Even if Warren extricates itself from its current budget mess, town council members fear the town may end up in a yearly recurring cycle of untenable budget cuts and rising school costs.
That was the word from a sparsely attended budget public hearing Monday night. Councilors met at 7 p.m. to give members of the public their second chance to speak on the budget but, even though the town is looking at a possible 6.9 percent tax increase and widespread budget cuts, fewer than 10 people showed up. Only three spoke.
Those who did echoed councilors’ sentiments that the kind of numbers Warren is seeing this year can’t continue.
“This town is run very lean,” Strawberry Lane resident Pat Galvin said. “But this is unacceptable. You’ve got to fund public education, but it’s got to be balanced on a community’s ability to pay. It can’t go on like this.”
As it stands, school costs have risen $1.5 million over last year, and town officials have cut close to $1 million in town services and purchases to bring Warren’s budget down to a reasonable number. Even so, the proposed tax levy still stands at 6.9 percent, almost double the 4 percent maximum levy allowed by law. School spending accounts for nearly 60 percent of Warren’s complete budget.
Town officials have applied to the state for permission to exceed the 4 percent levy and expect to hear back by the end of this week; if they’re denied, councilors will have to cut an additional $680,000 worth of spending to get down to the 4 percent figure. Concurrently, they have asked a state Superior Court judge to determine whether the state funding formula has been applied correctly in the Bristol Warren Regional School District, as Warren officials believe there has been an error in application. The difference could mean $2 million yearly to the town, and Judge Luis Matos is expected to rule on the issue prior to the Financial Town Meeting next month.
But even if both requests come out in the town’s favor, councilors and several residents warned Wednesday that that will do nothing to help Warren’s long-term stability. Warren won’t be able to continue with steadily rising school costs and local cuts for very long before the town becomes insolvent, they warned.
“With fewer services, particularly for kids in town, fewer emergency services, this is not going to be a place where people are going to want to move, and where businesses are going to want to locate,” said Kickemuit Road resident Baird Brown. What’s needed is a long-term fix, he said, because “this is this year, then there’ll be next year, then the next year.”
Councilor Joseph DePasquale said the solution to the town’s problems is “the million dollar question,” and councilors admitted that they don’t have many options.
“I used to consider the schools a line item in the town budget,” added council president Chris Stanley. “Now We have to put a study commission together to see whether it’s beneficial to consider deregionalizing. I’m at the point where I’d consider it.”
Ms. Galvin mentioned another, namely letting the state come in, a la Central Falls, and take over Warren’s finances.
“Warren has not been run poorly,” she said. “There is nothing to hide. If Judge Matos does not rule in our favor, maybe there could be consideration given by the town council to just turning this all over to the State of Rhode Island. There’s nothing to fear from having them come down .. .except taking a look at the disproportionate (school) funding.”
“You’re preaching to the choir,” Scott Lial said. “I’m not convinced that a judgment in our favor is going to be enough.”
“We have a long road to hoe. Rest assured that the council as a collective is aware that everything’s on the table in terms of what is going to work to fix this long term. Even if we get a positive decision (from the courts) we have a long term strategy that’s going to be required.”