November 14, 2018

Monthly News Briefs

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"Confusing" 2018-19 EP Operating Budget Approved with School Cuts
(Impassioned Pleas by Beauchaine, Monteiro to No Avail)
Citing "confusion" and "misunderstandings," the East Providence City Council held a public budget hearing Thursday, October 25,2018 and eventually adopted a budget with a $200,000 cut to the school department. Council members Robert Britto, Anna Sousa and Brian Faria voted for the budget with the school cuts. Members James Briden and Joe Botelho voted against this measure.

The City Council initially discussed budget passage on October 16th. An action to cut the school department budget by some $250,000 had not been well received by school officials. The council also balked at acting manager Parella's allocation of $20,000 for department head salary increases. Parella's initial budget called for a tax increase of 2.9% with a $100,000 school cut and a $343,000 city side cut but was adjusted down to 1.6% increase. "I look at the last six years and I think the city has done a very good job and as a council we've done very well when it comes to budgets. We started with a 2.9% and after significant cuts we have set a rate of 1.59%," said Councilman-at-Large and Mayor James Briden.

"I don't think that the cuts we've made have contributed to the same things that caused the state budget commission to come here in the past. They are responsible cuts, not increasing the size of government. It's how we follow the Budget Commission. Our audit reports are very positive," said Briden during an October budget hearing.

During the October 25th hearing, Ward One councilman Robert Britto said that the lower tax rate was acceptable. "We have continuously increased our taxes over the years at a burden to our taxpayers. 2.9% to 2.1% to 1.59% is fairly good," said Britto. "Let's keep our eye on target here and continue to go down the path that the Budget Commission set for us years ago. We're starting to see infrastructure improvements, sidewalks, roads, water tower, etc.," added Britto. Britto also suggested that monies earmarked for parks and recreation from Bold Point be re-assigned to parks and recreation. "It shouldn't be in the general fund."

"Here is what I don't understand," retorted Ward Three councilman Joseph Botelho. "Several comments tonight reference the budget commission actions. Yet we have a representative of the budget commission sitting here tonight (Paul Luba) who has put his stamp of approval on the City Manager's budget. How can we say that the commission did a good job and agree but also disagree with their representative, Paul Luba," asked Botelho. Botelho chided his colleagues, "Just make an argument that is consistent and make sense."

However council members admitted to confusion and lack of communication as a reason for the school department being cut beyond what school officials feel is workable. Craig Enos, school department finance manager told the council that critical areas such as transportation and special services will suffer with the proposed cuts. "The DCYF has made us a district of origin for 15 new students and we transport 85 homeless students. Our numbers in these areas can increase at any time," he said. Enos also said that district software and hardware needs would be impacted by the cuts.

Ward Four school committee member Jessica Beauchaine told the council that "we didn't pass the budget numbers because we don't feel it is right to take the funding from children. This all started when our schools were underfunded years ago. Blame who you want but our community rallies together when needed. I don't want to go back to those days," Beauchaine said. "We can't find any more areas to cut. Eighty-five homeless children go to school here. Things change every day. Hundreds of people have rallied to support things like Middle School sports and the arts. Our community supports education," she said.

Joining Beauchaine at the podium was School Committee member Joel Monteiro. Answering a council question about who made the specific cuts, Monteiro said that "you (council) forced our hands to roll the dice. We can't run a school system with a deficit by state law. Some items are over budgeted for protection. Special education and transportation are padded to cover surprises," Monteiro said. "Areas not fixed have a little flexibility. We'll remove that padding now and keep our fingers crossed." History shows that even one student with special needs moving into the district can cost thousands of un-budgeted dollars. "Our request to the council is for the City Manager's original budget with the $100,000 cut. Less than 40% (city appropriation) going to the schools is embarrassing," said Monteiro.

"I agree," Britto told Monteiro, "but this is what was submitted to us. "After these cuts were made, I never heard from anyone. The cut to schools is really $200,000 not $250,000 because $50,000 is being absorbed by the police department for a school resource officer. We wanted to reduce the tax increase to 1.59% from over 2%. We didn't say where to cut from, that was up to the city manager and department heads. They work that out," said Britto.

