By JOHN HOWELL and ARDEN BASTIA Over two nights of Zoom meetings with the mayor, administrative personnel and department directors seated in front of a camera at City Hall, the City Council conducted a line-by-line review of Frank Picozzi's $333
Over two nights of Zoom meetings with the mayor, administrative personnel and department directors seated in front of a camera at City Hall, the City Council conducted a line-by-line review of Frank Picozzi’s $333 million, devoting the majority of time to schools and the Fire Department.
Overall, the budget hearings went smoothly under the direction of City Council President Steve McAllister with the interjection of humor, some heated exchanges and a couple of technical glitches where the images of speakers froze.
Picozzi wasn’t surprised by the ease with which the review was completed. He said prior to the final meeting Tuesday, he has been in close communication with McAllister over the no tax increase budget and he was not aware of any issues.
A twist in Picozzi’s proposal came on a 3-2 vote when the School Committee increased its request by $500,000 from a budget that level funded the city’s appropriation. Committee chair Judith Cobden argued for the added amount so as to add programs in an effort to stem the loss of Warwick students to other school districts. The state allows for students to go outside of their home district and requires the home district to pay if the home district cannot offer a comparable “pathway” course. Cobden estimated it would take as few as 25 students to return to Warwick schools to pay for itself.
A former member and chair of the School Committee, Picozzi observed that when he served on the committee the practice was to trim the superintendent’s budget request, not add to it.
There appeared to be no support for the added $500,000 among the council, which will reconvene tonight to consider changes in the financial package. There promises to be changes, but none that would affect taxes or increase or delete programs or services.
McAllister was pleased with the hearings. He said Wednesday there was “lots of debate and great questions.” He said he is personally supporting a no tax increase budget, but that doesn’t preclude changes in department appropriations by the council when it meets at 4 p.m. today.
“It’s not opened and closed by any means,” he said.
McAllister plans to open the meeting with amendments to correct issues raised during the hearings.
One of the light moments came when Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur, who questioned the budget number by number, quizzed Jana Stevenson, director of libraries, why she was budgeting a deputy director at an increase in pay when the position is vacant. Stevens said the deputy’s starting pay would be less and couldn’t explain the higher amount.
“Are you sitting down?” City Treasurer Lynn Prodger asked Ladouceur, who was Zooming into the meeting from his office at work and was taken back. What did sitting have to do with it?
“You’re right,” said Prodger.
“You mean I’m right?” said Ladouceur, adding this was a first in a long time. McAllister warned Ladouceur not to let it go to his head. There were more laughs. In the budget, what Stevenson had been paid as deputy was inadvertently carried forward.
Even before the council review started, City Finance Director Peder Schaefer identified an adjustment in the legislative budget that needs to be made. The council is expected to make those tweaks tonight before returning the budget to Picozzi.
Reflecting on the hearings, McAllister said Wednesday he wouldn’t be surprised if Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix would seek to increase the $250,000 allocation to create the city’s first OPEB fund to pay for post-employment municipal employee benefits other than pensions. Presently, the city is paying $11 million for health care benefits for retirees.
After about a half hour of questions from former councilman Robert Cushman over the OPEB fund, he sought to ask questions about the “revenue budget.” McAllister said no revenue budget had been posted and therefore that couldn’t be discussed. Cushman argued revenues are part of the budget and sought to continue his line of questioning. Ward 3 Councilman Timothy Howe argued Cushman had already made his points. McAllister said he was moving on and Cushman’s time was up.
Ladouceur argued this was an opportunity for the public to be heard and Cushman should be given additional time. McAllister called for a vote and the council voted 7-3 to deny Cushman more time.
On Wednesday, Cushman explained he wanted the council to understand Picozzi is balancing the no tax increase budget on $7 million in CARES Act and American Rescue Plan funding that will dry up in the next two years, leaving the city with a structural deficit. Also, Cushman sees a $250,000 contribution to an OPEB fund as inadequate. He said the creation of the fund gives a false impression of dealing with the issue and is “deceptive financial reporting.”
While council members lauded the administration for budgeting an OPEB fund, members questioned how $250,000 would make a dent in an unfunded liability exceeding $300 million. Rix said he would like to see $1 million allocated to the fund.
McAllister thought Rix could seek to increase the OPEB allocation at tonight’s meeting. Also, given questions raised by Ladouceur over electrical costs, McAllister thought the councilman might offer adjustments to those line items.
