recent zoning decisions — unrelated to Four Corners — have opened his eyes to the fact that the zoning ordinance envisions nonconforming uses will eventually disappear.

They may or may not. The larger problem is that strict regulations and a reliance on "non-conforming" uses creates a minefield when consensus proves not to be as strong as previously thought or rams into the individual interests of an insider. In an attempt to block brand-named stores (which would probably do very well with such an isolated community) while ensuring that small shops emerging into the void remained rustic rather than ragged, all while micromanaging traffic for the locals, the town set up a system whereby most development would have to be individually reviewed. That permits the desired subjectivity empowering zoning and council officials to block (for example) a CVS wrapped in a planning-board-mandated bucolic veneer.

When a town management strategy relies too heavily on the wink-wink-nod method of site-plan approval, however, the potential always exists for somebody to stop nodding and frown, instead.

July 16, 2009

Gutting the District in Woonsocket

Justin Katz

For those who need a bright light in the lazy days of a tardy summer, here are the cuts approved by the Woonsocket School Committee last night (PDF, including other documentation):

  • All sports except track & field: $155,903
  • Athletic supplies: $12,750
  • Athletic uniforms: $9,350
  • Choral, class advisors 8 through 12, RI Honor Society, band, drama senior high publication, VICA: $49,461
  • Saturday detention: $2,000
  • 40 teacher furlough days: $6,084,033
  • Total: $6,548,134

Pondering what students are going to do with no teachers for 40 of the school year's 180 days brings to light a general principle that seems to have been baked into the Rhode Island education paradigm: Everything must be cut, rather than reduced. Salaries never go down; staff are laid off. Extra activities are never included in teachers' already high salaries; they are eliminated. An across-the-board cut in the combined salaries/benefit total of about 13-14% for all teachers, staff, and administrators would eliminate the shortfall with no cuts to programs.

Sure, that's a bitter pill for employees to swallow, but it's hardly unique among workers in today's environment. It's also mitigated with some perspective about salary trends, especially (as ever) among teachers:

Over the three years of the most recent teachers' contract (PDF), the average pay scale step has increased 7.64%. In any given year, the average salary increase from one step to another is 6.5%. The result is that an actual teacher has seen nearly a 10% increase each year and a 21.5% increase in salary since the contract went into effect. (Higher education bonuses are not included.)

Of course, teachers at step 10 have had to make do with the 7.64% increase to their step and longevity (as well as whatever seniority-based perks are worked into the contract), but sometimes an organization has to do what it must do in order to maintain its purpose. And besides, those teachers hired before 1994 (about 70 of them, I'm told) have never paid a penny for their healthcare.

It remains a possibility — another principle baked into the public sector paradigm — that the objective, here, was to put forward cuts that the unions, government, and public wouldn't permit to happen rather than adjustments that might actually solve the problem. Eventually, everybody involved is going to have to cease petulant demands that money just be found... somewhere... and accept that the old way is not sustainable.

July 15, 2009

So This Is Woonsocket

Justin Katz

Almost an hour late, I finally made it to the Woonsocket School Committee meeting — I'll confess that the I-Way change got me — and just caught the tail end of the consent agenda. That's quite a difference from Tiverton, where tardiness of five minutes is apt to see the first page or more of the agenda completed. The room is mostly full, with maybe two dozen people, but hardly what one would expect during a time of tough decisions.

So far, I've heard mostly complaints about the General Assembly — with which complaints I'm enormously sympathetic, of course, but when a $6 million deficit is on the table, perhaps it's time to skip the complaints against higher authority.

8:03 p.m.

I have to wonder if part of the difference between this meeting and my imagination of what a Tiverton School Committee meeting (let alone an East Providence School Committee meeting) would be under similar circumstances is the union that represents the teachers. Woonsocket is AFT, while those districts in the East Bay are NEA. Or maybe it's just the difference between my home region and the Deep North, over here.

8:14 p.m.

Well OK, then. Apparently the reason they were just wrapping up the consent agenda when I got here was that they took the budget discussion out of order and front-loaded it. Monique was here on time, and although she's not versed on the specifics, she said it sounded as if they cut a multitude of things. The email that tipped me off to tonight's significance explained the result as follows:

Nobody is advertising much about it, but the new budget will be based on assumed concessions from the unions (I'm told upwards of a 10% pay cut), waivers of certain regulations (nothing specific that I have been made aware of), and there will be cuts in all areas of extracurricular activities (all sports except boys and girls track & field and all but one of each program in music and arts).

So they will be cutting football, baseball, softball, soccer, fieldhockey, tennis, volleyball, golf, wrestling, basketball, theater, debate, math team, jazz band, all Middle school programs, and others I'm sure I can't remember. On the academic side, for the fifth year in a row, the only textbooks to be purchased will be those provided to the catholic school students as required by law (they are the only ones academically protected), supplies will be cut to a bare minimum, the only capital project will be a repair to a leaking high school roof, and whatever else is not commited by law and class size limitations.

That would explained why School Committee Chairman Marc Dubois was joking about taking a lesson from the governor and putting forward a budget that's balanced on paper only.

I've got to say that the casual atmosphere, here, is almost disconcerting. As I drove in, the lazy summer evening feel of the streets brought to mind the degree to which most residents are oblivious to the actions of their local, state, and even national government representatives. Given the points of levity, it's almost as if that mood has infiltrated even the bodies that those representatives populate.

8:33 p.m.

Another topic on which it's possible to hear angst is the failure of the state government to pass legislation (PDF) allowing the district to institute a uniform/dress code policy. Being both conservative and working class, I'm a fan of uniforms in school... one obvious point of in-school disputes and discrimination is removed, and it's a lot easier to get the kids out the door in the morning.

Another small thing that I've noticed, and that may or may not be significant, is that the committee's agenda (PDF) calls for a moment of silence before the Pledge of Allegiance. Interesting.

8:46 p.m.

A member of the audience who's in the know informs me that the reason the room isn't filled into the hallway is that nobody in town knows what's just happened. There is allegedly an intention among school committee members to swirl the cuts around offices of authority in the hopes that somebody, somewhere — commissioner, judge — will mandate that the money be taken from somebody — state, taxpayers — to remedy what is, in point of fact, the current circumstance of the Woonsocket school system, as described in the block quote above.

9:04 p.m.

The same member of the audience just explained to me that the teachers' pay cut that the just-passed budget assumes comes in the form of 40 furlough days — roughly 20% of pay.

It's astonishing that even the union isn't in the room creating that tension that they create so well.

July 14, 2009

Giving Cards to the Other Side

Justin Katz

The Tiverton School Committee is discussing whether to grant a leave of absence to an elementary school art teacher, and it's a strange circumstance. Apparently, the custom is to discuss such matters vaguely, so Superintendent Bill Rearick is offering details only inasmuch as is necessary to rebut reluctance from the school committee, but some details have come out:

  • The teacher received a layoff notice, as required by law.
  • She found another job.
  • Additional funds enabled the district to cancel the layoff notice.
  • The teacher is seeking a leave of absence so that she'll have until early next year to decide whether to stay at her new job or to return.

The downside, as I'm hearing it, is that the district can expect a larger pool of applicants — perhaps with an upward shift of quality — if the position is explicitly on the permanent track.


Interestingly, union president Amy Mullen, who was granted a maternity leave of absence just before, responded to a question from committee member Danielle Coulter about the affect of the duration of the opening on the applicant pool by saying, "If I'm an art teacher looking for employment, I'll take whatever I can get in this economic environment." This statement of bald fact is interesting because I've been arguing that the school committee should keep precisely this in mind when handling negotiations with the union.

Also interesting was committee member Carol Herrmann's progression during the discussion. Known as one of the union-friendly members of the committee, Herrmann was clearly arguing in favor of granting the leave. What's peculiar is that she appeared to have thought through the arguments, beforehand, but she started from a stance nearing ambivalence. Like Rearick, she played her cards only as necessary, finally arguing that the district put the teacher in a "stressful position." I wonder how many folks in the private sector make the decision, every year, to simply turn down jobs that they've taken in expectation of a layoff that didn't materialize.

The leave of absence request failed, with Herrmann and Sally Black as the two votes to grant.

7:45 p.m.

There was no handout covering the budget discussion, and I've been typing, so I might have missed important details. It appears, however, that the district administrators (Supt. Rearick and Director of Administration and Finance Doug Fiore) intend to blow off the voters' requirement that the district stick to the dollar amount that was approved at the financial town meeting and treat that amount as creating a budget gap to be filled with stimulus money.

7:53 p.m.

Bill & Doug noted that, if the stimulus money isn't repeated next year, the district will be facing a $800,000 deficit — or $100,000+ more than the district is supposed to be trimming as a result of the FTM.

They're talking about closing a school. Oddly, nobody has suggested a few percent across-the-board cut in combined salaries and benefits; they go right for cutting positions, even though there is no contract yet for next year.

Why are they afraid to put forward such an obvious and reasonable solution?

8:05 p.m.

Again, I don't have the paperwork, but it sounds as if extracurricular activities and athletic programs are on Rearick's hit list. Can't help but wonder whether this is all part of the strategy to motivate parents to turn out at next year's FTM and vote for more money.

8:19 p.m.

Yup. Committee President Jan Bergandy just noted that the district "avoided a catastrophe" thanks to the stimulus money and suggested that the district "provide additional information for parents" as to the consequences of cuts.

8:25 p.m.

A high school nurse just received a reduction in hours.

From home:

Here's audio of NEA-Tiverton President and NEARI Treasurer Amy Mullen arguing — in response to a question from School Committee Member Danielle Coulter — that it's an employer's market when it comes to teachers: stream, download.

July 10, 2009

The Pervasive Structure of Rhode Island Corruption

Justin Katz

It would be the work of a lifetime of academic study to unravel the thread, but I've been increasingly impressed (in a bad way) with the intricacies of Rhode Island's structural corruption. It's as if certain principles of the culture filter throughout local society to create an organic network whose instinctual task is to create little pools of power and influence that political parasites can siphon and share.

Take, for example, local zoning regulations. A busy-body factor comes into play, as does a back-roads totalitarianism that seeks to freeze a town in time, but the effect of stringent permitting and zoning codes is to force individual approval (variances) of projects. When every change to one's property must be made "legal, non-conforming," a local board gains the power of arbitrary judgment; the projects are already contrary to the law, so the legal guidelines for arguing in their favor are limited, and the aesthetic and political guidelines are vague. It behooves residents, therefore, to have influential people around town think kindly of them, and it creates an advantage for, say, building contractors who have conspicuous success rates acquiring variances for their clients.

This story reeks of the insidious structure:

A Town Council proposal to expand the governing board of the Johnston Housing Authority from five members to seven has hit a roadblock in the General Assembly, where a key lawmaker says it appears the move is meant to "target someone" in a political squabble.

Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield, who heads the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government, on Thursday, June 25, refused to release the enabling legislation for a floor vote. The bill was introduced by Rep. Deborah Fellela, a Johnston Democrat — whose husband, Henry, swore at Tassoni after the chairman shelved her legislation.

"It's quite obvious after what I went through on Thursday that there's a vendetta in Johnston and I'm not going to be part of it," said Tassoni. He declined to say who might be the "target" of the legislation.

Obviously, Tassoni's declaration that he doesn't want "to be a part" of a "vendetta" in a town that he does not represent is nonsense. First of all, the way for him to have stayed out of the squabble would have been to step back from the proposal and let it move to a vote; by blocking it, he's made his action much more intrinsic to the outcome. More significantly, it makes for an incoherent thought to call the broadening of power a "vendetta" — whereas, shrinking the board would push somebody out — unless one is protecting the influence of an individual member and sees that heightened power as a right.

The question is, which of the Housing Authority's commissioners wields his or her influence in such a way that a state senator from another town has an interest in girding it? And what reciprocity might there be?

Don't Bind Elected Unionists; Force Them Out

Justin Katz

Last night, Matt Allen made the point that Congressman Patrick Kennedy's perpetual reelection makes his antics most profoundly an indictment of the voters who keep sending him back to Washington. The same is true of most corruption at the state and local levels, and I'm not sure, therefore, whether the proper route to reform is to leverage an unelected government panel, the Ethics Commission, to build low barriers around school committee members who are also teachers' union members in another town:

Groups such as Operation Clean Government and Common Cause Rhode Island argue that the rules should be tightened, because how public officials act on union matters in their communities could affect their own unions. Labor contracts in one town are often cited in negotiations in another town. And local unions are often affiliated with the same statewide union.

Defenders of the status quo argue that the current ethics rules are sufficient. The Ethics Commission has held repeatedly that there is no financial or business relationship between a public official who belongs to a union in another town and a union negotiator.

Realistically, the single largest task of any school committee member is to vote up or down on negotiated contracts, so removing the ability to make that vote effectively denudes an elected official. Anything short of disallowing that vote — or even disallowing the candidacy — places an Ethics Commission stamp of approval on the problem itself. That, I must admit, puts me in agreement with a crowd with which I'm typically at odds:

George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, countered that further restrictions would unfairly limit a public official’s ability to participate in the democratic process. Voters are aware of the backgrounds of the people they elect, he said. That position was echoed by lawyer Robert Mann, who spoke on behalf of Working Rhode Island, a coalition of labor organizations.

The tasks before those of us who see the problems are to educate the public and to move preferred candidates into office. It's a long, slow process — and, given the emigration of some of our natural allies, not at all a sure thing — but people are beginning to awaken to the damage that's been done. Having identified the methods by which the unions and others have done that damage, our best use of that information would be to inspire opposition and motivated participation — at the local level, first, and then, with the advantage of a statewide farm team, at the state and then national levels.

Otherwise, it's not inconceivable that we may find our own methods of instituting constraint through the Ethics Commission binding our own hands in the future.

July 2, 2009

Corruption and Dollars

Justin Katz

Andrew and Matt spoke of "speech in debate" and political corruption in Rhode Island Matt Allen Show, as well as Andrew's posts (1 and 2) on town taxation. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

Caruolo Not a Foregone Conclusion

Justin Katz

As a threatening cudgel to wave during negotiations and town meetings — allowing school committees to declare that they'll just take what they "need" and unions contriving to force them to do so — the Caruolo Act is still an insidious force in Rhode Island politics. But with the move being denied in West Warwick, it would appear that many of us, including school committees and unions, expected it to be a bit more of a rubber stamp:

Judge Steven P. Nugent, in a ruling from the bench, dismissed the School Committee's Caruolo suit against the town, saying that school officials didn't even try to balance their fiscal 2009 budget after voters at the Financial Town Meeting limited their spending to $49.2 million — roughly $4 million less than they had requested.

Nugent said the committee had failed to heed the state law requiring that it give the town and the state auditor general a corrective action plan within five days of realizing that it would have a substantial shortfall.

Although this may be good news in the long run, in the short term for West Warwick, it will require cuts in programs and services. Plan B, in other words, will not be to tighten belts on payroll, but to limit benefits to the town and its children. And it's not as if belt tightening would be egregious. According to the district's budget plan released in March 2008 (PDF via Transparency Train), making up the $3.3 million that the district sought through Caruolo would require merely a 6.7% cut in the combined salary/benefit totals for next year's projected budget. Salary/benefits, by the way, were projected to go up 5.4%. The amount of actual cuts to current salary and benefit amounts would be approximately 1.4%.

Cry me a river.

You'll recall that the 2009-2010 school year is the so-called "fourth year" that the school committee tried to opt out of in the teachers' contract — which it was contractually permitted to do. After a few months of damaging work-to-rule by the teachers, the committee relented. The result (PDF) is that teachers' salaries are contracted as follows, with the categories after step 10 (10 years of service) incorporating longevity payments:

Step 2008-2009 2009-2010 % increase in step % increase in pay
1 $40,802 $41,822 2.5 NA
2 $44,273 $45,379 2.5 11.2
3 $47,743 $48,937 2.5 10.5
4 $51,212 $52,492 2.5 9.9
5 $54,683 $56,050 2.5 9.4
6 $58,153 $59,607 2.5 9.0
7 $61,624 $63,165 2.5 8.6
8 $65,093 $66,720 2.5 8.3
9 $68,564 $70,278 2.5 8.0
10 $72,034 $73,835 2.5 7.7
11 to 14 $72,926 $74,750 2.5 3.8
15 to 19 $73,819 $75,665 2.5 3.8
20 to 24 $74,711 $76,579 2.5 3.7
25 to 29 $75,603 $77,494 2.5 3.7
30+ $76,495 $78,409 2.5 3.7

And that's not all; extra payments for other activities are all going up, as well. Summer school will pay $42 per hour, rather than $40.50 per hour (3.7%). Substitutes will get about 4.5% more (to around $110 per day, depending on the length of the assignment). Teachers who cover other teachers' classes will see a 3.7% increase in the resulting payment, to $42. Tutors will see the same. Extracurricular pay is going up approximately 2.5%, with the student council adviser, for example, getting $2,510 rather than $2,450. The bonus payments for graduate credits and degrees are all going up — an average of 2.6% (to $4,200 for a Master's in the teacher's field).

All with a 7% share of healthcare premiums.

Little wonder the teachers were willing to damage their students' educations back in 2007! Little wonder, as well, that Rhode Island's schools are in their sorry state.

June 28, 2009

Private School as Money Saver

Justin Katz

Think about this, from amidst the continuing saga of the West Warwick school budget:

After one resident learned that it costs about $15,000 to educate each child in West Warwick, she suggested that the town simply send its students to private Catholic schools. [Town Council Member Angelo] Padula quickly agreed, saying, "If we sent 200 children to a private school, Prout is $9,500. LaSalle is $9,800. We would save $6,000 per child."

For those who've learned under new math techniques (or do not have a calculator handy), $6,000 times 200 children is $1.2 million. As a bonus, with those millions of dollars in savings, Rhode Island private school students on average score 200 points higher on the SATs than their public-school peers.

(Yeah, I'm aware of the arguments about demographics. Just sayin'...)

June 25, 2009

When Negotiators Are Using Monopoly Money

Justin Katz

Think of the attitude expressed, here, by West Warwick School Committee Chairwoman Lindagay Palazzo:

"Regardless, whether we win or lose [their Caruolo lawsuit], the town is responsible for our bills," Palazzo said. "They're going to have to pay them anyway."

One wonders what effect that point of view has on Mrs. Palazzo's negotiation tactics. One also isn't surprised to learn that she just retired (PDF) from her $80k job (PDF) as a Clinical Training Specialist with Rhode Island College's Child Welfare Institute.

Being in the public sector tends to impart the belief that somebody else has to pick up every professional bill that public "servants" manage to rack up — the racking up of which seems to become their central goal.

June 23, 2009

A Press Release to Emulate

Justin Katz

East Providence School Committee Chairman Anthony Carcieri has issued a press release on which other elected representatives throughout the state should take notes:

On being informed that NEA has voted "no confidence" in the East Providence School Committee, its Chair, Anthony Carcieri, said this.

"So what’s new? No union is going to give a big vote of confidence when they're told they have to contribute to their health insurance. It's unfortunate, but it's the way of the world. That all happened six months ago. We've moved past it. We're bringing technology to our students for the first time in the Fall. Our Vocational School is launching innovative new programs that will catapult our students forward. We're pushing forward a revolutionary initiative to raise the quality of special education in East Providence to World Class standards. These are just some of the things we’ve accomplished in the last six months, as we are bringing the school system back from the brink of bankruptcy.

What has NEA done in the last six months?

They put on red shirts and disrupt School Committee meetings. They say they want to bargain, but they never schedule a meeting. They try to stop innovation. They demand that we raise taxes and go deeper in debt.

The East Providence Schools will be a magnet for students from other communities within the next few years. We will be a magnet for creative energetic teachers who put kids first. We don't need teachers who want to spend their time parading around like the Red Army. We need teachers who will help us to prepare our kids to deal with an increasingly competitive world.

We're told that NEA has threatened to tell their members to leave our school system. Any teacher who doesn't want to be a part of what's going on here should do what NEA says. We're building to be the best. We're putting the students first. Any teacher who doesn't want to be a part of that should follow NEA's direction.

Remember, we pay our teachers better than 90% of the school teachers in America. The teachers' union just can’t get over the fact that we had to retrench a little bit in January so we could pay their salaries in June. This is the time to focus on delivering the best education for our students without breaking the backs of our taxpayers. It's time to get over it. We have a lot of work left to do to raise the performance of our schools. We have to do a better job for the kids. That's our focus, and it’s the focus of most of our teachers."

June 18, 2009

Jim Quinlan: Another $25,000 Wasted by the Cranston School Department

Engaged Citizen

According to a Projo article by Randy Edgar:

The [Cranston] School Department will pay outgoing Supt. M. Richard Scherza $25,000 this summer to work as a consultant and help with the transition to a new superintendent, according to an agreement signed last month.

Scherza will work on an as-needed basis during July and August, providing "technical assistance" and helping in areas such as community and government relations.

In a city whose school department is struggling, to say the least, to balance a budget filled with years of giveaways and mismanagement, it is curious that the School Committee would vote unanimously to continue to keep Mr. Scherza on board on an "as needed basis."

Budget session after budget session has been filled with program cuts and layoffs — directly affecting our children. EPIC, middle school sports, guidance vounselors, and teaching positions have all been on the table, yet the committee has found $25,000 to pay Mr. Scherza more than he was making while employed by the department.

If in-coming Superintendent Peter Nero was not qualified to sit in the big boy chair (after 3 years of working directly under Scherza), the committee should have not rushed to promote him in one week. If he is qualified, then the elected representatives should insist that he does the job.

I brought this concern to a School Committee member who told me that "because this was a personnel matter we could not discuss it." I would like to know since when an independent contractor is a personnel member of the School Department.

We deserve to know what Mr. Scherza's contract says and what his duties will be. I am not ready yet to deem this decision as corrupt, but it is certainly a poor business decision and another example of the School Committee's lack of leadership.

Jim Quinlan is the chairman of the Cranston GOP.

June 9, 2009

Trudging Through the School Budget

Justin Katz

Amazingly enough, I get email from people around the country who don't care about Tiverton politics! That's like not caring about politics in the Shire. Well, yeah, I know; these things have to be fictionalized in order to emphasize the undercurrents.