In the end, the council approved a motion by Councilman Brian Faria and seconded by Councilman Britto to pass a budget with a 1.59% tax increase. A motion by Botelho and seconded by Mayor Briden to accept the city manager's original budget with a 2.9% increase was defeated. Faria, Britto and Sousa voted to approve the 1.59% increase. Botelho and Briden voted to support the 2.9% budget.

"We received the budget from the school department in July. I thought it was a good budget then and the school officials got it to us in plenty of time. I don't understand the confusion here," said Botelho.

"There was no question about the budget from schools. The city manager was to make cuts with department heads. There was no concern in July, August or September when it was reduced. I didn't hear from anyone until recently," said Britto.

Rumford resident and parent of two students, Samantha Burnett told the council that "the city needs to see more communication between the council and school committee. This could have been avoided," Burnett said. When told that there had been sufficient communication by both the council and school committee, Burnett responded, "then why are we here? Why are we having this discussion about mis-communication?"

"There is only so much money," said Manager Parella. "You can have all the communication you want but it comes down to what you want the tax rate to be," he added.

School committee member Tony Ferreira said that he wasn't happy with when he received the cuts. "We weren't informed that the Superintendent of schools had agreed to any cuts. We didn't get these cuts in a timely manner," said an annoyed Ferreira. "We only got this last week," he said.

"Because the Council waited until last minute to approve their budget, the schools received a $250K decrease to our budget request. I’m disappointed with the lack of knowledge of their own budget, that they couldn’t do better for our children. We are one of the lowest funded districts in the state as a percentage of local tax dollar allocation," said school committee member Joel Monteiro after the council meeting.

"The reduction will take away from technology, instructional software for students and staff, and reduce our special education budget. We must truly begin to value our schools more. They determine the health of any community and local economy. We are getting no greater return on our dollar anywhere than we are in the school department," said an earlier Monteiro blog.

Also commenting was Ward Three school committee member Nathan Cahoon. Cahoon is moving from the school board to the Ward Three city council seat after the November 6th election. Cahoon (unopposed in November) will take over for Joe Botelho who is not seeking re-election. "For 4 years, I've served on the School Committee. For 4 years, I've worked with a great team to submit responsible budgets to the City Council, well in advance of the need date. For four years, I've hoped for meaningful discourse between the City Council and the SC to smooth out the edges of the budget. And in that four years, it's never happened. We always get stuck with a last second adjustment, after the city finally gets around to finalizing their side of the budget," wrote Cahoon. Cahoon went on to praise Botelho for his responsiveness to his queries and support of education funding.
(Disclosure: The writer, Bob Rodericks, is a candidate for the city council-at-large seat in November)

Chevron Parkway Project Seeks Changes
The Chevron Land development corporation has asked the city council to consider a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) modification for its proposed Veteran’s Memorial Parkway project. The 26-acre site was previously permitted for residential units, commercial uses, and public waterfront access as “Village on the Waterfront.” The City offers TIFs as an option for developers in the Waterfront District and a SBA Green Loan Program for businesses located in the District or whom are thinking of relocation to the Waterfront District.

City Waterfront Commission chairman William Fazioli gave an information update to the council last month. "This is step one in a multi-stage project. The good news is that business development in the city is high. Kettle Point with a mixed-use development is now 75% complete. We have also concluded a very successful concert series at Bold Point this summer. There was an attendance increase," said Fazioli.

Fazioli told the council that the Chevron project modification will be more beneficial to the city and to the developer. "A shift from mostly residential to include more commercial will have less demands on city services and produce a better tax revenue," said Fazioli. "Our commission voted unanimously that this change will meet our needs and goals for city waterfront development," he added.

Representatives of the Chevron company said the the TIF modifications will pose no risk to the city. "Development of the site has proved to be problematic. There are no major utilities present and this presents a major challenge to any developer," the company representative said.

