Officials need to dig deeper to solve city’s problems
To the editor,
Last week I attended two meetings that brought a bit of joy and a great deal more sadness.
The first was the City Council meeting on the 22nd. The joy came from hearing that the city and the developers of Rumford Center received the 2012 Project of the Year Award for outstanding mixed-use development, given by the Northeast Economic Developers Association. Congratulations to everyone –most especially Planning Director Jeanne Boyle–for bringing this jewel to life.
The rest of the evening’s news was far more dismal. We learned that 20 percent of our city’s streetlights will soon be temporarily “red-capped,” literally capped and shut off, most likely forever. We heard that fees for using public facilities–even for city residents and taxpayers–have risen dramatically over recent months. Evidently, a group that had paid around $250 last year for the privilege of using a public field found themselves with a bill of nearly $700 this year.
We were told that a turf war among the Carousel Commission, city manager, city solicitor and Budget Commission was preventing much needed repairs to the historic Crescent Park carousel, the beloved icon of Riverside. There was more, but the capper of the evening was the Tax Assessor’s educated guess that the assessed value of our commercial and residential properties is likely to fall between 15 and 20% since the re-evaluation several years ago.
The second meeting was at Riverside Middle School the following night, for the purpose of the School Committee receiving public comment on the anticipated closing of Oldham School. Here we learned–as if it were a surprise to anyone who had paid attention over the years–that Oldham School is slated for closure.
Interim Superintendent DeGoes explained that there are insufficient funds in the 2014 budget to sustain current educational expenditures and that something had to give. That something turned out to be Oldham School. Supt. DeGoes said that, after careful analysis, it was his determination that closing any school other than Oldham would not make sense, seeing as Oldham was the oldest school, was most in need of repair, had the fewest students and whose closing would cause the least “disruption in dispersement,” as he called it, among all the potential candidates for closing.
The meager joy here came from being in the presence of parents who spoke passionately and eloquently about both Oldham and Waddington schools (Waddington being the ultimate destination for most Oldham students). They told of how each of their schools was a community of parents, students and educators who cared greatly about their school and each other, and that closing one and inundating the other would not be wise. They pleaded to the members of the School Committee, to the superintendent, and indirectly to the Budget Commission, not to shut Oldham down.
The sad part, of course, beyond the loss of the school itself, is that Oldham has apparently been on the chopping block for some time. This is evidenced by the fact–or at least the accusation–that bond money designated to repair Oldham School was siphoned off to repair the high school. This presumption is buttressed by the charge that a good percentage of children who naturally would have attended Oldham, due to their residence, had been dispersed already to other, more distant schools.
Streetlights off… Sky-high facilities fees… The carousel falling into disrepair… Real estate values expected to fall by double digits… Beloved neighborhood schools (Oldham isn’t the only one on the list) being shuttered… Middle school sports on their own… Neighborhood library branches padlocked and for sale… Homestead exemption disappearing drip by 1 percent drip…
The Budget Commission is apparently fond of saying: “Find the money; then you can have what you want.” Granted, but why does finding the money always come at the expense of the people who are footing the bills? Why are neighborhoods stripped of their schools and libraries and the security that streetlights provide? The city is working to develop two impressive residential and commercial properties along the waterfront. Great, but what do we offer potential new residents? A decimated school system? Disappearing resources and athletic opportunities for their kids? Darkness?
I’ve read elsewhere that, if we were a little tougher negotiating with Blue Cross, we could save some money on public employee health care costs. Maybe it’s just one person’s opinion, but it holds merit for me. At the risk of offending my hard-working public employee friends, this round of collective bargaining might have been a good opportunity for the city to find some savings, for instance in negotiating a modestly lower longevity pay percentage for employees who have had the good fortune of having a long-term job with the city.
There must be more that can be done than clobber the resident taxpayers time after time. I call on the Budget Commission and on our elected-yet-powerless officials to dig deeper before our beloved city loses what little we have left of our pride.