One issue of national interest, though, is the arrival of the first infusion of federal "stimulus" money. In Rhode Island's case, the "stimulus" is more like defibrillator funds. From the school's perspective, the federal dollars are merely a replacement for state dollars. Superintendent Bill Rearick expressed a wary hope that various one-time dollars might help the district to get through this year's financial trouble, with a stress on the one-time part.

May 29, 2009

The Differences in Barrington

Justin Katz

So why did Barrington buck the school-budget-cutting trend? I'd say that there are three factors, the most important of which being the track record of the schools themselves.

As Andrew illustrated yesterday, Barrington's schools are arguably the best in Rhode Island. Of course, as even the union will argue when it suits its purposes, it's very difficult to tease those results apart from demographics, but one can make some interesting observations about spending. First of all, the district's per-student spending on teachers is relatively low; a spreadsheet that I've developed over time places the town as 23rd in the state for this measure. Indeed, Barrington's per student spending on just about everything is relatively low.

One other curiosity is the structure of the town's steps. For the 2007-2008 school year, the town was seventh from the top in pay for its highest step, but eight from the bottom in average step. Plotting all of the state's step structures on a line graph (covering the 2008-2009 school year) illustrates why:

Barrington doesn't escape the middle and back of the pack, in teacher pay, until the upper steps. The town also has relatively high longevity and higher-degree bonuses. In other words, one could surmise that the Barrington school district strains within the very narrow limits of the union step structure to reward desired behavior. It ain't a merit system, but it has some related features.

The second factor that I would note as explanation for the results of Barrington's financial town meeting is probably less consequential, but related. It's a relatively wealthy suburb, especially compared with some of the more politically heated towns in the news lately.

The third factor — once again related and once again of less significance — is that the taxpayer group formation in Barrington is tied, in its inchoate form, to property revaluations, especially on higher-end homes. The currently active (as opposed to potential) constituency is not as broad as with, say, Tiverton Citizens for Change, which has resulted from a mix of working-class and fixed-income ire, general response to suspicious political games at last year's financial town meeting, and (yes) property-tax concerns.

It isn't my intention to offer opinion on the Barrington voters' action, the other night, or to suggest a direction in which the town should head. Among the things that I love about Rhode Island, however, and among the reasons I'm hesitant to jump on the regionalization bandwagon, is that one really can look around at each municipality as a self-contained segment of the statewide experiment.

May 26, 2009

The Real Discussion Happens in the Dark

Justin Katz

A pre-meeting executive session has occupied the Tiverton School Committee for the past hour and fifteen minutes. About twenty minutes ago, Chairman Jan Bergandy and Vice Chairwoman Sally Black stepped into the auditorium to announce that a discussion of legal issues related to the budget would delay them for another fifteen.

Although my reader-funded high-speed Internet makes my entire office essentially mobile, I do wonder whether there ought to be some sort of start-time clause in public meeting laws.

I'll admit that it was kinda neat to sit in an empty auditorium for forty-five minutes. (The teachers who are no in the room with me were hanging out in the lobby area.) Pleasant memories of practicing piano in a mostly dark auditorium during study hall seventeen years ago.

And here comes the committee...

8:30 p.m.

The budget discussion has begun with the pivotal nature of state and federal aid. Supt. Bill Rearick suggested that everything is speculative until those numbers are in. (Of course, he was a bit less circumspect when telling the Sakonnet Times that children are going to be hurt.

8:37 p.m.

About eight of the 24 or so teachers in the room left when the agenda moved on from the budget to the district's strategic plan. Just sayin'.

8:54 p.m.

And that's it. Short meeting... once the waiting was over. Of all of these meetings that I've attended, this was by far the most promotional of the students' activities. That's a good thing, and prudent, too, given the realities of budget formation. For one thing, it shows an increased appreciation for the importance of bringing the community into the various processes.

The next step should be to find ways to increase the percentage of per-student spending that goes toward such activities.

May 18, 2009

Municipal Increases Are Mainly Pay and Benefits

Justin Katz

This story on the likely decreases in state aid to municipalities appears to break apart two categories of spending that are very closely related (emphasis added):

Indeed, the numbers suggest that municipalities have largely avoided the budget cuts that swept across state government in recent years, according to a report to be released this week by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Since 2004, "the increase in local government expenditures has outpaced the growth in the state general fund budget, [the consumer price index], and personal income in almost every year," the report says. "The majority of this expenditure growth has been to support education spending, which accounts for the majority of local spending; however, spending on employee benefits is the second-fastest increasing component of municipal budgets."

In point of fact, most of the increase in education spending has gone toward employee pay and benefits. Treating education as its own all-inclusive category blurs the story. And that story relates to a point made later in the article:

The governor has introduced legislation to eliminate most of the mandates. But the Democrat-controlled Assembly has been reluctant to support the Republican governor's initiatives, most of which are opposed by organized labor.

Labor has the RI system structured so well in its favor, that there isn't much by way of reform that won't disrupt its schemes to some degree. Yet, they must be disrupted, and both union members and elected representatives must soften their opposition.

May 12, 2009

A New Dawn for Tiverton Education... or Is It Dusk?

Justin Katz

A larger-than-usual crowd is in t Tiverton High School library for the first school committee after the financial town meeting cut the district's budget by $627,247. A healthy TCC showing; the rest, I assume, are teachers and sympathizers.

School Committee Chairman: "Our only priority in dealing with this cut is to protect our students, and to make sure that our students are impacted as little as possible... everything else is secondary."

7:17 p.m.

They're going to speak vaguely for public consumption and reserve specific strategies for executive session because, as Bergandy put it: "We have to explore possible legal consequences."

Carroll Hermann started by thanking those who showed up at the FTM and voted against the cut. "With $600,000, everyone will get hurt. No one will walk away whole."

7:21 p.m.

Sally Black is taking a general tack, currently suggesting that, at a certain point, "tinkering" with the "delicate balance" has to stop.

She's emphasizing the "fair funding formula" from the state, pointing to a clause in proposed legislation reading "regardless of annual availability of state revenues."

Mild dig at Budget Committee members who didn't vote with the budget they proposed.

7:27 p.m.

Bergandy suggested that, when the state is done cutting, the shortfall may reach a million dollars.

TCC member Joe Souza is speaking, saying that the cut wasn't to "hurt the kids." Scoffs from the teachers in the room: "Yes it was."

7:29 p.m.

"We need to stand up in this town and make some noise... together." Too much in-fighting.

"It's not the Tiverton taxpayers against this school committee."

Guidance Counselor Lynn Nicholas — who is heavily involved in the union — thinks that lawsuits against the town "need seriously to be considered."

Now she wants to know what advocacy the school committee will pursue to get parents to the town meeting.

7:35 p.m.

One teacher wants to form an organization to battle TCC. My impression was that the union and the town Democrats were organized for such purposes.

How absurd that a small group fighting back can make these people feel that the process was somehow unfairly tilted.

7:37 p.m.

Bill Rearick just read the new charter amendment that prevents town funds from advocating for causes.

Sally Black described an undue concern about what it allowed her to do.

7:41 p.m.

A reader just emailed to remind me of Lynn Nicholas's comment during contract disputes: if the committee does not pass the contract, there will be "a lot of harm done — some financial, some not."

The audio is here. Full quote:

Before I ask Doug a question, I just need to make it clear that, if the award is not agreed upon tonight, there will be a lot of harm done. Some of it will be financial; a lot of it will not be, and I'm not going to go into detail.

When you make a statement like that when you're looking for money for yourself, you don't have a whole lot of credibility to villainize taxpayers as hurting children.

7:51 p.m.

And business moves on to sex offender notification and heating oil bids.

7:54 p.m.

At last night's town council, apparently at the beginning (why I missed it), Council Vice President Joanne Arruda made a point during the consent agenda segment of expressing opposition to a petition to end the Caruolo act and another to allow town councils power over teacher contracts.

7:58 p.m.

It just occurred to me that one of the speakers during the financial town meeting segment of this meeting pointed out that services to students have been declining for years. She was making the point that parents will leave town if the new cut exacerbates the problem; I'd note that TCC is less than a year old.

The NEA-RI has been around for quite a while, though...

8:02 p.m.

And out into the night...

May 11, 2009

The Meeting After

Justin Katz

I apologize to readers from elsewhere for all the Tivertonalia 'round here lately, and I've got so much on my plate, right now, that I wasn't intending to come to tonight's Town Council meeting. But rumors that the council might (at some point) call for a special financial town meeting for a redo vote and the fact that discussion of Saturday's result is on the agenda for this evening persuaded me that it would be prudent to be in the room.

Of course, I've also heard whispers from my allies about town that a second round might be fun, perhaps to go back for the municipal cuts that the 1:00 p.m. deadline prevented in round 1. Me, I'd prefer that the town spend a year in these new waters before any more such tugs of war.

7:49 p.m.

Discussion of the financial town meeting was limited to an announcement that Michael Smith won the FTM moderator position, 373 to 312, and a vote to send a letter of thanks and compliment to Mike Burk for his job at the last one.

8:31 p.m.

During the administrator's announcement and comments section, Council Member Louise Durfee asked Administrator Jim Goncalo what the effect will be of the council's failure to secure an additional $300,000 for abatement. He'll reply at the next meeting.

8:36 p.m.

And now into executive session for a "quick" discussion about unspecified litigation.

Myopia Versus the Long View in Rhode Island

Justin Katz

Self-described newcomer to local politics, Brian Gough, has a letter on the Sakonnet Times Web site criticizing reformers' efforts. Individuals' understanding of the appropriate actions of elected representatives, particularly those in leadership roles, may vary, and differences of opinion aren't necessarily worth the expenditure of much heat. But Mr. Gough's snap assessment of the sides makes an egregious error:

The level of passion behind the actions taken at this meeting was apparent. I am a realist, and quickly did the math. I realize the impact of a small group's efforts to push their agenda is minimal in the short term but the impact on our long term financial viability is extreme. They are selling us out for a short-term reduction in our taxes, and willing to risk our long-term values (home value, bond viability, etc.) Based on this, I must question whether I am a short- or long-term resident of this town. The answer is easy, I am here for the long term, and based on this, I will focus my energy on what will help all of us for the long term.

Members of Tiverton Citizens for Change, as the most local representatives of our broader movement, take a very long view of the actions and the changes necessary to renew our town, our state, and our nation. Those who think we see each cut in terms of its immediate affect on our tax bills miss the point and are likely to stop following the thread before they've come to the real structural problems that we're trying to address.

May 10, 2009

Where Tiverton Goes from Here

Justin Katz

Saturday morning, a majority of electors at the Tiverton financial town meeting (FTM) for 2009 voted to cut the Budget Committee's recommended school department budget by $627,247 — explicitly subtracting $174,054 from the local contribution and $453,193 from the expected general state aid. Owing to a Budget Committee resolution passed earlier in the meeting, any "federal, state, or local government aid" in excess of that amount would be "returned to the Town's General Fund as a surplus."

If not for a time limit before the meeting would automatically have recessed until the following week — thus risking a repeat of last year's performance — the municipal budget could have experienced a similar cut.

As one might expect, rumors (aka threats) of litigation are already circulating, and Rhode Islanders have been conditioned to see such actions as unavoidable consequences of cold process. As with children decrying the restrictions imposed by peer pressure, the excuse will go out from officials and union members alike that laws, mandates, and contracts leave them no choice. Adults should understand that there are always choices, the question being who refuses to make the right ones.

In evaluating the path forward, Tiverton should recall to mind two antecedents without which Saturday's result would likely have been quite different: the suspicious outcome of last year's FTM and the imprudent raise and retroactive giveaway to the teachers' union in January. Both galvanized those of us who see a need for an overhaul of priorities, and both compounded the difficulty of dealing with current financial strain.

For all the shades of gray, there are really only two paths forward. Our representatives can take the taxpayers' cue and push back on those whom they've previously perceived as tying their hands — the unions and the state. Or our representatives can continue fighting reformers and attempting to move as much of their habitual agenda as possible.

If they choose the former approach, they'll force the unions and state lawmakers to accept the mantle of intransigence against financial reality and taxpayers' demands. They'll also find eager support amidst a growing wave of active citizens with their eye on transforming Rhode Island into the national leader that it ought to be.

If they choose the latter approach — if they cling to the remnants of a withering status quo, if they continue to pile on the antecedents to escalation — they might just push an increasingly organized opposition to the next level of involvement: namely, campaigns for office.

May 9, 2009

Rule of Lawyer: Tiverton Town Solicitor Andrew M. Teitz and Disenfranchisement of a Lowly Blogger

Justin Katz

Reflection has not changed my opinion, stated while liveblogging, that Mike Burk, the moderator of today's financial town meeting in Tiverton made every effort to be fair and, on the whole, succeeded. That said, he did make a few substantial errors, one of which brings into stark relief a problem of governance pervasive in Rhode Island — namely, the undue power of hired attorneys in the conduct of school and municipal business.

I am neither an experienced parliamentarian nor a lawyer, so in the flow of the meeting, I focused more on principle than on procedural law. Moreover, as is evidenced by my ready willingness to modify an amendment that I'd made to the proposed school budget, I wasn't heavily invested in the specific numbers that I put forward. But it is my opinion that Tiverton Town Solicitor Andrew M. Teitz strove to disenfranchise me as a taxpaying voter in the town, and that Moderator Burk permitted him to accomplish that goal.

As I offered the initial discussion on my amendment, Solicitor Teitz interrupted to make a point of order (stream, download):

Teitz: Excuse me, I have a point of order. The number that you suggested for the appropriation is 20,046,960; is that correct? Which is actually less than the number that was appropriated last year.
Burk: Which means that that is out of order, am I catching that?
Teitz: Yeah, the state law requires that they receive at least as much... that the appropriation be at least as much as it was in the previous year.
Katz: My understanding, though, is that if the number of students declines, maintenance of effort permits an adjustment downward.
Burk: I will rule that out of order if it is below the number that was appropriated last year.
Audience: No.
Teitz: You are correct; it can be adjusted if you have the information on that.
Katz: I'm not aware that I actually need that information to pass an amendment. These are questions of... I mean, if people distrust my number, they can vote my amendment down and vote for another one or the main motion, if they prefer, but I'm not understanding why I... [somebody handed me a piece of paper.] Alright: In the past six years, enrollment is down 13.5%, and tax spending has gone up 45%. I think if we're trying to show maintenance of effort, we've certainly done so.

School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy requested that the school department's attorney Stephen Robinson have the floor to offer relevant information. What he offered (included in the above audio link) was a statement that he's previously made as to the procedure for proving maintenance of effort and the right of the FTM to address line items in the school budget, as opposed to the whole thing. Then, Budget Committee Vice Chairman Rob Coulter pointed out that the law is certainly not as unambiguous as Mr. Robinson had stated and argued that, given the trends in enrollment and funding, it is simply "incorrect" to state that the previous year's exact dollar amount must be matched. Furthermore, Rob noted Teitz's opinion, elsewhere, that the charter trumps state law in these contexts, and the charter allows for line-item modification.

At that point, Burk insisted that he was going to rule the amendment out of order, based on a lack of "significant enough details" and gave me the option of modifying it to avoid the objection. Wishing to expedite the process, I agreed. However, upon further discussion, I thought it necessary to take the thread up again (stream, download):

Katz: I disagree that the legal issues are a matter of procedure for this particular meeting. An amendment is not "out of order" because there may be litigation. This body can submit the numbers that it would like to do, and that could be resolved after the fact. The fact that there are lawyers in the room who are willing to testify to the law does not mean that we are bound by their judgment. And I would remind people that Mr. Coulter is also a lawyer, so if he presents a different opinion...
Burk: He is not here to practice law. Our solicitor is our legal council.
Katz: Right. But if they're simply giving an opinion of the law, we can disregard that. They're not judges. They're not juries. And they're certainly not executioners.
Teitz: Point of information regarding that. The advice that is given here is to the town. The client is the Town of Tiverton. You're right: it is to this financial town meeting, as interpreted by the moderator, and you can listen to everybody. You can listen to all the lawyers, including me, as to what the advice is. And this body, if there's an appeal — if you want to do it over a dollar [the substantial difference of my proposal] — you can. An appeal going through the proper decision... an appeal to the moderator's decision, a majority vote, and whatnot can overrule that. Obviously, you do it at your own risk, but you are correct. The body can overrule the legal opinion through the moderator if you wanted to do it. I have provided you with the information; the moderator has ruled it "out of order"; but even if it is out of order, it can be appealed.
Katz: I'm merely stating the opinion that it is not the procedure that the lawyers in the room dictate the procedure of the meeting — dictate what's in order and what's out of order. We can vote on what we want.
Teitz: I'm agreeing with you, but there's a way to do it, which would be to appeal the moderator's decision.
Katz: Right, but that's only if the moderator turns to the lawyers and takes your dictation wholesale.

The point that became obscured amidst all of Teitz's agreeing with me was that he had managed to deprive me of my right to make the motion that I desired in the financial town meeting despite three parliamentary and legal matters of which he — as the paid "expert" in the room — should have been knowledgeable and of which the moderator — presumably qualified for his role — should have been aware:

  1. Mr. Teitz had no standing to interrupt me for a point of order. Robert's Rules allow members to make such interruptions, but not being a resident of the town, Teitz does not qualify. Somebody else could have done so, and the moderator could have requested Mr. Teitz's opinion, but as it happened, the lawyer displayed his eagerness to turn the direction of the meeting in a preferred direction, and the moderator let show his willingness to be led.
  2. Mr. Teitz's point of order was too late. As one can plainly hear (stream, download), my motion to amend had been duly made and seconded, and the moderator had stated the question and opened the floor for debate. According to Robert's Rules: "After debate on such a motion has begun — no matter how clearly out of order the motion may be — a point of order is too late."
  3. There is no restriction in Robert's Rules, the Tiverton Town Charter (PDF), or the Rhode Island General Laws that forbids a town meeting from explicitly taking actions that challenge the law. Indeed, the RIGL makes provisions for a ballot vote option in situations "involving... the incurring of liability by the town." In other words, it is not out of order to make a motion that knowingly opens the door to litigation, much less a motion that kinda-sorta, in the opinion of a hired lawyer, might open that door.

None of this is to say that I'm particularly upset about the outcome. I would suggest, however, that the people of Tiverton — and I'm sure this applies across the state — should insist that our elected officials enlist the services only of lawyers who are sufficiently knowledgeable and ethical to avoid trampling the rights of citizens. Because I know it couldn't possibly be the will of those officials to do so.


For further clarification of my thoughts on Teitz's speech about the proper procedure for disregarding the advice of lawyers: The hired legal advisers do not enter the procedure as issuers of decisions that must be overruled. They are there to offer analysis of the legal repercussions of particular decisions and, if necessary, to give suggestions as to the specific procedural rules governing the meeting. There is no procedural rule that requires a meeting to steer well clear of potential sources of legal liability.

Furthermore, it is inappropriate for the moderator to behave as a proxy by which the legal advisers can accomplish this end. Moderators are not the dictators of the meetings that they are running. Unless I'm mistaken, to accomplish their end, the moderator should have put forward as a resolve — or the body should have made as a prior motion — a stipulation that no motions would be entertained if, in the judgment of the town solicitor, they stood a reasonable chance of creating an opportunity for litigation. That would have negated my objections #2 and #3 above.

(Before anybody on the other side spends too much time pondering the possibilities, let me suggest that I think Tiverton Citizens for Change could have a lot of fun with such a rule.)

UPDATED: Correction on Property Taxes

Justin Katz

Based on conversation here and here, it appears that I was wrong to state that "a new methodology will skew taxes toward waterfront properties." Several people who are typically more specifically knowledgeable about town financial matters made statements that I apparently took too literally.

That said, Tiverton Tax Assessor David Robert has strangely refused to answer, here, direct questions about the process, a decision that I attribute more to my local reputation than to his having anything to hide. (I suspect that, in certain circles, I'm taken to be much more of a conniver than I actually am.)

What I'm trying to determine is whether a decreasing pool of sales from which to determine trends has resulted in differing bases for different neighborhoods. I'd welcome feedback from folks familiar with the controversy in Barrington, especially if it might pertain to the varying results in Tiverton.

ADDENDUM 05/09/09 2:14 p.m.:

After conversation with Tax Assessor David Robert after today's financial town meeting, I'm persuaded that nothing different was done that unfairly skewed the revaluation results... at least any more than is always the case.

In essence, all sales forming the basis for the revaluation were in town. In cases in which a subsection of houses had insufficient sales to make reassessments valid, the assessor calculated based on overall sales and the typical ratio of that neighborhood to the overall. (I'm summarizing the effect, here, and may not be to-the-letter accurate about the procedure as implemented.)

I'd argue that this methodology is inherently unfair, inasmuch as a neighborhood with too few sales can't even be said to have kept up with the values of the rest of the town. If a dozen houses sell in my working class neighborhood at a 10% decrease from previous assessments, but no houses sell down the hill from me, closer to the water, one cannot infer that they would have sold at that 10% decrease. Indeed, they might well have sold only if offered at a 50% decrease, which means that their value is unfairly assessed to have held.

That said, it would be difficult (mathematically or politically) to come up with a number that adjusts for sales that didn't happen. The town could investigate the prices that the houses weren't getting, but that would only give one a maximum and, as a matter of principle, bases taxes on prima facie unrealistic home values.

Whatever the case, I was unequivocally wrong to assert a change in methodology.

Financial Town Meeting 2009

Justin Katz

Quirky Internet service has delayed my initial post, but I've been sitting in the Tiverton High School gymnasium for about a half-hour already. At about ten-of-nine (start time), I'm a little surprised that the turnout isn't better. We're probably somewhere in the 300-400 people range — sufficient for a quorum, but disappointing, given the turn-out-the-vote effort on all sides. I wonder if the lack of substantive immediate political controversy (as opposed to the specific disputes typical of town politics) have kept the enthusiasm low. Maybe it's the weather, cultural depression... who knows.

9:08 a.m.
Moderator Michael Burk just announced a few more minutes of delay to allow the lines of people to get in. Rumors have it that the lines extend to cars waiting to get in several blocks away.

9:29 a.m.

Still waiting. We're probably nearing 1,000 people at this point. Apparently, if the building hits capacity (upwards of 2,000, I believe), they postpone the meeting.

