The Town Governments Need the Taxpayers’ Help
The bottom line for Tiverton — indeed, for all of Rhode Island — came into stark relief at last night’s Budget Committee meeting. The town’s infrastructure is crumbling. Taxes have been skyrocketing. The schools are laying off teachers and talking about cutting into services. And town officials are insisting that there is simply no way in which they can avoid raising taxes in the double digits — during the worst economic downturn in three-quarters of a century.
As a prelude, the Department of Public Works Director Stephen Berlucchi detailed how much ground his staff must cover and how dramatic is the disrepair of the town’s infrastructure. By all accounts, the DPW employees work very hard, but the fact remains that, with overtime, longevity, and sick-time buy-backs, their average income allotted in the currently proposed budget is $47,877.60. That doesn’t count benefits or pensions. Mr. Berlucchi noted that their work time is all too precious, but they get two weeks of vacation to start, which climbs to three weeks after five years, and (possibly) four weeks after ten years. Factoring in their twelve sick days per year, that’s potentially more than a full man-year in paid time off.
The matter of real interest, though, came from the school department’s turn at the microphones. The conversation was quite revealing when the elephant in the room stepped from the shadows: stream, download.
Superintendent William Rearick: It’s one thing to have discussions and say what the objectives may or may not be, but until you’ve done it and faced the full fury of an organization that has over 2.1 million members nationally, has unlimited resources, and will go after elected officials on the school committee and family members and say or do whatever — it’s not an easy process. And I’m saying it from experience, and I’m speaking for my former chairman, and my vice chairman, and my current members that went through that horrible process. It’s not easy.
And when we were going through it, quite frankly, there weren’t a whole heck of a lot of people standing shoulder to shoulder with us when we were taking on the battle, when we were the tip of the spear. And I think people need to know that. It’s one thing to to pontificate about this that or the other thing. It’s another thing to actually do it, to sit there and then have to withstand the assault that you will come under during negotiations.
The teachers unions, whether you like them or not, they’re very powerful, well organized, and the way it’s structured now, in my opinion, until we get a statewide contract, local school committees will always be under that gun.
It’s just simply not that simple. I just ask people to take that in mind, having lived through it, having seen people’s families negatively affected by it to the point where they’re still affected by it — needs to be taken under consideration. In simple terms: easier said than done, and folks need to consider that when the rubber hits the road.
Budget Committee Member Thomas Parker: So you’re actually intimidated by contractual negotiations?
Rearick: Sir, I went eighteen months toe-to-toe with the toughest teachers union in this country. I’m not intimidated by them or anyone.
Parker: Well you just implied that you were.
Rearick: I’m telling you that they went after school committee members personally.
Former School Committee President Denise DeMedeiros: I was not intimidated.
Parker: What kind of organization is this you’re dealing with that intimidates you and threatens your family?
DeMedeiros: That’s what I asked every day the last year, and we were not intimidated. We did the very best we could. And my family…
Parker: Mr. Rearick just said that they were intimidating.
DeMedeiros: Of course they’re intimidating. Wouldn’t they intimidate you if they went after your job and your children? Wouldn’t that be intimidating to you?
Parker: I’ve been in combat, lady…
[Crowd noise.] Demedeiros: I’m very glad you just did that, because you just did that in front of the camera, and people in this town know who I am and know what I have done and what I went through the last year.
Parker: My point is this: You’re dealing with an organization which has intimidated you, which has threatened your families.
Parker: And you admit it here, and as a result… what kind of an organization are you dealing with? That’s the only question I’m asking.
DeMedeiros: That’s what we asked every day for the last year. It’s called a labor union. NEA, actually.
Rearick: And we weren’t intimidated, because we didn’t concede the field.
Parker: So you’re saying the NEA are the ones who intimidated you?
Rearick: They’re the labor union that we had to deal with. They didn’t intimidate us.
The bottom line is that those who populate municipal governments are placed before an orchestrated assault. It’s little wonder that labor costs are scraping the services from the budget. And it’s easy to empathize with the frustration that elected officials — essentially volunteers — have expressed as the local citizen group, Tiverton Citizens for Change, has stepped into the mix to push back against the union tide. In their view, they’ve stood up for their town and done as well as they believed possible in the face of extremely powerful interest groups that aren’t afraid to throw stones and sling mud.
The boards and committees aren’t empowered to fight against such dominating strength. In addition to behaving beyond officials’ moral boundaries, the unions act and organize beyond their scope, controlling the fundamentals of the debate. Each town union’s victorious negotiation gives every other town’s union leverage to compare salaries. The dynamic infects even discussions about student performance. When Budget Committee Member Cynthia Nebergall raised the issue of unacceptable test scores, the superintendent’s argument entailed comparisons across the state and across the nation (stream, download. But none of those comparisons rise above the core problem.
We who see must organize at the state level and remove some of shackles that bind our towns and cities, but even more importantly, taxpayers must begin to stand as a group and let the unions know that their game is over by cutting budgets and thereby forcing deep concessions. The school committee stands on its record of resisting last year’s onslaught, but the reality is that the union simply wouldn’t come down to a number that the district could concede. The teachers took the town’s appropriation, tacked some more demands on top of it, and then began their campaign of intimidation.
It has to stop.