Faced with escalating school costs they say were forced on them by Warren’s wealthier neighbors to the south, Warren Town Council members cut $1 million out of the 2014-15 town budget Tuesday night, slashing programs, positions and traditions that they said could change Warren forever. And there’s more pain to come, they warned.
With education costs approximately $1.5 million higher than they were last year, the council decimated Warren’s Recreation Department, eliminating staffing, Burr’s Hill concerts and summer programs at the Warren Town Beach. They ordered the transfer station closed on the weekends, the purchase of an ambulance and three police cars cancelled, and eliminated the repair budget at the animal shelter.
The cuts continue: all non-union employees will earn the same as last year despite planned pay raises. Overtime was cut across the board. The fire and reduce department’s $105,000 rescue stipend was cut and several administrative assistants, and Warren’s economic development point man Moe Clare, lost their jobs. In a gesture that will do little to help the bottom line but marked the gravity of the situation, councilors also voted to do away with their small stipends, which total $6,000 per year.
And in the end, they said Warren is still looking at a tax increase well over what state law allows. The town will have to petition the state for approval to increase taxes by about 6.9 percent. As it stands right now, Warren’s tax rate this coming year will be $20.09, up from the current $18.67.
Through it all, councilors expressed sorrow, regret and not a little anger at Warren’s financial hole.
“We’re heartbroken, really,” councilor Scott Lial said.
“This is an absolute disgrace,” added David Frerichs. “Some of these cuts make me sick.”
Much of the councilors’ venom was directed at the school committee and the Joint Finance Committee, the nine-member board that determines how much each town pays every year to the Bristol Warren Regional School District.
This year, the JFC ordered Warren to pay $13.18 million, up about $1.5 million from last year. The vote was split 5-4, with Warren’s three members and one of Bristol’s six members voting against.
At the same time, the JFC did not act on a request by Warren JFC members to revisit the state formula that determines how much state aid each town in the district gets every year. Warren’s three members contended that given Warren’s economic disadvantages to Bristol — it has a smaller tax base and a larger number of residents at or below the poverty level — Warren should be getting a larger percentage of state aid than it has been receiving; the formula by which it’s been divided has been applied inappropriately, they said.
The dismissal of that interpretation led Warren to file a lawsuit two weeks ago. In conjunction with the courts the state department of education will soon review whether Warren is getting too little state aid, and thus supplementing the education costs that Warren officials say should be borne more by Bristol taxpayers.
Councilors believe they’ll come out victorious, but chastised their counterparts in Bristol for belittling them, dismissing Warren’s work and in some cases accusing them of not having their financial house in order.
“We’re dealing with a huge dollar amount that is essentially forced on us by individuals that don’t live in the Town of Warren,” councilor Chris Stanley said, referring to the JFC. “No matter what we do we’re only three votes. And we’re constantly being outvoted. There’s a fundamental flaw in the legislation.”
“If anybody argues that this is not a bare bones budget, they can sit in my seat in November,” councilor Joseph DePasquale said. “All the good work that we’ve tried to do in years past, investing in our future, for what? You see that this is not in our hands.”
Several audience members asked whether Warren has ever considered deregionalizing and breaking away from Bristol. Mr. Stanley said the subject has indeed come up.
“They’re forcing us to go in that direction,” he said, saying he wouldn’t be surprised to see a committee start exploring the subject later this year.
Still, Mr. Lial said it won’t be easy, as much of the Warren School District’s infrastructure is gone and would need to be rebuilt.
“It’s a massive endeavor,” he said.
In the meantime, Warren faces a new day, he said. Though the loss of the summer program and other services will be difficult, councilors said Warren will get through it.
“The sense of volunteerism and pride (in Warren) will overcome the challenge that we’re about to face as a group, as a collective group of Warrenites,” Mr. Lial said.
“I am sure that in some instances we will rally and volunteer our time to make sure that there is something there for our children this summer,” Mr. DePasquale said. “I know I will.”