— Woonsocket —

March 22, 2013

Mayor Leo Fontaine Surprises FOX's Stuart Varney

Monique Chartier

... earlier this week on Varney & Co by not vigorously defending the social program that made Woonsocket the subject of that Washington Post article.

Don't miss the part where Mayor Fontaine holds up a state application for food stamps and points out that the last page of it is a voter registration form. (H'mmm, an attempt by government to create a subliminal correlation between social programs and how to vote in the next election?)

[Monique is Editor of the RI Taxpayer Times newsletter.]

February 23, 2013

Another Big Ask: Woonsocket to Meet With Retirees Monday

Monique Chartier

In yesterday's dead tree edition of the Woonsocket Call (on-line edition sometimes behind a paywall), Russ Olivo reported that, on Monday, Woonsocket will meet with the city's 780 retirees. On the agenda is the fiscal necessity to shift all retirees to Medicare at age 65 and to abolish the pension COLA for the 250 retirees who are in the local pension plan - measures that were outlined in the February 12 letter to retirees from Woonsocket's Budget Commission.

The meeting will be led by State Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly and will take place at the Woonsocket High School at 3:00 pm.

In a separate but related news item, the Budget Commission is considering reducing the homestead exemption which, of course, would raise taxes on residential properties. It should be noted that in Woonsocket, residential taxes are lower than the city's commercial property taxes, which are the highest in the state. (Not a good situation for a municipality that very much needs to attract and retain businesses.)

As noted above, Woonsocket's finances are controlled by a state appointed Budget Commission, the second step of municipal receivership. The Budget Commission is looking to implement these and other measures so as to avoid the third, and last, step: appointment of a hatchet-wielding receiver.

Look, I can't easily defend tax increases, either here or anywhere in the state. Budget problems around the state mostly stem from a spending problem, not a revenue one, as witnessed by the state having the fifth highest combined state and local burden. And attempts to reduce budget expenses - SPECIFICALLY INCLUDING THE STATE'S PENSION REFORM - seem anemic at best. (All you're doing to these generous pensions is suspending the COLA? Seriously? Those of us without a pension or retirement would love to have a pension without a COLA - especially if it was inflated by maxed out overtime during our last three years of employment.)

At the same time, it is difficult not to notice the larger picture and the origins of these budget problems: yet another Rhode Island municipality (along with the state) and its retirees are now compelled to deal with and pay the price for the fiscal disaster brought about by decades of irresponsible, selfish elected officials who made or confirmed promises that were remarkably free of considerations of affordability and equitability.

The first part of the title of this post refers to the term used by Central Falls' receiver, Robert Flanders, in July, 2011, when he met with that city's retirees to discuss the reduction of their pensions, necessitated by the “horrible dilemma” of a mostly empty pension fund and imminent bankruptcy.

Under Mr. Flanders’s plan, which he calls The Big Ask, some retirees would lose almost half their benefits

How many other "Big Asks" will take place as certain municipalities attempt to clean up the mess left by their prior, and sometimes current, elected officials?

July 25, 2012

Duct Tape Time: Woonsocket School Committee Dumps Chair For "dwelling on financial matters"

Monique Chartier

When he was about to share a particularly outrageous or egregious item, Glenn Beck used to admonish his listeners to wrap their heads in duct tape so that clean up would be easier when their heads exploded upon hearing the item. The Valley Breeze's Sandy Phaneuf should have provided a similar preface to her just breaking story.

They had to change their bylaws to do it, but in a 3 to 2 vote Wednesday night, the Woonsocket School Committee ousted Chair Anita McGuire-Forcier and elected former Vice Chair Vimala Phongsavanh to the position. ...

Although there was little discussion on Wednesday as plan received second passage, Donlon, who sponsored both resolutions, has said he felt McGuire-Forcier was "dwelling on financial matters rather than working on items pertaining to education."

We'll limit our review of the Woonsocket School Committee's financial "history" to two items, one macro and one instructive as to mentality.

Macro. This is the School Committee which claimed to be shocked and clueless when their education budget went from a small surplus to a $10 million deficit for two years almost overnight, taking down the city's bond rating and quite possibly the entire city in the process. Are we seriously supposed to believe that too much "dwelling on financial matters" precipitated this budgetary catastrophe?

Instructive. As recently as two months ago, a majority - the same members who just voted to replace the chair because she was "dwelling on financial matters" - of this School Committee refused to even discuss the option of asking retirees to accept the same health care coverage as current employees. Now, due in part to the shirking and incompetence of the School Committee, retirees (and employees) are facing the unilateral imposition of "significant cuts to healthcare and benefits" that might well have retirees longing for the healthcare option that the School Committee refused to consider. Again, this would constitute avoiding rather than "dwelling on" financial matters.

Quite simply, if financial matters are not tended, there is no education system to work on. Far from dwelling excessively on financial matters, the Woonsocket School Committee has a solid track record, in recent years, of FAILING to dwell on financial matters with the corresponding, recurring detrimental results. Tonight's vote is a continuation of this irresponsible and destructive head-in-the-sand approach.

If the state continues to decline to take over Woonsocket's school system, it should take the minimal step of replacing the current School Committee members with cardboard cut-outs. Such a composition would achieve the same results as the current school committee (majority) membership while relieving the good people of Woonsocket of any pretence that something is being accomplished at School Committee meetings.

June 27, 2012

The Real Context for Woonsocket's Supplemental Tax

Carroll Andrew Morse

Woonsocket's Mayor and City Council have proposed a 13% supplemental tax as an immediate solution to their city's short-term fiscal crisis. They have also proposed building the supplemental amount into the city's revenue baseline to help address longer term structural deficits. At the behest of the Woonsocket's state representatives, the Rhode Island legislature rejected this plan. The state legislators would prefer to see elected municipal government in Woonsocket suspended and a state-appointed "receiver", unaccountable to local voters, address the fiscal crisis. But anyone believing that submission to a "receiver" is an easy and automatic way to avoid a supplemental tax increase needs to look more closely at what happened after a receiver took over in Central Falls.

Central Falls' first receiver under the state's 2010 "fiscal stabilization law" (Mark Pfeiffer, the 2nd Central Falls receiver overall) increased the city's tax-levy by 19%, with a combination of property tax-increases and increases in Rhode Island's infamous car-tax. The levy increased another 4.25% the year after that, and the five-year plan initiated by Central Falls' second receiver under state law (Robert Flanders, the 3rd Central Falls receiver overall) projects that property taxes will "grow at the maximum allowed according to R.I. Gen. Laws", which is four percent, for the next four years.

A 19% levy increase, followed quickly by five years of the maximum tax increases permitted by law is hardly an "austerity" strategy. Central Falls' finances were so out of whack, both large tax-increases and the widely publicized cuts in public-employee benefits were needed to achieve any kind of balance. The question for advocates of a Woonsocket receiver is why they think they will be immune from similar treatment if municipal democracy is suspended. This question needs a more in-depth answer than "whatever is the will of the heroic receiver".

* * *

Though conditions in Central Falls and Woonsocket are not identical, there are important structural similarities. As is the case with many of Rhode Island's "distressed" communities, continuing states of fiscal emergency are partially attributable to decisions repeated over the years to apply state aid and commercial property taxes towards a primary purpose of keeping residential property taxes low. Indeed, Woonsocket and Central Falls (prior to receivership, at least), according to local taxation data compiled by the state and Census bureau figures on income, have recently collected some of the lowest percentages of community income in property taxes in the state. Central Falls prior to the arrival of the receiver was the only community in Rhode Island to collect less than 4% of community income in residential property tax. Woonsocket collected 4.8% of aggregate community income in residential property taxes in 2011, the fourth lowest total in the state.

This fact is masked by the way that Rhode Islanders frequently look at community tax data, which is without differentiation between residential commercial levies. When residential tax levies are examined in terms of community income, who pays a lot versus who pays less bears little resemblance to the conventional RI wisdom regarding regressive tax burdens. As an example, consider North Providence. North Providence residents pay over 6% of their income in local property taxes, in the upper half of rates in the state. Despite this, North Providence only has slightly more revenue per-resident to work with than Woonsocket does, mainly because they don't receive as much per-capita state-aid. A case could be made that North Providence is one of RI's communities most deserving of extra assistance (and also that municipal employees should cut North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi a little more slack) since the town government there is working with as many resources drawn directly from residents as might reasonably be expected. Yet for reasons more political than fiscal, North Providence is rarely included on the list of small-footprint, densely-populated communities that should be sent to the front of the line for more more more from the rest of Rhode Island.

Standing in contrast to North Providence is a cluster of Rhode Island's officially and unofficially "distressed" communities, including Central Falls and Woonsocket, plus East Providence (currently under a budget commission), West Warwick (wrestling with its own potential shortfall) and Pawtucket. These communities are all in the bottom quarter of residential property tax collections as a percentage of community income, with rates of 5% or below. That these communities have "suddenly" run into fiscal trouble is actually the result of their having pushed the philosophy of using commercial property taxes and state aid to replace rather than supplement residential property-tax revenue as far as it can go -- and in the case of Central Falls, maybe a little beyond. Central Falls used the extra fiscal freedom that came from having the state pay for a major chunk of their city services (i.e., the education part) not to bolster other city services, but to keep their property taxes as a percentage of community income at the lowest rate in the state.

Unfortunately, the Woonsocket delegation to the state House of Representatives seems to think Central Falls has been a model to emulate. They were happy in their original five-point plan to call for an increase in state-aid while insisting on a limited, one-time tax-increase. Being on Smith Hill for too long has apparently led one-time “fiscal conservatives” to absorb the worst-aspects of Rhode Island political culture, where the preferred option is to use backroom dealing to get someone else to pay for your problems -- but it is not fiscal conservatism of any form to say we’re OK with spending more, as long it all comes from someone else.

* * *

Economic and fiscal realities continue to make their impacts, for better or for worse, despite the politics, and even when they are obscured in the presentation of the numbers. Money isn't there in Woonsocket, at least in part, because previous Woonsocket governments made a choice to not raise the same amount of revenue from their own residents as a percentage of income that other communities chose to. This problem was compounded by the raising of commercial property tax rates as an alternate source of revenue, which has in turn made the city an unattractive place to do business and reduced the number of commercial property tax payers available to supplement the residential levy. This is not the sole factor that has created fiscal problems for Woonsocket (Mayor Leo Fontaine can be heard here, giving one set of explanations for Woonsocket's long-term troubles), but short-sighted tax policy made a difficult situation worse.

To begin to remedy the overlapping problems facing Woonsocket, the City Council and Mayor have proposed the same initial steps that a "receiver" put in charge of the situation would almost certainly implement. Woonsocket City Council President John Ward has told WPRO's Dan Yorke that passage of the supplemental would allow the City to balance next-year’s budget while staying under the state's legally mandated tax-levy increase limit of 4%. If Woonsocket’s elected government could stick to such a plan, and come in under the maximum local tax-levy allowed under the state' law for the next several years after that, they would be at least on par with and maybe ahead of the Central Falls receivership plan, especially if they could do it in such a way that achieves better residential/commercial balance.

There is nothing about such a plan being formulated by a receiver that would make it inherently superior to one formulated by the regular government. Ultimately, the only plans that will stand the test of time are ones based upon a community coming together to make reasonable decisions about its future (on both the local level, and with regards to how the state should apportion its aid), realistic decisions about what they are willing to pay for, and what is reasonable to expect in return. Anything else is just the latest version of a one-time fix.

June 18, 2012

COLA Freezes, Salary Cuts, "significant cuts to healthcare and benefits" - Everything Now on the Table

Monique Chartier

So said Council President Budget Commission member John Ward on the air Friday to RIPR.

If we can’t get negotiated settlements, we’re simply going to have to do much like Providence did and simply do it by ordinance. And we”ll freeze the COLA and we’ll change the health benefits, and we’ll cut salaries across the board by a fixed percentage.

And if they take us to court, we’re going to fall into the compelling public interest argument, which is the court standard for what you do to make changes where you break contracts.

Any grievances should be filed with the General Assembly.

... because the court can’t order us to go raise taxes when the General Assembly hasn’t authorized it.

