Both the Cumberland and North Smithfield town councils this week unanimously approved resolutions urging Governor Lincoln Chafee and the General Assembly to pass legislation that will accelerate the allocation of the proposed phase-in of state school funding dollars.
The resolution, drafted and endorsed by the Rhode Island Coalition of Municipal Leaders, is making the rounds throughout the state over the next two weeks in an attempt to garner support from town and city councils.
While the town councils in Cumberland and North Smithfield passed the resolution this week, Cranston, Warwick and some other communities are expected to take similar action next week.
Until recently, Rhode Island was the only state in the nation without a fair funding formula for education. After enduring years of criticism from political leaders and educators, the General Assembly passed a formula during the last session, but some school districts says it doesn't go far enough to guarantee that state aid will be distributed equitably among urban and suburban school districts.
The resolution approved by the two local councils this week calls for the acceleration of funding to begin in the fiscal 2011 budget with $32.9 million of federal education funds former Gov. Donald Carcieri proposed to use to plug a hole in the fiscal 2011 state budget.
The $32.9 million would be distributed directly to the municipalities that have been identified in the 2010 state school funding formula as being under-funded, which also includes Woonsocket, Pawtucket and Lincoln. According to the wording of the resolution, the distribution of money would be based on the communities' percentage of the total state funding shortfall in the fiscal 2011 state budget.
In Cumberland's case, the cash distribution would be approximately $1.89 million, which would be used by the town for property tax relief.
"What this resolution essentially proposes is that the General Assembly allocate $32.9 million for the 75 percent of the state's taxpayers that are subsidizing 25 percent of the state's population," said Cumberland Mayor Daniel J McKee, a member of the Rhode Island Coalition of Municipal Leaders.
The coalition is made up of mayors and town administrators from Barrington, Coventry, Cranston, Cumberland, East Greenwich, East Providence, Johnston, Lincoln, Narragansett, New Shoreham, North Providence, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, Providence, Scituate, Smithfield, Warwick, Westerly, and Woonsocket. The group's overall goal is to support local and state policy designed to fairly and more effectively balance the tax burden of shared constituents.
Cumberland Town Council President James T. Higgins called the resolution "perhaps the most important resolution we will vote on this year."
North Smithfield Town Administrator Paulette D. Hamilton agreed.
“The Town of North Smithfield is being under funded by $1,983,802 in the current 2011 budget," she said. "Taxpayers in the under-funded communities have been subsidizing property taxes for other communities for decades.”
Hamilton said the North Smithfield Town Council has been working with that town's School Committee to bring to the attention of legislators the need to support the fair funding formula and start to distribute the $32.9 million of federal education funds that is due cities and towns.
“I am working with other members of the Rhode Island Coalition of Municipal Leaders to create an awareness and have the Legislature provide funds to communities that have historically been and continue to be under funded,” Hamilton said.
In explaining the resolution to his town council, McKee, said the town of Cumberland is being underfunded by $4, 784,447 in the current state fiscal 2011 budget. He said the proposed phase-in for the new Rhode Island school funding formula will cost taxpayers in Cumberland $12,247,900 over the next three years and $19 million in the next seven years.
The proposed phase-in, he said, will cost Cumberland and every other underfunded city and town in the state a total of $215,668,288 over the next three years and $333,139,246 over the next seven years.
Communities like Cumberland, with populations totaling 796,992, have been over-taxed as a result of being underfunded for years in state aid education, McKee said.
"Close to 800,000 people in the state of Rhode Island are subsidizing 250,000 people. In the next three years, there will be a transfer of wealth from 75 percent of the taxpayers in the state, including Cumberland residents, to $233 million. Over seven years, the transfer of wealth from 75 percent of population will be $336 million."
"In the town of Cumberland alone, this fiscal year, our taxpayers are subsidizing almost 6 percent of the total amount of dollars that are being subsidized by the 25 percent of the 250,000 people in the state to the tune of $4.7 million," the mayor added. "Over three years it will cost Cumberland taxpayers close to $13 million, and nearly $19 million in seven years."
McKee urged the board to take unanimous action on the resolution.
"There are times when action needs to be taken in this state in an effort to create equity between taxpayers and the state," he said. "There is no situation in the State of Rhode Island today on a budgetary level that has a more significant impact on our community than this."