The document that will set the financial course for the fiscal year starting July 1 and unquestionably higher tax bills – the 2023-24 city budget – was reviewed by the City Council Monday …
The document that will set the financial course for the fiscal year starting July 1 and unquestionably higher tax bills – the 2023-24 city budget – was reviewed by the City Council Monday with predictable warnings that unless the city addresses the costs of free health coverage for municipal retirees the city faces ruin; rants over unfunded mandates by the Rhode Island Department of Education and lamentations that Warwick schools hasn’t gotten its fair share of state funding.
There were a few unexpected twists to the hearing that opened at 4 p.m., including a thinning of council meeting regulars who largely passed up the opportunity to question department directors and Mayor Frank Picozzi’s efforts to defend the financial department in the face of repeated questioning over the accuracy of salary numbers by Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur. Picozzi and Ladouceur verbally faced off and continued talking despite City Council President Steve McAllister’s tepid rapping of his gavel.
The biggest surprise of the night came at about 10:30 p.m. when the council completed the department by department review. It was anticipated it would take at least two hearings to complete the process and calls were quickly made to rally department directors who had not expected to be called upon until Tuesday. In fact, Picozzi filled in for library director Aaron Coutu who couldn’t be reached. Council members had no questions on the library budget.
The speed at which the council breezed through the budget, was attributed by Picozzi to the work done prior to the hearing and answers provided by department directors before Monday evening. The exception, the mayor said, was Ladouceur who saved most of his questions for the meeting. Picozzi said what Ladouceur fails to understand, which was the source of their exchange, are longevity and step increases that in addition to negotiated raises make it difficult to compare salaries from year to year. As revaluation notices were recently mailed out, Picozzi expected taxpayers might have turned out to question to revaluation program after having applied the mayor’s proposed tax rates to residential and commercial properties. Those rates are $14.76 and $25.83, respectively, per $1,000 of valuation. The overall proposed budget is $353.2 million of which $178.8 million is targeted for schools or $1.4 million less than requested and $160.2 million for municipal.
According to City Finance Director Peder Schaefer, should the City Council elect to increase the budget by $1 million at tonight’s budget hearing the residential rate would need to climb to $14.83 and the commercial rate to $25.85. Conversely, if the council is looking to trim 50 cents from the residential rate to $14.26 it would also need to cut the commercial rate since the two are linked to $24.95. To do that the council would need to cut $7.3 million from the budget,
Ladouceur gave fair warning early in the evening when he pointed to a $2 difference between numbers in the budget document handed the council and what was then being requested by the administration. He acknowledged the $2 was a “picky thing”, but he claimed to have found a quantity of inconsistencies and how could the council act when it didn’t have reliable information.
Ladouceur said the increase in city spending over the past years has been “astronomical …this city doesn’t have a revenue problem it has a spending problem.”
City Council President Steve McAllister was likewise surprised to have completed a full review of the budget in a single hearing. He said his initial goal was to “get through schools” Monday and return on Tuesday to complete the process, but then there weren’t a lot of questions. Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teacher Union, questioned why the school budget hadn’t included a contingency to cover raises that might come out of contract negotiations. She is disheartened that contract talks haven’t progressed. The current contract expires in August of this year.
McAllister was interested in hearing what programs schools would cut is they didn’t get the requested budget. He felt he didn’t get a clear answer from School Committee Chair David Testa, but he was relieved not to hear that sports or other popular programs, which prior school administrations threatened to cut to rile taxpayer and gain additional funds, mentioned. He noted schools are hopeful of additional state funding as happened in the current budget and that the mayor has held out the possibility of allocating $1 million in American Rescue Program Act funding for schools. During the hearing Ward 3 Councilman Timothy Howe, a teacher, lashed out at the Rhode Island Department of Education. He noted the city is required to pick up the cost of PSAT and SAT tests as well as busing that he put as $31,000 for some students because of requirements. Testa pointed out that just across the state line in Massachusetts “you can get a world class education” which Rhode Island attempts to replicate only to implement a portion of the program and then drop it. Ward 1 Councilman William Foley, a retired teacher chimed in his with his disapproval of RIDE. Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi didn’t hide his distain calling RIDE administrators “professionally ignorant,” not caring about the performance of public schools as they seek to “force us to go to school choice.”
“They want to fail…they want to screw over us; they want school choice and all the other bull crap they want,” said Sinapi.
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix jumped in saying, “Warwick schools are dramatically under funded by the state.” He noted that the state funds approximately a quarter of the school budget whereas Cranston “gets many more millions.”
In the bigger picture, McAllister believes the council got out the word about the budget and that taxes would be going up for the first time in three years. He reasoned people are accustomed to increased costs and understand that this, too, applies to government.
As it was Monday night, the plan to make a one time allocation to the OPEB Trust to pay for post employment benefits other than pensions to municipal employees is expected to be a source of debate. That would be funded by a reduction in the 40-year plan to fully fund the Fire and Police Pension 1 plan and to use $2 million from the $8.5 million in health insurance reserves.
Budget talks continue today as the council meets at 4 p.m. to consider line by line changes to the mayor’s budget. On reaching an agreement to the budget, it returns to the mayor who has the power to veto it, but not to make line changes. It takes a 2/3 majority of the council to override the mayor’s veto.
In a departure from prior council budget deliberation hearings, McAllister said the meeting will open with a public comment session where people will be given five minutes to express their opinions and concerns on the budget.
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