June 13, 2012

School Committee to State: Take Over Woonsocket School System

Monique Chartier

So they voted just this evening.

Woonsocket school officials have asked the Rhode Island Department of Education to take control of their schools.

In a meeting Wednesday night, the school committee voted 4 to 1 to draft a letter to Commissioner Gist seeking assistance.

The vote comes after the General Assembly failed to pass a supplemental tax bill that would help fill a $10 million budget deficit.

Incompetence and gross mismanagement on the part of the School Committee (though not all current members) have in large part precipitated the city's likely plunge into receivership. Accordingly, part of me cannot help but wish that the School Comm had taken this vote a good five years ago, especially as this dangerous lack of competence continues to manifest itself even this week in the (in)actions of the Woonsocket school superintendent.

Last week, for example, [Supt. Giovanna] Donoyan said the WED, though already “crucified” by cuts in programs and personnel, could hobble along next year without recalling 42 of the 98 teachers still on layoff.

Yesterday, Donoyan did an about face, saying that all the teachers who were notified of layoffs earlier this year will be needed. But she couldn’t say what they’d be needed for, what schools they’d be assigned to or how much money it was going to cost.

“We can’t seem to get good information,” Commissioner Dina Dutremble, a former business manager for the WED, complained at one point. “We get a lot of stories and analogies. We’re not getting data.”


Such an option might be a non-starter. This morning on the Helen Glover Show, Mayor Fontaine indicated that the Woonsocket School Comm had in the past asked the state to take over their school system and the state's reception to such a proposal was "cool".

The Politics of Woonsocket

Patrick Laverty

This morning saw dueling press releases, both issued shortly before 4 am. They were in reference to negotiations between the Woonsocket delegation of state representatives, including Jon Brien and Lisa "You're cute" Baldelli-Hunt, and Governor Chafee.

Rosemary Booth-Gallogly, the state's Director of Revenue and Leo Fontaine, Woonsocket's mayor, have come to the conclusion that one step to possibly save the city from bankruptcy is a 13% tax to property owners in the city. No one takes these things lightly and taxes in an amount like that are never something that anyone enjoys. But just like when a patient is sick, medicine is required. This is the medicine that is being prescribed by the experts at this time.

Late into the night and early morning, the Woonsocket state reps negotiated with the Governor's office, but couldn't come to an agreement. In their press release, the representatives offered:

“We cannot force our residents to pay a 13.8 percent supplemental tax,” said Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket). “We originally started with a five-point plan and narrowed it down to a two-point compromise for the governor. But in the end, he said our proposal for an 8.5 percent tax, which would not have been added to the base, was not large enough.”
Aside from the compromise on the tax, Woonsocket legislators in both the House and the Senate had reached a consensus on another item that would allow the city to push back the start of construction for the DEM-mandated wastewater treatment plant.
“We made it known that we would be willing to meet in the middle, but we would not go back to the original proposal for the $6.6 million tax levy,” Rep. Jon D. Brien (D-Dist. 50, Woonsocket) said.

Meet in the middle? Is that how it works? So how about this, the next time I need a car, I'll go pick one out. Let's say its price is $20,000. Well, I want to pay zero. I'll tell the dealer, "Let's meet in the middle!" Maybe I can try the same thing on a house. How's that work? Or even better, when that payroll comes due up in Woonsocket, maybe the mayor can tell the employees, "Let's meet in the middle and we'll pay you half."

Additionally, the state reps' press release included:

“I’ve grown even more concerned after seeing the number of homeowners on the most recent tax sale list,” Representative Phillips said. “This isn’t fair to them. I’m sure the governor’s decision today will not ease their minds.”

Really? You're concerned about the number of homes on the tax sale list? So your concern is the taxpayer and homeowners of Woonsocket and elsewhere around Rhode Island? If that's true, then did we see a push for Governor Chafee's "tools bill" that would have eased burdens on cities and towns and given the mayors the tools necessary to cut costs from crazy mandates. If the reps were being honest with their intentions, they'd have pushed for the Governor's bill even harder than they fought against this tax hit.

So why are they doing this? I don't know, though it wouldn't be a stretch to wonder if Ted Nesi was on to something yesterday with his questioning of Representative Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and her desire to be Mayor of Woonsocket, and the whole strategy was to tar up current Mayor Fontaine. Once they started down this road, they had to see it through, not thinking it would come to this and be this visible. Over the next few months, if the city does get forced into bankruptcy, many people will be asking questions and looking for reasons why.

Maybe a part of that will be answered for us by June 27.

Addendum: Thank you to commenter brassband who reminded me that Woonsocket's elections are in odd years, so there is no election this year. I did know that, but clearly forgot it while writing this post. Thus, we get a whole additional year to see what happens with the political drama up north.

May 29, 2012

Woonsocket City Councilors in Their Own Words on the Budget Commission Resolution

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here are the statements made by Woonsocket City Councilors and Mayor Leo Fontaine, prior to the vote to request a budget commission to oversee the city. The summaries with audio clip are my characterization's of each councilor's remarks, from the liveblog written during the meeting...

[7:04] Mayor Leo Fontaine speaks 1st. Recounting the short-term cash-flow problems of the school dept. They should be able to get through one more pay period, with regularly scheduled state aid. After that, the well runs dry...
[7:08] Says Rep. Baldell-Hunt's assertion that a budget commission would be appointed under any circumstance is false...Assertion that false information was given to House and Senate leaders is also false. Mayor Fontaine was taken aback that such a comment was made.
Audio 5m 46 sec
[7:16] Councilman Roger Jalette wants to be made Council President, so he can have the seat on the budget commission, if a budget a commission is appointed.
Audio 2m 15 sec
[7:18] Councilman Daniel Gendron says we're here tonight because of inappropriate actions by our General Assembly. Seven people who live in a city, overseeing a Mayor living in the city should be making these decisions. Not one of them was doing anything different then what they thought was best for this city. That security isn't there, if a budget commission is appointed.
Audio 3m 10 sec
[7:22] Councilman Christopher Beauchamp cites lack of communication as a problem, thinks at least 2 members of the Woonsocket GA delegation didn't really know what was going on.
Audio 1m 19 sec
[7:23] Councilman Robert Moreau agrees with sentiments of Councilmen Gendron and Beauchamp. The City has an obligation to pay its debts to the people who are owed money.
Audio 2m 7 sec
[7:25] Councilman Albert Brien is in total opposition to "any state interference". Says Woonsocket has significant shortages in cash flow, because the school department has been underfunded by $7M..."We have repeatedly asked to negotiate with our unions" wrt the health plan. Nothing has happened. Cites fire overtime issue.
Audio 5m 11 sec
[7:30] He doesn't see a viable, ongoing plan. This supplemental is insufficient to fund current receivables. "There is no concrete plan other than a hope" other than Governor Chafee's municipal plan.
Audio 3m 40 sec
[7:43] Council President John Ward ...without the supplemental tax, Woonsocket's ability to meet its short term needs go away. Budget commission powers to accelerate state funding mimic those of having tax anticipation notes. After that, options are things like not making payroll. "I don't think we should be breaking faith with our employees".
Audio 5m 11 sec
[7:48] He will not step down a Council President to avoid the budget commission...He holds the state responsible for much of Woonsocket's fiscal situation...as City Council President, he will continue to look for ways to cut costs.
Audio 4m 54 sec
[7:54] Councilman Brien suggests that the state should ignore the request for a BC, and advance Woonsocket the money to handle its cash flow problem. "We are more qualified" than the state is, to deal with our own problems.
Audio 2m 25 sec
[7:57] Councilman Marc DuBois will support a budget commission.
Audio 55 sec
[7:59] Councilman Gendron says recent tax increases have been fueled by cuts from the state. Now putting the state in charge, after that, doesn't really make sense.
Audio 1m 9 sec
More to come...

May 27, 2012

Special Meeting of the Woonsocket City Council

Carroll Andrew Morse

Once you start covering one of these civic stories, you have to seem them through, so here am I at tonight's special Sunday night meeting of the Woonsocket City Council, to discuss the aftermath of the General Assembly's tabling of the supplemental tax bill...

[7:02] Meeting called to order.

[7:03] Budget commission resolution is up first.

[7:04] Mayor Fontaine speaks 1st. Recounting the short-term cash-flow problems of the school dept. They should be able to get through one more pay period, with regularly scheduled state aid. After that, the well runs dry.

[7:06] $4.6M debt service payment is due on the city-side of the budget, in early July. General Assembly inaction endangers meeting that.

[7:07] Budget commission powers would enable an acceleration of state aid, that would reduce the short term fiscal stress on the city.

[7:08] Says Rep. Baldell-Hunt's assertion that a budget commission would be appointed under any circumstance is false.

[7:09] Assertion that false information was given to House and Senate leaders is also false. Mayor Fontaine was taken aback that such a comment was made.

[7:10] No state reps in attendance, by the way, as far I can tell.

[7:10] If the council passes the resolution, his office will support it.

[7:11] Councilman Moreau asks the city solicitor if he and councilman DuBois, as former employees, can vote on this resolution.

[7:12] City solicitor says since no specific benefit is specified, there's no conflict of interest to worry about.

[7:16] Councilman Jalette wants to be made Council President, so he can have the seat on the budget commission, if a budget a commission is appointed.

[7:18] Councilman Gendron says we're here tonight because of inappropriate actions by our General Assembly. Seven people who live in a city, overseeing a Mayor living in the city should be making these decisions. Not one of them was doing anything different then what they thought was best for this city. That security isn't there, if a budget commission is appointed.

[7:22] Councilman Beauchamp cites lack of communication as a problem, thinks at least 2 members of the Woonsocket GA delegation didn't really know what was going on.

[7:23] Councilman Moreau agrees with sentiments of Councilmen Gendron and Beauchamp. The City has an obligation to pay its debts to the people who are owed money.

[7:25] Councilman Brien is in total opposition to "any state interference". Says Woonsocket has significant shortages in cash flow, because the school department has been underfunded by $7M.

[7:27] Woonsocket should have known it was facing a fiscal tsunami at least a year ago. The cancer that has been affecting the city's fiscal well being is the police and fire pension fund. Suggests making something a Federal tax issue, to make it potentially sustainable.

[7:29] "We have repeatedly asked to negotiate with our unions" wrt the health plan. Nothing has happened. Cites fire overtime issue.

[7:30] Doesn't see a viable, ongoing plan. This supplemental is insufficient to fund current receivables. "There is no concrete plan other than a hope" other than Governor Chafee's municipal plan.

[7:32] Councilman Brien motions to amend the request for a budget commission, to a request for a receiver

[7:37] Councilman Jalette, I believe, is arguing that this amendment will prevent any supplemental tax, or any tax increase at all.

[7:39] Councilman Gendron asks if the emergency receiver provision of the fiscal stabilization really applies here.

[7:40] Amendment defeated on a voice vote.

[7:43] Council President Ward, back on the original subject. Without the supplemental tax, Woonsocket's ability to meet its short term needs go away. Budget commission powers to accelerate state funding mimic those of having tax anticipation notes. After that, options are things like not making payroll. "I don't think we should be breaking faith with our employees".

[7:45] This resolution is here, so we can get a budget commission to move cash more quickly.

[7:46] Resolution asking for a receiver doesn't obligate the state to do anything. State can declare an emergency at any time, if the state doesn't think there's not an emergency now, passing a resolution doesn't change that.

[7:47] If Woonsocket's GA delegation thinks there's a fiscal emergency justifying a receiver, they think Woonsocket's situation is more dire than the state's Director of revenue does.

[7:48] He will not step down a Council President to avoid the budget commission.

[7:49] He holds the state responsible for much of Woonsocket's fiscal situation.

[7:50] As City Council President, he will continue to look for ways to cut costs.

[7:51] On a budget commission, he would consult with the sitting City Council on all decisions.

[7:52] Part of the duty of a budget commission is to evaluate if a receiver is necessary. BC can do that by a simple majority vote, implication is that the BC is the proper route to receivership.

[7:53] Councilman Brien thinks that neither a budget commission request nor a receiver request is binding on the state.