My early concerns appear to have been premature.

Town Solicitor Andy Teitz, Budget Committee Chairman Jeff Caron, and Moderator Michael Burk

Budget Committee Vice Chairman Rob Coulter chats with School Committee Attorney Stephen Robinson, while Superintendent Bill Rearick speaks with school department Director of Administration and Finance Doug Fiore as I take a picture immediately over Fiore's shoulder on the big screen:

The crowd just before the start of the meeting:

9:41 a.m.

We're under way. The official count is 700 people. Mr. Burk is currently going over the process for a ballot vote; the presentation is certainly persuasive to avoid them for more than close, important votes.

9:52 a.m.

The town council just lost its bid to add $300,000 to the budget for abatement protection. That should have been in the budget.

9:56 a.m.

Current discussion is whether the petition for a ladder truck is in order. Burk ruled the resolution is in order, even if it would be impossible to actually enact it.

A resident asked whether more firefighters would have to be hired to man the truck. Town Council President Don Bollin said that they don't have that information. Audience unrest, but Bollin clarified that he doesn't support the truck.

Chief Robert Lloyd is answering that all firefighters will be trained on the truck.

10:09 a.m.

Fire truck goes down.

10:20 a.m.

Some resolves from the Budget Committee were unexpectedly controversial. The mood may indicate that the taxpayers are again rising up.

10:55 a.m.

We're talking about the school department's budget. Three amendments to the initial amount have reduced the total and divided the total into an Operating and Capital Budget from Local Sources amount and a General State Aid, essentially determining who has to make up the difference if aid falls short: the town (taxpayers) or the school.

11:29 a.m.

An amendment that I made to the school committee budget was voted down. It was the third amendment, which is the maximum allowed. In short, I'm not too sad that it fell. It was actually the highest in dollar amount of the three by one dollar.

11:36 a.m.

Just a note: Mr. Burk is being fair, writing down the order of questioners regardless of microphone, etc. There have been a couple of points in which he's seemed a hair argumentative, but nothing beyond the boundaries of plain human nature.

The latest people count was 666, and people continue to leave.

11:43 a.m.

School Committee Chairman Jan Bergandy requested a paper ballot.

11:48 a.m.

I can't believe the amount of contention even to do a paper ballot. If this happens and the vote changes there will be huge angst.

11:51 a.m.

No paper ballot, and there's been a motion to move the remainder of the budget.

11:54 a.m.

A moment to breathe while we figure out procedure. I'll take the opportunity to suggest that the powers who be in Rhode Island take note that the Tiverton School Department just experienced a taxpayer-driven cut in its budget.

12:25 p.m.

Town Council member Hannibal Costa appealed the moderator's decision to let amendments be made to the municipal total. His appeal passed, and Jeff Caron appealed on the grounds that Robert's Rules disallow appeals after debate has proceeded. Costa's clearly incorrect, and Caron is clearly correct that Costa's appeal was out of order. But, we have to finish the meeting in order to ensure that there's no redux of last year's reworking of the budget, so it's probably a good thing that reformist efforts thus far are preserved.

12:43 p.m.

Town Council member Louise Durfee just took the opportunity of a procedural intermission to chastise a few members of the school committee for not speaking out more forcefully in favor of their budget.

Well, well, well...

May 7, 2009

Rob Coulter: Property Revaluation and Subjectivity

Engaged Citizen

I had a very helpful conversation with a gentleman from the property revaluation vendor for Tiverton last night, and I learned quite a bit about the process. By the way, he was very patient and cordial, and I was very impressed with him, even if we may arrive a different conclusions. I agree with Justin that this should be an exploratory dialogue, and I do not pretend to have all the answers either.

The truth is somewhat in the middle of what I'm reading from comments here. As far as I can tell, they are using a multivariable regression computer model. It is susceptible to error because the sample sizes are not statistically robust enough for so many variables. When this happens, judgment calls have to necessarily be made. In a sense, the "methodology" has not changed, but there are still many, many variables calling for subjectivity on the appraiser's part.. I don't want to go so far as to call these judgment calls arbitrary, but there is definitely enough play between the joints for the appraiser to "skew" (if that's the right word) a result based on assumptions being made.

Although it sounds fancy and complicated, the idea of using multivariable regression is to let the computer try to find the impact of one variable while holding all others constant. It's like algebra on acid. This can't be done by hand when there are dozens and dozens of variables, as there are, here, so we let a computer do it.

I do not believe that it is incorrect to use this type of modeling, but there are two very important qualifiers:

  1. The model only works if there are enough samples for each variable. I'm not sure there are here.
  2. More importantly, this model and all models have assumptions built into them. These assumptions are necessary for any model but are at the end of the day subjective and subject to dispute. For example, I learned last night that (roughly speaking) all taxpayers are taxed at nearly one acre of land no matter how much less they have, and owners with additional acres are only taxed at a very low cost per acre. So if you own one-third of an acre or one full acre, you pay about the same tax on land. Do you think that's fair? Maybe yes, maybe no, but these are some of the assumptions that lurk behind the "methodology."

There are myriad assumptions and they have a major impact. They do not involve only objective things such as acreage and square footage, but multiplying factors applied based on the style of the house. These are very subject to debate. For example, I argued that a solar panel on a roof should add value to a house based on fuel costs. The vendor suggested that it might detract because of decreased curb appeal. I replied that a new buyer could simply remove the panel. And so on. You can see how very quickly a lot of error and assumptions can creep into a system that otherwise sounds so impressive.

Again, I want to stress that I don't think anyone is trying any funny business here. I was very impressed with the vendor, and I also very much respect David Robert, Tiverton's tax assessor. But I do have experience with multivariable regression, and if that is the model behind this, I can tell you that we can't trust it wholesale. I don't think the "methodology" has changed, but there are many assumptions under this methodology that can be adjusted and are essentially subjective.

Rob Coulter is a member of the Tiverton Budget Committee as well as Tiverton Citizens for Change.

May 6, 2009

Nick Gorham, North Westconnaug Needs You!

Carroll Andrew Morse

The conventional wisdom is that Nick Gorham lost his seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives because of his support for regionalizing Exeter, Foster, Glocester, Scituate, West Greenwich and part of Coventry into a single town of Westconnaug, offending the delicate parochial sensibilities of his constitutents.

I wonder what Mr. Gorham's former constituents from Foster think of former Providence Mayor Joe Paolino's plan, published in today's Projo, to fold the town of Foster into a new Super-Providence…

The Providence County I envision would include Providence, East Providence, North Providence, Cranston, Johnston, Foster and Scituate — 36 percent of the state’s population at present, hardly enough to take over the state.
At least Mr. Paolino is more honest than most about his reasons for regionalization -- Providence needs more tax money from other communities to fund city development…
Providence needs a much larger, growing tax base to launch additional renewal campaigns in the city.
Mr. Paolino also demonstrates the primary reason why people are rightly skeptical of municipal consolidation plans, with this section of his op-ed…
The new Providence County would be created by a “merger of equals,” rather than by an annexation of the other cities and towns by the capital city.
Why is "annexation" even being brought up in this context? Is Mr. Paolino suggesting, perhaps, that if you're not from Providence you should agree to a regionalization plan, because Providence might just annex you anyway if you don't do the right thing?

But if Joseph Paolino and others think that annexation of cities and town is a legitimate bargaining chip in the regionalization discussion, just think how they're going to act towards those (former) cities and towns, when they have taxation and other formal powers over them!

A Full Court Press, in Local Terms

Justin Katz

Well, it's some sort of milestone, I suppose, to be denounced by name in a mailing to the email list of Tiverton Youth Soccer (with which my children are not currently involved):

Hi all,

It is that time of the year again.... time for me to urge each of you to attend Tiverton's Financial Town Meeting. I know, I know, sheesh Deb we don't like to go to those. They are long and confusing and lots of folks just get angry and yell.

You are right about all that, but here's the thing - I can think of lots of other things I could be doing on a Sat. morning at 9am, but I do not want to wake up on Sunday morning and hear that because enough reasonable people weren't at that meeting, a group of extreme, self-seeking residents slashed the town budget by $2 million dollars. It almost happened last year!! It would have been devastating to town services - a closed fire station, no trash pick up, etc. The schools would have had to eliminate anything not considered basic by the state - band, sports, maybe close a school. You all know the things that will go. The TCC contingent on the budget committee already tried for a $1 million dollar cut to the schools and over $250,000 to the fire department. They produced graph and charts and yelled and cut off any that would try and counter the incorrect, skewed or misleading "facts." Luckily, more reasonable and responsible voices on the committee prevailed. But, now read the letters in the Sakonnet Times from TCC members Justin Katz, Jeff Caron and Tom Parker (available on-line) filled with anger and innuendo and rumors which will stir the pot and get their cut-cut-cut base to the FTM.

I am NOT for higher taxes, but I am for maintaining services. That is what a community does - share the costs of preserving services. The proposed municipal operating increase is .5% over last year, the school increase is 1.48% over last year. These are reasonable and prudent and all have worked hard to keep taxes down while maintaining the services we all want (or at least I want). PLEASE, PLEASE try to have at least one member from your family (or 2 or 3) at the financial town meeting so we don't wake up on Sunday to find out that our town has been drastically changed. It is only a few hours but will impact the entire town for the rest of the year and beyond. Please call or forward this message to at least 10 others and let's spread the word. Thanks.


Oh, yes. Deb would never use anger (unless calling people self-seeking [sic] extremists with double exclamation points counts) or rumors to rile her base audience to the FTM. Yeah, villainizing neighbors to community groups — as opposed to letters to the editor and such — might be a little aggressive, but in order to be offended, one must imagine that we right-wing agitators are merely people trying to do what we believe to be right, not only for ourselves, but for the town, as well, and that clearly cannot be the case in Deb's aw-shucks world. Never mind that TCC's position (which may be different than a given member's) is to "hold the line" by approving the budget as it stands, without any surprise increases.

I do wonder, though, whether Deb's ever taken the opportunity of a group mailing to warn that the ever-growing remuneration of public-sector unions would squeeze out those "services we all want." If it's the Deb whom I believe it to be, she took quite the opposite view with the recent teachers' contract. So add that to the list of reasons for a community to exist: to provide services to the town, and to ensure disproportionate pay and benefits for union members.

Meanwhile, our old friend Richard Joslin once again appears to have hijacked (or attempted to hijack) TCC's mailing list:

If you do not want this email, please just delete it.

Once more, the TCC is lying to you. No one is planning to increase the School Budget; we support the Budget Committee on the schools. No one is trying to steal votes at the FTM. That is a paranoid fantasy Parker, Nelson and your TCC leadership are trying to "sell" you. . I for one am sick of David Nelson's lies, and you should be too. There has been an 8 month campaign to destroy our public school system by cynical people like Mr. Parker, who is claiming falsely this week that people will try to add $500K to the School Budget. And by Mr Coulter who has authored two legal suits- one attacking volunteer counters at the Town Meeting, and one destructive lawsuit which will accomplish nothing but spending your money on lawyers to defend the Town. Do you want you political "heroes" to attack the Town with lawsuits? All we are asking is for all voters to attend the FTM and vote for the Budget already approved by the Budget Committee, Town Council and School Committee. Please attend.

You cannot vote to reduce teacher's salaries or benefits at the FTM, you cannot vote to change the public pension structure at the FTM. You cannot change minimum manning of the Fire and EMTs at the FTM. Just about no one wants a ladder truck we cannot afford.

But keep on believing the lies of Parker, Coulter and Nelson. The TCC is proving to be a rogue right-wing bunch of idiots. It is an embarrassment.

This is being sent to you because (twice) three weeks ago Mr. Nelson intercepted emails I sent to supporters of the budget approved by the Budget Committee and TIV Town Council and sent my it to all TCC members. He urged you all to go to a non-public meeting to be held about the budget. Only one sad person tried to come, and as it was a private meeting he was turned away. You deserve to know the nasty tactics your TCC leadership practices.

Richard Joslin

Yup. No anger, there, from the man who decries a "right-wing bunch of idiots"! No paranoia from the guy complaining about Dave's "interception" of an email in which he (Joslin) — whom I'm pretty sure I've spotted attempting to spy on TCC meetings — asked all residents to attend a meeting that he hosted and encouraged recipients to forward the invitation.

Joslin never explains for whom he intends to speak with his "we," but perhaps his extensive network of informants are the reason he's so confident that "no one" is planning to increase any budgets at the financial town meeting. "Just about no one" wants a ladder truck, and yet enough residents petitioned for one to get it on the FTM docket.

At least Mr. Joslin realizes that unions are an issue, though. Unfortunately, in the cluelessness typical of those comfortable with the same-old governance of Rhode Island and its municipalities, he looks right past the effect that taxpayer pressure can have during negotiations. He has no concept of the importance of the leverage that officials can derive from downward pressure from voters.

And pressure is all we have. The unions may give some slack for this year, but their contracts are typically for three. Thus, at next year's FTM, any increase given away by negotiators will be declared untouchable. The current budget provides for no increase. That means that we're seeing a budget unaffected by the unions — and it still represents more than a three percent increase! (Unaffected, of course, except for the retroactive raise that the teachers just got and that carries through to this contract as the new baseline. In the absense of a contract, by the way, I imagine, contra Joslin, that line item is in fact available for modification.)

It's time to change the conversation and to stop falling for the soothing tones of people who turn their smiles to snarls with a disconcerting ease, depending on whether they're addressing the opposition or those whom they'd like to lull back to sleep while they make decisions — folks like Yer Pal Deb, Richard the Level-Headed, and Mike Burk, the FTM "moderator" who happens to have been one of the most aggressively anti-TCC partisans to emerge over the past year.

May 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

Government as Pension Program

Justin Katz

Here's an eye-popper: Cranston spends more than a fifth of its total budget on pensions (not including teachers). Nine municipalities spend over 10%.

While Rhode Island's political leaders wrestle with state pension reform, there's another big pension headache out there — the soaring cost of municipal pensions.

A new study by the business-backed Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council reports that the amount of money that communities spend on pension costs has increased nearly 50 percent in the past five years, from $101 million in 2004 to $149 million in the current fiscal year ending June 30.

But the raw amount, the exclusion of teachers, and the addition of state employees is not all:

The study found that locally administered pension plans were able to fund only an average of 45 percent of their obligations as of June 30, 2006, with an unfunded liability of $1.6 billion. That encompasses quite a wide range, from a Coventry police pension plan that is only 7.9-percent funded, to the Jamestown police pension plan, which is over-funded, at 123.9 percent.

In other words, as much as they're spending, many cities and towns ought to be devoting more resources to pensions.

That's if you look at it as a funding matter. If you look at it as a practical and moral matter, they ought to be devoting less to pensions. It's time to bring public workers back to the real world.

Property Tax Illusion

Justin Katz

Because it works differently than most other taxes with which we're familiar, it surprised me when first I learned how property taxes are calculated, at least in Tiverton. In short, the rate is almost an irrelevant statistic. Confusion over that fact has led local Budget Committee and TCC member Tom Parker to pen the following explanation

2009 property revaluations have been mailed out in Tiverton, and if you listen carefully you can hear a collective sigh of relief across the town: "My property value has gone down, my taxes must be going down. Life is good, and I'm safe, at least for the time being, from the insatiable tax demands of the Tiverton government. For once, I can relax...right?" Actually, no. Unfortunately, things are not what they seem. There are two good reasons why you need to pay careful attention.

First, the letter we taxpayers got in the mail was our property revaluation, and, indeed, for many of us it is significantly lower than the previous assessment (my own decreased about $120,000). The tax RATE is the other key component in the final calculation of YOUR property tax bill. The FY2009 tax rate proposed by the Budget Committee is $14.73/1000. This is a $3.47/1000 increase (31%) over the current tax rate of $11.26/1000. So even if your assessment has gone down, your taxes could substantially increase. In my case, even though my assessment decreased $120,000 (14%), I estimate my tax bill will increase by over $1,100 (12%).

The town doesn't apply the rate to the property values to figure out how much money it has to work with. Rather, it figures out how much money it wants and then divvies the total up among all of the property in town. When property values go down, it doesn't figure out how to function with less revenue; it simply adjusts the rate to ensure the same revenue as a matter of course, with no votes or political risks necessary.

So the key question, when it comes to revaluations and taxes isn't whether your house is worth more or less; it's how it changed compared with all of the other properties in town. If they all decrease by the same percentage, everybody's taxes stay the same.

It's true that, in Tiverton, a new methodology will skew taxes toward waterfront properties, this year, which means that recalculations will hurt those homeowners more. But as Tom describes, the huge leap in the rate likely means increase for anybody whose house's value dropped less than 31%. And that's before tax-revenue beneficiaries have their whack at the budget during the upcoming financial town meeting this Saturday.

ADDENDUM 05/09/09 5:10 p.m.

The deleted sentence is incorrect. See here for explanation. Apologies for the error.

May 2, 2009

Public-Sector Rules May Be Strict, but Respectful

Justin Katz

It is wholly reasonable — even obvious — for the city of Woonsocket to implement these rules for its firefighters:

The order bans work that that would involve using department time or resources, including the uniform, for personal gain; doing work that would normally be expected to be done for the city while the firefighter was on duty; any acts that would have to be reviewed or approved by the Fire Department or other city employee; and lastly, work that "involves such time demands as would render performance of his or her duties as a firefighter less efficient and effective."

These four requirements follow basic ethical and professional norms from which public sector employees and officials seem too often to be excused in Rhode Island. Where Woonsocket goes too far, however, is in presuming not to treat firefighters as adults and professionals:

The city has issued a general order to its firefighters that says starting May 11, if they want to work a second job, they will need the permission of the chief or the public safety director.

Policies should be in place to take corrective and punitive action when rules are broken, but giving an employer a preemptive veto power over activities outside of the workplace is a clear violation of rights and due respect.

April 29, 2009

With Friends (and Moderators) Like These...

Justin Katz

Contrary to aspersions in the comment section of my previous post on this topic, my source was not incorrect that Town Council member Jay Lambert voted against Mike Burk as financial town meeting moderator. According to a Sakonnet Times article (not online), following a profiles-in-courage strategy, he changed his vote, apparently in a way, by tone or by timing, that kept the news from getting back to members of Tiverton Citizens for Change right away:

After an initial 5 - 1 vote made it clear that Mr. Burk had won, Mr. Lambert asked to change his vote to Mr. Burk "to make it unanimous."

I'll say this: TCC moved quickly last summer. For the next election, it may be that we'll need a better developed endorsement procedure.

As for Mr. Burk, himself, he's very confident in his own capacity for neutrality:

Council member Louise Durfee said that Mr. Burk, in his application, had addressed these concerns. In the e-mail, Mr. Burk said that while "I am certainly a passionate advocate for my beliefs, I also fully recognize that the Moderator's role is to be the neutral arbiter and facilitator of the Town Meeting and I take that role very seriously."

Mr. Burk went on to say he recognizes the need to put his own beliefs in his back pocket "to ensure a fair Town Meeting process" and said that others who had seen him in action leading meetings would say "I am a very fair and reasonable facilitator."

First, as I mention in the comment section to a letter that I sent to the Sakonnet Times, Mr. Burk has previously given some indication of his fidelity to rules by asserting it to be his job (as a school committee member) to advocate for their budget using resources available to the committee, even though that's explicitly against school department administrative policy.

Second, I'd point out that the back pocket is a nicely accessible location from which to draw a metaphorical knife. Moderators help to determine who speaks when, to determine what is and is not in order, and even to make the call on voice votes. It is not unreasonable paranoia to imagine that advocacy can have a way of creeping into one's judgments on such matters. Recall, for example, the moment at last year's FTM when an audience member challenged the one and only amendment — of the allowable three — to propose decreasing the budget on the grounds that he had been at the microphone first. He was lying, and even a toss of the coin would have been unfair.

Can we expect balanced judgment from this man?

  • Cursing at the Budget Committee (language warning): stream, download (4sec)
  • Same, only this time using a religious swear: stream, download (4sec)
  • Shouting at Budget Committee member Cynthia Nebergall: stream, download (1min 18sec)

Participate, Because Somebody Else Will

Justin Katz

Herewith, the text of my speech at the Tiverton Citizens for Change Taxpayer Forum on Monday night. (Audio, with some extemporaneous differences: stream, download [5min 29sec])

Let's be honest. For most of us, this whole civic participation thing is a chore. It's a responsibility. We stay informed; we vote; and really that should be enough. One reason we have elected representatives is to free up the rest of us to be productive, keep the economy going, and pursue happiness.

And yet the previous speakers who called for increased participation — to the extent of committing ourselves to campaigns and elective office — are absolutely right. We may have no desire to make a career, or even a sabbatical, out of public service, we may have no thirst for political power, but that is precisely why we are needed. Simply put, if we don't step forward, somebody else will. Somebody who doesn't see government as a chore.

As an indication of what I'm talking about, I'm going to read a few lines from the infamous fire-truck petition:

This proposal is being sought because the item was not considered by the Tiverton Budget Committee in the docket for this year and because numerous members of the Tiverton Budget Committee have advocated a maximum increase in the annual tax levy not to exceed one percent or zero, because the Tiverton Budget Committee is recommending a slashed school operational budget in order to achieve their desired goal ... and because these same Budget Committee members are squandering the limited ability to utilize tax revenues under the State mandated cap of 4.75% to improve the community as a whole.

There's no statement of dire need to buy such equipment despite the horrible economy. No research about the likely changes in property insurance. No examples of lives that would recently have been saved. The authors of this petition didn't even bother to note properties that might have been preserved in the past. According to news reports, they didn't even consult the fire chief!

Their primary motivation, in other words, is to out-maneuver people they don't like on the Budget Committee, and secondly, to claim as much of your income as possible. Their design is to take money from every taxpayer in Tiverton and allocate it to the priorities of a few people with the time and motivation to manipulate procedure.

Some of these people either benefit directly from town government or are close to people who do. Others of them, well, who knows? Maybe they've got their eyes on the State House and maybe, in their long-term aspirations, on Congress. Maybe they just like the feeling of a little local prominence. Or maybe it's more like a high school popularity thing.