Chevron wants a TIF change which had been approved in 2010. Bonds were issued but are being held by a trustee for future release. The company said that there is a significant increase in the project cost. "Public infrastructure will actually cost $13 million more than projected. Construction of a new sewer and the raising of Waterfront Drive along with bioretention and a tree-lined road for stormwater control are costly. Construction of Waterfront Park and demolition of an old wharf will take place. There will be expansive views of the water and it will alleviate traffic on Veterans parkway."

The project plans to build public parklands on the water and a pier will be built for public use including kayaking, fishing and boat launch use, etc. "The deterrent to a developer is that all improvements have to be made and bond reimbursement won't happen until after 50% completion. Bank financing is difficult without a shorter term loan. This limits potential developers to just very large companies," said Chevron. Chevron said that TIF modification will open development to local and regional developers who "know the market well." "These are some of the same changes that helped to make the Kettle Point development so successful. More property will be placed on the tax rolls and more waterfront will be developed for public use."

"This is just a conceptual approval that allows a developer to come before the council with formal requests for modifications," said Chevron officials. An ordinance speaking to this change may be before the next city council meeting.

Vision Government Evaluation Services Re-Hired
In a city tax assessment division press release, it was announced that "the City of East Providence has hired Vision Government Services Inc. to complete its state-mandated statistical revaluation program. The reassessment project will establish market value as of December 31st, 2018 and will be reflected in the tax bills issued in May of 2019. The project will commence this month with data collectors visiting all recent sale properties to record exterior measurements and conduct interior inspections. Data collectors will carry a letter of identification from the Assessor’s Office, a photo ID badge and have their cars registered with the Police Department and Assessor’s Office. All property owners and tenants are respectfully requested to cooperate with data collectors to insure that accurate information is used in the revaluation process.

Any property owners who have questions concerning the revaluation process can contact the Assessor’s Office during working hours at 435-7574."

The City has a pending lawsuit against it by residents of the Terrace section of Riverside. A group of Barrington residents also sued their town for issues relating to assessments made by Vision Government Services. A settlement to re-assess was reached in that case.

East Providence Tax Assessor Steve Hazzard said that the Terrace lawsuit is pending and hasn't gone to court yet. "It's not totally uncommon with waterfront homes in many communities. The value of a waterfront home can create discomfort when it comes to valuations," he said.

Hazzard confirmed that Vision Government Services was hired after a competitive bidding process. "There were two companies responding to an advertised bid. Vision and Northeast Revaluation Group both submitted bids. Vision was the lower of the two bids at $182,700."

The current revaluation is classified as a statistical reval, which means assessors will only enter homes of recent sales. Others will just be assessed by an external observation. Full evaluations are only done every ten years.

Financial Officer Luba Retained
State appointed fiscal advisor Paul Luba, will be retained by the city beyond his mandated expiration time. Interim City Manager Christopher Parella informed the city council in October that he had asked Luba to remain on hand and work with city finance director Malcolm Moore. The five-year contract with Luba which was instituted by the state budget commission has ended. Parella said that he had to arrange a schedule after conferring with the State and the city of Woonsocket where Luba is still officially involved.

Luba will remain in East Providence until at least January of 2019 when a first-ever Mayor will be sworn in for East Providence. "At that point it will be up to the new Mayor if Paul Luba will remain on hand to advise," said Parella.

City Council-at-Large candidate, Robert Rodericks weighed in on the topic in a recent press release urging the city council and acting manager to keep Luba on during a transition period in government. "Paul Luba has quietly and efficiently helped East Providence and other communities get back to strong fiscal responsibility. This would be a big help to East Providence as we transition to a full time elected Mayor form of government. Mr. Luba would be a very important resource to our budget process in an historic period of our government," Rodericks wrote in late September.

City Streets Remain Gridlocked At Times
Traffic Advisory: Lane Closures for I-195 in East Providence continue and are needed for lane shifts and lane reductions for bridge construction.

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) announced lane shifts and traffic pattern changes at the Horton Farm Bridge on I-195 in East Providence. RIDOT will implement a temporary traffic pattern using crossover lanes from Exit 6 (Broadway) to the Massachusetts state line.