[7:54] Councilman Brien suggests that the state should ignore the request for a BC, and advance Woonsocket the money to handle its cash flow problem. "We are more qualified" than the state is, to deal with its own problems.

[7:57] Councilman DuBois will support a budget commission.

[7:58] Councilman Jalette thinks that a receiver has an ability to negotiate with unions, that a budget commission or the regular government doesn't.

[7:59] Councilman Gendron says recent tax increases have been fueled by cuts from the state. Now putting the state in charge, after that, doesn't really make sense.

[8:00] Mayor Fontaine rebuts Councilman that receiver has no more power to negotiate than anyone else, save for the power to file for bankruptcy.

[8:02] Addressing Councilman Brien about school dept. funding: The agreed upon school budget had appropriate funding to meet its need, according to a doucmented performance audit.

[8:06] Advances the argument that the loss of state aid necessitates replacement, and "it's a little ironic" that it's the state that controls Woonsocket's future.

[8:07] If the state delegation really wanted to help Woonsocket, they should have accelerated the funding formula.

[8:08] The new funding formula also touched on pension funding issues, that have worked to Woonsocket's detriment.

[8:09] Once Woonsocket was an engine for the economy. When manufacturing was driven out of state and out of the country, Woonsocket's affordable housing became a magnet for people with large human services needs. That's an imbalance that needs to be corrected.

[8:10] Vote on the resolution calling for a the appointment of a budget commission.

[8:11] Resolution approved 5-2, Brien and Jalette against.

[8:13] Motion to adjourn. Accepted.

May 25, 2012

And Just When You Thought Things Couldn't Get Any Dumber

Carroll Andrew Morse

The Woonsocket Legislative Brain Trust (Jon Brien, Robert Phillips, Lisa-Susan Menard-Baldelli-Hunt) has submitted this wonderful piece of legislation to the Rhode Island General Assembly, apparently as an alternative to the supplemental tax proposed by the Woonsocket City Council...

45-21-67. Application of pension funds to reduce tax levy. – Any city or town, or any municipal agency which controls, or has control of, through a selected financial institution acting as custodian, any municipal pension fund may, in its discretion and notwithstanding the provisions of any general law or municipal charter to the contrary, apply the pension funds or a portion thereof, or direct the custodian to apply the pension funds or a portion thereof, to reduce the overall tax levy of the municipality.
That's the whole bill. It is not an authorization for emergency borrowing to cover a short-term cash flow problem, as was discussed by the City Council on Monday. It authorizes the "application" of money from a pension fund, to provide a one-time property tax fix, with future consequences (probably including lawsuits) not really well-specified.

What's doubly amazing about this bill is that it comes from a group of Representatives who have been demanding a state-appointed budget commission or receiver for Woonsocket. But does anyone think that state appointed officials, once in charge of a city, are going to say "I know, let's take money from the pension fund, and use it to lower taxes this year"?

There is a maxim of intelligence analysis that says you should never assume malice when incompetence provides an explanation. Watching the Rhode Island legislature makes one wonder "why choose?" -- and folks inclined to view the RI House's refusal to support a supplemental tax for Woonsocket as an act of fiscal conservatism (you're wrong) need to think long and hard about the kind of idiocy they're willing to enable, by supporting the General Assembly's imposition of its kick-the-can-down-the-road ineptness upon municipal governments willing to do something a little different and a little smarter.

May 24, 2012

Rep Baldelli-Hunt Has Not Saved Woonsocket From a Sharp Property Tax Increase

Monique Chartier

An alert Andrew noticed this.

[Woonsocket] Taxpayers won't be getting that supplemental tax bill after all.

At the urging of state Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt on Thursday afternoon, the bill was recommitted to committee, essentially killing it.

Her reasoning?

An emotional Baldelli-Hunt, a Democrat who represents Woonsocket, told House members that Mayor Leo Fontaine had not given the House Committee on Finance all the facts about Woonsocket's financial future when he testified earlier this week. She had offered weak support for the bill at that hearing but says she changed her mind after meeting with members of the governor's staff.

"Imposing this tax would be disastrous for our struggling city, disastrous for our struggling citizens and a clear indication that this chamber has lost its way," she said.

Justin, who just finished live-blogging from the State House, reported on this particular vote starting at 5:29 pm.

Let me be clear that I don't support property tax increases, either generally or in this circumstance. That's not the issue. The problem is that Rep Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Woonsocket) is under the impression that she has accomplished something by addressing only the revenue side of Woonsocket's financial convulsions. But what about the expense side? To cite just one item in that column, there's the $4.7 million in step increases built into the city's 2010-2013 teacher contract which Justin highlighted on Ocean State Current.

Again, the point here is not to criticize teachers. It is my understanding that teacher pay in Woonsocket ranks at the bottom 20% statewide.

The question is, as Rep Baldelli-Hunt has not suggested abating this or any other budgetary expense nor is she permitting the city to augment a revenue stream, how does she propose that the city honor this contract and meet all of its other obligations?

The response might be that it is not her job to do that. No, it's not. Now, with the vote by the House denying the supplemental tax and the almost simultaneous downgrade by Moodys, neither will it be the rightful job of the Council and Mayor. Almost certain, a Budget Commission - the second step towards a Receivership - will now take control of the city's finances.

Neither of those authorities will be shy about asking for a supplemental tax. And a Receiver won't even need to go to the General Assembly for authority.

Was that perhaps the point all along? In his live-blogging coverage just now, Justin reported the following eye-opening item, with "she" being Rep Baldelli-Hunt and the bill being the Woonsocket supplemental tax.

With tears in her voice and talk about her “political demise,” she made a motion to recommit.

Probably as early as tomorrow morning, it will be clear that Rep Baldelli-Hunt did not forfend a property tax increase for the people of Woonsocket, she only shifted the responsibility for it to another party. It appears that another unintended consequence of the state's new receivership law has been to convey to our elected officials the power to pass the buck.


In Friday's Woonsocket Call, Jim Baron supplies amplified coverage.

“Imposing a 13 percent tax at this time,” Baldelli-Hunt said, “would be disastrous for our struggling community, our struggling constituents and a clear indication that this chamber has lost its way.”

Starting to tear up, she continued: “If my actions today result in my eventual political demise, at least I know that, in the end, I had the best interests of my city, and my constituents at heart.”

Interviewed after the session, Baldelli-Hunt said, “We said we were going to vote for it (in the finance committee), but we wanted a hard copy plan in place and we wanted a resolution in support of House Bill 8040 answering the questions we have asked all along: how did this happen and who is responsible? To this day we still do not have the resolution in support of that and our constituents deserve the answers to those two questions.”

Asked if she is happy with the outcome, Baldelli-Hunt responded, “Who could be happy at this time about anything that is happening in our city. It is not a matter of winning or losing.”


Over at Ocean State Current, Justin has posted the video he took of the floor action on this bill.

Breaking - Moody's Downgrades Woonsocket Bonds

Monique Chartier

Andrew points to the Valley Breeze report that the House has killed the 13% property tax increase requested by the city. Now Woonsocket Council President John Ward has just shared the following. (It appears not to have yet hit any news outlet.) [Addendum: This report was provided by Moody's Investment Service to its subscribers.]

Moody's downgrades Woonsocket's (RI) general obligation rating to B2 from Ba2, remains under review for downgrade

Downgrade of rating applies to $225 million in long-term debt


NEW YORK, May 24, 2012 -- Moody's Investors Service has downgraded the City of Woonsocket's (RI) underlying general obligation rating to B2 from Ba2, affecting $225 million in long-term debt; the rating remains under review for downgrade. At this time, Moody's has also downgraded the underlying rating on the Rhode Island Health and Education Building Corporation Bond Issue, Series
2009E to B2 from Ba2, for which the city is the sole obligor; the rating remains under review for possible downgarde. All outstanding debt is secured by the city's general obligation, unlimited tax pledge.


The downgrade to B2 reflects the continued deterioration of the city's school operating financial position and severely liquidity position, despite the recent issuance of deficit bonds.

The rating remains under review for downgrade, reflecting the city's near-term credit stress due to a continued deficit in the School Fund, reliance on the implementation of a proposed supplemental tax levy necessary to the successful placement of a tax anticipation note, and ongoing underfunding of the locally administered pension plan.

Edit - The balance of this post has been deleted at the request of a representative of Moody's Investor Service who said, in part,

While we make our full reports available to the media on a per-request basis we ask that they do not post the entire report online as they are for subscribers only.

May 23, 2012

The Blame Game and Sowing Seeds in Woonsocket

Patrick Laverty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 22, 2012

Mayor Fontaine on Tabling the Request for a Budget Commission

Carroll Andrew Morse

After the Woonsocket City Council voted to approve a motion tabling a resolution requesting that the state to create a budget commission for the city, until after the House Finance Committee votes on the supplemental tax, I asked Mayor Leo Fontaine for his reaction...

Anchor Rising: Tonight, the City Council voted to table the resolution regarding a request for a budget commission, which is tied intimately to the vote on the supplemental tax that will be taken by the General Assembly on Tuesday. What is your reaction to the City Council's action?
Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine: Clearly, I think it recognizes the importance of the circumstances that we find ourselves in and the importance of the vote at the General Assembly. Right now, we're dealing with the fact that the school department overdrew their accounts, just this past week...so there's a real urgent need for us to move forward right now, and this passage at the General Assembly is critical. That's why the Council has kept this on the table for another vote in the near future, so that if the General Assembly either delays this yet again or denies it, then we would be in the position to move forward...
Audio 44 sec
AR: And in your opinion, what's the best path forward for Woonsocket?
LF: Well, I would have liked to have seen the legislation passed through the General Assembly before now. Our initial deadline had been the 15th...and if it had been passed by then, we would have been in the position where the school department would have had the money. They wouldn't have overdrawn the account or had to borrow from us. I'm hopeful that we'll be able to keep ourselves moving forward with the supplemental and continuing on with our plan.
Audio 34 sec

"The Governor Literally Walked out of the Meeting and Said We Don't Need a Budget Commission There, They Are Doing All the Things that a Budget Commission Would Do"

Carroll Andrew Morse

In a brief interview immediately following last night's Woonsocket City Council meeting where the Council had voted to table a resolution asking the state to appoint a "budget commission" to deal with the city's finances, Council President John Ward discussed how city officials have already been working with the state to do just about everything in the short term that a budget commission could do, and the direction that Woonsocket needs to move in the long term in order to deal with its fiscal situation ...

Woonsocket City Council President John Ward: Myself, [Finance Director Thomas Bruce] and the Mayor went to this meeting with Rosemary Booth Gallogly and Dennis Hoyle and the Governor's staff...we had a lengthy discussion, with the Governor in the room, talking about all of the things the city is doing...we charge $96 a year for trash collection...we've turned off 1/3 of the city's street lights, because we can't afford the $70,000...we have no parks and recreation programs, because they've all been cut...we have no capital spending, that's been going on for years and years...
Audio 1m 20 sec
...it was at the tail end of the meeting, as the Governor had to leave, and he simply got up and he said to Rosemary, I understand why they don't need a budget commission in that city, because they're doing everything that a budget commission would do in terms of cutting costs and in terms of trying to rein in spending...
Audio 1m 56 sec
If we do the supplemental tax bill and the Governor's budget is approved for education aid, we are probably not anywhere near a position that somebody would come in and say we're unmanageable and we need a receivership and a bankruptcy...we have to develop strategies that will improve our tax base and bring our commercial rate down...
Audio 1m 36 sec
We've sort of been upset by this delaying of the process, as though we don't know what we're doing when, in fact, we have very limited ability to maneuver, but with what we have, we've done everything we can to work with the people in the state administration -- who would be the people that would be managing a budget commission anyway. And by working together with the school committee and the Mayor's office and the council and Rosemary, we are doing a budget commission's work... Audio 48 sec

May 21, 2012

Woonsocket City Council Meeting, May 21

Carroll Andrew Morse

Good evening, from the city of Woonsocket, where I will be liveblogging tonight's Woonsocket City Council meeting that includes an agenda item requesting that the state appoint a budget commission for the city.

[6:56] Official start time of the meeting is 7:00.

[7:01] Meeting called to order.