I want to stress, here, that I'm not talking about everybody in local government, whether I agree with them or not. But this is certainly a segment — a vocal and active contingent that must be countered. And the reason it must be countered is that if somebody is in government for personal gain, whether of the wallet or of the ego, or even if he or she just thought it'd be a nice way to get involved in the community, then that person is going to be more susceptible to special interests.

For example, throughout the recent teachers' contract discussions, we heard again and again, from the union as well as people on the other side of the negotiating table, that the money was "in the budget." The people of Tiverton — the argument went — wanted that money to go to the teachers' union. And now, here we stand, with all of the town's major contracts up for negotiation during a down economy, and the school committee chairman told the Budget Committee that he's got no bargaining leverage. The Town Council President claims it's easier to have too much money in the budget for labor and to put some back in the general fund if negotiations go well.

What these representatives should be advocating is to force the unions to negotiate against a taxpayer-mandated cut. Instead, there's been a push, which we'll probably see again at the financial town meeting, to postpone budget decisions until after the unions are all settled up. The Committee and the Council want to negotiate with an admittedly weak hand rather than to be able to say to the unions, "The money is not in the budget. At least you have your jobs."

You probably already know the argument that we'll hear if the FTM occurs after the fact. "These contracts are signed. There's nothing we can do. Except raise taxes. Oh, and by the way, we're going to need more money to staff, equip, and fuel our new fire truck."

Folks, we do have to start small, and that means simply attending the financial town meeting. But we also have to build, because these people, these problems, already permeate our system at every layer of government. TCC is available to provide some structure — and some moral support — at the town level, and the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition is growing at the state level for the same purpose, but there really is no substitute for participation.

We've reached the point in Tiverton and in Rhode Island that participation is no longer a civic duty or chore. It's a matter of self defense.

TCC Taxpayer Forum Audio

Justin Katz

The following speeches were given at the Tiverton Citizens for Change taxpayer forum on Monday, April 27.

April 28, 2009

Corrected: Breaking Local News Related to FTM Moderator

Justin Katz

At the tail end of our Tiverton Citizens for Change meeting, I received word that Mike Burk won the position as financial town meeting moderator on a unanimous council vote a council vote of five to one, with Jay Lambert voting against and, with Council President Don Bollin suspiciously absent.

Well, I warned of the outcome should this come to pass.

April 27, 2009

Gearing up for the Financial Town Meeting

Justin Katz

I've arrived early at tonight's Tiverton Citizens for Change FTM-prep meeting, at which I'll be speaking. (FTM stands for financial town meeting). Even people who aren't speaking began walking through the VFW door about a half-hour early.

Hopefully turn-out will be good, although it would likely be too optimistic to expect an equivalent turnout to our meeting last year. After all, that one followed a controversial event. This year, we're trying to prevent a repeat.

I'll be checking in as I'm able. If you can come, please do.

6:52 p.m.

Well, we've already surpassed the average town council, school committee, or budget committee meeting. Harry Staley from the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition is here (he's speaking). General Assembly Rep. Jay Edwards (D., Tiverton) just arrived (he's not speaking).

7:10 p.m.

We're starting a little late, owing to a delayed speaker. Rep. John Loughlin (R., Tiverton, Little Compton, Portsmouth) just arrived, though.

7:23 p.m.

About sixty people are here. TCC President Dave Nelson opened the meeting, followed by TCC & Budget Committee member Tom Parker, who is currently reviewing budget amounts and processes.

7:34 p.m.

Harry Staley is up:

7:37 p.m.

Providing some anecdotes, Harry's describing the way things work in Rhode Island. He emphasized that it doesn't matter what party it is that has a monopoly on government; it's not healthy.

"Instead of facing up to the problems that we have, they're going to turn to the stimulus money to pump it in to the current deficit." That'll make things worse... and he's somewhat pessimistic.

7:56 p.m.

TCC member and Budget Committee chairman Jeff Caron is going through some financial changes that we'd like to see made moving forward:

8:12 p.m.

Bill Murphy of the East Providence Taxpayer Association has taken the microphone:

Bill's characterizing the current power of special interests in RI as "a hostile takeover of government."

8:19 p.m.

A great comparison of the U.S. Army, in which officers wait for the enlisted men to eat, with U.S. and RI government, in which the leaders take for themselves and then divvy up some of what's left.

When the Majority Is Convenient

Justin Katz

Here in Tiverton, there's some growing grumbles about the latest property revaluation, which appears to have shifted the weight of the tax burden toward those with waterfront property. Our situation appears mild (so far) in comparison with Barrington's. Nonetheless, the phrase "class warfare" has been uttered, here and there, which is why a sentiment expressed by Barrington Town Council member Kate Weymouth raises a red flag:

"The majority of residents in this town are satisfied with their assessments and I am elected by the majority."

Not knowing Ms. Weymouth's history, I wouldn't apply this to her, but the thought occurs that public officials are keen to be the voice of the voiceless, when that suits their preferences, or the voice of the majority, when their inclinations are in sync.

April 24, 2009

How to Ensure Municipal Discord

Justin Katz

The name won't mean much to Rhode Islanders from elsewhere (except inasmuch as you've seen it on Anchor Rising), but I heard last night that the Tiverton Town Council is considering appointing Mike Burk as the moderator for the upcoming financial town meeting. Do they want unrest? Do they want to encourage discord across the town?

This is a man who has been not only open, but active in his contempt of local reformers in Tiverton Citizens for Change. He's expressed paranoiac class-warfare insinuations about them in the local media. He's paced the back of Budget Committee meetings, swearing and seeking to shout down TCC members on the committee. (He's captured in the background of the two audio clips here).

Having Burk stand as the ostensibly neutral conductor of the session would be downright hostile to democratic compromise and would ensure broad suspicion of the results even before the meeting's opening. The demeanor that he displayed during meetings when he was an elected official — even when he's been advancing policies that I've supported (such as holding the line for months against the teachers' union) — would be perfect if the town's aspiration is to stoke controversy, but wholly inappropriate if the objective is to host a thoughtful, productive meeting.

April 19, 2009

Revenue-Driven Quota, or Union Stranglehold Workaround?

Justin Katz

A busy week moved this Hopkinton tidbit to the bottom of the pile, but the multiple angles make it of broader interest:

If you drive through Hopkinton, keep this in mind: The officers you see are each required to write 20 traffic tickets per month, "more or less," under a new Police Department policy.

Excuses, like being busy doing something else, or having taken vacation days, "are not acceptable," Lt. Daniel C. Baruti said in a March 3 internal e-mail that spells out the policy.

Drivers who think they have been ticketed unfairly often suspect that they were cited because of a police quota rather than their driving. The police almost universally deny that quotas exist.

The e-mail says, in bold, italic type, "Do not forward this e-mail."

Baruti tried to put a business-as-usual face on the controversy, with the emphasis on "business" by presenting law enforcement in terms of money-making:

Baruti and the other local officials said that the policy is a management tool intended to make the police more productive. Although it has drawn some criticism, Baruti said, the policy is legal and that they have no intention of abandoning it. ...

The e-mail said that officers who don't meet the quota — an average of one ticket for every shift worked — will have to fill out daily activity sheets to account for what they have done during their shifts. Baruti acknowledged that officers would rather not have to do that.

Baruti's e-mail said that the department's "production level" has fallen and that the town manager and some members of the Town Council "are very dissatisfied with our numbers." He said he thinks a decline in the department's ticket production reflects a lack of motivation.

Baruti wrote that he plans to send the officers' statistics to the Town Council, so members can "see for themselves who is producing and who is not." DiLibero said the council hasn't acted on the issue, which he considers an administrative matter.

Police Chief John Scuncio, by contrast, fires the union flare:

Scuncio, on the other hand, said the policy is aimed at a single officer who does practically no work. One example of his lack of effort, the chief said, is that month after month, the officer writes no tickets at all. The chief said the officer's inactivity "really creates problems" because new officers "see this guy doing nothing." He didn't identify the officer, saying he didn't want to single the officer out. ...

He said he's reluctant to try to discipline the officer because of the difficulty under the legal and contractual protections provided to Rhode Island police.

Maybe I'm getting tired of games in my ornery middle age, or maybe my incredulity results from daily experience with the demands and strains that exist in the private sector, but I'm inclined to offer solutions to both justifications for this policy, no matter which is the actual one: Make all officers fill out daily activity sheets, regardless of their "productivity," and stop negotiating contracts that make it difficult to discipline egregiously "unproductive" employees.

Seems like every time the public discovers an objectionable policy or practice in the government sphere, it's excused with reference to the deeper problems that it's supposedly attempting to solve. Well, let's do away with the deeper problems, even if it annoys big contributors, people in the family-and-friends camp, and special interests.

April 13, 2009

Moderate Town Council Meeting

Justin Katz

The first thing of note at tonight's Tiverton town council meeting is consideration of appointments for the moderator at the financial town meeting. Apparently, the town has received a single réumé to date. It's not like the moderator has to do anything important; as we learned last year, he or she mainly relays town solicitor Teitz's findings related to Robert's Rules.

7:52 p.m.

Director of Public Works Stephen Berlucchi is currently suggesting a program that would begin charging for trash pickup (in addition to what comes out of our taxes). Councilor Louise Durfee just suggested that not all money raised in this way should go to putting money aside for the big pending expense of closing the town landfill, but that some should be redirected toward landfill operating expenses. (Apparently, she wasn't happy with the condition of the landfill on her last visit there.)

8:00 p.m.

If I heard correctly, Berlucchi's program amounts to another $750,000-plus tax increase on residents (a point that council President Don Bollin must made).

I'm new to this debate, but I'm not sure why the town can't allocate more land. Alternately, the town could do some of the back-end work to facilitate private pickup services for residents who want it.

8:47 p.m.

The council just voted 3 to 2 to "encumber" additional funds from their contingency fund for use in preparation for the financial town meeting. The issue is mainly an inability to predict the attendance.

One a positive note, the council voted unanimously to have voting machines available for use during votes at the FTM. In that setting, especially pitting police, fire, and teachers against senior citizens to some extent, voice votes are simply unfair, and hand votes are problematic for reasons both of accuracy and of political pressure.

8:52 p.m.

Councilor Jay Lambert is asking Solicitor Teitz whether the petition to put a fire truck on the docket at the FTM is actually allowable according to the town charter, given the size of the expense and the questionable accuracy of the expenses stated in the petition (lacking operational and other costs that would be implied by the purchase).

April 11, 2009

Tivertonians: They Just Want Your Money

Justin Katz

On the last page of the main section of the recent Sakonnet Times comes news of a petition that has succeeded in putting a ladder truck for the fire department on the docket for the financial town meeting. The meat of the petition is as follows:

This petition seek [sic] to appropriate and expend the annual sum of $110,290.00 for twelve (12) years for the purpose of acquiring a ladder tower for the Tiverton Fire Department. The amount paid annually will represent a financed amount of $950,000.00 over a twelve (12) year period at 5.51% interest. This proposal is being sought because the item was not considered by the Tiverton Budget Committee in the docket for this year and because numerous members of the Tiverton Budget Committee have advocated a maximum increase in the annual tax levy not to exceed one percent (1%) or zero. Because the Tiverton Budget Committee is recommending a slashed school operational budget in order to achieve their desired goal of a maximum levy increase of one percent (1%) to a zero percent [sic], and because these same Budget Committee members are squandering the limited ability to utilize tax revenues under the State mandated cap of 4.75% to improve the community as a whole, we the Tiverton Taxpayers listed below believe it is in the best interest for the Town of Tiverton to acquire a Fire Apparatus Ladder Tower vehicle that will be used to save lives, provide fire protection to the community as a whole, assist in lowering our already too high insurance premiums by generating a more favorable national Fire Standard Rating than currently exists and to provide appropriate equipment for the health and welfare of the Tiverton Fire Department professional staff.

Before touching on its dishonesty, think of the small-mindedness behind this proposal. During the worst financial downturn in decades, perhaps since the Great Depression, a minority of the town Budget Committee supports a leveled budget. Therefore — because the committee is recommending a restrained school budget — a handful of revenge-seeking agitators and a few dozen folks who likely don't follow town finances very closely wish to spend over a million dollars on a fire truck, adding more than $100,000 to the town's annual debt requirements for so many years that students now entering first grade will be graduating high school at around the time we're done paying off the truck. (That number obviously doesn't include any extra expenses in maintaining, fueling, operating, and manning it.)

The dishonesty of the petition points to the more basic goal of its backers. As one discovers elsewhere in the Sakonnet Times, the Budget Committee's docket currently calls for a tax levy increase of 3.36%, not 1% and certainly not 0%, and that doesn't account for the additional $300,000 that the town council wishes to set aside for abatements. In this context, look again at this line:

... these same Budget Committee members are squandering the limited ability to utilize tax revenues under the State mandated cap of 4.75% to improve the community as a whole ...

In other words, the goal for this cadre is to achieve or exceed the state's cap on tax increases. It's to take money from every taxpayer in Tiverton and allocate it to the priorities of a few people with the time and motivation to manipulate procedure. That is why the rest of us can no longer afford not to participate.


It's worth highlighting a few notables among the petition's signers:

  • Former Budget Committee Chairman and thwarted Town Council candidate Chris Cotta
  • Former School Committee Chairwoman Denise deMedieros
  • Current Budget Committee member Alex Cote.


I'd be interested if anybody has information on this "national Fire Standard Rating." I'm not even sure that there's a rating with that name, and moreover, some light research on the matter has left me with the impression that insurance rates aren't easily calculable based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. Insurance savings are being thrown about as a vague promise of cost-offsets, but such statements don't seem to be based on much more than a general sense that spending money might, in the words of the petition, "assist in lowering" costs.

April 6, 2009

Moderating the Muddle

Justin Katz

Tiverton Town Clerk Nancy Mello has reason to fear that the town council may consider her to be the default appointee for the position of moderator at the pending financial town meeting. So, as she and I spoke amidst children hunting for Easter Eggs this weekend, I promised to make some inquiries. Count this as one.

Candidates need not be from Tiverton, but they must be comfortable with Robert's Rules. One will be appointed by the town council to open the financial town meeting, and another (or the same) will be elected at the meeting for a two-year term. A fair and strong person could do much to help the town of Tiverton through contentious times.

Interested people must file with Mrs. Mello by the 16th.

April 2, 2009

New General Revnue Sharing Figures for Local Communities

Carroll Andrew Morse

Based on...

  1. The language of last night's supplemental appropriations bill, which reads...
    For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, the total amount of aid shall be twenty-five million dollars ($25,000,000) with such distribution allocated proportionately on the same basis as the original enactment of general revenue sharing for FY 2009.
  2. Katherine Gregg and Cynthia Needham's story in today's Projo...
    The state aid debate spanned hours, despite an early — and almost universally supported — decision by the beleaguered Democratic leadership to reinstate $25 million of the $55 million in local revenue-sharing dollars targeted for elimination.
  3. And the figures from the state's FY09 enacted budget document for general revenue sharing, which sum to about $55 million (see page 89),
...the table below gives the figures on how the revenues for each city and town in Rhode Island will be affected by the change in "general revenue sharing". The first column is the original FY09 appropriation, the second column is the "revised" appropriation, and the the third column is the difference and maybe deficit, depending on how optimistic or pessimistic your town was in planning ahead...

Barrington $206,206 $93,540 $(112,666)
Bristol $840,384 $381,217 $(459,167)
Burrillville $597,138 $270,875 $(326,263)
Central Falls $1,432,052 $649,611 $(782,441)
Charlestown $345,546 $156,748 $(188,798)
Coventry $859,727 $389,992 $(469,735)
Cranston $4,599,682 $2,086,520 $(2,513,162)
Cumberland $1,321,917 $599,652 $(722,265)
East Greenwich $149,812 $67,958 $(81,854)
East Providence $2,272,041 $1,030,649 $(1,241,392)
Exeter $76,718 $34,801 $(41,917)
Foster $262,927 $119,270 $(143,657)
Glocester $480,786 $218,095 $(262,691)
Hopkinton $191,394 $86,821 $(104,573)
Jamestown $124,220 $56,349 $(67,871)
Johnston $2,164,234 $981,746 $(1,182,488)
Lincoln $812,824 $368,715 $(444,109)
Little Compton $89,670 $40,676 $(48,994)
Middletown $829,818 $376,424 $(453,394)
Narragansett $747,514 $339,089 $(408,425)
Newport $1,564,737 $709,800 $(854,937)
New Shoreham $77,527 $35,168 $(42,359)
North Kingstown $754,148 $342,099 $(412,049)
North Providence $2,032,742 $922,098 $(1,110,644)
North Smithfield $556,079 $252,250 $(303,829)
Pawtucket $4,630,267 $2,100,394 $(2,529,873)
Portsmouth $554,736 $251,641 $(303,095)
Providence $13,135,563 $5,958,590 $(7,176,973)
Richmond $125,675 $57,009 $(68,666)
Scituate $383,576 $173,999 $(209,577)
Smithfield $1,582,243 $717,741 $(864,502)
South Kingstown $860,708 $390,437 $(470,271)
Tiverton $547,575 $248,392 $(299,183)
Warren $425,488 $193,011 $(232,477)
Warwick $4,128,906 $1,872,966 $(2,255,940)
Westerly $642,010 $291,230 $(350,780)
West Greenwich $189,201 $85,826 $(103,375)
West Warwick $1,245,850 $565,146 $(680,704)
Woonsocket $3,270,235 $1,483,453 $(1,786,782)

March 30, 2009

A Special Town Council Meeting

Justin Katz

Interested in the process of the town's postponing the financial town meeting, I made room in my schedule to attend a special meeting of the town council at which we'll find out whether the town solicitor believes the town can legally seek to move the meeting to September.

Immediately upon opening the meeting the council voted to move the executive session that had been scheduled as a sort of intermission between the special meeting and a "workshop" to the beginning of the meeting. Solicitor Teitz had estimated the length of the executive session at seven minutes; I'm pretty sure that we're now over twenty.

7:27 p.m.

They're back, reviewing a handout from Teitz, with no copies for the audience.

Teitz: "I do think that it would be possible for the General Assembly to change the date for all the towns in the state." Broad, sweeping crisis stuff. He spoke to somebody who spoke with somebody who spoke with somebody, and that does not appear likely.

"There's nothing stopping the FTM, itself, from continuing it... however, you'd still have to have a budget prepared for them, and there's really no way of knowing what would happen."

"My philosophy is always to accomplish the goals of the client... So, I will tell you that it is my opinion that it is not constitutional for the General Assembly to change the date of Tiverton's financial town meeting alone."

7:32 p.m.

Teitz: "We're asking to unilaterally amend our charter without going through the charter amendment process."

"The only way that I see to do it is if you had an elect --- put the question to the voters of the town."

The special election would be "practical," "difficult," but "doable."

The authority to postpone the meeting is "only with the people." The special election might still require a special bill at the General Assembly, as well.

7:36 p.m.

Louise Durfee: "I think it would be easier to have the financial town meeting."

Teitz: "You are able to call a special town meeting afterwards." So, if budget considerations change, the council has the authority to call a meeting to change the budget.

Jay Lambert: "This General Assembly is not going to address the real issues, and we will have no more information in July, August, and September."

Broad agreement that the General Assembly sucks.

7:47 p.m.

Don Bollin: "I think we're better off going into that financial town meeting with the understanding that we're not getting that aid."

They've now adjourned the special meeting and entered into a scheduled workshop about the council's goals, etc.

8:11 p.m.

They're talking budgets and revaluations of properties in town. Town Administrator Jim Goncalo just said that the last he looked, the revals were running, overall, 15-18% lower than last year.

The Pressure to Give and Give

Justin Katz

There's something very Rhode Island about a financial town meeting that admits non-resident outside guests and then adds half a million dollars to the school budget:

The non-resident ban the Lincoln Town Council approved 4-1 last week stems in part from controversy over last May's rollicking Town Meeting that increased this year's school budget by $517,248. In the aftermath, the meeting moderator questioned whether non-residents had voted for the increase and intimidated voters from opposing it. But the Budget Board reluctantly certified the budget on legal advice.

Councilman Keith Macksoud, who said he brought the proposal to the council after talking with the Budget Board and moderator, said in an interview that some people indicated they felt intimidated to vote when teachers turned out at the meeting to support adding to the budget.

The ordinance says meeting attendees can vote by majority to allow the media, non-resident town officials/department heads, the town solicitor and "others" to attend.

I can see time's being an issue if every vote must be balloted, but it would seem feasible to have secret votes on substantive matters such as the school budget.

March 27, 2009

A Slightly Longer History of Police Budgets in Cranston

Carroll Andrew Morse

Two substantive objections offered in the comments section to my short history of the Cranston Police Department budget were…

  1. The figures for the Napolitano years include some million-dollar-plus temporary "rent" costs associated with the construction of a new police station, and
  2. Napolitano's first police budget was the 3rd year of a contract negotiated by his predecessor (that would be Steve Laffey, for those not paying attention), and therefore can't be held against him.
So here are the police budget numbers again, with the rent item removed, and all of the Laffey contract years (delineated with boldface) plus the year before included...

FY2005Laffey II$17,709,556--
FY2006Laffey III$16,616,502($1,093,054)
FY2007Laffey IV$17,447,623 $831,121
FY2008Napolitano I $18,677,744 $1,230,151
FY2009Napolitano II$19,424,221 $746,447

In FY09 (the "year" that started July 1, 2008), the evil Laffey contract had expired. If the Democratic Mayor/Democratic Council believed that the City had been snookered into a backloaded contract, their hands were free to make the corrections and "fundamental changes" they thought were necessary to get department spending down to levels they thought reasonable. It certainly appears that that's what Mayor Laffey did in the first year of the contract that his administration negotiated, where the amount spent decreased by over 1 million dollars from the previous year.

But the only major adjustment that Mayor Napolitano and the Democratic City Council called for in the FY09 budget was a pay freeze. Mayor Fung has gotten the police union to agree to a pay freeze, plus only a small raise for next fiscal year -- but now the Council and other contract opponents are saying that the pay freeze doesn't really count as savings. That doesn't strike me as wholly consistent. I'd appreciate it if the next commenter who says that "this contract is a giveaway" would explain how an 18 month pay freeze, followed by a small increase after that, plus the increased health care co-shares, all with no retroactivity, is a "giveaway".

