By JOHN HOWELL City Council budget hearings can be long, drawn-out exercises that, when all is said and done, generally haven't changed what the mayor initially proposed. Never, in at least the past 40 years, has the council increased the mayor's
City Council budget hearings can be long, drawn-out exercises that, when all is said and done, generally haven’t changed what the mayor initially proposed.
Never, in at least the past 40 years, has the council increased the mayor’s proposed tax rate. Rather, in a bit of political showmanship, especially if the mayor is a Republican and the majority of the council members are Democrats, the council trims expenditures or adjusts revenue projections in order to cut the rate.
This year was different for a lot of reasons. The mayor is an independent. There’s a pandemic. There’s lots of federal money. It isn’t an election year. And the mayor included the council on plans to address many of the city’s lingering problems.
So, bottom line, Frank Picozzi’s $333 million budget, as proposed, was approved Thursday night, with Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix casting the sole dissenting vote.
Rix argued that the mayor’s allocation of $250,000 for the creation of an OPEB fund to principally finance retiree health care benefits should be increased to $1 million. None of his colleagues disagreed that in order to pay for retiree benefits going forward, the city would need to make greater contributions. The issue was how to pay for it, and when Rix suggested it would require increasing taxes, it was obvious the motion was going nowhere.
The school budget is frequently the hot button when the School Committee request exceeds what either the mayor or the council are prepared to allocate. The last showdown was in 2019, when the committee voted to eliminate 16 programs, including athletics, to balance its budget. Student athletes demonstrated outside City Hall and marched into the building. The council and mayor relocated funds for repaving roads to restore most of the school programs.
This year, Superintendent Phil Thornton presented a budget calling for level city funding. However, on a 3-2 vote, the School Committee increased it by $500,000 to implement programs Chair Judith Cobden argued would have students return to Warwick and reduce payment of tuition to other districts. The request was considered by the council, but went nowhere.
The council also considered, but didn’t approve, the motion of Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur to cut the fire overtime budget by $2 million. He would have reallocated $750,000 to increase the OPEB fund to $1 million while taking the $1,250,000 balance to reduce the budgeted draw-down of reserves, or the “rainy day” fund.
Ladoueur reasoned that with recruits filling vacancies – the department is geared to send 22 recruits to the state fire academy in the fall – the department could cut overtime. It didn’t resonate with most of the council. Councilmen Vincent Gebhart and William Foley reasoned it would be “prudent” to leave the overtime budget as proposed.
Although tax rates remain the same with the exception of the motor vehicle excise tax, which drops from $34.60 per $1,000 of valuation to $30 in order to phase out the tax (the state is projected to make up for the lost tax revenues), the budget increases spending by about $7 million.
The funds will help pay to implement a lease-purchase program to replace aging equipment, including three new rescues, the fleet of police cars, Department of Public Works vehicles and library HVAC.
Another initiative in the budget is the leasing from AAA Northeast of the renovated former Apponaug Mill Sawtooth Building, which will undergo a custom build-out for use as the City Hall Annex. Offices now located in the former Buttonwoods Community Center and Randall Holden School are expected to be consolidated in the Sawtooth Building by this time next year. The added funding will come from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan.
While numbers make up the budget and are the focus of hearings, this year’s budget hearings were noticeably different than many of those preceding it. There was a sense of forward movement, cooperation and optimism.
Indeed, concerns were raised by former councilman Robert Cushman and citizen activists Rob Cote and Roger Durand over legitimate issues, but overall this was a positive budget.
In a summary of the budget, Council President McAllister highlighted the lease-purchase of equipment, the ongoing road works repaving and planned upgrades of the water and sewer infrastructure.
Ladouceur focused on what has changed since Picozzi has assumed office. He said the change in administrations is refreshing and exciting, and he is finding a sense of enthusiasm among city employees.
“We’re really in a much different place,” he said.
Yet, Ladouceur said, “we need to keep our thumbs on the pulse.” Referring to retiree health care benefits that now are costing about $11 million annually and promise to only grow higher, he said, “We have to have some difficult discussions.”
Mayor Picozzi was relieved to have the budget done with.
He said Tuesday a lot of time was spent to bring back employees who late Mayor Joseph Solomon laid off when the pandemic hit. He said having the workers return still doesn’t bring the city workforce to full strength, as not all vacancies are being filled.
“We’re catching our breath from the budget,” he said.
“At least I can get out of the office more,” he added.