[7:04] Public comment portion of the meeting. On the order of 40 people in the room,

[7:07] Speaker compliments Mayor Fontaine on how he has represented Woonsocket with regards to the cross issue.

[7:10] Speaker asks Council President John Ward and Mayor Leo Fontaine to recuse themselves from the budget commission, to get an outside perspective. Mayor Fontaine responds, the budget commission is specifically designed to incorporate both local and outside perspectives.

[7:15] Speaker would like to know exactly how much money is missing from the school department. Mayor Fontaine answers $10M, about $2.7 from last year and the balance from this year, and the money isn't "missing" -- it was overspent.

[7:17] Speaker, at a Woonsocket City Council meeting for the 1st time, says a $10M deficit from the budget means $10M has to be cut, and he'd like to learn how to be involved with city government to help with the problems.

[7:20] The council is moving through appointments and licensing and other local governance issues.

[7:25] Here is the agenda for the meeting.

[7:33] Deliberating a petition from a Woonsocket resident regarding road repairs.

[7:38] Council President Ward wants to know when the last time Woonsocket spent $$$ on a capital item called "street repair". He can't remember one, nor does he know of any ongoing program for street repairs. How do streets to get repaired actually get picked?

[7:42] Council President Ward reinforces the point that the city can't give residents an honest answer on when their streets will be repaired, if there isn't some kind of systematic program for doing so. "We don't make any provision in our budget every year to take care of roads".

[7:44] Mayor Fontaine responds: As the urbans are pushed further and further to the bottom, these are the kinds of things that get left out.

[7:49] Some more discussion; Council votes to put the communication on file.

[7:54] Into the "Good and Welfare" portion of the agenda. Councilman Gendron is discussing various issues with the city officials in attendance.

[7:58] Councilman Jalette would like to know if there are any updates on two employees caught taking money from the city. City official answers that the matter is proceding through the courts. Then a question about non-utilization tax, regarding foreclosed properties. City official suggests a work session on the issue.

[8:03] Councilman Moreau asks the Fire Chief about the number of openings in the Fire Department. Answer is 9.

[8:07] Council President Ward says that the City Council cannot request a receiver under the fiscal stabilization law, they can only request a budget commission, and he wants the Woonsocket General Assembly delegation to know that they can't legally (or otherwise) make a request for a receiver a condition of approving the supplemental tax increase.

It's pretty obvious that Ward is going to hold the state to the letter of the law on this.

Describes having to request a "budget commission" as an unfortunate position to be in.

[8:11] Council President Ward suggests this City Council can pass ordinances that impact retiree benefits, just like the Providence City Council can.

[8:13] Ward hopes GA won't mess up supplemental tax with bill with unnecessary amendments. Singles out an amendment from Rep. Phillips he's heard about as especially bad.

[8:24] Councilman Brien (not Jon or Todd) says that school department spent $66M, as in past years, when they were only given $59M. I'm not quite following him, except I'm sure he's blaming a consultant for the problem. Brien says there wasn't a problem with overspending, there was a problem with underfunding.

[8:25] Councilman Brien (not Jon or Todd) wants to take money from the city pension fund, and use it to close the budget deficit. City official is trying to explain, as nicely as possible, no one in their right mind will let the City do that.

[8:30] Brien sticks to his point; borrowing from the pension fund is something that should be kept in mind if all else fails.

[8:33] Councilman DuBois asks about money remaining in the snow removal budget. City official answers about $250K. Councilman DuBois suggests putting that money towards road repairs. City official responds that it's important that any surplusses stay intact within the general fund.

[8:36] Motion from Councilman Gendron to consider the budget commission item immediately.

[8:36] Approved.

[8:37] Councilman Gendron will make a motion to table the request for a budget commission until a special meeting on Thursday.

[8:38] Councilman Beauchamp supports tabling the request.

[8:41] Councilman DuBois supports tabling, would have voted no, doesn't think a budget commission vote should precede the GA acitons tomorrow (almost all of the Councilmen who have spoken have made that point).

[8:42] Councilman Ward asks City official if muni budget info has been shared with members of the General Assembly. City officials answers leadership, finance committees, and the Woonsocket delegations have been provided copies of the budget. 26 copies in total distributed.

[8:47] Councilman Brien will vote no on tabling, would have voted no on the resolution.

[8:48] Councilman Gendron makes motion to table the resolution requesting a budget commission. Motion to table approved. No request for a budget commission tonight

[8:52] Councilman Brien was the only vote against.

[8:59] Back to the original agenda. Signing off of the liveblog; I will try and get a few reactions after the meeting is over.

May 17, 2012

Meanwhile, About that 13% Supplemental Tax Bill ...

Monique Chartier

Without losing sight of the 38 Studios situation, other matters around the state continue to move inexorably forward and, therefore, command our attention. Not the least of these is developments regarding the city for which, ominously, a budget commission has already been assembled, though not sent in.

So, in order to stave off that budget commission and the route of receivership which it represents, Woonsocket solons had requested from the General Assembly approval for a 13% supplemental tax (which would then form the basis for the tax rate going forward). The Senate approved it in early May. Next stop, the House. Finance heard it Tuesday but

After hearing testimony from both residents and city officials Tuesday, the state House Finance Committee postponed action on legislation that would have authorized the unpopular 13 percent assessment.

Thank you for interpreting the legislative tea leaves, Mr. Bruce.

The city's finance director, Thomas Bruce, said later he assumes the bill will not come out of committee.

With the end of the fiscal year approaching and unpaid (to the tune of $5.9 million) vendors understandably stirring around, time is fast running out. Unfortunately, the passage of time doesn't change the strong likelihood of a supplemental tax, only the party asking for it.

Insiders suspect that [State Director of Dept of Revenue, Rosemary Booth Gallogly] may act quickly to put a city Budget Commission in place, stepping up the state's intervention in Woonsocket's fiscal problems.

City residents shouldn't make any extravagant purchases if they have extra money set aside for the tax just yet, however. The Budget Commission could make another attempt to get the supplemental tax bill passed by the state. If new legislation is submitted, the process will start over, and the bill will head back to the Senate.


In comments, City Council President John Ward advises

So, the day has come. Our House delegation has delayed our supplemental tax legislation long enough to bring us to where the school department accounts were overdrawn yesterday by almost $300,000. RIDE is withholding state aid because payments can't be made to special education vendors. We can't rely on our Reps to get the bill through, and we can't borrow money without passage of the bill. The same General Assembly created an education funding formula that punishes poor cities just because they are poor. So on Monday's Woonsocket City Council agenda is a resolution requesting that the state appoint a budget commission for Woonsocket. Not because we don't know how to solve the problem, but only because our local rep's delayed a good plan until the cash crunch caused a collapse. And now they'll try to blame us.

We will manage this problem to a successful conclusion despite this unnecessary setback.

And today, the Woonsocket Call reports on a highly related development.

The bill to allow Woonsocket to assess a 13 percent extra tax on property and vehicles in the city appears to be headed for passage.

The House Finance Committee has scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday afternoon at the Statehouse and a vote on the Woonsocket bill is the only item on its agenda. ...

How about when it comes to the House floor? “It all depends on the amendments that are proposed,” [House Spokesman Larry Berman] said. “Put it this way, in the normal course of events, when a community asks to raise taxes and they have the support of the local representatives and the local officials, we normally do pass them.”

It's not at a clear whether this will be soon enough to forestall the Council's resolution to precipitate a budget commission or, even more critically, address the dire situation of unpaid school vendors.

April 26, 2012

Woonsocket Memorial: FFRF Declares Victory - Prematurely?

Monique Chartier

A couple of hours ago, the AP reported that the organization which has demanded that Woonsocket remove the soldiers' memorial in front of a fire station is counting their crosses before they're removed.

The Wisconsin group challenging the constitutionality of a cross on a war memorial in Rhode Island says it expects to prevail without the type of long legal battle that unfolded over a prayer banner ordered removed this year from a public high school. ...

Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said the group expects the cross will be removed without legal action.

"We expect to prevail without going to court," she said Wednesday. "Our assumption is that the city does not realize the law."

We'll get to who "does not realize the law" in a moment. I'm trying to reconcile their statement to the comment that Council President John Ward made this morning under Andrew's post.

The City of Woonsocket is not in a position to exhaust its sparce financial resources to defend this case should it move into the courts. That said, my email account and home phone answering machine have been filled with objections to the threat and offers of support.

This monument, originally placed on a traffic island has not moved since erected in 1921.

With the outpouring of offers of support coming to me, other city council members, and our mayor, the memorial and our determination to leave it in place will be defended. One or more offers of pro bono defense, should it come to that, will be accepted and the peoples right to maintain the design and placement of this war memorial will be defended.

My thanks to all who have raised their voices in objection to this affront to our freedoms and I look forward to seeing this monument refurbished and kept in its rightful place in the island dedicated as Place Jolicoeur.

John Ward
Woonsocket City Council President


Now, as for the law. Andrew cites the pertinent Supreme Court decision of just two years ago.

The court decision most relevant to the Woonsocket's war memorial that displays a cross isn't the Cranston West prayer banner decision, it is the Supreme Court's 2010 Salazar vs. Buono decision. ...

This decision from just two years ago makes clear that bona fide war memorials that incorporate crosses on public lands are Constitutional, and there's no question that the cross in Woonsocket, "erected in 1921 and...dedicated to four men who lost their lives defending the United States", is part of a bona fide war memorial.

Direct link to the decision here for the ease of reference of those who might not fully "realize the law".


Brassband demurs with my conclusions about Salazar.

Caution. Justice Kennedy's opinion in the Buono case is a plurality opinion, meaning that it did not command a majority of the Justices. . . and the issue was not whether the cross could stand on government land, but whether Congress' enactment of a statute transferring to a private party the land on which the cross stood was an adequate response to a lower court injunction ordering the cross to be removed.

State Lines Up First Step of Woonsocket Receivership

Monique Chartier

So reports the Valley Breeze's Sandy Phaneuf.

While Woonsocket's legislative delegation continues to debate the merits of a supplemental tax bill, State Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly is reportedly preparing for the worst and has already begun choosing members for a Budget Commission to help guide the city out of fiscal crisis.

The commission would consist of five members including Mayor Leo Fontaine and City Council President John Ward. The chairperson of the commission would be an outsider to Woonsocket government, as would the two remaining selections.

One of the steps that would head off a Budget Commission - a 13% supplemental tax that would form the basis for the city's tax rate going forward - requires approval from the General Assembly. A bill to enable this was filed in the Senate but

No corresponding legislation has been filed in the state House of Representatives and time is rapidly running out for a city on the brink of complete financial collapse.

(Does anyone know what's happening with a prospective House bill?)

Indeed, tempus fugit on the cash flow front,

... the city only has enough money to sustain operations until the end of May, and must prepare a back-up plan

... the back-up plan, of course, being receivership.

April 24, 2012

Anti-Religion (Pro Legal Fee?) Zealots Take Aim at Woonsocket

Monique Chartier

The Woonsocket Call reports.

The thorny constitutional principle of separation of church and state is rearing its head over a 1921 World War I monument featuring a prominent Christian cross on city property.

Unlike the recent prayer banner controversy in Cranston, which was sued by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the threat of legal action in this case is coming from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization halfway across the country.

On April 13, the Madison, Wisc.-based foundation sent Mayor Leo T. Fontaine a letter calling the display of the “Latin cross” on public property “unlawful” and demanding that the situation be rectified.

The monument is located in the parking lot of the Woonsocket Fire Department. But it’s not FFRF’s only problem with the WFD. The foundation says the image of an angel and the inclusion of “The Fire Fighter’s Prayer” on the department’s web site are also unconstitutional.

Despite being a heathen, I am eminently sympathetic with the religious side of these matters. This newest unpleasant development, along with the Cranston prayer banner, strike me as not much more than a form of fiscal bullying. In a call to the Matt Allen Show a couple of months ago during the Cranston prayer banner debate, Jeff in Warwick (a fellow atheist) phrased it well: this is taking the First Amendment way past what our founding fathers had in mind.

Woonsocket City Council President John Ward has his own, not unreasonable theory.

