Meeting gets heated as council cuts town, school budgets

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BURRILLVILLE – Before a packed house at the Town Building on Wednesday, June 13, the Town Council voted to cut the budget recommended by Manager Michael Wood by some $300,000, keeping the money, instead, in the town’s capital improvement account.

In the end, roughly $100,000 of the funds were cut from the School Department’s budget – but the district’s fiscal slashing was nearly much worse. Even steeper cuts were initially made, leading to some heated moments between town and school officials before some councilors relented during the final minutes of the meeting, and a compromise was reached.

The council at first voted to cut a total of around $200,000 from Wood’s recommended school allotment, already down $900,000 from the department’s original request for a $1.8 million increase, submitted in January.

“You don’t think I have a right to be angry and protect kids in this town?” asked Supt. Frank Pallotta following the initial round of votes. “We cannot sustain the $200,000 cut. You know how transparent we have been with you with the numbers since day one.”

The effort to make changes to Wood’s fiscal plan was led by Councilor David Place, who said he objected to the idea of filling budget holes with money from the town’s CIP – or capital improvement project – account. The line item is funded in large part through tax money from Ocean State Power, revenue that Place noted is not stable.

“From a long term perspective, it is not fixed,” he said. “We don’t know if in three years we’re going to be getting this money or not.”

The fiscal holes, all noted, were created by an increase in contractual and mandated obligations such as salaries and benefits, and a simultaneous decrease in state aid.

“The primary reason why we’re all here tonight is because our state in it’s wisdom has made the decision to cut aid to a town like Burrillville with a median family income around $63,000 a year. Just about 45-40 percent of our 25-and-olders don’t have a bachelor’s degree,” said Place. “In their infinite wisdom they decided to pass that aid to a town like Barrington with a median income of $106,000 a year.”

Admitting that the $727,000 decrease in state aid has made this a difficult budget year, Wood had recommended a one-time reduction of $400,000 from the town’s CIP account – normally used for projects such as road repair.

“I’m not in favor of touching one dollar of CIP to fund the operational side of the budget,” said Councilor Donald Fox. “We continue to have roads in town that need work. We’re barely keeping our head above water.”

Place’s first move was to cut $48,451 from the town’s charitable contributions, given annually to organizations including Sojournor House, Senior Services and Well One.

“We are in a unique situation,” noted Fox before voting in favor of the cuts. “We all have respect for these organizations. The question is: are we obligated to fund them?”

Additional budget maneuvering was accomplished by depleting the town’s contingency and undesignated funds, ultimately reducing the town budget by $140,000.

Place’s motion to cut $267,900 from the recommended allotment to the School Department was, at first, supported unanimously. Some $172,000, he noted, would be held in a special account that can only be accessed once the rest of the district’s funds are depleted. Wood had recommended creating the special line item to make the school and town expectations match, and had hoped to put in just $100,000.

“What we’ve done, effectively, is taken $400,000 from the town and school operating budgets and have shifted that money back to the CIP budget,” Wood said in explaining the votes taken by councilors.

“The bottom line is you cut $260,000 from the School Department?” asked Pallotta. “I want an answer to that.”

Wood responded, “Don’t direct your fire at me. Yes, your budget was cut after a vote the Town Council took.”

At the start of the meeting, graduating senior Tyler Vanable had spoken against the cuts already on the table prior to the council’s actions, pointing to teachers who will be laid off under the original compromise.

“I’ll say what I have to say,” said Pallotta. “You heard a young man speak on behalf of the teachers that are on layoff, who won’t be called back because of this.”

“Somebody said you had $5 million dollars sitting in a fund someplace,” Pallotta continued. “The kids are going to pay the cost for $200,000 when you’ve got $5 million sitting some place.”

Place debated at first whether or not town officials had done their math correctly in adding up the cuts, eventually admitting the district’s budget had been slashed to around $196,000 less than Wood’s recommendation.

Fox suggested the district cut an administrative position to make up the difference.

Councilor Donald Fox argues in favor of cuts to the school district’s administrative staff.

“Don’t go after the teachers. Look somewhere else,” Fox said. “I don’t feel you’re giving us the support that’s necessary now. Cut administrators. There are hard decisions to be made.”

Councilor John Anthony Scott noted that the schools used to function with less administration.

“It was nothing but alcohol and drugs,” responded School Committee Chairman Mark Brizard. “It’s not like that anymore.”

“People still graduated,” said Scott. “They still made it.”

“Did they? Did they really?” asked Brizard.

While it is difficult to make out the entire exchange in audio of the meeting, Brizard contacted NRI NOW to note that his comments were in reference to the district’s graduation rate.

“In Mr.Scott’s days of two administrators the graduation rate was in the 70 percentile, currently under our three administrators it is 93 percent – one of the highest in the state,” he said.

“We’ve done everything you’ve asked us to do and we don’t have the ability to raise revenue,” said Pallotta, who retires at the end of this month after leading Burrillville schools for the past nine years. “It is going to be devastating to cut another $200,000 from the School Department’s budget. You’re going to set the schools backwards. We’re going to have to take a look at bus monitors. We’re going to have to take a look at sports programs.”

It was Councilor Stephen Rawson who finally suggested moving $100,000 back to schools from the CIP account.

“I know Mr. Pallotta said he can live with the $95,000 cut,” Rawson said. “I know it’s hard to take for everyone. It’s hard to take that the state turned around and back-stabbed us.”

Councilor Raymond Trinque, who had been pushing unsuccessfully for the more modest changes to Wood’s budget from the start of the meeting, was quick to agree.

“I did not want to go down that road and this compromise covers that,” said Trinque.

But Place, Fox, and Pacheco voted against the motion, putting the vote at 3-3. Councilor Jeremy Bailey was not present for the Wednesday night meeting.

As the motion was set to die, Place changed his vote.

“There’s only one reason why I’m doing this: This council approved those contracts,” he said of the increases due to negotiated agreements with school employees.

The $50,579,000 budget is expected to come with a roughly $157 increase for the owner of the average residential home valued at $231,000, as originally put forth by Wood. The two hour and 49 minute meeting can be viewed in its entirety here.

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Sandy Seoane is the founder, publisher, and editor of Northern Rhode Island News On the Web. A SUNY Albany graduate with more than eight years experience covering news in the Blackstone Valley, Seoane previously worked for The Valley Breeze and Woonsocket Patch.