The voters have spoken, but one of the biggest questions surrounding Warren’s budget dilemma remains: What happens if Warren wins its school funding court case?
The town is still waiting on word from Rhode Island Superior Court whether a formula that determines how much each town in the regional school district pays has been properly applied over the past four years. Warren officials believe it has not, and if Judge Luis Matos agrees the difference could be as much as $2 million per year.
While there is still uncertainty how Warren would be made whole if the town prevails, the Town Charter has a provision that would allow Warren to hold another Financial Town Meeting to help work that money back into the budget.
The charter states that the town council can convene a Special Financial Town Meeting at any time if members receive “new budgetary information” that could have bearing on the overall budget. The only thing required in such a case is a 2/3 vote of the Warren Town Council. Four out of five councilors would have to vote to convene, but those polled this week said they wouldn’t vote against convening the meeting.
“I think you would see all five councilors” voting to hold the meeting, council president Chris Stanley predicted.
Determining what to do with the money is another story. At Monday’s Financial Town Meeting, residents voted to cut the salary of the town planner and building official by 50 percent, and the town clerk by a lesser amount, to restore funding previously cut from the recreation department budget and the East Bay Community Action Program. With the exception of Mr. Stanley, councilors polled this week said they would vote to reinstate full funding to the cut positions while using funds also to reduce the tax rate to a more manageable number.
Would she like to see those positions addressed? “Yes,” noted Cathie Tattrie.
“We have one of the biggest projects in Warren’s position coming down the pike, and we need them,” David Frerichs added. As for the tax increase, “I would like to lower it. We have never exceeded the cap. I would use (the money) to bring it down, no more than 2, 2 and a half percent.”
“If we are going to have a positive relationship with the business community as well as the local taxpayer, these positions are vital to our town functioning productively,” added Joseph Depasquale. “With the American Tourister project about to start, not having these positions staffed full time would not be fiscally prudent. I am also in favor of reducing our tax rate and bringing in new business to strengthen it.”
Mr. Stanley agreed with others that a main goal is to reduce the tax burden. However, he said he would be reluctant to use any recovered funds to make the cut positions whole. Instead, he said he would favor putting the money in Warren’s General Fund and using it to offset the tax increase first, and to restart stalled infrastructure improvements second.
“I don’t know that we’re in the position where we’d want to go against their will,” Mr. Stanley said. “People want to see some type of improvement with their dollars. Right now they’re not seeing those improvements. I wouldn’t be in a hurry to restore anything that they cut.”
While a positive vote by the Superior Court could precipitate another Financial Town Meeting, it is within the realm of possibility that yet another meeting could be held before the end of the year. The town charter also allows a Special Financial Town Meeting to be held six months after the budget kicks in (on July 1) if five percent of voters in Warren sign a petition calling for it.