The Johnston Town Council unanimously adopted Mayor Joseph Polisena’s $113.7 million budget, with no tax increase included, during a special meeting on Tuesday night.
The budget represents a slight increase over last year’s figure of $111.2 million. Polisena told the council that nearly every department was level funded as the state and town continue to struggle with the economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.
Finance Director Joseph Chiodo told the Sun Rise in a follow-up call on Wednesday morning that the property tax rate remains the same as last year at $22.89 per $1,000 of assessed value. Both commercial and tangible property rates hold steady as well, at $27.99 and $63.99 per $1,000 of assessed value, respectively.
Chiodo said that residential property values only experienced approximately a 1 percent increase.
“We held the line on taxes and held the line on spending,” Polisena said. “The economy has tanked. People are in very difficult times and many people have lost their jobs. As soon as we went into the COVID-19 crisis, I put a freeze on spending. If we don’t have it, we don’t spend it. We still have new businesses coming into this town on a daily basis … Johnston is open for business.”
Polisena said that Johnston “never skipped a beat” during the pandemic. In several previous interviews with the Sun Rise, Polisena has praised his administration and maintenance staff for keeping Town Hall clean and in line with CDC and state guidance.
“Other communities shut down completely for two to there months, but not Johnston,” he told the council. “We continue to provide essential services that our residents need. [Human resource officer] Heather McLaughlin put together a complete plan to keep our residents safe … I wanted to thank her for her hard work, knowledge and dedication. She’s put in a lot of hours to make sure our employees are kept safe, and all those who come in to Town Hall.”
Polisena said the town achieved a $2 million surplus for the year, and the cumulative fund sits at $32.8 million. He noted Johnston’s positive bond rating as well, adding that “our financial stability has never been so strong.”
He reiterated, though, that the budget may have to change if the General Assembly does not provide level funding to cities and towns. Several local legislators have told the Sun Rise they are in favor of such an action.
Polisena has said that Johnston’s local delegation – including Reps. Mario Mendez, Deborah Fellela, Stephen Ucci and Greg Constantino and Sens. Frank Lombardo III and Stephen Archambault – “must fight” to make sure level funding happens.
“If we’re not level funded, we’ll be forced to take action,” Polisena said. “The Johnston delegation must do their part. Not many communities will be holding the line on taxes. Johnston’s been a beacon for other communities to follow. Very, very difficult times. It took a lot for this administration to do what it did. We will continue to maintain the quality of services.”
He concluded his remarks by thanking Chiodo for his tireless efforts in completing the budget, saying he was often spending late nights at Town Hall crunching the numbers.
“He’s done a marvelous job, an exemplary job,” Polisena said. “I’ve been told many times by numerous people, you should have four or five more people working in finance. I say, if you’ll pay for them I will, and they walk away from me. Joe is wearing a lot of hats and doing a lot of work, and he’s never failed us.”
Council President Robert Russo didn’t have questions on the budget, but lauded Polisena’s administration as perseverant and “stellar.” He commended the administration’s ability to navigate the pandemic and wind up once more without a tax increase.
Polisena took the quick opportunity to discuss police funding, as he specifically acknowledged the work of the town’s police and fire officials during his address.
“I won’t speak for this council, this administration never will, but I will never – I repeat, never – defund the police,” Polisena said. “We will never do that. The Police Department does an exemplary job. As I said, they’re all over the place. I hear these guys and every night they’re running back and forth all over town.”
Superintendent Bernard DiLullo was called up toward the end of the meeting to answer some questions about the school budget, again explaining the $900,000 increase in out-of-district tuition costs as Johnston students leave for other expanded vocational programs.
The School Committee and DiLullo are continuing to work with local legislators to find a way to alleviate the financial strain at the General Assembly level.
“[We want to] put some type of legislation through so we can change those guidelines,” School Committee Chairman Bob LaFazia said. “We’re following the Department of Education’s guidelines that they passed. It’s killing us. Especially with the busing … We still have programs in the high school that we’re funding.”
Elsewhere during the meeting, Council Vice President Joseph Polisena Jr. introduced an ordinance to rename the Johnston Police Department’s headquarters after outgoing Chief Richard S. Tamburini. A public hearing for the matter will be held at the council’s Aug. 10 meeting.