If the Democrats on the City Council think that more drastic measures, like layoffs or pay cuts have become necessary, they should inform the public and the Mayor of this. They might also consider providing an explanation of why their eleventh-hour call for "fundamental change" should be seen as anything more than political posturing, when the Democratic Mayor/Democratic Council certainly didn't act during calendar year 2008 as if changing contract terms scheduled to take effect in July of 2008 was a significant priority.

I don't think the Cranston City Council has any better idea of what "fundamental change" is this year than they did last year, when they saw no need to act on the police contract. Maybe the Council's actions are being driven by something that changed between last calendar year and this one; I wonder what that could be?

March 26, 2009

A Short History of Police Budgets in Cranston

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here are the official budget numbers for the last several years of the operation of the Cranston Police department, plus a column showing the change from the previous year…

FY2006Laffey III $16,616,502--
FY2007Laffey IV $17,536,373 $919,871
FY2008Napolitano I $19,919,454 $2,383,081
FY2009Napolitano II $20,679,721 $760,267

I had a chance for a brief interview with Cranston Mayor Allan Fung yesterday on the subject of the police contract and budget. I asked him about the $400,000 savings he is claiming that the contract he negotiated will save. Since the new contract will covers this fiscal year (FY2009), the $400,000 savings is a savings against the budgeted total. For the subsequent years, Mayor Fung's administration is applying zero-based budgeting analysis, calculating how much it should cost to run the department with a full complement of officers, then factoring in how concessions like the hiring freeze, the 18-month pay freeze, etc. will lower costs.

I asked if there were any concerns about overtime related to the positions left vacant by the hiring freeze, and if it could unexpectedly drive costs up. The Mayor answered that that overtime can be driven by different factors, but that the City has been watching its overtime expenditures, and is assuming they will stay reaonably stable. Finally, I asked about the City Council’s claim that this contract "requires" vacancies to be filled at the end of the term. Mayor Fung said that the rules regarding vacancies at the end of this contract will be no different than the rules in the previous contract.

Returning to the numbers themselves, the largest recent increase by far in the Cranston Police Department budget occurred in Mayor Michael Napolitano's first year, an increase of 2.3 million dollars over the previous year (N.B. see the addendum below for an explanation of this expense). Cranston City Councilmen John Lanni, Anthony Lupino, Terrence Livingston and Emilio Navarro were all on the City Council that approved the 2008 increase that significantly raised the "structural" baseline that they are now expressing concern about. If they had concerns about structural problems being created during the Napolitano administration, they never took a stand on the steps needed to correct them. What could have changed in Cranston, I wonder, to make the Councilmen discover their inner fiscal conservatives?

Unfortunately, this is Cranston as a microcosm of Rhode Island politics. Spend like crazy when it's all one, big happy (Democratic) party. Then blame someone else for not doing enough, when it comes time to correct the problems.

The logic of Democrats in Cranston has been that, without the contentiousness might arise from having a Republican administration deal with unions, they can negotiate deals that deliver qualiy services at reasonable costs. But compare the theory to what actually happened; look at the change in the police department budget in FY2008, under a Democratic Mayor/Democratic council, and look at what is happening now. The Dems here don't really seem to be able to deliver on either half of their promise -- they somehow manage to spend big and create turmoil at the same time.

If this City Council is going to kill this police contract, they need to be specific about the "fundamental changes" they want to see carried out. To borrow the description that Justin recently offered of the state's situation and apply it to the local level, standing around like frozen deer in the midst of a financial crisis isn't sufficient action. What exactly does the council want to see done, to mitigate the structural budget problems that took a mighty big leap under the all-Democratic watch of FY2008?


Commenter Donald Botts makes a fair point explaining the big budget increase in Napolitano year I...

The reason for the huge jump during [Mayor Napolitano's] first term is a $1.2 mil jump in the rent line item. I would assume this can be attributed to the new police station.

March 24, 2009

Non-Negotiating Season School Committee Meetings

Justin Katz

The contrast is huge between these school committee meetings when there's no contract under negotiation versus when there is. An interested resident who came to tonight's meeting and took it as representatives would surely have trouble motivating him or her self to come to others. They're discussing the budget, but a viewer would have to know quite a bit of back story in order to discern the interesting points. (Frankly, I'm pretty well versed in the controversies, and I'm not finding much of note.)

7:53 p.m.

As at last night's town council meeting, the longest discussion comes with small-town stuff, in this case, over the names that will be included on the plaque that will commemorate the completion of the new school buildings. School committee member Sally Black suggested a second plaque to capture some language suggested by fellow member Carol Herrmann (thanking the citizens of Tiverton). Danielle Coulter asked the cost per ($1,500 each) and suggested that all changes be made to the one plaque.

8:27 p.m.

The committee has been discussing the possibility of pulling fifth graders from the middle school and putting them into the elementary schools. It's clear that Superintendent Bill Rearick opposes the move, and he presented the cost-benefit analysis as a dramatic cost to the district. Carol Herrmann asked Mr. Rearick for his rational for including new hires at the rate that he has (e.g., creating a 4/5 position), and his response was that the numbers were all discussed with the principals, but that he didn't have the supporting materials with him.

I'm not sure what is implied by the fact that the superintendent didn't bring all relevant material to a meeting at which the elected officials to whom he reports would be considering the issue, but it seems very unlikely to indicate something positive.

8:38 p.m.

During discussion of the stimulus money, Herrmann asked whether decreases in the town's budget for the schools would disqualify the town for stimulus funds. Rearick said that to be his understanding.

One wonders why spending millions of additional dollars on schools doesn't qualify as "maintenance of effort." It's also curious that government handouts somehow always require other levels of government to spend more money themselves.

It's almost like a conspiracy.

March 23, 2009

Back in the Town Hall

Justin Katz

Missing a town meeting or two reminds the active citizen how nice it is to have nights at home. Ah, well. If we're going to have a democracy...

When I walked in (yes, a few minutes late) RI Rep. John Loughlin (R., Tiverton, Little Compton, Portsmouth) was giving the council the newly regular update of happenings at the State House. Now, Wayne [somebody] is describing the state's stimulus-related activities. Councilor Louise Durfee asked whether the money-related decisions will be made by the General Assembly or ladled out after the session's end. Loughlin answered, "Yes." Both methods will play a role.

7:19 p.m.

Just an observation: Councilor Jay Lambert asked Loughlin about state aid (receiving no concrete answer), and jovial comments from Durfee thereafter gave the impression that something has changed in their relationship. Since the last meeting that I attended.

7:23 p.m.

On state aid and the financial town meeting, Durfee told Loughlin that the town is considering giving the legislature a bill for spending needs or demand a change in the financial town meeting's date.

TCC member Joe Souza just asked the town council to request that Loughlin introduce a bill to end binding arbitration for police and fire. Souza: "We've heard the town council complain that they have no control over the budget."

8:13 p.m.

Town Administrator Jim Goncalo informed the council that the governor has offered to reinstate some of the state financial aid to the town... but only if he can use stimulus money for the general fund.

This issue seemed to be raised mainly to offer another opportunity for councilors to mention postponing the financial town meeting.

8:34 p.m.

The town recreation committee is requesting permission to put up outfield banner ads for the Little League fields in order to fund capital projects. They're estimating that 20 banners will generate $20,000-$25,000 per year. The committee sees the practice as the norm.

Louise Durfee is objecting that allowing advertising puts the town on slippery slope as other leagues come forward for similar treatment. "We've kept our recreation areas free of commercialism." Council President Don Bollin is getting pretty fired up about the visibility of the signage.

Hey, here's an idea: Let's raise taxes! It's almost the same thing, only the people paying the money get no advertisements in return.

8:45 p.m.

Lambert suggested trying one field for a year. Councilor Ed Roderick is partial to the slippery slope argument.

9:00 p.m.

Durfee moved to reject the proposal. Lambert amended to make it a one-year, one-field experiment, but received no second. All but Lambert voted to reject the proposal to place green signs with yellow letters (lettering only visible within the field) in order to build a new concession stand that isn't rodent-infested.

Have I mentioned that the town recently approved raises for AFSCME employees? Maybe we should make them wear advertising buttons on their shirts.

If I had time, I'd prove a point by standing near the outfield fence with a handheld sign for one of the organizations with which I'm involved and see if the police come after me.

9:22 p.m.

Jay Lambert and Ed Roderick are about to move to postpone the financial town meeting to allow for more information to be available.

9:24 p.m.

Actually... Lambert's making the point that all estimates are for tax increases below the 3050 cap even with the state aid listed as zero dollars. Consequently, he's proposing to go ahead with FTM as scheduled, where town officials would lay out what will happen with any state money: half to the reserve fund and half to tax relief for the town. "A lot of people may not trust us on a continuance."

9:29 p.m.

Durfee wants to recess a meeting to "level the playing field." At the latter point, we'll have facts that we don't currently have, on which list she includes labor agreements. She argues that the low tax increase currently on the table provides for no increases for any employees. Regarding negotiations: "Changes we want in contracts, we may need to give a little to get it."

They (i.e., Durfee and her backers) just want to give more away to the unions than they should, and they don't want the citizens to feel that they have any say in the budget.

9:38 p.m.

The solicitor (not Teitz) is suggesting that the General Assembly may lack the authority to permit the town to change the date of the FTM.

Durfee interrupted to argue "that doesn't ring accurately with me."

9:41 p.m.

Councilor Cecil Leonard just noted another instance of numbers games in the low, low budget: Revenue projections that are dramatically higher than history, such as a jump in mooring fees from $3,500 to $45,000.

He's also arguing that postponing the FTM will result in unrest. He cited the 58% of people who rejected the proposal to let the town council decide the budget.

9:44 p.m.

Chris Cotta took his regular turn at the microphone to suggest that nobody's trying to fool the taxpayers; they're just trying to have accurate information for the taxpayers. I'd suggest that the only information that they want to feed the taxpayers is how much they have to pay for signed union contracts.

9:51 p.m.

Durfee moved to proceed in seeking legislation that would postpone the FTM until Saturday, September 12, pending a legal decision that it is legal to do so. Just curios: when do our seasonal retirees leave town?

If this passes, I think my summer may be devoted to campaigning to cut a double-digit percentage from the budget.

9:59 p.m.

The council voted to have a special meeting next Monday, at which time, the solicitor will have an opinion, and they'll take the vote on postponement then.

March 20, 2009

Good Night, Sweet Tiverton

Justin Katz

I hadn't planned to attend the Tiverton Budget Committee meeting on Wednesday night, so when my eyelids became heavy around 9:30, and with the meeting looking as if it had settled into a series of unanimous votes on heavily debated dollar amounts, it was easy to talk myself into heading home. I wish I'd stayed:

All but one voting member of Tiverton's Budget Committee supported a proposal to move the town's financial town meeting to a later date, when more concrete state aid figures are available.

The vote came at the end of a long budget meeting Wednesday night, and just days before the Town Council is scheduled to meet and discuss whether to ask the General Assembly for the ability to postpone the meeting, which the town charter states is to take place the second Saturday of May. ...

Budget Committee Chairman Jeff Caron did not vote on the motion, and Vice Chairman Robert Coulter voted against it. The chairman usually votes only as a tiebreaker. ...

Sanford Mantell, a newly elected member of the Budget Committee, said he didn't have a problem with a request by Town Council President Donald Bollin for "unified" support from the Budget Committee to move the financial town meeting to a later date.

Some committee members made it clear that they would not want the meeting to open on May 9 only to be recessed to a later date. That would disenfranchise voters and cost the town additional money, they said.

Caron said the committee will continue to work on its budget recommendations and have a docket ready for May 9 if the meeting does end up convening on that date.

I very much hope I'm wrong about this, but it appears to me that the powers of Tiverton are in the midst of another scheme. Facing unexpected push-back from the budget committee, the town council and school committee squeezed their budgets as hard as they could even pretend to be doing. (Recall statements from the town side that the draft budget that they approved is "too low," even presenting a danger to residents.) Between that, some likely fudging of probable contract terms, and a very deep dip into reserve funds, the town brought the expected tax increase below the state cap.

That will depressurize some of the incentive for citizen activism, and a postponement of the financial town meeting will push actual decisions into the lazy summer, perhaps after municipal and school contracts are a done deal. No doubt, town officials are still hoping for the magic Obama money to save the day, but I suspect they're already planning methods of peeling the facades from the budgets and coming on strong with the message that "we must raise taxes" because we're awash in "obligations."

Business as usual may be in the middle of a hiccup, but it remains the paradigm, and when our eyes clear, we'll see whether the town's gamble that the world will go back to the way it was has paid off. Me, I think Tiverton's future gets a little bit darker every week.

As I said, I hope I'm wrong.

March 17, 2009

Chaos in Cranston

Carroll Andrew Morse

Last evening, the finance committee of the Cranston City Council voted to table the contract negotiated by Mayor Allan Fung with the International Brotherhood of Policemen's Local 301.

According to Mayor Fung, the contract would have saved the city approximately $1.4 million dollars over three years through measures that include not filling vacancies, implementing an 18-month pay freeze, implementing a gradual increase in employee healthcare co-share, eventually to 15%, and exchanging holiday pay for comp time.

  • Mayor Allan Fung presents the contract, Part I
  • Mayor Fung presents the contract, Part II
  • Local 301 President Steven Antonucci speaks in favor of the contract.
  • Steve Bloom, former independent City Council candidate, tells the council either approve this contract, or tell the Mayor an exact figure he needs to try to save.
Several different lines of reasoning were offered over the course of the evening by the finance committee members for their decision not to approve the contract.
  1. A large percentage of the amount saved would come from not filling police department vacancies, but the positions would still exist. Some committee members were concerned that this could trigger a sudden increase in expenses in the future, if the positions are eventually required to be filled. Mayor Fung says in the absence of this agreement, he could be required to budget and fill those positions immediately. (Mayor Fung and Finance Committee Chairman Emilio Navarro discuss the vacancy situation).
  2. Multiple members of the committee seemed to believe that, no matter what else was conceded by the union, the police should be required to pay a 20% co-share for their healthcare. Mayor Fung's response was that a) the value of the negotiated concessions is about equivalent to what a 20% co-share would save and b) based on what comparable communities are paying, if this issue is arbitrated instead of negotiated, it is unlikely that the city will get 20% (City Council President John Lanni, Mayor Fung, and Finance Chair Navarro on co-shares, savings and other contracts).
  3. The contract is automatically reopened, in the event the state requires a 20% co-share in all municipal contracts. The committee was concerned this created too much ambiguity to allow a decision to be made now.
But in the end, the finance committee's collective reasoning boils down to the council not accepting any ol' savings in a contract, but instead demanding the 20% co-share no matter what else is offered by the union and hoping the Mayor will take the blame if there is an impasse, now that there's a Republican in the Mayor's office. I think the Dems on the council think that this is clever politics. We'll see what the public thinks.

Finally, if there is one thing that this meeting made absolutely clear, it is that tentative contracts need to be made available to the public for a reasonable period of time before they are voted on. I know that Rhode Island public employee union members sometime perceive this idea to be anti-union, but last night's meeting showed how it is not.

Allow me to defend that proposition by posing a question and by inviting anyone who attended last night's meeting to offer their take in the comments section: Which of the following options do you believe would best serve the cause of explaining the positions on all sides of a contract negotiation to the general public…

  • Posting contracts in some kind of public forum, where questions and answers from knowledgable people could be exchanged for a week or two before a vote, or
  • Trapping people in a room with Cranston City Council members, then disallowing them from discussing anything important until Councilmen like John Lanni and Anthony Lupino spend nearly an hour confusing themselves about how "special details" work, and then expecting the Councilmen to be able to understand that issue, all of the other contract issues AND be able to explain it all to their constituents?

I submit that, with direct access to information and a little time to process it, the public will be able to determine what's reasonable and what's not, much faster than this Cranston City Council ever will.

March 12, 2009

Tiverton Would Rather Fire Employees than Keep Their Compensation in Check

Justin Katz

In an article that doesn't appear to be online, Tom Killin Dalglish of the Sakonnet Times perpetuates the analytical error that I've been describing:

Councilors were told that the contract will cost $117,000 less than the contract it replaces, and ultimately it was this feature that motivated the council members to end the debate and vote to approve the deal.

According to my analysis, the contract will cost only $5,233* less than three additional years of the final year of the last contract. Since that year was undoubtedly the most expensive of the three that it covered, the number is probably an overall increase in cost.

More interesting, in Tom's article, is another consideration that several council members apparently found persuasive:

But the ensuing discussion molified [Jay Lambert's] concerns. "There's no promise in this contract that guarantees a level of employment," said Council President Donald Bollin.

"It's not a no-layoff contract," said Town Solicitor Andrew Teitz.

"As long as we have Mr. Teitz's confirmation that there may be layoffs and fuloughs," Mr. Lambert said, he was satisfied, and he subsequently withdrew his motion to postpone council consideration of the contract.

Well that's just great. The town council bought a too-expensive contract in the midst of an unpredictable economic downturn at the state and national levels on the grounds that they can always increase unemployment and decrease town services in the future. As I've said, if this sort of thinking dominates the three larger contracts that the town must negotiate in the coming months, we're in a great deal of trouble.

* * My initial number resulted from a data entry error as explained here.

March 6, 2009

Displacing the Tiverton Elite

Justin Katz

I've got a letter in the current Sakonnet Times, responding to some discouraging observations at recent town meetings:

To the editor:

The self-presumed ruling class of Tiverton — in and out of office — has no governing ideas but to raise taxes in good times and bad while comfortably accepting that most of the town's budget is locked in by law or by contract. So, they've turned their ire toward the members of Tiverton Citizens for Change who have stepped forward to change the trajectory of municipal government.

First the accusation against TCC was, "They're not from here, and they haven't done anything!" Then it was, "They're not from here, and they make mistakes when filing campaign finance forms!" The new one is, "They're not from here, and they need practice conducting public meetings with a hostile audience!"

Well, golly. The meetings that the familiar voices reference are those of the current Budget Committee, on which local reformers have a controlling hand, and the heat radiated most strongly (thus far) when the group interviewed the School Committee. It's almost as if the town aristocracy is trying to distract from school officials' admission of difficulty facing down the obscenely aggressive National Education Association labor union.

An anonymous commenter on my web site, AnchorRising.com, mocked Budget Committee (and TCC) member Thomas Parker, a successful naval officer, and suggested that we should "take a good look at who we have running some of our meetings and think about providing effective leadership to the town in this time of crisis." Yes, let's.

At its most recent, notably quiet, meeting, the School Committee did not have members of the Town Council gabbing disruptively in the back of a small meeting room or former School Committee Vice Chairman Mike Burk bellowing attacks as he paced the room, both of which set the tone of the prior Budget Committee meeting. However cordial their gatherings, school committee members and representatives bemoan the strength of the teachers' union and (unbelievably) their own sense that they have weak hands for negotiation. (How about having employment on offer during the worst downturn since the Great Depression?) And when the town administrator and council president recently asked for financial help to maintain services in the current budget, committee members were awfully quiet, considering that the request came mere weeks after they had given away hundreds of thousands of dollars to the intimidating unionists.

On the Town Council side, meeting attendees walk away with the sense that even contracts that are up for negotiation are "locked in." Council President Don Bollin recently declared an inability to "trim a budget based on what [he] would like to see happen in negotiations," and that "it's easier to have the money put back should the results we want happen." As the School Committee recently acknowledged, however, the unions typically demand more than is budgeted, rather than allow any earmarked dollars to flow back to the town. Indeed, a central rationalization of the school department for awarding not only raises but retroactive pay was that the "money was in the budget."

So, if your overarching preference is for peaceful government meetings in which all of the meat is chewed during executive sessions and in which officials practice comity most enthusiastically while conspiring, along with the unions, to manipulate procedural rules to ram double-digit tax increases through financial town meetings, then side with the familiar faces. Me, I'll take fresh leadership that conducts entertaining meetings but checks unions to lower taxes and maintain services at the same time.

February 27, 2009

Ka-Boom! Tiverton Residents Sue for Refund of Illegal Tax Increase

Justin Katz

Things are going to get even a leetle more interesting in our sleepy corner of the state:

Danielle Coulter, a chiropractor and Tiverton School Committee member just elected to office last November, has filed a lawsuit against the Tiverton’s tax assessor.

She claims that last year’s property tax levy in excess of the tax cap was excessive and unlawful, and she asks the court for relief from paying the taxes on property at 34 Lawton Avenue which she and her husband Robert D. Coulter are listed as owners.

Their property is assessed for tax purposes at $395,700 and they pay, according to tax assessor records, $4,455 in taxes.

Mr. Coulter is a lawyer with a Providence law firm and was elected last November to the town Budget Committee, on which he serves as vice-chairman.

Explaining the process that "has brought about this suit," Ms. Coulter said "I am simply appealing my tax bill, everyone has that right."

"The suit is not about money," she said. "The overall amount in question is $193. If returned to us it will be donated to the Tiverton Land Trust. The Financial Town Meeting process is in question. This is about fairness and following the law. It is my belief that the town was lied to in the initial FTM, regarding the timing needed to reconvene the next FTM." ...

Ms. Coulter made other allegations in her complaint about last year's town meeting that she said was "fraught with irregularities ... (that) amounted to a deprivation of due process."

I can't promise to give my refund to charity, but I might donate some of it to a joint Coulter reelection fund.

February 20, 2009

The Town Governments Need the Taxpayers' Help

Justin Katz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parker: Well you just implied that you were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Crowd noise.]

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

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

DeMedeiros: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has to stop.

February 19, 2009

A Different Sort of Meeting

Justin Katz

Tonight is my first Tiverton Budget Committee meeting (public-access television excepted), which means I'm not in the utter minority of the room. Town Hall is actually pretty well populated — moreso than for many Town Council meetings.

Of course, it helps that the entire School Committee is here to argue (or not) for their proposed budget, which along with the proposed municipal budget, will raise property taxes in the town by an estimated 13%.

7:10 p.m.:

An updated tax increase is now 12.1%

7:21 p.m.

First in the hotseat is the Department of Public Works — Director Stephen Berlucchi.

7:29 p.m.

