Council passes budget, but is it legal?

Use of ARPA funds questioned

Posted 5/1/24

Cranston City Council voted to approve an amended city budget at a special meeting Monday, with a 6-3 vote along party lines. However, what Council President Jessica Marino classifies as a …

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Council passes budget, but is it legal?

Use of ARPA funds questioned


Cranston City Council voted to approve an amended city budget at a special meeting Monday, with a 6-3 vote along party lines. However, what Council President Jessica Marino classifies as a “difference of legal opinion” between the City Solicitor’s Office and City Council’s legal counsel may result in the budget facing a veto, or even the administration initiating suit against the council.

The amended largely budget met the council’s approval, if the rhetoric at the meeting was to be believed. The Finance Committee, chaired by Councilman John Donegan (D-Ward 3) has been hard at work since Mayor Kenneth Hopkins proposed his municipal budget on April 1, listening to testimony of representatives from the city’s many departments and drafting amendments, many of which were in service of granting Cranston Public Schools nearly $200,000 in additional funding. The mayor’s budget called for level school funding for the second year in a row. Almost all who spoke thanked the committee for their diligent work.

Despite this, council Republicans voted against every proposal offered due to a dispute between the city’s legal experts regarding the proposed allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds in several places throughout the new budget.

Before a vote, Donegan requested approval on a number of new amendments to the budget, all of which would take from the remaining monies in Cranston’s ARPA fund, which currently sit at over $7 million and were expressly untouched in the Mayor’s original budget proposal.

Donegan requested a number of one-time allowances be made to several city departments for various repairs and upgrades, such as $100,000 for sidewalk repairs and $25,000 for technological upgrades to be made at the city clerk’s office. In total, approximately $220,000 of ARPA funding would be added to the 2024-2025 budget as part of Donegan’s amendments. He made it clear that he had gone through these proposals with the city council’s auditor David Dimaio, and that the non-recurring nature of these allocations meant there was no risk of incurring a structural deficit. But that again was not the problem.

The problem lay rather in the question of whether or not the City Council had the authority to allocate ARPA funds at all.

City Councilman Christopher Paplauskas (R-D5) asked city solicitors who were present at the meeting whether ARPA funds could be added to the budget, since they were not included as part of the original. According to Deputy Solicitor Christopher Rawson, they could not.

According to Rawson, the use and release of ARPA funds would be “in contradiction” of Cranston’s City Charter, the local laws which govern, among other things, the separations of power between the legislative and executive branches of city government.”

While he said there are no state, and few federal guidelines for this circumstance, Cranston’s code and charter states that “The mayor releases funds, the council approves it.” That is to say, it’s the mayor’s job to decide what money gets used, and the city council’s job do decide how the money gets used.

The City Council’s legal counsel, Stephen Angell, disagreed, saying that the ARPA funds were a revenue substitute, not a new expenditure, “Not a lot different frankly from finding other sources of revenue either through budget cuts or amendments.”

City Council President Marino decided it could go to a vote, saying “I myself am comfortable with the allocation given the advice of Attorney Angell, while I respect very much the solicitor’s opinion as well. Opinions can differ, then it’s up to us to make that decision.”

However, the discussion didn’t end there. City Council’s three Republicans, Paplauskas, Nicole Renzulli (R-citywide), and Richard Campopiano (R-D4) chose not to support any amendment made that evening which made use of ARPA funding against the advice of the solicitor’s office.

City Solicitor Chris Millea said the decision to move forward with this budget would go against the checks and balances set up between the legislative and executive branche, and that to move forward with this budget may result in the City Solicitor filing a lawsuit against the City Council, even going before the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

He said the charter is clear. The mayor did not appropriate ARPA funds in this budget, so they cannot be used in this budget.

Donegan took issue with Millea’s representation of the separation of powers, saying “I strongly disagree that it is the executive branch that allocates the purse. That is a duty at every level of government, that is established with the legislative branch which is the first branch in the U.S. constitution under article one. We’re the first branch, we have the power of the purse and that’s what we’re here to do tonight.”

Chief of Staff for the Mayor Anthony Moretti spoke his piece as well, offering “That perhaps the most common sense approach would be maybe for the council minority leader and council majority leader meet with the mayor and maybe come up with programs for the best use of ARPA funds going forward, vs. a one-sided city council approach and then a mayoral response.”

Ultimately, the decision was put to a vote and passed.

After the passage of Donegan’s amendments, City Councilman Robert Ferri offered still more, this time making use of $2.8 million in ARPA funding to replace some of the funding for repairs which would otherwise be funded by upcoming bonds. These numbered twelve in total, and included many of the repairs which will be made to city schools if the upcoming $40 million bond package is approved by voters this summer.

Using the ARPA funds in this way, according to some at the meeting, opened the possibility that that the state might reimburse the ARPA money at 73%, the same rate of reimbursement currently in speculation for the upcoming bond. However, representatives from the City Solicitor’s office and Moretti were dubious. At this point, it seems too soon to say.

Once again, along party lines, the amendments passed, as did the entire amended budget.

There were questions from Renzulli regarding what changes would need to be made in the bond issues to account for these changes, which Morretti said he would need to research.

The amended budget will next go before Mayor Hopkins. If he chooses to veto the budget, Council Democrats have the six votes needed to overrule.  

budget, council


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  • LPinCranston

    While I appreciate this being reported, it is difficult to ignore the numerous spelling errors and grammatical inconsistencies in this article. Councilman Dongean is referred to as (D-Ward 3) whereas the rest of the council are then referred to as (R-D5, etc) noting district instead of ward. Not to be a grammar stickler but is disapointing to see articles be published without any type of proof-reading.

    Having "The amended largely budget" and "between the legislative and executive branche, " published here clearly displays the oversight in proofreading. As a subscriber, I am asking to please have the journalists and editor proofread their work before it goes to print!

    Wednesday, May 1 Report this