Is Johnston’s town budget behind schedule?
Over the past few years, proposed budgets have been dropped on Town Council in June and approved just after the start of the fiscal year on July 1.
However, Johnston Town Charter calls for that discussion to begin on April 1.
Current Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. says the Town Charter deadline is an “archaic rule.”
Town Councilman Robert J. Civetti argues it’s a vital planning schedule, to which — until and unless it’s changed — should be adhered.
Early in Monday night’s Town Council meeting, Civetti turned to Town Clerk Vincent P. Baccari Jr.
“If you could just follow up and see if the (town’s finance director) or the administration could attend the next meeting,” Civetti said to the Town Clerk. “Just wondering if we’re ever going to get a presentation to the council so we can approve the 2021 audit, the 2022 audit, and also the status of the budget. Per charter, the budget is supposed to be presented to the council by April 1. And … we’re supposed to be having workshops … To the best of my knowledge, we have no schedule relative to that. I’d like to see a schedule.”
Baccari took note.
Polisena did not attend the Town Council meeting. He has not attended a Town Council meeting since he was inaugurated in January.
Polisena Jr. replied to questions regarding Civetti’s concerns via email on Tuesday.
“I am disappointed and alarmed that Mr. Civetti would cite an archaic rule that hasn’t been adhered to in decades, throughout multiple administrations,” the mayor wrote. “Section 8-3 of the Charter was adopted in 1963 and it does not align with best budget practices for 2023. The final state budget, which impacts revenues for municipalities and school districts, is never available before April 1.”
Former Mayor Joseph M. Polisena, who presided over 16 consecutive budgets (current Mayor Polisena Jr.’s father), regularly waited until the very end of the fiscal year to release the budget to the public.
“As usual, our budget will be presented to the Town Council and public by the end of June for approval in July,” said the Polisena Jr. “Even though there is no consequence to going beyond the April date, the reference to this timeline does highlight the need to amend this anachronistic provision and align it with present-day realities. It’s grossly negligent to put a budget together without first having accurate revenue streams.”
A Town Charter Review Commission will be examining the document, and proposing possible amendments.
Civetti criticized the town’s failure to follow the Town Charter.
“Although the mayor may feel that the budget portion of the Town Charter is an ‘anachronistic provision’ it still represents the governing document which the town should be in following,” Civetti said Wednesday. “I am amazed how this administration thinks it is acceptable to wait until June to present a budget to the taxpayers and the Town Council and then wait until to July to approve a budget for a fiscal year that has already started.”
Neighboring cities have started the public portion of their budgeting processes.
“Why is Johnston one of the only communities, if not the only community, that waits until June and July to present and approve a Town budget?” Civetti asked. “I know several communities that have already had several budget workshops and hearings to discuss the fiscal 2024 budget. In each of these communities the budgets will be approved well in advance of the commencement of the 2024 fiscal year.”
Providence Mayor Brett Smiley presented his first city budget this week, seeking an increase in property taxes. The Warwick School Department planned to meet Wednesday night for a budget hearing. And Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins revealed his proposed operating budget for 2024 at a special City Council meeting on Friday.
“Because they follow the Governor’s proposed budget, which always gets changed by the General Assembly, then they have to amend their budget based on what the General Assembly does,” Polisena Jr. replied. “We don’t waste time and resources doing the budget process multiple times. Again, this is how the process has worked here in Johnston for decades.”
Johnston Town Council Robert V. Russo urged patience in the budgeting process.
“The budget is being prepared by the administration as it is an ongoing process and it would be irresponsible in my opinion to release a budget document without having the school budget figures as well as state aid calculations in place,” Russo argued. “In my 29 years on the council I can think of only a handful of times in the 90’s that I received a budget on or about April 1 as Charter mentions. However, in my experience the budget is not accurate until the town knows what the General Assembly is doing with state aid to education as well as any town aid through reimbursements.”
Russo sees no problem with the town’s budgeting cycle.
“The Town Council, including Councilman Civetti, have historically received the budget once the administration had a handle on state funding,” Russo said Tuesday. “This is not new, and I was surprised when the issue was brought up (Monday) night as the issue has not been brought up for the past 20 years and this is the first time I can recall Councilman Civetti has brought up the issue during his tenure as a councilman.”
Russo also argues that later budgeting has provided more reliable budgets.
“I can say one thing, when the budget was provided on April 1 the town ran multi-million-dollar deficits, but when more time and work was put into the budget and it was submitted later the town started running surpluses,” Russo explained. “As to the Charter I believe the provision addressing the April 1 budget submittal is antiquated and in need of change.”
Members of the Town Charter Review Commission will be selected soon, and Russo expects the April 1 deadline will likely change.
“The date should be some time in June when proper figures are available,” Russo said.
Civetti has served on Town Council for the past six years. He said Russo is correct, that during Civetti’s tenure on the council, “the budget was never delivered by April 1 as required by the Town Charter.”
“The former mayor had already been in office for, I believe, 10 years before I was elected on the Town Council,” Civetti said. “(Former) Mayor Joseph Polisena was set in his ways and things were operating efficiently and effectively. The Town had made great progress and was in sound financial condition under Mayor Joseph Polisena. With the changing in the Mayor’s office, I felt that we ought to start things off on the right foot and comply with the provisions of the Town Charter relating to budget presentation, and public workshops. No matter whom is in office, I believe that having budget workshops to fully review and dissect the budget and have public participation is truly the best practice for maintaining an open and transparent government.”
Above all, Civetti, who represents Johnston’s District 5, has called for transparency in the budgeting process.
“All I am asking of the mayor and his administration is to be transparent with the town’s finances and afford the Town Council and the taxpayers with the ability to participate in budget workshops prior to adoption of the Town Budget,” Civetti said. “The Town Council has recently authorized a Charter Review Commission. However, until that process is completed and the Charter is revised the Mayor and the Town should be in compliance with the provisions of the existing Town Charter no matter how old that Charter may be.”
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