More likely, he says, FFRF routinely canvasses cities and towns around the country for opportunities to litigate potential violations of the so-called establishment clause of the constitution as a way to fatten its war chest. Often, he says, all such groups have to do is lodge a legal complaint to wheedle a settlement and legal fees out of their targets.

“It’s a jobs program for lawyers with nothing better to do,” says Ward.

And they might not have anything to do here. The city's dire fiscal condition has herded both Mr. Ward and Mayor Fontaine away from a court battle.

If the city is backed into a legal corner, however, Fontaine said he may seek to relocate the cross to private property. Ward concurs with the plan, saying the city, which is on the verge of bankruptcy, simply cannot afford to get dragged into a costly legal battle over a principle.

While there is a principle to defend here, it takes more than a determined will to prevail in such a skirmish. Filthy lucre is required, something that is in quite short supply in our cities and towns. Accordingly, distaste as it may be, I cannot disagree with the ultimate conclusion of Mayor Fontaine and Mr. Ward.

April 12, 2012

Woonsocket's Startling 13% Supplemental Property Tax Faces Uncertain Reception in the General Assembly

Monique Chartier

Observers of Woonsocket's current financial straits are aware that the city has proposed a 13% supplemental property tax - an increase, by the way, that would then form the basis, going forward, for Woonsocket's new (higher) tax rate. Such a step requires approval by the state legislature. The Valley Breeze reports, however, that at a work session Monday night, Woonsocket's delegation to the General Assembly was not overly encouraging.

Rep. [Jon] Brien said that while he was glad to sponsor the legislation, it serves as no guarantee he'll be able to get it passed.

"Naturally there's going to be opposition in the room," said Brien. "It's not just cobbling together the 38 votes, it's cobbling together the functions of the leadership of both the House chamber and the Senate chamber." ...

Each member of the delegation asked a number of questions, many with the common theme: How can Woonsocket residents be sure this won't happen again? ...

Sen. Marc Cote said he was hesitant to support a tax plan based on the assumption that state legislation would later fix the structural problems. ...

"My fear is the constituency in the city of Woonsocket will not have the means to pay the bill," said [Rep Lisa] Baldelli-Hunt.

Woonsocket faces nothing but bad choices because, conversely, of course, without this supplemental tax, the city almost certainly would be tipped into receivership and bankruptcy.

One puzzling matter sticks out from Sandy Phaneuf's article. She lists the steps that the city has put in motion to extricate itself from involvency.

Plans to address the crisis include a 13 percent tax hike on all city property, a temporary 10 percent pay decrease for all municipal unions employees and a number of additional legislative measures that could decrease the city's obligations on everything from pensions to education mandates.

Question: why is the 13% supplemental tax permanent but the pay decrease for employees temporary?

In a related matter, it's worthwhile to note here Justin's determination on Ocean State Current that, contrary to the assertion by RI Federation of Teachers President Frank Flynn,

Teachers here in Woonsocket haven’t had a raise in five years

in fact, the current teachers contract includes $4.7 million in bonuses and step raises increases.

April 7, 2012

The Gov't Giveth and the Gov't Taketh Away: State Diverts Half a Million in School Aid to Select Vendors

Monique Chartier

In a move that should set off alarm bells in (state-aid receiving) school boards around the state, Ed Comm Deborah Gist will pay three overdue school invoices directly and reduce state aid to the Woonsocket school department by that amount.

Three vendors owed money by the Woonsocket Education Department will receive the funds directly from the Rhode Island Department of Education, thanks to a decision this week by Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist.

The state will withhold a total of $555,000 in education aid for Woonsocket, instead paying monthly invoices to three programs that provide services for some of the city's disabled students. NRI Community Services, Action Based Enterprises/Hillside Alternative Program and the Sargent Center, all private schools providing special education programs, will receive past-due tuitions for Woonsocket students from RIDE, bypassing the school department. The funds were scheduled to be disbursed to WED at a rate of $185,000 a month.

First of all, does anyone know whether this action has any precedent? Not legal, just historic - i.e., has this ever been done before?

Of course, these invoices represent vital services that are provided to Woonsocket students. Then again, isn't most of the school budget comprised of vital services? Can the school system do without teachers, for example, or fuel oil or electricity or et cetera?

But isn't it the role of the school committee to determine how school dollars are spent? Granted, as with the mayoral powers of Central Falls' Charles "Board-Up" Moreau (D-Lincoln), though for substantially different reasons, there probably couldn't be a worse example of an elected official/body in the state to attempt to defend. With its inexcusable lack of oversight of a rogue superintendent and business manager, the prior Woonsocket School Committee has placed the city on the precipice of bankruptcy. Additionally, the results of its (in)actions and possible malfeasance might well become the target of a police investigation.

Additionally, there is no disregarding that Commissioner Gist's act comes down, if you'll excuse the cliche, to a pragmatic "golden rule": he who has the gold makes the rules. If the state is handing out aid, ultimately, they're going to do what the heck they want, up to and including showing preference to certain unpaid vendors of a floundering school department.

At the same time, this action evokes a distinctly queasy unease: it appears to violate state law that dictates that school committees shall determine how school budget dollars are spent and, presumably, when they are disbursed. Additionally, where does it end? Does this establish a new, questionable pattern of a (current or future) state Education Commissioner stepping in and accelerating the payment to a local vendor?

Larger issue: regardless of the soundness of the specific decision, what is the benefit of state government reaching down and meddling - sorry, there is no other word for it - in a local budget matter?

[Coincidentally, over at Ocean State Current, Justin expresses similar concerns on a different front - that a bill submitted as "part of Governor Lincoln Chafee’s package of legislation to address the budgetary problems of Rhode Island’s cities and towns" might be the first step towards a state move to centralize school budgeting.]

March 29, 2012

Not So Fast: Now The City Council Will Consider Whether To Request An Investigation

Monique Chartier

Last night, despite what appeared to be considerable grounds to do so, the Woonsocket School Committee voted three to two against bringing in the State Police to investigate such matters as apparently falsified school budget surpluses and a vanishing termination clause.

Under my post reporting this irresponsible development, City Council President John Ward this morning advises that

The Woonsocket City Council will be considering a resolution to initiate an investigation into the financial and contractual issues of the Woonsocket School Committee. The city charter grants specific authority to conduct the investigation.

Upon my e-mailing him, Council President Ward clarified

Actually, the council will be taking sworn testimony from witnesses in order to determine if further action is needed, such as referral to the state police or other group. We are not asking for a state police or any other outside investigation at this point. The resolution will be on our agenda for Monday, April 2, 2012.

Good. And it makes sense that the Council has the authority to do so as it is the body which, by state law, has the authority to levy taxes and to set the amount of the school budget - a legal state of affairs which school committees and superintendents around the state have too often disregarded.

March 28, 2012

Woonsocket School Committee: No Police Investigation And Soon, No School Buses

Monique Chartier

So here's where we stood as tonight's School Committee meeting was gaveled to order.

A $69,000 surplus in the school budget had suddenly turned into a $2.7 million deficit (and a $10 million deficit for two years), in part, due to cuts in state aid and in part due to off-the-book hires by the prior superintendent, Robert Gerardi, hirings about which the School Committee purported not to be informed and which school business manager Stacey Busby had failed for months, at the instruction of then-Superintendent Gerardi, to include in her reports. It had also come to light in recent days that the termination clause had mysteriously vanished from Ms. Busby's contract - another item about which the school committee claims to be gormless and which has now kicked off a chorus of "whodunit?".

Further, in public comments that were alertly picked up by the Valley Breeze's Sandy Phaneuf, Darren Cooper, a payroll specialist for the Woonsocket school department, pointed out that questionable practices were not necessarily limited to the prior superintendent but, in fact, extended to the PRIOR, prior superintendent, Maureen Macera. (Fine! Cast that investigatory net wide.)

Now, as a direct result of an "unexpected" $10 million deficit caused in part by months of questionable practices and reporting by the school department, the city's bond rating has been reduced to junk status and the city is staring down the barrel of bankruptcy.

Notwithstanding all of this, the school committee voted three to two against asking the State Police to initiate an investigation. Falsified surpluses, a vanishing termination clause and the repeated, questionable actions of, not one but two, prior superintendents - really? That's not sufficient to warrant a police investigation? As Chairwoman Anita McGuire Forcier correctly pointed out, if the school committee cannot trust the information given to them, that body cannot do its job.

For the record, Chairwoman McGuire Forcier and Member Christopher Roberts cast the two votes in favor of sunshine and accountability.

In other business, preceding the vote on the police investigation, the committee voted to table consideration of changes to the school department's bus contract. The contract has been rendered moot, at least for now, by notice from the bus company to the city that transportation services (i.e., the buses bringing Woonsocket children to school) would be discontinued if the sum of $506,599 was not received by April 5. As Andrew Morse remarked earlier upon hearing this, the hits just keep coming.

March 16, 2012

ATTRIBUTION CORRECTION: Mid-Year School Closure or Bust the Budget: Choosing Between RI Laws

Monique Chartier

[The post below has been revised with the addition of the link to the article, quoted extensively in the post, by the Valley Breeze's Sandy Phaneuf, who appears to have broke the story about the Woonsocket School Comm contemplating the closure of schools two plus months early. I had omitted the link when the post originally went up four days ago. This was an inexcusable breach of blogging protocol that I'd like to blame on being a tad overworked or on recent solar flares or on non-existent technical issues. But, in fact, it was a stupid, brainless omission on my part for which I apologize. Please e-mail me right away about any recurrences of such brainlessness.

Meanwhile, be sure to check out Sandy's recent article in the Valley Breeze, wherein the head of the Woonsocket Teachers Guild advises that a two year, ten million dollar deficit built in part on off-the-book hires by the prior superintendent "is a revenue problem, not a cost problem".]

Correct me if I'm wrong here, Woonsocket friends. It appears that the school committee is proposing to close all schools early, thereby not providing Woonsocket students with the requisite 180 days of education.

Although Rhode Island General Law requires a district to provide students with 180 days of education, Roberts points out that there is also a law which requires education departments to stay within their annual budget. With more than $4 million in payables, many of which are more than 90 days old, including utilities and services for the district's special needs students, Roberts said the committee is looking at all available options.

What might head off this drastic step?

"We as a School Committee have been putting a lot of ideas out there for the state to help us, but the situation is dire," [committee member Christopher] Roberts said. "we really need parents and voters to get behind the legislation that would help us by calling their representatives," he added, in reference to Senate bills, S-2406 and S-2461, which he's estimated could save the district $4 million.

Failing passage of this legislation,

"We have to make tough decisions and to do it in a lump sum would allow us to go into 2013 without a deficit.

... the lump sum represented by shortening the school year by two plus months. Yikes.

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

A Hint As To What Will Trigger State Intervention?

Monique Chartier

With the recently exposed multi-year, multi-million dollar deficit in Woonsocket's school budget and the subsequent downgrade of the city's bonds, Woonsocket now qualifies for receivership, a.k.a., municipal bankruptcy, under Rhode Island's new, albeit overarching, law.

The big question now is whether the state will step in and start that process.

Though terse, we get a possible answer in an AP article of today.

State revenue officials continue to meet regularly with city leaders to find possible solutions, [gubernatorial spokeswoman Christine] Hunsinger said. She said Chafee would consider more aggressive intervention if state officials decide to contribute money to help the city’s bottom line.

So, if this report is accurate, intervention is tied to the direct furnishing of dollars. If Woonsocket doesn't ask for any (presumably, the state would not unilaterally force funds upon the municipality), the Governor will not be inclined to intervene.

March 8, 2012

"Deficiencies In Internal Fiscal Controls": Woonsocket School Committee Brings Down The City (Bonds)

Monique Chartier

So Monday night, with the Governor in attendance, Mayor Fontaine broke the disastrous findings of the audit of the school department's budget.

Thanks, in large part, to $4 million in overspending on salaries, the Woonsocket Education Department is projected to exceed their 2012 budget by more than $7.3 million.

A budgetary recap is in order at this point. In less than four months, we've gone from a small surplus to a $2.7 million shortfall to, now, a $7.3 million gap.

How did we get here? Well, the initial $2.7 million was in large part the result of off-the-book hirings by the prior Woonsocket superintendent - hirings about which the school committee purported to be completely uninformed.