Berlucchi reviewed the tight circumstances of the Tiverton DPW, and with a workforce of ten, there doesn't appear to be much fat there. Now he's talking about the huge increase in the cost of sand and salt for snowstorms. He predicts that supplies will run out in the middle of next year.

7:37 p.m.

It sounds like Tiverton can treat the roads for two more storms this year. After that, who knows. Clearly our budget dollars flow somewhere else.

7:41 p.m.

Apparently, street-sign theft is a real problem. The consequences of things I didn't realize as a teenager...

7:44 p.m.

The paving budget (now equal to last year's $70,000, down from a proposed $85,000) serves also as a reserve fund for sand and salt, overtime, and so on. As the director admits (and everybody knows) the roads in town are just horrible.

Again: where's all the tax money going? These are basic government services.

7:52 p.m.

And drainage is a problem, wasting manpower and sand/salt for ice that forms unnecessarily in the street. For this reason, Berlucchi applies his paving budget to alleviate this problem (you know, the paving budget that serves as a reserve budget for other things).

I'd say that, in addition to cutting the budget to a 0% tax increase, the town ought to redirect resources to these basic necessities that keep residents and visitors safe.

8:30 p.m.

Budget Committee Chairman Jeff Caron asked Mr. Berlucchi what he would do to come up with a 15% reduction. Being very helpful, Berlucchi suggested that he couldn't come up with that off the top of his head, but he'd put something together and move it through Town Administrator Jim Goncalo, who (I believe — I looked away) waved him off of doing so. The conclusion is that such a document will not be forthcoming.

8:43 p.m.

Currently on the table is the police pension, and former Budget Committee Chairman Chris Cotta is giving a history lesson on the poor investments in the past. According to Cotta, the problems originated in the '90s, when the money was pretty much placed in a simple 5% interest account.

8:48 p.m.

The question has been raised whether Budget Committee member Rob Coulter can vote on the budget of the School Committee (now up), considering that his wife, Danielle serves on it. The answer is that Rob must recuse himself only if Danielle stands to gain financially (as with a committee member stipend).

8:52 p.m.

Supt. Bill Rearick just stated that the School Committee's goal is to bring its budget to an increase of 2.75%. He also noted that Blue Cross/Blue Shield expenses are likely to go down 4% (around $100,000).

9:00 p.m.

The school department estimates that unfunded mandates amount to $347,000 (as an arbitrary amount for which the state would pay, but of which the town has received nothing).

9:05 p.m.

The school department has been told to expect $623,000 from the federal stimulus package, but there is no information about how many years that covers. The School Committee's lawyer also clarified that existing laws require that money to supplement, not supplant, funds already dedicated, although some rumors suggest that requirement might be relaxed.

9:15 p.m.

Two teachers are expected to retire and be replaced with lower-step employees — conversation planned for next Tuesday night.

9:18 p.m.

One Budget Committee member asked why budgets keep going up although enrollment goes down. Supt. Rearick is explaining that costs keep going up — and he listed everything except the cost for classroom instruction.

9:20 p.m.

Rearick's message: The school department doesn't control anything that's driving up the cost of education. Unmentioned: labor contracts.

9:24 p.m.

Sally Black is expressing hope that the three government bodies (town council, budget committee, and school committee) will work together, unlike historical ire prior to the last few years.

9:27 p.m.

Jeff Caron handed out a package of documents illustrating the school department's budget increases well beyond CPI. Here's where tension may ratchet up in the room.

Growth of expenditures has been more than twice CPI.

9:34 p.m.

Rearick is complaining that Budget Committee worksheets show "total appropriations" and might confuse "the average citizen who reads it" into thinking that's the total tax levy. Doesn't make much sense to me... state aid and such is reduced down the line.

9:42 p.m.

Jeff Caron is going through his sheet showing that school funding must drop somewhere around 5% and everything else that's changeable by 16.5% in order to stop a tax increase. I'd like to think that the school committee is picturing families that will watch their spending money shrink.

9:46 p.m.

Some bickering between Supt. Rearick and Jeff Caron has seen some real heat the room. One member of the committee left the table.

9:49 p.m.

School Committee Solicitor Robinson is urging the Budget Committee to "tread carefully" in taking state statute to permit a decrease in school aid.

9:56 p.m.

The arrogant gaggle at the back of the room — consisting of the old powers of the town — are gabbing like highschoolers at a performance put on by the unpopular kids.

9:59 p.m.

School Committee President Jan Bergandy is discussing the contractual complications that they face. Nothing new. All of the arguments for higher pay and such (keeping quality teachers) lose force in a non-merit, collective bargaining scenario.

10:12 p.m.

Michael Burk is shouting out from the back of the room.

10:37 p.m.

Very, very heated discussion, centering around Supt. Rearick's contextualization that going up against the NEA in negotiations can be very intimidating.

I'd submit that the way in which the Budget Committee can stand "should-to-shoulder" with the school committee is by forcing the issue by constraining budgets for the sake of the taxpayers.

February 18, 2009

Cuts or Layoffs, City by City, Town by Town

Justin Katz

It's going to become impossible to catalog all such stories, but a couple came with today's paper. In Woonsocket:

Woonsocket officials warned the city's two public safety unions yesterday that if they don't agree to substantive concessions on pay or benefits, they will lay off about 40 of the community's 101 police officers and 55 to 60 of its 135 firefighters, possibly by the end of the week.

They did so after a Superior Court judge, ruling on a request by both unions, scuttled the 5 percent pay cuts and 15 percent health coverage contributions that the city unilaterally imposed on both unions two weeks ago in an effort to cut current-year spending by more than $1.2 million.

In North Providence:

In a series of open and closed sessions in the library of North Providence High School, the mayor gave leaders of the police, firefighters, public works and municipal workers unions until 10 p.m. Sunday to accept his demand that they accede to 5 percent wage cuts and start contributing 15 percent of the cost of their health care.

Also, he put the School Committee on notice that the Town Council would unilaterally cut its budget unless the board secures similar concessions from the School Department's unions.

Those developments, against the backdrop of a current-year deficit that threatens to hit $13 million, came out of a meeting at which state Auditor General Ernest A. Almonte warned officials and union leaders that failure to achieve a balanced budget could lead to a state takeover that he said would be painful.

And as the editors of the Sakonnet Times describe:

It happened in New Bedford where the all-but-broke city asked police and firefighters to accept a 10 percent pay cut or else dozens of their own would be let go. Ten percent is a significant loss but with many of the rank and file earning $100,000 or more with overtime and enjoying world-class benefits, the loss seems bearable given what’s going on all around.

When, as promised, the city followed through with layoffs, those same workers who had refused to compromise voiced outrage that the city would put its citizens at risk by cutting police and firefighters.

Faced with similar options, teachers' unions have been just as rigid. Teachers in East Providence have taken the city to court rather than concede the pay and benefit changes asked of them. Since the city simply doesn't have the money to pay what the contract dictates, the price of victory for teachers will surely be the loss of many of their own. They need only look to West Warwick or Central Falls if they think otherwise.

And in Tiverton, teachers celebrated retroactive raises finally won after a long fight with their town. Almost going unnoticed was the school committee’s next act — the elimination of a half-dozen teacher assistants.

One-time fixes will not last forever. Public-sector unionists would do well to do some reading:

God forbade it indeede, but Faustus hath done it:
for vaine pleasure of 24. yeares, hath Faustus lost eternall
ioy and felicitie, I writ them a bill with mine owne bloud,
the date is expired, the time wil come, and he wil fetch mee.

February 14, 2009

A Cut Above, in Multiple Senses

Justin Katz

In Portsmouth, they're debating whether a 5% reduction in town spending should be a "goal" or a "mandate":

After a freeze in discretionary spending for what remains of this fiscal year, Portsmouth will try to cut spending by 5 percent in the next fiscal year.

The Portsmouth Town Council voted 6-0 Monday evening to make next year's 5 percent reduction a "goal" rather than the mandate sought by Republican Councilor Jeffrey Plumb who had called for the budget action.

"Welcome to an emergency," Mr. Plumb said, adding that strapped taxpayers cannot afford business as usual from their town government — "We should have cut our spending three years ago."

Town Administrator Robert Driscoll agreed that spending must be tightened but asked the council to make the 5 percent reduction a townwide goal. He said that while managers will do their best to "embrace" the challenge of identifying savings, departments in Portsmouth have less leeway than other places since they are already more lightly staffed than most towns.

In Tiverton, meanwhile, the Budget Committee has concluded that the only way (PDF) not to raise taxes on a struggling citizenry will be to institute the maximum reduction in school funding (enabled by declining enrollment) and to cut every expenditure that can legally be cut by 16.5%. As it is, the budgets currently submitted by the school committee and town council will result in a 13% tax increase (PDF).

A request from the Budget Committee, which is currently dominated by members of Tiverton Citizens for Change, for department heads to give the town a sense of what it might look like to cut 15% from their budgets has stirred up all kinds of resistance. Town Administrator Jim Goncalo has intervened to insist on a process of moving that request through him and the Town Council (with some ambiguity about whether he'll actually follow through). In a very interesting exchange, Fire Chief Robert Lloyd insisted that he simply cannot cut the budget 15%, called the committee a "kangaroo court," and stormed out of the meeting (audio: stream, download).

The line from town officials appears to be that expense accounts are already bare-bones, and everything else is mandated by law or by contract. Oddly, our elected and appointed negotiators (as it were) appear reluctant to acknowledge that every labor contract that is relevant to next year's budget is currently open. Perhaps they intend to accede to the unwritten law that union deals can only advance or, during real calamities, level off.

Further along in the meeting, Budget Committee member Rob Coulter noted that committee documents show the school department's budget growing from $16,504,785 to $25,156,129 (52.4%) from FY01 to FY09, even as enrollment fell from 2,201 to 1,965 (-10.7%); per-student expenditures therefore grew from $7,799 to $12,802 (64.1%). For some perspective, I calculated what the per-student expenditures would have been if they had only increased along with inflation and found that, rather than $12,032 in FY08, the number would have been $9,120, which works out to a total appropriation of $18,642,027. In other words, from 2001 to 2008, the school department's budget increased 31.9% more quickly than inflation — or $5,952,360.

One gets the impression that the primary goal of municipal government is to transfer money from residents to union members.

February 12, 2009

Open Meetings and Public Comments

Carroll Andrew Morse

Given opinions expressed from multiple quarters at Tuesday night's East Providence School Committee meeting on whether members of public bodies can respond directly to questions offered during the public comments, I want to point out that Rhode Island law is explicit on the subject, and the answer is yes...

42-46-6(d) Nothing within this chapter shall prohibit any public body, or the members thereof, from responding to comments initiated by a member of the public during a properly noticed open forum even if the subject matter of a citizen's comments or discussions were not previously posted, provided such matters shall be for informational purposes only and may not be voted on except where necessary to address an unexpected occurrence that requires immediate action to protect the public or to refer the matter to an appropriate committee or to another body or official. Nothing contained in this chapter requires any public body to hold an open forum session, to entertain or respond to any topic nor does it prohibit any public body from limiting comment on any topic at such an open forum session. No public body, or the members thereof, may use this section to circumvent the spirit or requirements of this chapter.
A public body can choose to limit the topics that are discussed, not even a requirement that what happened during the "official" part of the meeting be an "allowed" topic, and never any requirement that committee members not respond.

This change in the law was added in 2006, presumably in response to some less-than-clear guidance that had been offered on the subject by the Attorney General (making this a perfect example, by the way, of the democratic process working well. Executive branch says "this is how I'm going to enforce the law". Legislative branch says "we don't like how the enforcement is proceding, so let's change the law".)

February 9, 2009

Trying to Keep Up with a Fluid Government

Justin Katz

A very tight 'round-the-state schedule today made attending the Tiverton Town Council meeting difficult, but there was an item on the agenda that I very much wanted to follow:

Discussion with Honorable Representatives Jay Edwards and John Loughlin III and Honorable Senators Walter Felag, Jr. and Louis DiPalma Regarding the Governor's Proposed Cut in Aid to Cities and Towns and Relief from Mandates.

Granted, I was about 25 minutes late, but the item was well into the second page of the agenda. Even so, the state representative discussion was well under way by the time I got through the door. Sounds like the council blew through the early parts of the agenda.


7:41 p.m.

Councilor Jay Lambert is asking the legislators some big-picture questions about the supplemental budget and his impression that the General Assembly is "tiptoeing" around the reasons Rhode Island is in its current position. His suggestions are regionalization
and full state funding of schools, both of which are certainly not as straightforward as he appears to believe.

7:45 p.m.

Councilor Ed Roderick observed the difficulty of budgeting without knowledge of the likely cuts in state aid.

Councilor Louise Durfee asked whether the town will have a number for next year's aid by the time of our financial town meeting. Senator Felag is explaining that no numbers will be available at that point.

7:48 p.m.

Louise Durfee just stated that many people are thinking about entering the financial town meeting and immediately moving to recess until July so as to deliberate with accurate numbers.

Councilor Joanne Arruda is seconding the underlying notion.

7:50 p.m.

Rep. Loughlin, with concurrence of his peers, just put the time frame for passing a supplemental budget in March or April — as the state bleeds millions of dollars per week!

7:59 p.m.

Jay Lambert just asked about a Curuolo-related provision in the budget, and the two Democrat legislators at the table looked to John Loughlin. Said Rep. Jay Edwards, "He's your governor."

Oddly, I'd been under the impression that he was the governor of the entire state.

8:02 p.m.

Jay Edwards has remained behind for the next item on the agenda, which is his House bill (H-5200), naming the Sakonnet River Bridge after local son Christopher Potts, who died in Iraq a few years ago.

8:12 p.m.

The town council passed a resolution to support Rep. Edwards's bill. Voting against was Louise Durfee and Hannibal Costa.

January 31, 2009

The Process of Reigning

Justin Katz

I'm increasingly noticing the degree to which procedural minutia affect the balance of power in the disputes resolved among the lower tiers of government. The reality was stark at the last financial town meeting in Tiverton, but even in the day-to-day operations, one must weave through various traps and catches in order to bring about a particular policy. It becomes, essentially, an extra-judicial battle of lawyers.

That sense struck me during a conversation at the latest Tiverton town council meeting concerning a motion to permit the town administrator to send another draft of the next budget to the budget committee (stream, download). This exchange, in particular, makes me think that there's some defense being built of which the casual follower would remain unaware:

Ed Roderick: Isn't there a requirement that the council get this budget to the budget committee by a certain date, and we already exceeded that date?

Louise Durfee: They have it. They do have it. So, we haven't withdrawn it, I mean, so, you know...

Joanne Arruda: They can certainly work with what they have.

Roderick: I believe the wording is "an approved budget."

Durfee: Yeah, but is it "approved" really?

Arruda: It's a recommendation. It's a...

Roderick: It's a working budget?

Durfee: Yeah, it's very much of a...

Arruda: Proposed.

Roderick: I just want everybody to be cognizant that it is a requirement that we get it to the budget committee.

Be it an approved proposed recommendation, the fact is that the town council submitted a budget with which to begin the process, and it was one that would require significant tax increases on struggling residents.

January 28, 2009

Listening in on the School Committee

Justin Katz

Here's some significant audio from last night's school committee meeting in Tiverton, as I described on scene. A key take-away from the evening is that almost half of the $300,000+ that the school district must cut from the 2009-2010 budget to stay within the state spending cap is a direct result of this contract's approval. Unless the committee plans to cut teacher pay next year, that means either layoffs or decreases in other budget items, which already constitute a lower percentage of per-student spending than is true for the state as a whole.

January 27, 2009

Back to School

Justin Katz

The new teachers' contract is up for approval again in Tiverton, and inasmuch as the agenda item is "approval of arbitrator's interim award (NEA contract)," it looks likely to go the other way. Apparently the latest info is that the state is only reducing their funding by 5%, so they're confident giving away over $300,000.

The crowd is certainly not of East Providence proportions, but some of the same principals are here (e.g., Pat Crowley), and the local union leaders are way too happy, and much too chummy with Superintendent Bill Rearick, for the outcome to be good.

ADDENDUM 7:01 p.m.:

As we wait for the school committee to have their beginning-of-meeting executive session (probably deciding how to vote after the formality of public comment), I thought I'd note that I've prepared some remarks to read when the time comes. I sincerely hope that I've done enough work with the recorder, already, to have persuaded the union to let people speak without attack.

We'll see.

ADDENDUM 7:08 p.m.:

While I wait, some more broad musing: I'm really not afraid of public speaking... I've made too much of a fool of myself in too many situations to be timid, but it's really an intimidating prospect to speak at school committee meetings. I really wish Tiverton would do as East Providence does and put the audience microphone off to one side, rather than in the very middle, of the space below the stage so that speakers don't feel as if they're in some interrogation setting with the angry audience bearing down from behind.

ADDENDUM 7:40 p.m.:

We're back in session and hearing a review of the status of the new school construction. The contract discussion is next.

The school committee looked somewhat glum when it entered, but it's impossible to tell from that which way things might go.

ADDENDUM 7:49 p.m.:

Here goes. Carol Herrmann voted to approve, and Sally Black seconded.

Supt. Rearick is about to speak and suggested that committee members speak before public comment.

ADDENDUM 7:52 p.m.:

Rearick just stated that this money is budgeted and will not affect the tax rate... as if every year is distinct.

He's also arguing that negotiations are holding up needed reform and accreditation changes.

ADDENDUM 7:54 p.m.:

Carol Herrmann is for the contract. Again, she brought up the held-up reforms.


Danielle Coulter is arguing that economic times have changed and that, since we're laying off teachers, it's ridiculous to give their coworkers raises.

ADDENDUM 7:58 p.m.:

Growing titters in the crowd as Danielle speaks. They're clearly trying to keep it down, but the habit must be strong.

ADDENDUM 8:00 p.m.

Leonard Wright is "on the fence," but willing to listen, and leaning toward approving the contract for "high quality teachers."

Sally Black is arguing that "during this time" --- when people are suffering --- education is something that we need to hold on to.

ADDENDUM 8:03 p.m.:

Jan Burgandy (committee president) is also "on the fence." "This is the most difficult vote I will probably ever have to take."

"We have to hope that in the future this process will be more civil and converge must faster."

As I'm about to argue: it won't.

ADDENDUM 8:06 p.m.:

I cannot believe that it doesn't strike the school committee as plain wrong that an employment contract should potentially hold up the educational need of students (e.g., accreditation).

ADDENDUM 8:08 p.m.:

Bergandy just held up a giant gavel. The audience is laughing. Glad it's so clubby.

ADDENDUM 8:09 p.m.:

David Nelson (TCC president) is speaking. I hear shushing behind.

ADDENDUM 8:12 p.m.

TCC member Joe Souza is talking about state-wide budget history.

He just mentioned that, in his construction job, he had to lay off 16 guys, this year.

ADDENDUM 8:16 p.m.:

A citizen I don't know is saying that teachers should sacrifice. "We're not asking you to move into a tent city. You're all doing pretty well."

ADDENDUM 8:24 p.m.:

I was working through my three-minute statement and — amazingly — Jan Bergandy stopped me to state that we're not getting into monetary or performance analysis.

Guess I really am disliked around town.

ADDENDUM 8:27 p.m.:

Ms. Black stopped me as I walked away to say that she voted against unreasonable contracts, so it is clearly not her intention to give teachers everything they want. I'm open to correction on this, but my understanding is that the committee decided the maximum amount that they could give to the teachers and told the teachers that was it. In other words, Ms. Black voted not to give over an impossible amount, but did intend to give over what she understood to be the maximum amount possible.

That was the attitude against which I was speaking.

ADDENDUM 8:32 p.m.:

TCC member Rob Coulter suggested that the school committee should consider this action (approving the contract) to negate any further request for money from the taxpayers.

ADDENDUM 8:35 p.m.:

Jan Bergandy just stated that the school committee held off on signing the contract longer than anybody else in local government.

Mike Burk just mocked me — I brought up onto the stage a chart for the school committee to consider — by throwing up a bag of candy. ("Red herring.") It struck me that several of them were not actually arguments that had been made, which would make the statement about red herrings a red herring itself.

ADDENDUM 8:43 p.m.:

Burk just said that the committee should really "hold the line" with the next contract. Well, there's the excuse for the union to spin the wheels until the economy is better suited to their contractual desires.

ADDENDUM 8:46 p.m.:

Chris Cotta (formerly a local elected official) just suggested that the school committee shouldn't listen to us taxpayers because "they'll always come forward to complain." Guess that's as good a reason to ignore us as any.

ADDENDUM 8:49 p.m.:

I've wondered why local officials take themselves so seriously. That's not to say that their job is not important, but the heat of the politics strikes me as excessive. Some of the speeches tonight from (former) elected officials confirm my growing conclusion that it's really an ego thing.

Not to say that's not understandable. But it's interesting.

ADDENDUM 8:53 p.m.:

The contract passes. All for, except Danielle Coulter's no and Leonard Wright's abstention.

ADDENDUM 8:59 p.m.:

Five minute recess.

You know, this went the way I expected, so I guess it was good to state some principles and considerations for future use. Watching the whole interplay of local politics can be dispiriting, I must say, and I'd suggest that, for that very reason, more regular folks should get involved. Society at large doesn't operate this way, and neither should our government.

It certainly isn't pleasant to be the bad guy, though — especially when it's on top of financial struggles and a frequently tough day job.

ADDENDUM 9:12 p.m.:

Rearick is talking about the next budget and the various reductions in staff. Almost all of the teachers who were here have left.

Guess it's easier to leave on a high note.

ADDENDUM 9:18 p.m.:

My mind drifted a bit, but I think I just heard Supt. Rearick say that he's considering cutting a high-school technology teacher position. That doesn't sound good.

ADDENDUM 9:21 p.m.:

I do have a positive note, by the way: The union members were very well behaved tonight. I'm sure much of that had to do with their apparently sure knowledge from the beginning that they were going to get their big checks, but I do hope that it helps that they know they're being recorded.

That's something that other reform-type folks around the state should consider. I'd be willing to help.

ADDENDUM 9:33 p.m.:

Town Council Member Jay Lambert is objecting to the school committee's apparent complacency with the notion of increasing taxes — during a recession, with the state losing population at nation-leading rates — at the maximum amount.

"This committee is a real disappointment."

"That cap was not put in place to be a goal to shoot for every single year, especially during these economic times."

