Two Conflicting Laws, One Reality: the Caruolo Line is Drawn
The Woonsocket City Council confronted two starkly conflicting fiscal developments at last night’s meeting.
The first was the news that come November, a company would be relocating out of Woonsocket and taking with it the wages and taxes of two hundred and fifty jobs. The second was a verbal report from the City Solicitor, Robert Iuliano, as to the preliminary hearing in Superior Court yesterday for the Caruolo Act lawsuit filed by the School Committee.
Declining to grant a continuance for either a performance audit or to enable the city to bring aboard specialized legal counsel, Judge Daniel Procaccini ordered the Caruolo suit to commence Thursday. To characterize the upcoming proceeding as a kangaroo court might be premature. There is no question, however, that both sides emerged from the hearing in clear concurrence on one point: Judge Procaccini seemed less interested in the merits of the School Committee’s spending for FY2009 and more interested in getting down to the nitty-gritty of compelling Woonsocket taxpayers to write the check for it.
From today’s Woonsocket Call.
Procaccini was dismissive of the need for a performance audit from the outset of the hearing, saying it would not eliminate the gaping hole in the school department’s budget no matter what it revealed. He said the procedure would delay the case too long, only worsening the School Department’s budget problems and heap perhaps $100,000 in new costs onto the city.
Ah, yes, “delay”. By artfully employing this quality, it is, in fact, the Woonsocket School Committee, with the cooperation of an amenable judge, who has demonstrated to school committees around the state unwilling to make adequate cuts or to renegotiate contracts the best way to proceed: initiate a Caruolo action at the eleventh hour and you can by-pass all of the annoyance of outsiders examining your budget, questioning your spending and even overruling your judgment by ordering the non-payment of certain expenditures.
A handful of school committee members, not just in Woonsocket but around the state, have a predilection for reminding the public that it is their purview to determine how school budget dollars are spent. Of course, this is true. The flip side – that a separate body is vested with the power to set the amount of that budget – seems more easily forgotten. It is arranged this way because that body has the power to take into consideration the entire fiscal picture, both expenditures and revenue, of the municipality.
Returning now to Woonsocket, trapped between an inadequate revenue stream of which the upcoming loss of 250 jobs is the latest though not the sole indicator, and a school committee which has stepped beyond their mandated role, “that body” has chosen to continue asserting their power to set the amount of the school budget by fighting the Caruolo suit.
[Those who tout the Mayor of Woonsocket as a friend of the taxpayer might be interested to learn that her solution to FY2009 overspending by the school department was to recommend a supplemental tax, presumably to have been followed by another supplemental tax in due course to cover overspending, already underway, of the FY2010 budget. She was, however, overruled by the City Council.] A transcript of certain comments last night by council members and the City Solicitor would provide an excellent description of the clash, referenced on prior occasions here on A.R, of two Rhode Island laws. One bequeaths to city/town councils the exclusive power to tax and to set the amount of all budgets within their municipality. Another permits a school committee, under certain circumstances, to appeal the amount of their budget funding to Superior Court.
Voicing the deep exasperation and determination expressed by all members of the City Council, Vice President William D. Schneck remarked last night
If by decree we are ordered to pay, we’ll all vote no. And then we will be in uncharted waters.
It appears that Woonsocket will be the battleground for a showdown of these two laws.