Stanley: Lack of tax base, JFC voice crippling Warren
To the editor:
The suggestion that the Town of Warren must “tighten their belts” is empty rhetoric. Against an ominous backdrop the Town of Warren works to craft a responsible budget each year. The department head, Town Manager and the council work to develop a balanced operating budget that incorporates a combination of conservative economic growth, incremental increases to the tax rate, and enormous spending cuts and approving an ever shrinking capital budget. These contentious actions ordinarily yield perennial fiscal surpluses. Warren fully embraces the idea of spending no more than the government takes in through a reasonable level of taxation. Nevertheless, these herculean efforts are quickly undone by the Joint Finance Committee who places an unfair burden on the taxpayers of Warren.
The Town Manager proposes our community’s spending priorities for the upcoming year in the Preliminary Budget, based solely on real number generated from the previous year and the Town’s actual needs. To ensure that the budget reflects Warren’s needs and priorities, the Council conducts an in-depth review of all departments their policies, their programs and their expenses. At the end of the budget hearings, held in March, the Council publishes its Preliminary Budget in the newspaper. The Council then holds two additional hearings so that it may also incorporate the public’s priorities as it prepares its final draft for the annual town financial meeting. In adopting the budget for the coming fiscal year, the Council often changes budget priorities and in 2012 it enacted a ten percent across the board cuts. Since then the council has essentially continued the practice of level funding the overall municipal budget so that it can continue to appropriately fund the schools.
The Town of Warren simply does not have the capacity, or tax base, to generate the revenue to meet the JFC’s demand without crushing the taxpayer or eliminating key services. This, coupled with the bitter loss of state aid to the cities and towns, creates a putrid financial cocktail. Keeping this fact in mind Warren cobbled together a responsible municipal budget and simultaneously sought to maintain our statutory obligation to fund the schools. By level funding the school budget we meet the educational needs of the community while also ensuring an acceptable quality of life. Unfortunately, the JFC’s recommended share of $13,182,615 will either cause the tax rate to skyrocket or force us to enact devastating cuts that will further erode our standard of living.
If the town accepts the 10.9 % increase to the tax rate as a result of the JFC then we must obtain the approval of the Division of Municipal Finance and State Auditor General. It is very likely they may decide to reject our request because it appears irresponsible. We could also choose to avoid this step by once again defying the JFC’s vote and instead level fund the school. This will inevitably lead to a court action. The resulting questions that now abound are endless and without any clear answers. Still our communities may have settled the issue if the JFC conceded to abide by the law. Instead the JFC wantonly refusing to recognize the intent of the legislation placed before them and the political and economic argument rests squarely in the courts. Ultimately, the question will become whether or not we can maintain our community’s historic right to self-determination. Arguably, it is neither healthy nor politically acceptable that our town’s municipal budget be held at the mercy of six individuals from another town.
The additional money that the JFC voted to burden the town of Warren with equates to a massive increase to the tax rate. The Town of Warren must cut that same dollar amount from the 2015 budget in order maintain the tax rate from the previous year. The Town of Warren simply does not have the capacity, or tax base, to generate the revenue to meet the JFC’s demand without crushing the tax payer or eliminating key services. Home owners who reside in Warren simply do not have the income to shell out the money to cover another tax increase.
In the meantime, the court had rendered its decision, and the council took decisive action an action by scuttling the budget. By eliminating the recreation department’s summer program dumping transfer station, eliminating all grants and contributions to various social service agencies and erasing a number of positions the Town of Warren still must request permission to enact a 7.1% tax increase as a result of the BWRSD. The figures are dizzying and the council must find a way to survive in the future. Please keep in mind this is the very scorched earth policy that some of members of the Bristol Town Council suggest we enact. Remarkably, a few anonymous critics urged the town to carry out our second option; to blindly accept a painful tax increase.
The numbers do not lie. They reveal Mr. Herreshoff’s statement that Warren must “tighten their belts” as empty rhetoric. Only one equitable and reasonable solution truly remains. The BWRSD and the JFC shall follow the legislative intent of the newly adopted funding formula or enact new enabling legislation. By abiding by the funding formula we meet both the educational needs of the community and ensure an acceptable quality of life. Unfortunately, the JFC’s recommended share of $13,182,615 has forced us to enact devastating cuts that erode our standard of living and hurt our children.
Mr. Stanley is the president of the Warren Town Council.