With overtime costs projected to exceed $6 million this year, Schaefer opened review of the Fire Department’s $24.6 million budget with a comparison of Warwick to other departments. His conclusion is that while Warwick overtime was the topic of a Hummel Report, giving it widespread notoriety making it the “poster boy,” firefighter overtime is an issue across the state. Chief Peter McMichael said the department currently has a uniformed staff of 175 and 21 vacancies. He said 39 firefighters are eligible for retirement but that in the coming year he projects about 10 would retire.
The department has not hired personnel in more than four years.
McMichael said the department is looking to hire 22 recruits who would start the 12-week state academy in October followed by six weeks of department training. He said ideally, the department is looking to have two “floaters” for each shift (each shift has a staff of 46) that would allow coverage for those who are sick or taking vacation time without incurring overtime.
McMichael said in order to meet minimum manning requirements set by contract, the department can no longer count on volunteers looking to make the overtime pay but have to order them to work. He said this is leading to fatigue and the risk of injury. Assistant Chief Jason Umbenhauer said the department is hopeful of gaining a federal grant that would cover the cost of the fire recruits for two years.
McMichael also spoke of the department’s aging fleet of vehicles, an issue faced by other departments. Picozzi’s budget includes $6 million for the lease-purchase of police cruisers, sanitation trucks, three rescues and other equipment. Going forward, the plan would be to replace older vehicles to an annual basis.
At the Monday budget hearing, incoming Superintendent Lynn Dambruch and Assistant Superintendent William McCaffrey expressed their confidence to “reinvent and reenergize all our schools through new programs, new curriculum, personalized learning, and more student choice.”
When presenting the budget, finance director Rob Baxter said the additional $500,000 would be used to bridge facility and technology gaps, invest in additional sources of revenue like solar power, fund instructional supplies, and provide student transportation.
According to Baxter, 81 percent, or $141 million, of the $174 million budget is fixed, as it covers staff salaries and fringe benefits. Out of the remaining 13 percent, or $33 million, $22.6 million is fixed in contractual obligations such as out-of-district tuition, which costs $4.4 million, and transportation, which costs $10.2 million.
Baxter said the remaining balance of $5 million, or 6 percent of the budget, will include “strategic initiatives” to make the most of limited resources.
The council does not have the authority to make line item cuts or additions as it can with the city budget.
Former chairman Robert Cushman, who served on the School Committee from 2003 to 2007 and on the City Council from 2007 to 2008, was particularly concerned with the lack of discussion about performance in the district, as it pertains to student enrollment.
Cushman presented data from a recent U.S. News & World Report that ranks the roughly 24,000 high schools across the country. According to the report, Pilgrim High School ranks 9,586th with an overall score of 46.32, and Toll Gate High School ranks 11,580th with an overall score of 35.15. The report ranks schools based on six factors, including performance on state assessments, graduation rate, the number of students who take Advanced Placement courses, and how well the schools prepare students for college.
According to the data, Pilgrim High School received a score of 18 percent when it came to college readiness, and Toll Gate High School received a score of 19.3 percent. In test scores, both schools performed “well below expectations.” At Pilgrim, 74 percent of students were not meeting or partially meeting math proficiency expectations, while 45 percent were not meeting or partially meeting reading proficiency expectations on state tests. At Toll Gate, the numbers were similar. Seventy-six percent of students were not meeting or partially meeting math expectations, and 54 percent of students were not meeting or partially meeting reading expectations on state tests.
Cushman noted that East Greenwich is ranked 551 nationally with an overall score of 96.9.
In response to Cushman’s data, McCaffrey said he and Dambruch “will be focusing on moving our schools forward, and we will be working harder.”
“I quite honestly felt like we need money to put into our programs. You have to build on things,” Cobden said during the meeting. “I didn’t feel, personally, that it was right that we didn’t try to ask for some additional funds to help us.”
Cobden also reiterated that administration has plans to develop new programs to draw students back into the district.
Ladouceur did not support the request for additional funds and questioned how the district is in a deficit despite losing 400 students in the past year.
According to Ladouceur, it costs Warwick $22,000 per student, which logically would result in roughly $8.8 million saved from the drop in enrollment.
McCaffrey assured the council that “today’s a new day, with a new administration. We’re rolling up our sleeves and we will be working hard to make sure Warwick schools are great.” But he did not elaborate on further details or plans.