Department budget meetings are ongoing and it remains uncertain whether the coming fiscal year will bring a potential tax increase, Mayor Joseph Polisena said during an interview Tuesday morning with the Sun Rise.
Polisena said that the town hasn’t faced a tax increase in the past three years, but he said expenses continue to creep up. He said the growth Johnston has experienced has helped keep tax increases at bay, but the cost of contracts and health care, for example, could eventually lead to a breaking point.
“I’m not saying we’re going to have a tax increase, I’m not saying we’re not,” he said. “I won’t know until all the numbers come in. I think we’ve been pretty fair with the taxpayers, not having an increase in three years, but like anything else, things go up.”
Polisena said he is continuing to meet with department heads and comb through their individual expenses, but the town won’t have an official figure until the state turns in and passes its budget. The state’s deadline is July 1, but a legislative deadlock over car tax elimination extended that date by a few weeks last year.
Polisena said that while most other towns have a budget passed by sometime in the spring, he is sticking to his approach to avoid having to deal with a shortfall on short notice.
“We rely on the state’s general revenue sharing as well as aid to cities and towns, as well as school aid,” he said. “Most people do their budgets early, but then they get caught short. As I said, if I did the budget and it was done by June 30, July 1 it takes over and the state decides they’re short, they’re going to cut the town $1 million. Now we start off with a $1 million deficit.”
Polisena said he has sources telling him there shouldn’t be a delay this year, and the intent is to “pass the budget, get their legislation passed, the important legislation, and get out.”
He has also urged the Johnston delegation to both the House of Representatives and the Senate to vote against potential cuts to cities and towns.
“I know there’s a lot of things that they want to do that would be detrimental to the cities and towns,” Polisena said. “They have to understand, because I was a state senator, I know how it works. Any cuts that they vote for, basically, all politics is local. They’re voting to cut their community which they represent.”
The town also underwent a statistical revaluation, which Polisena said occurs every three years, and Johnston property values went up 22 percent. He said a combination of state revenue and eventual rate adjustment as a result of the revaluation will determine whether the town faces an increase.
“I feel confident,” Polisena said. “Like I said, I can’t commit that there is going to be a tax increase or there’s not going to be a tax increase. We won’t know, until we get the revenues of what we got coming in, that includes what the state’s going to give us … Usually with any type of reevaluation, the general rule of thumb is, a third goes up, a third comes down and a third stays the same.”
Polisena said that department meetings haven’t yielded any unexpected expenses or results yet. He did note that he believes the town has gone over its snow budget, as he had to repurpose $100,000 to rent a pump to alleviate flooding on Belfield Drive.
He urged town departments to spend with a simple philosophy in mind.
“They know that we don’t spend what we don’t have, and just because we have it, we don’t spend it unless we need it,” he said. “So, we really watch what’s spent. We have to. We have to watch what’s spent, because you’ve got money in your budget and you want to buy something, well, do you really need to buy it?”
He said the town is operating with a cumulative surplus, or rainy day fund, of about $29 million. He added that there is money continuing to flow into the cost of OPEB, or other post-employment benefits, for retirees.
Polisena also added that the town “fixed” its pension, refuting claims from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block. Block tweeted back in February that Johnston carried the highest per capita liability for unfunded pension and OPEB costs.
“I guess he’s been all over the radio saying Johnston’s pension’s in trouble,” the mayor said. “We’ve got a financial improvement plan done with the state, and in 20 years, I think we started three years ago, 20 years we’ll be at 60 percent, which is what the state requires, and then four years later we’ll be at 80 percent. So I’m very satisfied with that.”