The majority of Newport's at-large City Council candidates say they disapprove of the council's decision in June to cut the school district's budget by $578,568, a move that came just days after the governor signed a new funding formula into law. Those opposed include incumbent Stephen Waluk, who was one of four to vote in favor of the cut at the time.
"I made a mistake," Waluk admitted Tuesday night. "Given the vote over again, I probably would've voted no. In my nine years on the council, it's probably the one vote I would take back."
Waluk said he ultimately didn't like the way the situation played out, an opinion that several other at-large candidates agreed with. Many said they viewed the council's cut as a last-minute decision that gave the School Committee little time to adjust its budget and strained relations between the two bodies.
"To approve their budget, then in the 11th hour reduce it and send them scrambling, I don't agree with that," said Candidate Harry Winthrop, the former three-term councilman who served from 1990 to 1996. "That's not realistic budgeting."
Waluk, Winthrop and four of the other nine at-large candidates came together in a forum Tuesday night, which was sponsored by the Alliance for a Livable Newport just days before the Sept. 14 primary. David Quiroa was absent, and incumbents Stephen Coyne and Jeanne-Marie Napolitano were said to be on city business. Coyne is the one who originally raised the motion to make additional cuts to the school department in June. Napolitano voted against the measure at the time, calling it unfair to the school department and the children.
In addition to addressing the recent school budget cuts, Tuesday's forum also dealt with a number of other hot-button topics in Newport, including property tax rates, noise, development on the north end, and recent cuts to the fire department's overtime budget.
Following brief opening statements, candidates were given one minute to respond to the series of questions.
The question regarding property tax rates asked candidates whether they support bringing the city's annual increase closer to the state average of 4 percent. The council approved a .5 percent increase for fiscal year 2011. Those in attendance Tuesday primarily said they felt additional increases were not desirable in a city where residents already pay sewer and water fees as well, but the candidates were somewhat divided on where to find other sources of revenue for the city.
Candidate Naomi Neville (an architect and member of the planning board) said she thinks the city should look into using some of its enterprise funds and look for ways to entice new businesses to the area. Attorney Susan Perkins agreed that the council should be working to bring new business to Newport, but said they should also be looking into federal infrastructure monies currently being offered by President Barack Obama. Candidate Herbert Armstrong, a real estate agent, former Army officer, air traffic controller and college administrator, said he thinks it's "foolish" to rely on federal grants or one-time funds.
"In general, I'm not in favor of tax increases, however, the city has to pay its operating expenses," Armstrong said. "The .5 percent increase was irresponsible and it doesn't meet the city's bills. I wouldn't advocate for a 4 percent increase, but every 1-cent increase equals $57,000 in revenue, so a 10-cent increase would be half a million dollars."
Armstrong pointed to the nonprofits in the city that are tax-exempt and to per-student fees being charged of college students elsewhere as just a few places the city could explore making changes to increase revenue sources.
Armstrong also called the City Council's decision to reduce the fire department's overtime budget to $200,000 irresponsible. The decision came after City Manager Edward Lavallee had already proposed reducing it to $632,000. Armstrong said he anticipates the city using up that amount just in the first few months of 2011. He said he suspects the city will have to fight the decision legally, find the money somewhere else, or dip into a reserve fund to make up for it.
"Enough is enough," rebutted Waluk. "We need to find savings in the fire department. The City Council took the first stand in what may be a legal battle, but the people of Newport can't afford the way things have gone. We had a room full of people who opposed it, but we had to look at the entire community, not one collective bargaining unit that opposed it."
Neville, Perkins and Winthrop all stood by their opinion that the city should have funded the department according to its contractual obligations.
Candidates all agreed that improving the city's infrastructure should be one of the top priorities of the council over the next two years. Candidates said the city should work to find a responsible way to pay for its needed sewer upgrades. "On the flip side," Neville said there are several upcoming projects that she's excited about, including improvements to lower Thames Street, the Broadway streetscape and the proposal to put the Navy hospital land to new use.
The candidates said the council should have a hand in the redevelopment of the north end of town, and all cited the excess Navy property as an exciting prospect for Newport.
"The north end of Newport is the last frontier," noted Waluk. "I see this as our last opportunity to bring good-paying private jobs to the City of Newport."
Following this series of issues, candidates were asked to respond to a number of yes-or-no questions. While a few candidates noted that this portion failed to acknowledge the nuances in the questions, all raised their hands in support of the city working to partner with other towns to reduce costs in police, fire and roadwork, including in staffing. They also all favored regionalization of the island's schools, with the exception of Neville, who supported a regional high school, but did not raise her hand in support of regional middle or elementary schools. All but Armstrong also raised their hands in support of the proposed new elementary school, which will go before voters in the form of a $30 million bond referendum in November.
Candidate Rebecca Bringhurst, an area educator, noted several times throughout the evening that she's running to improve support of the local schools.
"What I see is the most important issue here is the quality of our education system," Bringhurst said. "We really need to work more closely with the School Committee to come up with ways to better educate and better fund our children. We want to welcome new families to Newport, and certainly with that happening new families can bring new business into the city."
Tuesday night's forum was the first of two this week sponsored by ALN. The second, to be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the council chambers, will feature Second Ward Council candidates Michael Farley, Kathleen M. Sanderson-Upham and incumbent Justin Mclaughlin.