By the way, my favorite public comment at Monday night's City Council meeting was from a taxpayer who, citing the need for accountability, called for the de-certification of the prior superintendent. Absolutely. If the school committee was, indeed, not apprised of these hires, they will take this step forthwith so as to protect other cities and towns from, literally, millions of dollars of unauthorized spending by an out of control superintendent.

But a rogue superintendent was not the cause of the entire shortfall. Check out item #4 of the list compiled by Sandy Phaneuf in this excellent Valley Breeze article.

The committee spent their 2012 state allocation in advance and therefore miscalculated their actual deficit for 2011 by $2 million.

The school dept was given a $2 million advance on its state aid. It repaid this favor by wrongly accounting for the entire sum. Further, it took an outside auditor to uncover the $7.3 million shortfall. At best (which is not good at all), it appears that the school committee was once again gormless about yet another chasm that had opened up in its own budget.

As with the superintendent's unauthorized hirings, these developments would be grounds for criminal charges in the private sector.

Now, the final blow. As a result of the Woonsocket School Committee's gross, recidivist incompetence, Fitch reduced Woonsocket's bonds to junk status this afternoon.

An estimated $7.3 million deficit, about 7.6 percent of the city’s general fund, is projected for the fiscal 2012 school budget, following a deficit in the previous year. That reflects “deficiencies in internal fiscal controls,” Fitch said today in a statement. The company lowered Woonsocket’s rating to BB-, down from BBB-, the lowest investment grade.

Senator Tassoni has proposed a law (S2239) that would transfer all school department fiscal matters from school committees to city/town councils. I share Justin's caution about the bill and the potential that ulterior motives lurk for its passage. At the same time, the City on the Move would almost certainly be in better shape right now if such a Gut-The-School-Committee law had been passed, say, five years ago.

December 13, 2011

Woonsocket Pushed To The Brink: $2,000,000 of the School Deficit Is Directly Attributable to Unauthorized, Off The Book Hires

Monique Chartier

So last week, we learned that a seven figure deficit had surprisingly and unpleasantly materialized in the school budget in place of the small surplus that had been reported for months. We're now waiting for the auditor's report, expected very shortly, to hear the final amount of that deficit.

But Woonsocket Finance Manager, Tom Bruce, advised Anchor Rising today that salaries comprise $2,045,000 of the deficit. (Salaries only, not including bennies.) Further, Mr. Bruce confirmed the report in the Valley Breeze that those salaries arose from unauthorized hirings by Woonsocket's School Committee and former school superintendent.

School Business Manager Stacey Busby let officials know on Thursday that former Woonsocket Supt. Robert Gerardi Jr. allegedly left out crucial financial information when asking the School Committee to approve extra hires. He knew there was not enough local funding to cover their salaries, she said.

As in all Rhode Island cities and towns, the amount of the Woonsocket School Dept's 2010/2011 budget was set by the City Council. Unlike most (all?) other school districts, however, this budget was also the subject of a court order. It appears, then, that the School Committee and former Superintendent Girardi have violated a court order.

There are now some very serious questions that need to be answered.

1.) It appears that the person who knowingly recommended these unfunded hires was the former Superintendent. What exactly did he tell the School Committee about the fiscal implications of these hires? Why did he not permit the School Business Manager, over the course of the last year, to include the cost of these hires in her budget reports? (The latter is positively Cicilline-esqe.)

2.) Is it true that the (immediate prior) School Committee was unaware of the (non)funding of these hires at the time that they were asked to approve them? If so, why did they take such a disinterested approach, especially as their budget had become the subject of a court order?

These hires are still unauthorized but are no longer off the books, exposing the deficit and, therewith, placing the city in a perilous position. Moody's has requested a conference call. (Woonsocket's leaders are acutely aware of the new bond status which Moody's just bestowed on East Providence.) The state has a financial overseer all but warming up in the dugout - the first step towards a Rhode Island city losing control of its finances and, as Andrew correctly points out, its democracy.

The former Superintendent and the prior School Committee have emulated David Cicilline by substantially misrepresenting a fiscal situation involving public dollars, dollars that we entrusted to their prudence and transparency. How will all three be held accountable for the serious consequences of their respective actions? In the private sector, such actions are very often cause for criminal charges. Why should it not be in the public sector also?

December 6, 2011

Ouch - Woonsocket School Dept Goes From Small Surplus To $2.7 Million Deficit Almost Overnight

Monique Chartier

The Woonsocket Patch reports.

After months of reporting a small surplus, the Woonsocket Education Department ended the 2010-2011 year with a $2.7 million deficit, according to the draft operating results sent to Finance Director Thomas Bruce on Monday by auditors from Braver PC. ...

"As recent[ly] as a meeting with the superintendent of schools and the Business Manager Stacey Busby, two weeks ago with the mayor, a surplus was assured," said Bruce. "On September 15th, we received in writing an indication that the school department surplus was $68,737.

What happened since September (other than an election - I am trying really, really hard not to be suspicious) to so drastically change the department's budget will now be a subject of keen interest, presumably starting at the School Committee work session this Thursday. The stakes are pretty high.

Bruce said city officials should also be aware of the possibility that DOR Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly could appoint a financial overseer, as she recently did in East Providence.

"I would not be surprised if that happened right away in Woonsocket. What it would mean for the city is lack of local control over expenditures, contracts...most importantly we could lose local control over setting the tax rate in July."

August 31, 2011

Dawn of the Dead? Susan Menard Pulls Papers

Monique Chartier

On the last day to do so, Former Mayor Susan Menard has filed declaration papers for the office of mayor. (Woonsocket has off year elections.)

It should be noted that pulling papers is only a first step to running for office. The Valley Breeze correctly points out that

Critics of Menard may wonder, however, if 2011 will be a repeat of the last election cycle in Woonsocket when, despite filing declaration papers in August, she failed to turn in a nomination petition.

Critics of Ms. Menard wonder about lots of other things, too. Let the questions for the candidate fly.

If elected mayor, will Ms. Menard

- Continue her practice of handing out no-bid city contracts to friends and family (copiers, for example, not to mention motorcycles)?

- Continue her practice of handing out generous but illegal benefit packages to favored staffers without obtaining authorization from the City Council?

- Revive her policy of promoting rather than firing racists?

- Reinstall secret recording equipment in the mayor's office? If yes, and the City Council moves to investigate, will she once again attempt to impede their lawful investigation into such potentially unlawful action?

- Once again cop a plea in the event that the Ethics Commission once again tags her with questionable (to say the least) conduct?

- Sign an Executive Order that, thenceforth, city employees are forbidden to run personal errands for the mayor? If not, why not?

April 2, 2011

Open Thread: What's the Best Way to Schedule a Fire Department?

Carroll Andrew Morse

Valley Breeze publisher Tom Ward has written an apology for a previous column where he described changes in the Woonsocket Fire department platoon structure and scheduling as being correctives to "overtime abuse"...

My column this week went over the line in its tone, and for that I apologize to our readers, especially the firefighters of Woonsocket and their loved ones. I regret using the term “overtime abuse” to comment on the $1 million in annual overtime pay that Mayor Leo Fontaine is now trying to remove from the 2012 budget.
At issue are changes that were unanimously approved by the Woonsocket City Council on March 20. According to Russ Olivio of the Woonsocket Call, the Woonsocket Fire Department currently uses a schedule where a firefighter works two 10 hour days -- where "day" actually means a substantial period of time when the sun is up -- followed by two 14 hour nights, followed by four days off.

Mayor Fontaine and the City Council are proposing changing that to a system of 24 contiguous hours on duty, followed by 48 hours off.

Also, I've come across discussions on the internet about a 48/96 system (two days on, four days off) in regular use or being tried by some departments. It seems to be more popular in the Western half of the US and is used in some places with populations as large or larger than Woonsocket (though their population densities may be very different, along with their density of triple-deckers).

Mayor Fontaine and the City Council have also approved changing the structure of the fire department from four platoons to three. I'm not sure if that is directly related to the scheduling change, or a separate issue altogether.

The two questions to kick off the open-thread are...

  1. How do the various scheduling structures impact a firefighting department's operations and effectiveness, and
  2. Given that, under all three systes, a firefighter is on duty for 48 hours and off duty for 96 hours in a six-day block, how exactly does this relate to overtime?

October 2, 2010

Man Bites Dog: Mayor Fountaine Files an Olourac Action Against the School Department

Monique Chartier

Uncharted territory necessitates the invention of terms: what to call a reverse Caruolo Action?

The Woonsocket Call reports; h/t today's RISC-Y Business Newsletter.

Mayor Leo T. Fontaine fired a shot across the bow of the School Department on Thursday while opening a Superior Court bid to win an immediate reduction in school spending.

The city legal challenge was filed with Superior Court Judge Bennett R. Gallo and seeks an immediate correction of the School Department’s projected $2.8 million deficit in the current fiscal year.

Fontaine’s administration wants a court order instructing the School Department to reduce its budget to the $62.9 million spending plan approved under the city’s overall $116 million budget.

For decades, school committees around the state have been overspending budgets lawfully set by the city/town council (often, it has appeared to the undoubtedly unsophisticated eyes of some observers, to the benefit of certain school committee members or their spouses who are themselves teachers, as "parity" ensured that the higher compensation achieved in one municipality during contract negotiations rippled across the state). If the school committee doesn't or decides it "can't" reduce its budget sufficiently, Rhode Island law provides the school committee the option of litigation against the city/town to compel it to cough up more dough for the school budget. (Again, to some unsophisticated observers, this would appear to severely conflict with the other state law which puts the city/town council, which solely possesses the ability to tax, in charge of setting municipal and school budget amounts.)

Conversely, however, as the Call correctly notes,

State law does not allow a school department to operate with a projected deficit and blocks a city finance director such as himself from approving any purchase requisitions or financial commitments when a potential deficit has been identified, [City Finance Director Thomas] Bruce said.

More specifically, in Woonsocket,

Since the fiscal year began, the School Department has made a significant effort to reduce an original forecast of almost $6 million in red ink but the remaining shortfall must also be corrected before school purchases and requisitions can be approved, Bruce said.

“The law says that if a deficit is projected, financial commitments can’t be made,” Bruce said.

The Woonsocket School Committee has made noises in the past year about filing another Caruolo lawsuit. Good for Mayor Fountaine for taking action ("Olourac" or other) and not waiting passively for such a litigation axe to fall as the bills pile up. Meanwhile, this unsophisticated observer would like to know when the General Assembly is going to address the substantial conflict in Rhode Island law by removing Caruolo from the books so as to fully return budget control where it belongs: to city/town councils.

May 8, 2010

Please Don't Turn Woonsocket's Finances Over to the State

Monique Chartier

This was the prospect raised at a meeting Wednesday between Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, the city's finance director and state officials.

Granted, the state already funds 75% of the Woonsocket school budget. And yes, the School Committee has an almost comical approach to bookkeeping.

School officials, who were predicting an $800,000 surplus just weeks ago ...

Except that, "just weeks ago", the school department was already three months behind on health insurance premiums to the tune of over $2.5 million and had issued $2 million of payroll checks that were no good. (Citizens Bank made good on most of them but from now on would like the money in advance, please.) It's not clear how how it's possible to project a surplus as you're looking at $4.5 million of red ink on the ledger.

And there's no question that the multi million dollar deficits that the school department, as directed by the school committee, has been running for several years has not enhanced Woonsocket's financial problems. Moody's even cited the school department's over-spending as a factor when they downgraded Woonsocket's borrowing to junk bond status last week (ouch), one of the reasons for Wednesday's meeting between the city and the state.

So clearly, the school committee has not been helping in all of this, which is why I would not be averse to its dissolution, presumably a side effect (see Central Falls which has a Board of Trustees rather than a s.c.) of the state stepping in.

That, unfortunately, might not be the only side effect. Another one could well be the state hauling out its own (overdrawn) checkbook to kick in even more money to the city at some point. While I'm very appreciative of the considerable efforts of the City Council and the current - emphasize current - Mayor to deal with this matter in a responsible manner and sympathetic to the plight of the city's taxpayers, with the state's shortfall at $220 million this year, $440 million next year and three quarters of a billion in 2012, more state aid to any municipality is simply not a remotely feasible option for the foreseeable future.

