Tax increase likely without level funding, Polisena says

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Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena told the Sun Rise on Tuesday he has his “fingers crossed” the General Assembly will level-fund cities and towns, as his administration continues to work on the budget.

Polisena said the town would still be short even with level funding, but said he could still manage to avoid a tax increase. He repeated a familiar refrain, too, that a possible hike would be in the hands of Johnston’s state delegation.

“We have two senators and four reps – they need to make sure that their town doesn’t get cut and it’s up to them,” Polisena said. “If not, if there’s a tax increase, it’s not because the Johnston Town Council and the mayor were spending recklessly, it’s because we were cut by the state, and it’s up to the General Assembly to make sure that we don’t get cut. I’m a realist.”

Polisena said the town could absorb revenue lost on the meal taxes, but a $1 million cut to school aid, for example, may be dire. He said the town, which furloughed part-time workers earlier in the crisis, is “running extremely lean.”

“Obviously we’ve lost revenue here and there, especially with the meal taxes and other things, but we’ve always prepared ourselves for the worst,” Polisena said. “We’ve done our due diligence as far as cutting back, we hope we can get by this year with no tax increase, providing that the General Assembly level funds not only Johnston, [but] the cities and towns.”

Polisena said his Finance Director Joe Chiodo has been in close contact with the school department’s business manager Lesli-Ann Powell. The district approved its $57.9 million budget – which includes a significant hike, for now, in state aid – during its May meeting.

Polisena said Powell met with administration officials on Monday to discuss whether or not the school district is facing a structural deficit. He said Powell informed them there isn’t one.

“They claim that they won’t. We’ll see what fleshes out,” Polisena said. “I’m hoping that they are on their mark for the budget, if not, they could cause a tax increase. If there’s a tax increase – which myself and the council are trying very, very hard not to have one – if they cause a tax increase, then obviously it’s on them, it’s not on us. [The administration is] doing everything we can. We’re cutting back, we’re watching every dollar that’s going out the door.”

Polisena said he and his officials have made “as many cuts as we can possibly make” without eliminating essential services. He said he’s aiming to mail out tax bills over the next couple of weeks.

“That’s the key, we still want to have services,” he said. “You still need police and fire protection, you need DPW to be up to par. We’re still short a lot of people down there, but we’re getting along. My staff, my department heads know we’re doing more with less, which is important … So I’ve just got my fingers crossed, and we’ll see what happens.”

The mayor also touched on local and state reopenings as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations level off in Rhode Island. While restaurants and businesses across Johnston welcome customers inside, Polisena said the town “never really closed.”

Town Hall was open by appointment only throughout the pandemic as residents came for marriage licenses, birth certificates and other records requests. The mayor did close several buildings across town, such as municipal court and the Marian J. Mohr Library, via an executive order in March.

“We stayed open with safety in mind for the employees but also for the constituents who came in. We stayed right along,” Polisena said. “I’m proud to say we never closed down.”

Polisena, a nurse by trade, recognized Gov. Gina Raimondo’s mask mandate as playing a significant role in preventing surges like those seen in Arizona and Texas. He said Raimondo and Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott exercising caution along the way has “paid off in the end.”

“Without opening wide open, easing back into some semblance of normalcy, I think the governor, she deserves the accolades for that and I think that’s why we haven’t seen a surge,” Polisena said. “I think also the masks prevent people who may be asymptomatic and positive from spreading it to someone else. I don’t like wearing masks, but I wear them.”

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