ADDENDUM 9:43 p.m.:

Rob Coulter just clarified with the school committee that the 09-10 budget — on which the committee voted at the previous meeting — did reflect the passage of the contract this evening. The district's financial guy stated that it's reflected in the 08-09 budget, but it seems to me that the numbers would have carried through to the next year.

ADDENDUM 10:18 p.m.:

Local union head Amy Mullen just asked to clarify Mr. Wright's vote on the contract. He said that he abstained and subsequently voted to approve. ("The minutes will reflect the vote as four for.")

I've been here the whole time, but I must have missed his switched vote.

Well, well.

ADDENDUM (from home):

After the meeting, I confirmed with district financial director Doug Fiore that the budget that the school committee submitted to the budget committee did include the contract that was approved tonight. What that means is that the number for '08-'09 would have been $301,264 lower had the contract been voted down. It also means that the number for '09-'10 would have been roughly $150,000 lower, as well — almost one-half of the current budget gap.

Supt. Rearick has already brought the $323,376 down to around $209,000 (mainly through staff reductions), so absent the approval of the new contract, the school district would only need to come up with roughly $59,000 more in reductions. Five figures instead of six.

January 26, 2009

A Late Meeting Early

Justin Katz

So how is it that I can walk in, at 7:02 p.m., to a public meeting that's advertised (PDF) for a 7:00 start, and the town council is already through the first page of its agenda? It's typical — the meetings really start at 6:30 p.m. [see footnote] — but this evening, I walked into a mildly contentious-seeming discussion between the police chief and councillor Louise Durfee, and it does make me wonder at the appropriateness of such business being conducted before an uninitiated citizen would have arrived.

ADDENDUM 7:21 p.m.:

Council President Don Bollin is absent tonight because of a very unfortunate and close death in the family. My prayers and condolences go out to all those close to the deceased.

ADDENDUM 7:31 p.m.:

A local lawyer seeking a position on the new Juvenile Hearing Board just noted that the children who go awry aren't all from "low income families in North Tiverton" (my neighborhood), but also from "good taxpaying families on the south side of town."

For the record, that I pay way too much to the town to let that comment go without response.

ADDENDUM 7:39 p.m.:

Man of local fame, Michael Burk, just failed in a bid for a position on the Tiverton Housing Authority. Louise Durfee and Joanne Arruda voted for him, but the other four councillors (led by two TCC-endorsed candidates) voted for Elaine Nearpass.

ADDENDUM 7:47 p.m.:

Councillor Jay Lambert just withdrew his suggestion that the council cut their own pay, leaving it as a personal decision for each. Councillors Durfee and Arruda complimented his willingness to take opposing arguments under advisement.

ADDENDUM 8:03 p.m.:

An auditor brought in by the town treasurer is giving a presentation with an overheaed projector and transparencies. Now there's a frugal guy!

By the way, Treasurer DiMattia mentioned that the town currently has reserves in the amount of 1.3% of expenditures, while the town charter requires one of 3%. Nobody gasped, so it doesn't appear that anything will be done with urgency.

ADDENDUM 8:09 p.m.:

The auditor just suggested that the 3% in the charter should actually be 8-10% for bonding reasons.

ADDENDUM 8:27 p.m.:

The auditor just said that Tiverton's net pension obligation is one of the lowest in the state (covering only police officers, with everybody else in the state plan).

ADDENDUM 8:40 p.m.:

The auditor's done, and further along in the agenda: Louise Durfee is suggesting that the council go through its budget line by line before approving it and sending it to the Budget Committee, so the council doesn't get "beat up over it."

ADDENDUM 8:42 p.m.:

Maybe one has to be a lawyer, but I'm not sure how it's possible for the council to vote down a motion to send the budget to the Budget Committee on the grounds that the committee already has a budget with which to work. Semantic debate about whether the Budget Committee currently holds a budget or a proposal or a vague suggestion.

ADDENDUM 8:49 p.m.

A couple of local advocates for animal care are presenting a preemptive request to maintain funds and efforts in light of budget problems. They have offered, to help with funds via a group called Placing Paws.

ADDENDUM 8:56 p.m.:

This is interesting: If feral cats aren't controlled, they will multiply to the point at which they'll start to support larger predators, like coyotes.

My summation might have been wrongly emphasized. In summary, the advocates are suggesting that they're looking for ways to maximize dollars and contribute money to defray the costs and keep the services going.

ADDENDUM 9:18 p.m.:

Councillor Hannibal Costa just suggested that towns sell bonds to buy pieces of Twin River, with the state. No action taken.

ADDENDUM 9:23 p.m.:

The town administrator just announced — as one early means of saving money — that the town will no longer pick up white goods (appliances, etc.) for delivery to the town dump.

Councillor Ed Roderick just asked whether the town can charge for such pickup, and the administrator said that's on the table.

It's only a sense, but I take that as a small shot across the bow of budget cutters.

* I honestly did not know how significantly this comment would be treated. Had I realized that the excessively short-hand version of my thought would be taken so seriously — and literally — I would have taken a moment to flesh it out. The fact is that, during my previous bout of regular town council meeting attendance, I changed the time on my calendar to 6:30, because it seemed that arriving at 7 always led me to miss the beginnings of the meetings. That was the heart of my reference, not any knowledge that town council meetings habitually begin early according to some unwritten schedule. As I formed that concept into words while initially writing this post, it started to get away from me, so I cut it far too short so as not to interfere with my following of the meeting.

I maintain that it has always seemed to me that the council starts early, and given the sparse attendance (except for those scheduled for business), it didn't occur to me that it might be a point of controversy: So it starts early (my thinking went); regular attendees learn to arrive with time to spare, and those with business before the council will do the same, or the council will give them time to arrive.

As for this specific meeting, I can only attest to my observation and conclusion that the meeting began early.

January 24, 2009

Turning Around the Train

Justin Katz

Apparently, I missed quite a show at the latest Budget Committee meeting in Tiverton, and it merits watching across the state. While East Providence is a battle occurring during free fall, Tiverton is an example of a municipality that can still choose to stop its train from speeding toward a collapsed bridge.

The town administrator and school department submitted their initial budget requests, on Thursday night, and there was some controversy over how seriously they should be taken and how much the public should treat these as actual government documents that will affect their lives. The usual process, as I understand it, is for the town administrator and superintendent to put together quick budget drafts to enable an unprepared town council and school committee to meet a charter-driven deadline. Over the next few months, the number typically grows, and then the Financial Town Meeting rubber stamps the budget.

That has to stop. My house is on the line.

My understanding is that the Budget Committee will have the full municipal budget on its Web page on Monday, but here's the summary page (click for a larger view):

Note the 5%, $822,542.77, increase and the lack of response to the probable cut in state funding, which I'm told will likely amount to roughly $1,000,000 .

At least the school department acknowledged the expected state cut of $242,638 in its budget:

Of course, from the Tiverton taxpayer's point of view, that admission mattered not at all, because the department already assumed an increase of taxes to the state cap of 4.75%, or $952,278. Moreover, the budget calls for an increase in expenditures of 4.06%, or $1,020,245, which is 46.4% greater than the expected increase in revenue. In other words, the district's initial budget overspends by $323,376 — even with the maximum tax increase.

That's for a district that will have 79 fewer students come the autumn.

The truly astonishing news from the school department is that the School Committee looks likely to pass the mostly retroactive increase in teacher pay on Tuesday night. The additional cost? $301,264. It's one thing to give away money and then find one's self short on unanticipated bills. It's quite another thing to have the two numbers in front of you and still opt to sign the check.

It gets worse. To even get within a few hundred thousand dollars of a budget that's already requested to grow by over a half-million, the district has to plan to reduce its staff by nine employees:

  • One full-time kindergarten teaching position
  • One grade 1 teaching position
  • Four full-time teaching positions at the middle school
  • Two full-time special education teaching assistant positions at the high school
  • One part-time elementary teaching assistant position

It also struck four new positions that it was considering, including a high school math coach who might have been able to do something about the town's losing ground on its high schoolers' math proficiency, which actually dropped to 24% (from 29%) in the latest round of NECAP scores (PDF.

And worse still: The "new" contract only lasts until August, so negotiations will have to resume in the very near future. When they do, the union will have been given no incentive to settle, because the principle of retroactive pay covering years of intransigence will have been reinforced, and it would clearly be a more profitable strategy to delay a final deal through these dark days of economic decline.

In Tiverton — as in many other places — the pain of the next few years is exacerbated, not alleviated, at ever tier of government. But there's still a chance that citizens, working from the bottom up, can apply the brakes.

January 20, 2009

Mighty Mouse Versus Yosemite Sam

Justin Katz

It's kinda funny to contemplate what local establishment figures and their one-mind sympathizers imagine about reform groups. Former school committee member (and foiled town council candidate) Michael Burk likens Tiverton Citizens for Change to a false Mighty Mouse and whispers spooky insinuations that would surely spark laughter in anybody with a reasonable understanding of the scope of town government:

On September 15, 2008 Mr. Gerald Felise contributed $1,000 to the TCC. However, on October 7 the TCC filed a CF-5 with the Board of Elections stating they would accept donations of no more than $100 from any individual and no more than $1,000 from all contributors combined. Yet they still didn't report any contributions/expenses until November 17 – 13 days after the election and two months after Mr. Felise's contribution.

Rhode Island law prohibits political contributions from corporations. The TCC's Novemer 17 filing listed Mr. Felise as an individual donor with his home address as 896 Fish Road. His business, eCo Industrial Park Corporation of Rhode Island, also has an address of 896 Fish Road.

Jump ahead to the December 11 Sakonnet Times. Mr. Felise is proposing a "Giant 'eco-development'" on both sides of Route 24. Did Mr. Felise, obviously a strong TCC supporter and probably a member (they don't release their membership list), present this to a meeting of the Planning Board or the Town Council as would be the appropriate first step? No, he chose to present it to "a meeting of invited town officials and residents at the company’s offices at 896 Fish Road" the Friday after Thanksgiving. The timing of this was so close to the TCC's purported election victory that it seems rather odd to me. Mr. Nelson would like us to think that he and the other leaders of the TCC knew nothing of this proposal prior to Election Day.

The first part is an accusation that we've already covered. Trying to hit the ground running in mid-summer — and having no expectation of large or numerous donations — TCC opted for the easier route requiring less time filing reports. Mr. Burk doesn't bother to explain this, but that's the purpose of a CF-5: to minimize unnecessary paperwork, not to forswear large donations.

But we did receive that one large donation — and many smaller ones — so campaign finance law required us to begin filing regular reports. That's the process described on the CF-5; there's no actual or intimated violation involved. Owing to some confusion during a very hectic time, however, our first report missed the deadline, so several of us spent a late night filling out forms. Nothing nefarious.

That night, as it happens, was the first time I'd ever heard Mr. Felise's name, and to my knowledge, nobody active in TCC was aware of his plans. I don't believe that any of us had so much as met the man. As odd as the timing may appear to Mr. Burk, that's all there is to it. The tale that he weaves tells the reader much more about his and others' paranoia than about TCC or (I can only surmise) Mr. Felise.

One needn't have memorized the group's secret knock to have observed its formation: The results of the financial town meeting brought several previously known trouble-makers (me among them) together with existing non-establishment groups (notably the retirement communities) and some newly aggrieved residents. In the handful of months leading up to the election, we recruited and endorsed candidates mainly with the next FTM in mind. The calendar left us very little room to address anything else.

Now that the election is over, we hope to begin exploring the multiple issues that ultimately contribute to the budgets that the town passes each year, but the effort hasn't yet begun. We haven't discussed, for example, whether Mr. Felise's development is something that TCC ought to back. When we do take the matter up as a group, enough of us are sufficiently idealistic that large donations are unlikely to be of more than passing interest. Moreover, when we put forward arguments on any issues, interested residents will be able to judge them on their merits, with due consideration of our own finances.

For Michael Burk's part, the merits of Mr. Felise's project seem to hold no relevance. Some conspiracy is necessary to explain the rapid emergence of a vocal taxpayer group, and a businessman wishing to invest in the town makes as good an evil conniver as any. Nevermind the individual histories of the group's members. Nevermind the fact that Mr. Burk proclaims no evidence apart from what we have made available.

Nobody active with Tiverton Citizens for Change believes that we have all the answers. All we have are voices and an interest in using them to offer arguments that we feel haven't been adequately made in the past. We don't see ourselves as swooping in to get Tiverton "well in hand," as Burk quotes from the Mighty Mouse theme. We're more interested in asking questions, offering suggestions, and doing what we can to keep individual egos and personalities from dictating the direction of our town.

We're a bit more like Bugs Bunny than Mighty Mouse, I'd say — trying to get through each episode with little more than a sense of humor and a knack for dodging the throes of absurdity.

So fire away, Mr. Burk, for the plot needs its Yosemite Sam.

January 15, 2009

All-Government Strategery

Justin Katz

A Sakonnet Times article (that doesn't appear to be online) reports on a meeting of "all elected town and school officials and some top administrators" in Tiverton to discuss budget woes. (A van breakdown prevented me from getting there.) Speaking to the reduction in state aid, Town Administrator James Goncalo states, "The municipal side cut is at least $600,000, so we're looking at ways to cut $100,000 per month."

That looks like an insurmountable number, but in context of monthly spending on the municipal side of town government of about $1,370,000, we're talking roughly 7%. For some additional perspective, the town spends over a quarter-million dollars per month on debt service alone.

What caught my eye in the article, however, was the closing quotation from this paragraph:

"The school department is limited in what it can do to cut its budget," said Mr. Rearick. A mandatory minimum retirement age of 59, and other pension and health benefit recommendations affecting retirees, could precipitate the departure of numbers of town and educational employees prior to April 1 — "people walking out the door April 1st. They just leave," said Mr. Rearick.

Clearly, such folks would be making a financial decision as employees of the town. That's fine; everybody should do what they believe to be best. What it serves to emphasize, though, is that those who govern the town should feel free to make rational financial decisions, as well, behaving above all as employers acting in the interests of their constituents.

The Locus of Disruption

Justin Katz

Andrew's call in to the Matt Allen show, last night, turned into a longer form interview about the East Providence School Committee meeting. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

To the conversation about Anthony Carcieri's microphone volume (or lack thereof), I'd add my impression that Carcieri fully anticipated a disruptive atmosphere and was focused on moving through the agenda, without expectation that the audience would be following along — or would be able to do so, given audience noise. Consequently, he didn't bother much ensuring audibility beyond the dais.

That said, from my limited experience in Tiverton, the tone that the union set in East Providence was pretty standard for negotiation-season school committee meetings. The "can't hear you" heckles are a mainstay — anything to rattle the small-time public officials.

Indeed, if you listen to the second snip of audio from the meeting, somebody shouted that very phrase — amid a drown-out wave of boos — almost before Carcieri'd said a single word.

January 14, 2009

The Sound of the Beginning of the End

Justin Katz

The following are some audio clips from the East Providence School Committee meeting. Keep in mind, while listening, that the sound isn't entirely representative. For one thing, I was sitting near the taxpayer group, so they might be overrepresented in the general sound level (although still greatly outnumbered).

  • School Committee Chairman Anthony Carcieri makes his appearance to booing: stream, download
  • The union sets the tone right from Mr. Carcieri's very first words (and, yes, that's me shouting "grow up" — keep in mind that I'd already been subjected to a half-hour of union slogan chanting and screams): stream, download
  • The teachers cheer that some of them have actually done (gasp!) extracurricular work: stream, download
  • The teachers cheer that they can blame poor performance on "facilities" (nevermind that keeping up with teacher contracts has been bleeding other segments of school budgets for years): stream, download
  • A moment of heckling, including the call of "Scared?": stream, download
  • Just a snippet of the tone that continued, with a gradual escalation, throughout the meeting: stream, download
  • The teachers find the phrase "anti-bullying" humorous: stream, download
  • The teachers find the quip "outdoor voice" humorous: stream, download
  • Anthony Carcieri attempts to lay down the ground rules for public comment, and local union leader Valerie Lawson speechifies: stream, download
  • East Providence teacher Mary Texeira offers a reasonable statement — although she probably goes off the union message a bit when she states that she wouldn't mind a five-year pay freeze if the school committee would lay out the reasons that it's necessary: stream, download
  • Taxpayer Tom Riley takes the mike and faces down the hecklers — inspiring the single most silent moment of the night when he suggests that younger teachers will lose their jobs if the union doesn't let the district spread the costs across their pay packages — but the devolution of the meeting leads the school committee (almost inaudibly) to adjourn: stream, download

January 13, 2009

Breaking Location

Justin Katz

I just received word that the East Providence School Committee meeting has been moved to the high school at 2000 Pawtucket Ave.

Small Strands of the RI Web of Interests

Justin Katz

Simply because it represented an unanticipated expenditure during a time of extremely tight budgets — indeed, when the town council is pondering a "token" reduction in its own pay totaling $2,520 — I made note of the Tiverton Town Council's decision to make $900 available to municipal officials to attend a Grow Smart RI workshop on "making good land-use decisions." Now, I don't want to make a big deal of such a (relatively) small expenditure, and the council did pass the measure unanimously, but there's a curious point to consider.

Town Solicitor Andrew Teitz made the suggestion during his "announcements, comments and questions" section at the tail end of the meeting, and ex-president Louise Durfee was the first to ask questions about the cost. She initially asked whether $90 was to cover all attendees and then made a joke indicating some surprise at the high expense. Yet, when it came down to it, she was the one who made the motion to release almost a thousand dollars.

She's also listed as a director emeritus of Grow Smart and was an active member of the board of directors until a few years ago.

Like I said: It's a small thing, but we've all heard the phrase "death by a thousand paper cuts." It's a torturous death, indeed, when experienced amid the salt of layoffs, foreclosures, and general financial hardship. To a carpenter who just found himself $50 short of the amount needed to avoid late fees on his mortgage (which, incidentally, would have been affordable had his property taxes not gone up so much this year), $900 isn't such a token.

The Intangibles of Rhode Island

Justin Katz

With taxpayers — especially business taxpayers — beginning to get uppity, one often hears the invocation of Rhode Island's Political Knot. Nothing objectionable is anybody's fault; it's all a natural construct that can't be changed... at least by the person to whom one would turn for relief.

Take the "tangible tax." I know of at least one local business owner who complained that the "tangible property tax" collected by the town was doing palpable harm to his business and whom the Tiverton Tax Assessor informed that the town has no choice: State law compels him to assess and collect the tax. Presumably, he's referring to Rhode Island General Law 44-3-1:

Real and personal property subject to taxation. – All real property in the state, and all personal property belonging to the inhabitants of the state, whether individuals, partnerships or corporations, and all tangible personal property located in the state belonging to nonresidents, are liable to taxation unless otherwise specially provided.

The rest of Chapter 44-3 is essentially a list of exemptions, but I see no provision requiring "specially provided" to be an action of the General Assembly. Indeed, turning to 44-3-3.1:

Exemption of office equipment used for manufacturing or commercial purposes. – (a) The city or town council of any municipality may by ordinance wholly or partially exempt from taxation for a period of up to twenty-five (25) years any items of office equipment, which include, but are not limited to, computers, telephone equipment, and any other items of personal property used in an office and/or any leasehold improvements which are not exempt and are used for manufacturing or commercial purposes and may by ordinance establish the procedures for taxpayers to avail themselves of the benefit of any exemption permitted under this section.

In other words, the town could opt to gut the tangible property tax on business if it chose to do so. Note, also, that the law places no requirements or limits on the rate. My understanding is that a town or city could set its tangible property tax rate to 0%, effectively eliminating it.

Now that we've cleared up the confusion, town councils across Rhode Island can feel free embark on business-saving changes to local tax codes.


According John, in the comments, RI law prevents a town from charging a greater than 50% higher rate for any class of tax than any other, so zeroing one rate would require zeroing them all.

That factor does not appear to affect the possibility of exempting businesses from tangible property taxes for a period of 25 years.

January 12, 2009

Back into the Swing of Day to Day

Justin Katz

With the new year and the new dynamic in the town council, I thought I'd best resume the habit of attending all meetings — exuding my apparently intimidating presence.

At the moment, there's one of those typical town-level debates about development issues. Somebody wants to develop and needs some sort of concession from the town concerning a road of somewhat ambiguous ownership, and old grievances come to the town microphone. I do wonder whether this is a practice that diminishes as towns move from quasirural to suburban, decreasing the ambiguities and limiting additional development.


TCC member Joe Souza just pointed out that, if the developer is asking the town to cede some land, then the town ought to get some money for it. A reasonable point, although I don't know the amounts involved.


On the other hand, there are road improvements and such involved in the package. As with much else, these "negotiations" could stand to be more explicit about what is given and what is exchanged, for lack of a better word.


TCC member and councillor Jay Lambert just suggested that the town ease the burden on businesses and save processing expenses by enabling various licenses and such to be held for longer than one year terms. Solicitor Teitz explained, first, that the year term is set by the state and, anyway, that it's convenient to have businesses come before the council every year just in case there are any issues for which the town doesn't want to (or can't) go through the appropriate due processes.

ADDENDUM 8:26p.m.:

Jay Lambert just called for the town council to take the lead on reductions by cutting their $2,400 stipend by 15% or 20%. Cecil Leonard put forward a motion for 15%.

Ex-Council President Louise Durfee expressed concerns that future councils won't be able to attract the poorer of Tiverton's "diverse" residents without the full stipend.

Leonard pointed out that his motion was specifically a one-year action, but Durfee stated that the council can't, in the future, raise its own salaries back.

Joanne Arruda, Don Bollin, and Hannibal Costa all suggested that the action be made a personal option for individual councillors.

Lambert's arguing that the people who'll see their salaries cut and so forth won't be able to opt for it.

Durfee wants to wait and see what the finances actually do.

ADDENDUM 8:34 p.m.:

Durfee and Joanne Arruda are both making the argument that the stipend allows them to give to charity. Hmm.

ADDENDUM 8:38 p.m.:

With that motion tabled until next meeting, Lambert is suggesting the compilation of potential projects to put forward for our share of the magic Obama money.

ADDENDUM 8:41 p.m.:

One town official, in detailing "shovel ready" projects, noted that nobody knows the form of stimulus (grants, loans, a combination). But hey, it might be that Obama's going to hook me up to a sewage line!