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.

September 24, 2009

Menard Freezes Disbursements to School Department

Monique Chartier

While not taking our eyes completely off the fast and furious developments at the state level, a glance northward is in order. From today's Valley Breeze.

In a letter addressed to Superintendent Gerardi, [Mayor Susan] Menard said, "Continued operation of the school department at the projected costs will cause a significant deficit to accumulate."

She added that she has, "directed the finance director to withhold any further draws against the city's appropriation until you are in compliance with the city's Fiscal Year 2010 Enacted Budget."

Speaking, regrettably, for the Woonsocket School Committee,

Superintendent Robert Gerardi, who wasn't sure there would be funds for Friday's paychecks, suggested, "We run the schools and the city pays the bills. If they choose not to pay the bills, then that will be their problem to solve."

"Regrettably" because only part of the concept clearly defined in state law seems to have been grasped here. The city does not just pay the bills. It also sets the amount that will be spent by the school department. The law does not oblige a municipality to fund either chronic overspending or budgets inspired, respectfully, by fantasy.

In response to the mayor’s contention that the school department is required by the charter to “provide the administration within a prescribed timeframe a budget balanced to enact” its city appropriation, the committee maintains the school department “did send the City an amended budget” on July 16, 2009, which completed that step.

The amended budget was based on two stipulations — the approval of requested waivers by the Commissioner of Education and an agreement from the Woonsocket Teachers Guild establishing 40 unpaid work days for its members -- that never materialized.

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.

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 26, 2009

Cart-Before-Horse School Budgeting

Monique Chartier

During tonight's Citizen Good and Welfare (public comment portion - cities and towns around Rhode Island, take note: in Woonsocket, this item is close to the top of the agenda) of the School Committee meeting, a citizen asked a question about a payment received by the city from the state, how it was applied to the deficit and how the school budget wound up in the red to begin with. Superintendent Dr. Robert Gerardi answered the question and, in the process, revealed a potential flaw in the Woonsocket School Committee's budgeting process.

The words are paraphrased; the order of events is not. Dr. Gerardi said, the original budget was presented and approved by the School Committee; then, the Mayor and the City Council gave us our appropriation and we were $7.1m in debt.

Okay. Except that Rhode Island law dictates that the city/town council sets the amount of the school budget. It is the role of the school committee of that municipality to determine how the money will be spent.

Presuming that Dr. Gerardi did not misspeak as to the order of events, wouldn't it have made more sense for the School Committee to have ascertained from the City Council the amount that would comprise the school budget before the spending got under way?

And the Crowd Gasps: Menard Pulls Nomination Papers

Monique Chartier

Contradicting her own repeated affirmations, including one as recently as ten days ago to the Woonsocket Call, incumbent Mayor Susan Menard took out nomination papers Monday, signaling an apparent intent to seek reelection.

Russ Olivo at the Woonsocket Call correctly points out that the

declaration period that ended Tuesday [yesterday] is merely a preliminary placeholder designed to allow candidates to formally announce their intentions to run. To secure a place on the ballot, candidates must follow up their preliminary declarations by returning nomination papers to the Board of Canvassers, signed by no fewer than 100 properly registered voters.

The tantalizing question, then, remains very much unanswered at this point. Does the Mayor truly intend to collect signatures and run once again for the seat? Or did she pull papers merely as a feint to torture her critics?

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 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.

August 3, 2009

Really? The State Can only Provide One Kind of Relief for Local Budget Woes?

Monique Chartier

Woonsocket's Caruolo lawsuit kicks off today. (Side note: you were correct the first time, Your Honor: a performance audit must be conducted). In the meantime, the attorney for the plaintiff - i.e., the school committee - has identified the cause of Woonsocket's school budget shortfall.

when the real problem isn't the city's or the school committee's, it's the state's failure to fund education properly.

To stay local for a moment, surely it didn't help that the Woonsocket School Committee listened to the siren song of a well paid superintendent who presented budget "scenarios" instead of working with the s.c. to formulate one realistic budget (as required by law)

Attorney Stephen Robinson expresses an erroneous belief shared by many around the state that the sole solution to be provided by the General Assembly for local budget woes is more money. So nothing to be done on the expenditure side?

During the course of a well informed comment regarding Woonsocket's school finances a couple of months ago that Andrew turned into a post, commenter John points to one way that the G.A. could lend a hand.

I know it [the school budget shortfall] can finish out at $5 million if the GA passes real pension reform

Indeed, pension reform was one of two badly needed structural reforms that the General Assembly either got a good start on (not the same as completing) or simply left untouched.

As a prelude to ascertaining whether Woonsocket itself would benefit from the other structural reform - lifting of state mandates such as minimum staffing - we can debate some of John's other points, including whether teacher/pupil ratios in Woonsocket have been cut to the bone (probably) and the fact that teacher pay in that municipality is in the bottom third state-wide (so ... bottom third of the top 20% pay scale nationwide),

Minimally, however, Woonsocket needs pension reform from the state legislature. And unquestionably, most other cities and towns would benefit from both pension reform and the lifting of many unfunded state mandates. Even Mayor David Cicilline, not exactly an anti government right wing nut job, supports the latter.

Many members of the General Assembly have been reluctant to augment the disbursement of local aid, understandable in view of a second (third?) year of sliding tax revenue. Honorable solons, don't allow Attorney Robinson and others to artificially narrow your options for helping to address local budget shortfalls. There is an alternative to your writing a check: you can empower local governments to reduce their expenditures.

July 23, 2009

Health... of the Nation, of the State, and of the Town

Justin Katz

On last night's Matt Allen Show, Monique and Matt covered the travesty that is healthcare "reform," the travesty that is underage exotic dancers in Rhode Island, and the travesty that is the Caruolo lawsuit in Woonsocket. (If I may interject: perhaps there's a solution to be found, among these three issues, if the government requires strip clubs to pay for family health insurance for their dancers and applies an additional payroll tax for those in-demand minors, which money would be cycled back to school districts to cover unwise contractual agreements. Sure, such a plan would represent an exploitation twofer, but the teachers' unions might have something to teach us about maximizing the value of the resource of communities' children.) Stream by clicking here, or download it.

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 21, 2009

Two Conflicting Laws, One Reality: the Caruolo Line is Drawn

Monique Chartier

The Woonsocket City Council confronted two starkly conflicting fiscal developments at last night's meeting.

The first was the news that come November, a company would be relocating out of Woonsocket and taking with it the wages and taxes of two hundred and fifty jobs. The second was a verbal report from the City Solicitor, Robert Iuliano, as to the preliminary hearing in Superior Court yesterday for the Caruolo Act lawsuit filed by the School Committee.

Declining to grant a continuance for either a performance audit or to enable the city to bring aboard specialized legal counsel, Judge Daniel Procaccini ordered the Caruolo suit to commence Thursday. To characterize the upcoming proceeding as a kangaroo court might be premature. There is no question, however, that both sides emerged from the hearing in clear concurrence on one point: Judge Procaccini seemed less interested in the merits of the School Committee's spending for FY2009 and more interested in getting down to the nitty-gritty of compelling Woonsocket taxpayers to write the check for it.

From today's Woonsocket Call.

Procaccini was dismissive of the need for a performance audit from the outset of the hearing, saying it would not eliminate the gaping hole in the school department’s budget no matter what it revealed. He said the procedure would delay the case too long, only worsening the School Department’s budget problems and heap perhaps $100,000 in new costs onto the city.
Ah, yes, "delay". By artfully employing this quality, it is, in fact, the Woonsocket School Committee, with the cooperation of an amenable judge, who has demonstrated to school committees around the state unwilling to make adequate cuts or to renegotiate contracts the best way to proceed: initiate a Caruolo action at the eleventh hour and you can by-pass all of the annoyance of outsiders examining your budget, questioning your spending and even overruling your judgment by ordering the non-payment of certain expenditures.

A handful of school committee members, not just in Woonsocket but around the state, have a predilection for reminding the public that it is their purview to determine how school budget dollars are spent. Of course, this is true. The flip side - that a separate body is vested with the power to set the amount of that budget - seems more easily forgotten. It is arranged this way because that body has the power to take into consideration the entire fiscal picture, both expenditures and revenue, of the municipality.

Returning now to Woonsocket, trapped between an inadequate revenue stream of which the upcoming loss of 250 jobs is the latest though not the sole indicator, and a school committee which has stepped beyond their mandated role, "that body" has chosen to continue asserting their power to set the amount of the school budget by fighting the Caruolo suit.

[Those who tout the Mayor of Woonsocket as a friend of the taxpayer might be interested to learn that her solution to FY2009 overspending by the school department was to recommend a supplemental tax, presumably to have been followed by another supplemental tax in due course to cover overspending, already underway, of the FY2010 budget. She was, however, overruled by the City Council.]

A transcript of certain comments last night by council members and the City Solicitor would provide an excellent description of the clash, referenced on prior occasions here on A.R, of two Rhode Island laws. One bequeaths to city/town councils the exclusive power to tax and to set the amount of all budgets within their municipality. Another permits a school committee, under certain circumstances, to appeal the amount of their budget funding to Superior Court.

Voicing the deep exasperation and determination expressed by all members of the City Council, Vice President William D. Schneck remarked last night

If by decree we are ordered to pay, we'll all vote no. And then we will be in uncharted waters.

It appears that Woonsocket will be the battleground for a showdown of these two laws.

July 16, 2009

Woonsocket School Committee in the First Person Plural

Monique Chartier

[Following are paraphrased comments by School Committee members as they debated and then unanimously voted last night for an adjustment to the school budget that consisted of forty furlough days per teacher and the elimination of most student activities.]

What's needed is a fair funding formula by the state. We need to say that Woonsocket's state representatives support a fair funding formula -- and they do, although why did they vote to level fund state aid to Woonsocket for the last two years?

The group that needs to be worked on to get a fair funding formula in place is the state reps from the suburbs, whose children not only have these programs that we are cutting -- baseball, basketball -- but they have swim teams, golf teams, etc. Our children don't have this because they're from Woonsocket. We need to explain to the state reps from other parts of the state what our children are missing out on versus their children.

We don't like doing this [cutting student activities] but we have no choice under the law.

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.

June 10, 2009

The Funding Formula: Meanwhile, in Woonsocket...

Carroll Andrew Morse

In response to recent postings on the education "funding formula", commenter "John" offers this forthright reporting and analysis on the situation with regards to the City of Woonsocket…

The Woonsocket school representatives that testified in favor of a formula (a bad formula) today in the Senate Finance Committee hearing were ridiculed and insulted. The committee members were abusive simply because we have an ass for a mayor who likes to abuse people and falsely brag about not raising taxes when all she has accomplished is to create a classification system combined with homestead exemptions that artificially make it seem like we don't raise taxes. In fact, we now have among the lowest effective single family home (voters) tax rates (31st at last measure) in the state while chasing out business with the highest commercial rate in the state (Number 1). We have to fix that now. It won't be easy.

The generic criticism of teacher unions makes people believe that we are all in the same boat. The Woonsocket school employees have already agreed to no pay increase for both next year and the year after and reduced their current year pay by 1%, deferred for five years. Can you name one other community in the state where that kind of agreement is in place, or might even be expected to occur? The teacher contract compensation package is in the bottom third in the state. Yet we are criticized by Senators and the blogs as being among the ineffective money grabbers.

Our elementary class sizes are at an average of 23.4 per classroom across the district and in schools with odd numbers, grades are combined into multigrade classes of 23 to 25 students; any others out there at that level across their whole district? Our inclusion classes average over 22 students with only one special ed teacher and a regular ed teacher with no assistants; we've cut them all except for IEP mandated TAs. Our high school class size is at 30 and next year several programs will be cut from the class offerings so as to force class size in most elective courses as close to 30 as possible to save money. Maybe that helps to explain some of our performance problems on the tests. Oh no, that's right, we just have lazy teachers, right?