These changes are needed so RIDOT can continue demolishing portions of the structurally deficient Horton Farm Bridge, and to address an urgent structural issue on one of the bridge abutments.

The bridge carries traffic from the East Shore Expressway to I-195 West. RIDOT recently opened a newly constructed portion of this bridge, and is now moving into a new phase of construction to replace the other half of the structure. RIDOT's phased approach to the Horton Farm Bridge demolition and replacement keeps this vital link to I-195 open for East Bay residents and businesses.

These same traffic patterns were successfully implemented in June for the initial demolition operations, with minor travel delays. RIDOT advises motorists to plan additional time for travel along I-195 this weekend.

The left lane of the East Shore Expressway, starting before the Horton Farm Bridge, remains closed through Summer 2019. The Horton Farm Bridge Replacement Project was made possible by RhodeWorks, RIDOT's ongoing commitment to repair structurally deficient bridges and bring Rhode Island's transportation infrastructure into a state of good repair, promote economic development, and create jobs. Learn more at www.ridot.net/RhodeWorks .

The problem according to state officials in a press release:
Rhode Island ranks last in the nation, 50th out of 50 states, in overall bridge condition.
About 22% of the 1,162 bridges in Rhode Island are structurally deficient.
Rhode Island is one of the only states in the northeast that does not charge user fees to large commercial trucks.
Trucks pay $182 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Trucks pay $114 to cross the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey to New York.
Almost all vehicle-created road damage is from large commercial trucks.

The Solution:
Rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges by investing significant additional funding in transportation infrastructure by:
Charging a user fee on ONLY large commercial trucks - not cars or smaller trucks.
Taking advantage of the additional funding in the FAST Act, which Congress passed in December 2015.
Fix more than 150 structurally deficient bridges in Rhode Island, and make repairs to another 500 bridges to prevent them from becoming deficient.
Realize significant savings over ten years by addressing the problem now instead of waiting.
Keep people safe and make Rhode Island a more attractive place for businesses to invest

Why it Works:
RhodeWorks will add thousands of jobs and bring a much needed boost to Rhode Island's economy:
The boost of revenue will allow us to bring our bridges to 90% sufficiency within ten years; without immediate action, only about half of our bridges will be structurally sufficient by 2025.
The legislation expressly prohibits assessing a user fee on cars or smaller trucks.

St. Mary Academy-Bay View Press Releases:
St. Mary Academy - Bay View is proud to announce that senior Sonia Wessen has been named a Commended Scholar in the 2019 National Merit Scholarship Program.

Of the 1.6 million students who entered the 2019 competition by taking the 2017 PSAT/NMSQT, Sonia placed among the top 50,000 scorers. In September, high scorers like Sonia, are notified through their school that they have qualified as either a commended student or semifinalist.

The entire Bay View community is extremely proud of Sonia's recognition from the National Merit Scholarship Program. Sonia is a versatile student who excels in both STEM and humanities coursework. She is an active member of the Academy’s Art Club, Zoe Club, and Math Team. She is also involved in visual and performing arts.

Eighth Graders Clean Up Beach
On Wednesday, October 10th, the St. Mary Academy - Bay View eighth-grade class of 2023 traveled to King Park in Newport, RI, and partnered with the non-profit organization, Clean Ocean Access, for a beach clean-up.

As a Mercy-affiliated school, grounded in Mercy values, the Bay View class of 2023 wanted to give back in the name of the Mercy Critical Concern of the Earth. As a group, the students played an active part in protecting the environment with a beach clean-up, while reflecting upon behaviors and policies that influence environmentally sustainable practices.

"What an enjoyable experience it was to see all of the Bay View girls working together to give back to the Earth and the community; all while engaging in conversations on how to be socially conscious," said Grace Mills, a Middle School Counselor at St. Mary Academy - Bay View. "They made us all very proud!" Together, the eighth-grade students successfully removed 15 pounds of trash from the beach site.

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