In Warren, a financial blood letting
Warren voters wanted change Monday night and they got it, voting at Financial Town Meeting to slash salaries in several key town positions as they sought to save Warren’s summer recreation program while holding Warren officials accountable for a budget crisis that will see the tax rate increase just over 7 percent this year.
Over the course of an angry three-hour meeting at Kickemuit Middle School, a sharply divided group of more than 200 voters sparred back and forth on the budget, which heading into Monday included a 7.9 percent tax levy hike while slashing multiple programs, including the Warren Recreation Department’s summer program at Burr’s Hill.
Prior to the meeting, town councilors had cut $1 million from the municipal budget to make up for a $1.3 million school funding increase this year. But many voters didn’t want to hear pleas Monday that the town’s financial problems lie in large part with the school department and the state’s education aid funding formula, which town officials believe has been improperly applied for years (see side story).
Instead, a steady stream of angry residents called officials to the carpet, in many cases blaming them for the town’s budget problems, saying the town is top heavy with unnecessary positions and going after several of the town's department heads.
One of the first motions to cut came from voter Gina Catalano, who requested that the town cancel $46,815 in funding for the town hall custodian. When officials explained that the town's collectively bargained employee contracts contain minimum staffing requirements that would likely put the town at risk of costly litigation if broken, Warren Town Council member Cathie Tattrie suggested cutting elsewhere. Soon after, discussion moved to non-union positions at Warren Town Hall.
Addressing the $818,607 budget for town offices including planner, clerk, manager, building official, treasurer and assessor, Sachem Street resident Ben DeCastro drew a loud round of applause when he approached the microphone and suggested cutting across the board.
“I think we need to reduce this overall by 5 percent. Where’s it going to come out of? Figure it out. Let’s start cutting. Get the scissors out.”
Minutes later, he changed his motion when officials said he had to motion for changes to specific line items, recommending instead that the town cut the salaries of Warren’s town planner and building official in half.
“We don’t have to pay a town planner here,” he said, blaming the planner for the fact that the American Tourister redevelopment is not yet complete. “And the building official. He’s leaving? Part time job. Fifty percent.”
“Why is this position even necessary?” added voter Caleb Murdock. “Do we really need a town planner in a town like this?
Mr. DeCastro’s motion drew a loud round of applause from much of the audience, though others urged caution and restraint. State Street resident and Warren Planning Board member Brandt Heckert said eliminating the planner’s position would be “pennywise and pound foolish.”
“The town planner covers her salary by a significant amount through writing grants,” he said. “You’d better think about that. It’s very important; she brings in a tremendous amount of money to this town. Be careful what you wish for.”
After Mr. Heckert spoke, voter Richard Silva made a motion to also reduce the tax assessor’s salary by 50 percent, saying it’s a do nothing position.
“We’re giving you money for an inefficient business,” he said. “That’s what’s happening to this town.
Again came a counterpoint, this time from Warren treasurer Michael Abbruzzi.
“The tax assessor is responsible for bringing in approximately 100 percent of your budget,” he told the audience. “This is your main source of revenue. If we eliminate or reduce this position, we would lose our ability” to raise funds. “This is the one position that creates revenue.”
When it came to a vote, the motion failed 66 to 115, though Ms. Tattrie stoodwith those calling for the assessor’s position to be cut to part time; it was the only time a councilor voted to reduce an employee's salary Monday. Though the assessor was spared, the planner, building official and town clerk were not so lucky; voters approved cutting their salaries by a total of of $57,871.
What does it mean?
After voters finished cutting the two positions, Mr. Abbruzzi informed the crowd that those cuts would also free up money in the town’s employee benefits, Social Security tax and pension cost lines to the tune of about $15,900, leaving the town with enough money to reinstate funding to the recreation department. Also reinstated was $17,000 to the East Bay Community Action Program, which like the recreation department petitioned the town prior to the meeting to have funding that had been previously cut by the town council reinstated.
Heading into the meeting, the expected tax rate was $20.09 per $1,000 in valuation. Afterwards, the expected rate fell to $20.07.
“This is one sad little town,” Warren Town Planner Caroline Wells texted a reporter following the vote.