We have among the lowest per pupil administrative costs in the state according to In$ite data. Since 2003 we have cut our school staffing by 133, from 910 to 777 while experiencing a 13% enrollment decrease (884 students); a fair response I think except that it has eliminated teacher assistants still enjoyed by the students in the burbs. Over the last seven years local funding for education has grown by 12.9% while state funding has grown by 12.7%. When we factor in the impact of level funding by the state in the last two years, the city contribution will have to increase to 28.2% for FY09 to cover the deficit with the average seven year average jumping to 41.2%.

The Woonsocket School Dept is (soon may be was) part of the GHGRI, a group health care self insurance company paying administrative rates at almost the same low rate as the state now pays. Soon they may move to RIMIC where the admin fee is $28/employee/month, same as the state.

I can go on and on, yet I know there will be those out there who will scoff at my comments and ridicule the folks here trying to get legislation passed that is fair to all. Ideas like "hold harmless" and "minimum funding" are offensive concepts if we are to try to provide for equitable support based on the student, wherever they are.

When our budget comes up for passage I will not agree to use a super majority to override the cap in order to provide the $5 million needed to balance the school budget (They are asking for $7 million, but I know it can finish out at $5 million if the GA passes real pension reform). We were promised a fair formula when S-3050 passed. Maybe when we get that promise kept, I'll see fit to agree to support an override of the cap for whatever amount we can demonstrate is needed by the school department.

But our state Senators mock us and treat us like second class citizens. What a great state we live in.

Continue reading "The Funding Formula: Meanwhile, in Woonsocket..."

May 20, 2009

The Revolution Continues in Woonsocket

Justin Katz

Various considerations may intervene, but I'm going to try to make it to tonight's meeting of the new Woonsocket Taxpayer Coalition at 6:30 p.m., on the second floor above the Vose True Value on Cumberland Hill Rd. Representative John Loughlin was at the initial meeting, and he tells me that it's an exciting thing to watch these groups take shape, forming organizational structure out of gangs of upset taxpayers.

At this point of formation, it's critical to instill certain principles into the inchoate group's culture. Perhaps the two most important are:

  • Limit goals to areas of broad agreement. Factionalization can collapse reform groups more effectively than opposition and give that opposition fissures to exploit. The idea is to begin the process of reform and to point in the right direction; the group should not strive to determine every policy, but to get residents and leaders thinking in the right way.
  • Information is your friend. Get as much information out to the public as possible. That includes statements and actions taken at government meetings and such. Even if nobody appears to read a Web site or newsletter, it's important to have a medium through which to make information public; the fact that voters might read something will have an effect on those in power. And if a particular fact is unhelpful to your cause, then your cause should be adjusted to take it into account.

These two suggestions point to a single underlying principle: trust. Trust that the system can work and that people can come to the right conclusions when the information is available and the arguments are presented.

May 8, 2009

The Fire Code Strikes Again

Justin Katz

And the squeeze on non-governmental services — most notably from the Roman Catholic diocese — pushes another one over the edge:

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence has told a state nursing home association that it is closing St. Francis House, its assisted-living center at 167 Blackstone St. later this year, a spokeswoman for the association said. ...

Mary K. Talbot, of the Rhode Island Association of Facilities and Services for the Aging, said the diocese told the association it would cost $250,000 to $500,000 to bring the center into compliance with the state fire code.

WPRI has more details:

It serves 46 low-income elderly residents who require assistance with normal daily activities, but do not qualify for nursing home care.

To achieve full compliance with fire code regulation in Rhode Island, the St. Francis House would need $500,000 in immediate upgrades to the sprinkler and fire alarm system.

In addition, officials say that low reimbursement rates for patient care at the facility has caused St. Francis House to incur monthly deficits of $10,000.

Yes, many of these suborganizations were struggling already, but that's nothing new to charitable groups, and $500,000 is more than four years worth of $10,000 monthly losses.

By the way:

St. Francis House employs 22 full- and part-time employees.

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 22, 2009

Woonsocket Vote Proves Point of Tea Parties

Marc Comtois

In case you missed it, a Tea Party broke out in Woonsocket the other day (h/t).

As reported by WPRI:

Woonsocket's City Council has voted against a supplemental tax bill that would have raised property taxes by eight percent.

Councilors took the vote late Monday night, following testimony from dozens of residents. Council members said arguments against the bill changed their minds; it was originally expected to pass.

The bill was meant to close the school department's $3.7 million deficit. Councilors plan to meet Wednesday to decide on their next course of action, which could include a lawsuit against the state for more funding.

Why did it go from "expected to pass" to not passing? From the Woonsocket Call:
After some five hours of discussion, at just about midnight, the council...vot[ed] 4-3 against the measure. In the end, it was Councilwoman Suzanne Vadenais who tipped the balance. Early in the evening, she indicated a reluctant willingness to support supplemental taxes, but by the end of the night she had changed her mind.

“It was a very difficult decision,” she said. “After listening to all the people who spoke tonight, I can't vote for this.”

Vadenais joined Councilors Stella Brien, Christopher Beauchamp and Roger G. Jalette Jr. in opposing the measure. Council President Leo T. Fontaine, William Schneck and John Ward were in favor of it.

So, were Woonsocket residents inspired by the "Tea Party Movement" to take a more active role in local government? The signs seem to indicate that was the case. What is for sure is that something has happened to finally push average, apathetic taxpayers into having their voices heard.

March 15, 2009

How Many Chances Should a Racist Get?

Monique Chartier

In the view of a lot of people, one would be the limit. Mayor Susan Menard appears to be more forgiving.

The civil lawsuit filed in 2000 by Bennie Koffa outlines the treatment to which he was subjected by certain employees of the Woonsocket Highway Department including, notably, Robert Harnois. It came to light last week that Mr. Harnois, now Superintendent of that department, is the subject of a second, similar complaint by certain current highway department employees. The behavior described in the 2000 lawsuit, directed solely at Mr. Koffa as the only black person in the department, was disgusting and brutish.

Mayor Menard, who last year promoted Mr. Harnois to Superintendent of the Woonsocket Highway Department, has stated that she did not and does not believe the allegations in Mr. Koffa's lawsuit. The frequency, duration and number of witnesses - daily/over a year/many - of the verbal abuse considerably detracts from the credibility of her assertion.

Or, if we were to take her at her word, we would need to ask a couple of questions. In her capacity as mayor, how many other meritless lawsuits did she settle for six figures on behalf of the taxpayers of Woonsocket (and of the state)? How often in her capacity as mayor has she settled lawsuits sight unseen, without reviewing the substance of the case?

It is inexplicable that the mayor would promote a person who had been the subject not only of such accusations but of a taxpayer funded settlement involving such accusations. In doing so, she has exposed the city to a considerable financial liability. More importantly, she has condoned such rancid behavior.

March 13, 2009

Messieurs Almeida, Langley, Metts

Monique Chartier

... when you get a minute, in between hearings for this bill, you may want to glance over this article in yesterday's Valley Breeze.

City Council President Leo Fontaine and members of the City Council confirmed for The Valley Breeze this week they are investigating allegations against Highway Superintendent Robert “Bob” Harnois, following complaints from those under him that Harnois has been firing racist comments at minority employees.

* * *

A person claiming to be a witness against Harnois in the case pending before the Commission for Human Rights, said Harnois’ arrogance “knows no end” when it comes to him keeping his position with the city.

“Yes I heard the racist comments,” said the witness, who said claims accusing him of using racial slurs are “100 percent true.”

“I absolutely, positively heard them,” said the source.

Three former and current highway employees, who did not wish to be named for fear of retaliation, backed the claims in the anonymous letter, saying that on a regular basis, Harnois calls the few minority employees in the department the racist term while they work, said the workers.

* * *

The letter accusing Harnois includes claims he is verbally abusive to workers of all races, excluding those in his “inner circle.”

But Mayor Menard had no inkling of such an attitude on Mr. Harnois' part when she promoted him a year ago to head of the Highway Department, did she? Actually,

According to city officials, Harnois was accused a decade ago as part of a $250,000 decision against Woonsocket after another black employee, Bennie Koffa, complained of the same treatment and won a judgment.

Inasmuch as some of the alleged verbal abuse occurred over the Highway Department's radio waves, the witness list for the Commission for Human Rights (and such other authorities as may hear this matter) may be comprised of the entire Highway Department.

March 11, 2009

Budget Developments, Good and Bad

Monique Chartier

I stand by prior criticisms of certain practices and (non)policies of Mayor Susan Menard. Nevertheless, she, along with other mayors and councils around the state grappling with a bad budget situation, has my sympathy.

Further, she and the Woonsocket City Council are to be applauded if this questionable practice is discontinued, though some of us continue to wonder why it was ever implemented, in Woonsocket and elsewhere.

Lambert said the city also intends to address the fatigue issue by abandoning a longstanding fire department policy of having an engine accompany every rescue run. He said the move would eliminate perhaps 7,000 engine runs per year, further easing the strain on manpower.

This idea, however, seems unnecessary, unenforceable and smacks of vindictiveness, even with the stated disclaimer.

Amid concerns that recent layoffs on the Woonsocket Fire Department will increase forced overtime and on-the-job fatigue, city officials disclosed Tuesday that they intend to prohibit firefighters from holding outside employment beginning in April.

“From our perspective we are just trying to relieve the stress on the overworked firefighters,” said city attorney Chris Lambert. “We don’t want to add to that.”

March 3, 2009

Breaking News out of the North: Mayor Menard Will Not Seek Reelection

Monique Chartier

At 8:20 this morning on WNRI's Up Front program, Mayor Susan Menard announced that she would not seek re-election.

She gave no reason; she simply made the statement "out of the clear blue sky" and "with finality", as WNRI co-owner Richard Bouchard, filling in for Dave Kane, later described her announcement.


Commenter Patrick suggests a potential campaign philosophy for the upcoming mayoral election. We should note that Woonsocket holds its local elections in off years. Therefore, the primary for both city council and mayor's office will take place this October and the general will be held in November; declaration papers will be available in August.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

February 23, 2009

Why Firefighters (in Woonsocket, anyway) Will Not Accept a Pay Cut to Save Jobs

Monique Chartier

This morning, WNRI's Dave Kane, not exactly a wild-eyed anti-unionist, asked in all sincerity for an explanation as to why Woonsocket firefighters had declined to discuss a pay cut with Mayor Susan Menard when their refusal to do so meant definite layoffs.

He received the following e-mail, apparently from a former president of the Woonsocket International Association of Firefighters, reprinted here with permission.

Dave please tell your listeners they don't have all the facts. They say we don't care about saving the jobs of our co-workers. The city wants us to take a pay cut and co-pay and other give backs. Only to have a contract that brings us to june 30th.

Then what? We all lose over a $125 a week. And she will still layoff. What do you expect us to do? We know we have to give back. We are prepared for that. But the [Mayor] wants both. That's what people don't know.

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.

January 1, 2009

Benefiting the Community

Justin Katz

Harvey Waxman, of Wickford, makes a good point:

When private-sector unions make concessions their sacrifices will go to companies whose executives often make millions in salaries and to shareholders whose dividends can benefit from those concessions.

When a public-sector union makes concessions the beneficiaries are not high priced executives but the people, the homeowners, the citizens of Rhode Island. That is an important difference.

One could quibble with the fact that Harvey doesn't treat shareholders as "people, homeowners, and citizens," which clearly they are (and not all rich, either), but the sentiment came to mind when I read of financial problems in Woonsocket:

Leaders of the police and fire unions said Menard has told them that, unless they make contract concessions in areas including health benefits, the city may have to lay off about 30 of the 99 police union members and 45 of 132 firefighters union members to balance the city's $116-million budget.

Union leaders in both departments said cuts of that magnitude would be devastating.

"It's a tragedy waiting to happen," Steven R. Reilly, president of the Woonsocket Firefighters Association — Local 732 of the International Association of Fire Fighters — said after addressing the council Monday night.

"I've got people here wondering if they have a job," said Sgt. John Scully, president of Local 404, International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

It sounds to me as if Mayor Menard was telling the union leaders that they have it within their power to avoid that tragedy in waiting. Unions act collectively when they're trying to negotiate for evermore; they should also act collectively when it comes to preserving each other's jobs.