Warren is coming out swinging as the town faces what could be one of its biggest financial challenges ever.
Town officials on Monday filed suit against the Bristol Warren Regional School District after the district finance authority’s recent approval of a $54 million budget that Warren town councilors say will leave the town $2 million short this coming year.
Faced with the possibility of service cuts — council president Chris Stanley said curbside trash collection, the recreation department or other services could fall victim if that money is not made up — Warren officials have asked a Rhode Island Superior Court to intervene, and are “leaning toward” giving the school district what the town gave last year, regardless of the JFC’s wishes.
That so-called “maintenance of effort” payment to the district is the same tactic the district used two school years ago after district expenses rose about $416,000 higher than town officials believed they owed.
The school district promptly filed suit to get that money back. And while that case has yet to be decided by a judge, Mr. Stanley said Monday that the town likely has little recourse but to go that same route again.
“If we don’t do that, we’re talking about diminishing services, things like the DPW, parks and recreation,” he said. “No matter how you slice it, it’s going to devastate the community.”
Warren officials say they are at this point after the JFC voted two weeks ago to give the school district $54.3 million this coming year. For a week leading up to the vote Warren officials had argued that the district’s funding formula has been incorrectly calculated since the state Department of Education revised the aid formula three years ago. Warren officials contended that aid should be awarded to each town based on the number of students from each, instead of going into the district budget and then divided out proportionately along with other funds.
Mr. Stanley said using Warren’s method would result in a $2 million gain or loss, and told the JFC that “we’re asking about our right to exist as a community.”
However, Warren lost the argument, as the JFC voted 5 to 4 to pass the school budget using the aid formula already in place. Bristol town councilor Mary Parella broke rank with her town’s representatives and voted with Warren against the budget, but still was stern when addressing Warren’s argument:
“Your town government’s issue has to be addressed at another level,” she said. “The burden shouldn’t be on Bristol to help solve the problem.”
School budget scenarios
With town “level funding” district at last year’s $11.68 million level, Warren’s tax rate would be $19.30, a 3.5 percent increase over lsat year’s $18.67 rate per $1,000.
With town paying the $13.18 million ordered by the JFC, the tax rate would rise to $20.68, a 10.9 percent increase.
Source: Warren Town Manager Thomas Gordon
On Monday, Mr. Stanley said the council would meet Tuesday night and discuss the next step. It could go two ways: First, the town could do what he expects by voting for another “maintenance of effort” and trying its luck in court; or the town could accept the JFC’s amount. However, that would open up another can of worms, he said.
Since adding that $2 million back into the town’s budget would put the town’s tax rate increase well above the cap allowed by law (jumping from 3.5 percent without the increase to 10.9 percent with it) the town would have to seek permission to spend and tax that amount from the state.
If the state OKs it, Warren taxpayers would feel the hit. If not, “we have to find some way of cutting out $2 million.
Mr. Stanley said the town does not want the burden to fall on the taxpayers, so the town will likely fight. Yet, with the first “maintenance of effort” case from two years ago still unresolved in the courts, he said he does not know what will happen.
“We’re in relatively uncharged waters here,” he said. “We’re in a position that no town has really experienced, as far as we know.”