I ask again: Why hasn't anybody else ever thought of dishing out money to give everybody in the nation somethin' fer nuthin'?

ADDENDUM 8:53 p.m.:

Now Lambert's suggesting that the town council send a statement to the General Assembly asking them to reduce their own compensation and eliminate or reduce their own healthcare. "I don't see any rational relationship between being in the General Assembly and healthcare benefits."

Durfee again: Their salary is set by the constitution of Rhode Island. "I wouldn't want the town to look stupid." She and Teitz are going over the history: The current deal was a compromise with reformers to get rid of expensive pension deals.

ADDENDUM 9:00 p.m.:

Tabled pending conversation witth local legislators.

ADDENDUM 9:06 p.m.:

With no notion of how many people might be involved, Solicitor Teitz suggested that the council (out of its contingency fund) pick up the $90 fee for local officials whose boards have not so budgeted to attend a GrowSmart RI seminar. The council passed unanimously up to $900 in payments.

January 7, 2009

West Warwick Next in Line

Justin Katz

The school committee in West Warwick appears mainly to be doing the bare minimum to support a Caruolo suit for more money from the town, but it may be headed down the road behind East Providence soon:

The performance audit, commissioned by the town as a part of the Caruolo lawsuit proceedings from the last fiscal year, found that most substantial savings — $14.67 million — in the School Department budget would require concessions from the teachers union or waivers from state and federal mandates.

"These are recommendations for the future and going forward," said consultant Salvatore Augeri. "They could cut some supplies for a couple thousand, but we're not talking millions right now."

But $3.5 million is what the School Department says it needs to finish the remainder of this budget year. Last month, the committee sent the town a letter requesting an additional $3.5 million in operating funds and school officials have authorized their lawyer to file a lawsuit seeking the additional money once all other avenues are exhausted.

Is "the future and going forward" anything like "infinity and beyond"? It seems to me that the school committee has to stop toying around. It isn't enough to publish a list possibilities like "eliminating 16 teachers by requiring the maximum number of students allowed in each class by contract, and cutting 23 other positions that are not required by the state." The committee ought to be bringing that to the teachers' union and explaining that it will happen in the absence of deep concessions.

January 3, 2009

Chariho Fiefdom Temporarily Suspended

Justin Katz

Apparently powerful players on local school committees can't just subvert the will of voters without providing the public any warning that they intend to do so:

Superior Court Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson has ordered the Chariho Regional School Committee to reinstate William Felkner until it properly votes on whether to allow him to serve on the school board while seated as a member of the Hopkinton Town Council.

Thompson enjoined the school board from enforcing its Nov. 18 decision, based on a finding by Chariho Solicitor Jon M. Anderson, that when Felkner took the oath of office as a Town Council member the evening before, he in effect gave up his seat on the School Committee.

Although the Nov. 18 school board meeting was properly advertised, there was no public notice that the board was considering a vote on whether Felkner could continue to serve.

Assuming that public light doesn't cause Chariho School District lawyer Jon Anderson — and whoever's prodding him — to recede into their hovels to scheme for another day, manipulating the system by other means, it would behoove Rhode Islanders interested in fair dealings and sane reforms to attend any duly advertised meeting at which the dabblers in conspiracy may attempt, again, to deny voters' right to elect whom they like for local offices.


As a side note: Doesn't the Providence Journal have anybody on staff who could provide some sense of where the relevant law actually stands when it comes to simultaneously holding the two particular offices to which Bill has been elected? I'd gladly do the research, if I had time, but it seems to me that such contributions to news stories represent an area in which a state-level newspaper would be well positioned to provide an added value worth paying for.

December 31, 2008

Saved by Failure

Justin Katz

The vicious insinuations that Tiverton Citizens for Change faced for turning in some campaign finance reports late gives me a whole new perspective on this sort of thing:

The former Tiverton Town Council violated the state's Open Meetings Act last summer, an assistant attorney general has ruled, but the matter is moot, because a proposed town charter amendment that was the subject of the complaint was not approved by voters during the November election. ...

If voters had approved the proposed amendment that would have replaced the annual financial town meeting with a process that would have given the Town Council the final say on the annual budget, the vote could have been invalidated because of the attorney general's finding, said James Amarantes, a former town treasurer who filed the complaint in July. The answer to the complaint is dated Dec. 17.

Amarantes said he depends on the postings of meeting agendas to know what the Town Council will be discussing at its upcoming meetings. The proposed charter amendment was not on the agenda for a meeting on July 7, when the council first voted to send it — and several other amendments — to a public hearing that was slated for later that month. The proposed amendment was included on the meeting notice for the public hearing on July 28.

In all honesty, I don't believe the town council was up to anything suspicious by moving to place a newly thought-up amendment in among the rest. Indeed, the fact that the technicality might have led to voters' being overruled had the results gone another way raises questions about the damage that too many specific rules and tight hoops through which to jump can do to a local government's ability to lead in new directions.

On the other hand, in this instance, the new direction entailed a councilor disregarding months of Charter Review Commission meetings and proposing a new budgeting strategy that handed more authority to the town council. As I suggested, I don't think the proposal was planned for introduction thus, but it is telling, and convenient, that the upshot was the arrogation of more power.

The underlying problem may be that local legislators believe in their own good intentions and capacity for sound judgment. They've witnessed the difficulty of doing things that they think ought to be done, and the way appears clear to making it possible for themselves to act more expediently. Thus, a councilor has a brainstorm epiphany that nobody is better suited to develop the town's budget than him and his peers, and it appears perfectly reasonable to slide that thought onto a list of other items resulting from a lengthy formal process conducted by another elected body.

December 17, 2008

Predirecting Anger

Justin Katz

My response to Richard Joslin made it into this week's print edition of the Sakonnet Times (as did TCC President David Nelson's), and I'm sure it'll spark an angry response or two from unionists.

Who knows but that ringleader Crowley will pen a guest letter from across the state. Given the extent of his so-called research and other writings at RI Future, his day job apparently leaves him with copious amounts of time for extracurricular activities. That assumes, of course, that the teachers aren't paying his salary for his blogging.

Whether that's the case or not, I'd suggest that teachers are misdirecting their anger if I'm the recipient. I'm merely arguing in what I believe to be the best interests of my town and its students (agree or disagree). On the other hand, the central justification for teachers' union dues' going to the state NEA would seem to be for state-level advocacy and planning.

Tiverton teachers should take especial note of the latter, because for all of their "research" and statewide contacts, the union officials appear to have failed to foresee and/or advise members of the likelihood of a state budgetary collapse. Inasmuch as it contributed to the local's dogged pursuit of a better deal, that failure cost the union members thousands of dollars, with no end to the state's and town's fiscal crises in sight.

Seeping Illness in Tiverton

Justin Katz

The tentative deal between Southern Union and residents of Tiverton concerning contaminated soil has fallen through. It's a travesty that those who live in the Bay Street area should spend so long in limbo, as the article puts it, but this is particularly disconcerting:

In the end, Southern Union could not strike a deal with the town. The town's lawyer, Andrew Teitz, told Torres in October that Tiverton could not agree to hold Southern Union harmless as long as the utility continued to seek money from the town, claiming the town was at fault for allowing the contamination.

Teitz said that the pipes, which were put down with a life expectancy of 80 to 100 years, already are starting to fail.

The Town Council is worried that the fire district's customers, about 1,500 to 2,000 town residents living north of Route 24, may have to shoulder an estimated $2-million liability for replacing the water lines, Teitz said.

And he said that some settlement discussions between the plaintiffs and Southern Union raise the possibility that a future DEM director may hold the town liable for millions of dollars in costs for cleaning up toxic soil under public roads.

It sounds to me as if Southern Union might have been spooked by the prospect of financial responsibility for the replacement of a substantial amount of utility and road infrastructure. As unsettling as the idea may be of requiring just a section of the town (the poorer section) to cover a multimillion-dollar construction project, the knowledge of contaminated soil surrounding failing pipes — serving residents who are forbidden to sell their properties — is worse.

Somebody better start compromising soon, particularly considering that nobody currently engaged in the game of chicken appears likely to face health repercussions from its continuation.

December 11, 2008

Bounced vs. Presented: Parsing A Denial

Monique Chartier

About his brother's bad $75,000 check, Mayor David Cicilline said this yesterday to the I-Team's Jim Taricani:

But what is absolutely not possible is that it was ever brought to my attention that a check had been issued, had been dishonored by bank or bounced in the amount of $75,000 by my brother. I would have immediately intervened.

Doesn't "bounced" or "dishonored" mean that it was actually handed in to the bank, processed and then returned by the bank to payee? The ProJo's Mike Stanton reported in September that the check was handled as follows:

But when the city's lawyer tried to deposit the check, which was written on May 9, 2006, on John Cicilline's law office account at Fleet Bank, he was told that there were insufficient funds.

Standing at the teller window with a check and being told that there are insufficient funds to cover it is not the same as depositing a check and then having it bounce. Choosing his words carefully, the mayor has denied an event that no one alleges took place.

Killing the Seeds

Justin Katz

I've been arguing that change has to come to Rhode Island from the municipality up. If we begin at the local level identifying and placing worthy candidates and generating a grassroots comprehension of the state's problems, we'll be positioned to grow upward and begin to crowd out the entrenched interests.

Although I haven't followed the politics of Little Compton very closely, this letter from the Little Compton Taxpayers Association appears to provide evidence that those entrenched interests are intent — probably long have been — on squelching local whispers of change:

In a stunning turn of events, the newly elected School Committee tossed out experience and accomplishments by electing Attorney Mike Harrington as its chairman, and rejecting incumbent Joe Quinn. Mr. Quinn, a lifelong educator himself as well as an experienced contract negotiator, has been of tremendous benefit to our school by helping Wilbur & McMahon to be among the best in Rhode Island, attending numerous state conferences and hearings representing our interests, working with the school superintendent to develop fully accountable school department budgets, and taking part in teacher contract negotiations resulting in one of the best contracts ever seen in Little Compton. He also voted to outsource student transportation saving the taxpayers nearly $1 million over a 5-year contract. ...

And who caused this? It was Lynn Brousseau who ran as an endorsed Republican in the November 4 election only to turn against the Republicans by nominating both Attorney Harrington as the chair; and, newcomer Micah Shapiro, a registered Democrat, as the clerk. When confronted, her response was that she did not believe in "party loyalty" but was for "the kids." She also said the teachers are angry and miserable, and so are the children. She must see something that nobody else does. She went on to be elected as the vice-chair, and Micah Shapiro became the clerk. Joe Quinn, Don Gomez, and their combined experience were dumped in favor of two newcomers. ...

The National Education Association vowed to "get" the ones that outsourced the transportation function. They delivered, at the expense of the taxpayers of Little Compton.

The voting habits of the new leadership bear watching, if only to disallow their actions from occurring in the dark. If we remain collectively aware, we'll likely see a pattern emerge across the state.

The LCTA has more, including video, on its Web site.

December 9, 2008

Reply to Joslin

Justin Katz

As East Bay scribe can attest who's spent a late-night hour or two trimming words and sentences from a letter to make it of acceptable length, the Sakonnet Times has a 500-word limit on missives. Yet, by the time Richard Joslin got around, last week, to challenging Tiverton Citizens for Change (TCC) to "prove they care about Tiverton's children," the paper could have printed both his introductory reminiscences of his own childhood and a letter that I'd written explaining why public officials should define "fairness" from a budgetary standpoint, not a union one. As it was, Mr. Joslin's diatribe rambled on for 908 words, and my letter disappeared into cyberspace.

In the light of Joslin's assault, a pillar of erroneous thought is starkly observable: Both he and young Caitlin Alexandra, whose letter appears just behind his, gauge concern for education in terms of teachers' remuneration. This despite the fact that a higher percentage of Tiverton's per-pupil costs already go to teachers than is true for the state overall. Indeed, Joslin positions "oust[ing] the teachers' union" as an unthinkable option following cuts to "programs in sports, advanced placement, language, music, art and more" that have already been made.

Personally, I happen to believe ousting the unions to be a prerequisite for improving both Rhode Island's educational system and its economic viability. Surely neither has sunny prospects as long as teachers absorb more and more of our education dollars, continuing to cost us programs that might keep RI parents from having to sacrifice for private school (which they do more frequently than parents of most other states). One mustn't forget, by the way, that the loss of programs will tend to mean the immolation of teachers whose jobs depend on them.

So, although I can speak only on my own behalf, I say, yes, let's "break the teachers' union" --- and use the savings to reinvigorate sports, advanced placement, language, and music programs (and more). Perhaps the crossing of that rubicon will give Ms. Alexandra cause to consider Tiverton a superior place to raise her "potential family" than some "small developing communit[y] in the south of Africa." Perhaps, too, the political loss will motivate Mr. Joslin to examine the roots of his hatred and anger and give him something for which to be truly thankful during this season next year.


I see this letter made it onto the Sakonnet Times Web site, as did one by TCC President Dave Nelson. Now comes the interesting new game of waiting to see what gets into print.

December 6, 2008

Not the Way to Run a City... or a City-State

Justin Katz

At this point in our decline, every public official should have a policy of zero increase. This is simply irresponsible:

Mayor David N. Cicilline is facing criticism this week for a one-time payment of retroactive raises to five current and former high-ranking police officers — over the objections of the City Council — and for his plan to merge the parks and recreation departments.

Cicilline's administration last month made payments ranging from $14,400 to more than $20,000 to two majors, two retired majors and Deputy Chief Paul J. Kennedy, for time worked from Jan. 1, 2006 to July 1, 2008. ...

According to the mayor's chief of administration, Richard I. Kerbel, the retroactive pay for the nonunion officers matches retroactive pay awarded to police union members in arbitration over the last fiscal year and will be paid out of a reserve account for union arbitrations.

It exists everywhere, but the tendency toward battles of ego and plays of power (on both sides) is particularly acute in Rhode Island. One can picture the mayor telling his employees, "Don't worry, you'll get yours." If he wants to make a stand against the unions, that's wonderful, but the passive aggressive skirmish along the road will make it more difficult to achieve substantive goals on the next battlefield.

December 4, 2008

Individuals in a Package Deal

Justin Katz

In the midst of a very edifying conversation in the comments section of my "Powers and Victims" post, Tiverton teacher Ed Davis offers the following significant perspective:

You're right, no one is forcing us to work here. Unfortunately, I saw this philosophy take hold in the school system my son attended. Many of the good young teachers, in the critical areas of math and science, left for better paying jobs. This is beginning to happen in Tiverton.

Doesn't that just highlight the spectacularly inappropriate setting that unions create within the public school system? In order to keep well qualified and fresh teachers covering central subjects, the school must hand out raises across the board. The cost of giving a young science whiz a 5% raise (beyond steps) can turn out to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That is plainly insane, and plainly indicative of the detriment that unions present to our children.

Relieving Rhode Island of Providence's Pension Burden

Justin Katz

On last night's Matt Allen show, Monique presented her proposal that the state of Rhode Island deduct the unreasonable excess of Providence's pension system from its state aid. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

December 3, 2008

Even Nature's Against the Taxpayer

Justin Katz

Apparently, Tiverton's deer population is conspiring to cost taxpayers even more money:

Deer have run into three of the town's police cruisers in the last 10 days, smacking the front of one and causing minor damage to the sides of two others. The repair bill will exceed $5,000, according to Police Chief Thomas Blakey.

Of course, other folks than the police are experiencing damage to their vehicles, but we can look to Gina Macris's excellent ending for relief:

Shotgun season for deer hunting starts Saturday.

I'm not sure what the market rate is for venison, these days, but perhaps there's a means for the town to make up some of that lost cash.

Whistles Can Make a Lot of Noise

Justin Katz

Enabling employees and citizens to bring attention to immoral or illegal behavior is a necessary goal, but North Kingstown may be creating a new tool for exactly the sorts of people that it wishes to disarm:

Town employees, vendors and even students can now complain online about government abuse — without fear of retaliation.

The complaint form is a few mouse clicks away and users don't have to leave a name. ...

... Visitors can log a variety of charges, from the serious to the outright criminal: conflict of interest, violation of policy, discrimination, harassment, falsification of contracts, substance abuse, theft or embezzlement. ...

... those who fear retaliation can rely on the anonymous reporting system, which is handled by EthicsPoint, an Oregon-based company.

The complaints are reviewed by [Town Manager Michael] Embury, the school superintendent and members of the town audit committee, depending on the charges. A complaint involving the town manager or superintendent may be made directly to the audit committee through the EthicsPoint hot line or Web site.

So without any fear of repercussions, anybody in the world can whisper directly to key officials about disliked people and political enemies. That's a pretty powerful weapon, and the safeguards are just about nonexistent:

Residents should try traditional channels first. "Everyone is encouraged to use the 'chain of command' to report problems or resolve disputes," the new site says. ...

Officials, meanwhile, hope the site won't be abused.

Complaints are considered to be serious matters, they say. Users are urged not to "file frivolous or mischievous reports or in retaliation for slights, either real or perceived."

Well, I would have hoped that political corruption and abuse would be avoided in the first place. Attacking those cancers with promises of secrecy isn't fighting fire with fire; it's adding gunpowder.

The Powers and the Victims

Justin Katz

I note something telling and pervasive in the latest anti-TCC assault by Tiverton Democrat stone-thrower Richard Joslin (currently online only; we'll see tonight whether it gets into the Sakonnet Times):

I know TCC supporters who are elderly, on fixed income and live mostly in North Tiverton. I am not upset about these people. I know they struggle with paying taxes. I think the TCC leadership uses these people and incites them with economic fear. I think these taxpayers deserve assistance.

I believe that the TCC in part is fighting for a large number of older wealthy adults without kids who bought very expensive retirement property here during the real estate boom of 2002-2007. Stuck now with houses whose value has plummeted, they are just looking out for their pocketbooks. Holding onto their wallets trumps any care for the future of education here.

Isn't that always the storyline from the Left? The ideas are presumed to be in the service of affluent greed, and those without the bank accounts who sympathize are mere pawns. Couldn't it be that the "root cause" of that right-wing evil can't be so simply drawn? One hesitates to point out something as obvious as the fact that those on fixed incomes have, if anything, more reason to "hold onto their wallets," but, well.

In his ideological determination, Mr. Joslin misses a blindspot that leaves him vulnerable to the charge of allowing union benefits to trump local education:

TCC says it wants budget cuts. Tiverton schools have already cut programs in sports, advanced placement, language, music, art and more. So, TCC, cut what else? Oust the teachers' union? As a 12-year resident and taxpayer I demand that we all make the TCC more transparent. They are arrogant; as newcomers they tell us that we have been incompetent and they know best. They point fingers at respected officials.

I haven't polled my peers, but I suspect that there'd be a softening of their wallet-grips if the argument weren't that programs have been cut and teachers need more money, but that teachers' compensation had been cut and the programs required more funding. Be that as it may, it's a curiosity, indeed, that those who argue so vehemently for the future of education seem incapable of articulating the thought that, in tight financial times, all increases ought to go to programs, rather than teachers (who make more individually, by the by, than whole households up here in the North).

Count me among those inclined to withhold further contributions from the obligatory charity of public education if the dollars are to be snatched from the table for the enrichment of adults, rather than for the restoration of programs that might allow me to return my children to public education without feeling irresponsible as a parent.

November 29, 2008

It's Always a Matter of "Fairness"

Justin Katz

The title of this post refers to the words of Paul Saccoccia, a national rep for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, who believes that disabled policemen and firefighters in the state pension system should receive pension contributions from their towns when the state doesn't give them the full amount that they want:

Lawyers for the city [of Cranston] and the firefighters' union say the request stems from the fact that the employees' disabilities — which officials would not disclose — have been verified by doctors but were not recognized by the state Retirement Board because they developed over time rather than stemming from one event or injury.

Yet, state law says that a police officer or firefighter who retires because of on-the-job injuries shall receive not less than two-thirds of their pay at the time of retirement — the amount the employees sought through the state system.

The situation has left all three employees on the city payroll, at 100-percent pay.

And union leaders say the only way to get them off the city payroll is to have the City Council adopt two ordinances that would allow the city to make up the difference between the disability pensions the state will grant and the work-related disability pensions the employees want.

Thus is Rhode Island pulled by the heartstrings (purse strings, for some) toward policies that give privileged classes multiple opportunities for benefits. And thus do the unions abuse the communities that their members serve: Somehow (note the passive voice) the three employees have been "left" on the city payroll and cannot be "gotten off" unless the law were to be changed to give them what they want.

Translating into active voice, that means that the employees refuse to officially retire, and the unions have structured contracts such that the city can neither force them out nor fill the positions that they are not currently performing. I'd suggest that, if it isn't a matter of critical public safety for those positions to be filled — that is, if it isn't utterly unconscionable for the union to use their vacancy as a bargaining chip — then they really don't need to be filled, anyway.

(And that's not an excuse to puff up the overtime salaries of other employees.)

November 26, 2008

Not the Way to Arrive at a Salary

Justin Katz

By far the most interesting audio from last night's Tiverton School Committee meeting, in my opinion, was Vice Chairwoman Sally Black's reasoning for voting to approve the teachers' contract (stream, download) because the thought processes are indicative of the flawed way in which Rhode Islanders have conducted their public business.

Mrs. Black cycled through a bit of education policy history to conclude that the state and federal governments have not followed through with promised funding for decades, even as they've demanded more and more from local schools. From her perspective, the school committee did the work that they were supposed to do, and moreover, she was very pleased with her children's experience in the school system and believes the teachers deserve as much compensation as the town can give them. Therefore, the contract is "fair and just" and ought to pass.

The problem with this approach is that it disconnects financial decisions from financial realities. We cannot come up with a notion of fairness and justice based on abstractions or on emotions and then make that the primary consideration. The primary consideration has to be the money that's actually coming in.

Especially from the perspective of elected representatives — unless they were elected of the unions, by the unions, and for the unions — the first question has to be what is good and what is sustainable for the town. Double-digit tax increases are not sustainable. The next question has to be what is good for the students, and as I've pointed out, based on Department of Education data, Tiverton already pays more per pupil for teachers than the state average, and its student-teacher ratio is only slightly lower than the state's overall. In other