PAWTUCKET — Citing the benefit of starting with a clean slate, the City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a deficit reduction plan for the School Department that involves an appropriation of $621,383 from the city.
The money from the city budget will be combined with a $1.6 million surplus that the School Department has received from its fiscal year 2013 budget to erase a $2.3 million school budget deficit that had been incurred during fiscal year 2012. This action had been recommended by Mayor Donald R. Grebien and his administration as a way to get the city's financial house in order as it looks to increase its bond rating.
The School Committee had initially wanted to use $900,000 of the $1.6 million surplus to address a shortfall in its current year's budget which resulted from emergency ceiling repairs as well as higher than expected enrollment and other costs. However, with the push from the Grebien Administration and the promise of a new joint ad hoc committee that will review the school budget going forward, school officials changed course and voted Tuesday to devote the $1.6 million to the fiscal year 2012 deficit reduction plan.
While it clears up the past school deficit, the action leaves the current year’s school budget in the red by almost $1 million. However, from their comments on Wednesday, most of the City Council members appeared to have little sympathy for the school budget woes and instead focused on a need for greater fiscal restraint and accountability from school officials.
Councilor Mark Wildenhain, a member of the Finance Committee, thanked the administration for its work on the deficit reduction plan. However, he noted that the city’s taxpayers had previously approved a $5 million bond for school facilities improvements and said “they should use that” to address the current budget deficit.
Councilor Timothy Rudd agreed, saying that while the debt reduction plan is a positive step, “We need to hold the School Department accountable for their actions.”
Council President David Moran stated that the debt reduction plan is “a start, but we need to take baby steps to walk.” He noted there had been a “fractured relationship” with the School Department in the recent past, which the council has been trying to mend, but also said, “It's all about fiscal restraint.” He added that the new ad hoc committee proposed by the mayor “brings us toward that,” and that he wants Alan Tavares, the council's volunteer fiscal watchdog, to serve on the panel.
Councilor John Barry, who serves as the Finance Committee Chairman and has been a frequent critic of School Department spending and budget moves, drew laughs from his fellow councilors when he commented, “The less I say, the better” about the deficit reduction plan.
Only Councilor Thomas Hodge acknowledged the School Department’s fiscal plight in trying to address the ceiling repairs and other structural issues that have come up due to the advanced age of most of the city's school buildings.
“I will vote for this, but I don't think it goes far enough,” Hodge said. “They are in need of money. There are disasters in all of our schools.” Noting that the city is looking at a surplus, he said, “They need the money, we have the money. We can wipe this right off the table,” referring to the $1 million shortfall that now exists in the current school budget.
In other matters, the council voted to grant a three-year tax stabilization plan to a local textiles firm, Microfibers Inc., which has been in business in the city for 90 years.
A company spokesperson said that the company, located at 1 Moshassuck St., has had difficulty remaining competitive, but recently adopted a product restructuring plan. He said the owners of Microfibers, who also have a facility in North Carolina, want to remain in Pawtucket, and the tax plan will allow it to achieve a hoped-for turnaround over the next few years.