Narragansett residents and taxpayers, do you believe in fair play?
If so, you must be up in arms, as I am, over the Town Council’s budget hearings held on May 4 and May 6.
On May 4, the School Superintendent (with members of the School Committee also in attendance), introduced its budget request with a lengthy Power Point presentation that highlighted all of the schools’ accomplishments and goals. As I watched the presentation, I felt enormous pride in our schools, students and staff.
It appeared that all council members had no problems with any school expenditures — not even with the $400,000 renovation to the auditorium this year, with the full cost projected to be over $1 million.
No one’s individual salary or benefits’ package was questioned because those were all negotiated by the governing body of the schools, the School Committee. And so, the school department was granted an overall 1.38% increase in its budget.
Switch to the tape of the May 6 hearing in which the already-underfunded library’s budget was slashed yet again. For six years, the library never asked for a budget increase; it only asked to be level-funded. Last year, the library budget was cut from $841,103 (General Transfer from the town) to $400,000 which prevented the library from being eligible for the $181,959 contribution from the state.
Now, you may counter with the fact that the library had a reserve fund (which, by the way, was earmarked for the new library) which could be used for operation costs. As a matter of fact, Mr. Lema proposed that the library give back to the town some of that money; the town would then put that money back into the library’s budget making it eligible for the state’s contribution.
When asked last year if the town would revert to the $841,000 for this current year, the library received no commitment that it would. Can you see now why there was no trust that the Town Council would ever show the library the support it needed or deserved?
The Library Board of Trustees was wise in not giving into the extortion perpetrated by Mr. Lema, Mr. Mannix and Ms. Lawler. The evidence of that distrust was right in Wednesday’s meeting.
The Library Board and director were not given the opportunity to present (as the School Superintendent was allowed) the wonderful statistics attributed to the library and its impact on the community. As a matter of fact, when Director Arkwright asked if she could speak to all the things the library does, Mr. Mannix made a snide remark that “we’ve heard it 90,000 times.” If you don’t believe me, start watching the tape at the 1:18 mark.
No council member compared other department heads’ salaries to surrounding communities, but Mr. Lema made a point of doing that to the library director and bullied her into justifying her salary.
Once again, I say, “fair is fair.”
Why is it always the library that is singled out and treated unfairly? Mr. Lema tried to justify last year’s library budget cuts and bragged that the fears that the library would have to close never came true. What he didn’t mention was that the reason the library didn’t close was because the library board chose to use its reserve to make up for the shortfall allocated by the town.
Mr. Lema also said he would never let the library close but would ensure that the doors remained opened. How does he, Ms. Lawler and Mr. Mannix think the library can fully function on $577,100 ($400,000 from the town and $177,100 from the state) when its salaries and benefits alone are over $700,000…and there is no more reserve on which to fall back? Of course, to do that, the library would have to come to them and beg on hands and knees for emergency funding!
Town Manager Tierney stated that the budget had been through three revisions and that through “last ditch efforts” they had gotten the budget down to what was absolutely necessary. He and the finance director had recommended the $841,103 allocation for the library, so why did the Town Council cut it by $441,000?
Why was the library’s budget the only budget cut last year and this year? If every department had to take a cut, why did the School Department get a 1.38% increase, and why did the town solicitor get more than a 45% increase in his budget? You say the solicitor needed an increase because of all the litigation that requires extra hours of billing on his part. The Town Council has only to look to itself for that additional expense because it opened itself and the town up to lawsuits because of its total disregard for the wishes of its constituents and its violations of the state’s Open Meetings Acts laws.
Mr. Mannix called the litigation “frivolous” and a waste of the taxpayers’ money; but, as Mr. Pugh pointed out, the courts are taking the cases seriously, and so is the Attorney General’s Office. If we could sue the Town Council for disregarding its own “Rules and Procedures for Town Council Meetings” there would be even more law suits.
On a final note, Mr. Lema says he wants the library and its staff to become a town department. On one side of the coin, he says he wants to save the taxpayer money; then he says under his plan, the staff could unionize, make higher wages and be eligible for the town pension plan. Does he even listen to himself and see the flaws in his arguments? Is he not aware that our own Town Charter gives the library board the exclusive power to manage the library as it sees fit?
As I said earlier, “fair is fair” but the Town Council is not playing fair with the library. I hope you all will speak up now against these unprecedented library cuts and will remember these unfair practices when you vote at the next election.