With only minor changes that won’t affect higher taxes for residential or commercial property owners, the City Council approved the mayor’s proposed $353.2 million budget Thursday night …
With only minor changes that won’t affect higher taxes for residential or commercial property owners, the City Council approved the mayor’s proposed $353.2 million budget Thursday night despite efforts to trim fire department overtime cost projections in order to shave tax rates by several pennies and preserve more of the rainy day fund for what is expected to be a tougher 2024-25 budget.
Coupled with the citywide revaluation, with an average 30 percent increase in residential properties and 11 percent increase in commercial properties over the past four years, funding the budget will require raising $232.2 million. According to estimates provided by Mayor Frank Picozzi, 79 percent of residential property owners can expect to see a $500 or less increase in their taxes, 17 percent $1,000 or less and the remaining 4 percent more than $1,000.
The tax rates are $14.76 and $25.83 per $1,000 of valuation for residential and commercial properties respectively.
Surprisingly, few turned out for the department by department budget review held Monday with the largest representation being school administrators and members of the committee. Even fewer turned out Thursday when the council voted on the budget.
The mayor’s budget cut the school request by $1.4 million, yet Picozzi held out the possibility of allocating $1 million in federal ARPA funds if the state does not come through with additional funding as happened last year. The school department’s $189.9 million budget does not include salary increases for teachers whose contract expires in August, whereas the municipal budget funds 2.75 negotiated increases for fire, police and municipal employees. Each one percent increase in teacher salaries would cost an additional $1 million, according to Assistant Superintendent William McCaffrey.
Asked how the department could expect to fund a teacher contract, McCaffrey said, “there are other factors besides salaries” during a 15-minute recess Thursday night in which city technicians were able to fully restore live streaming of the meeting. The audio portion of the system failed to operate delaying the start of the meeting by 45 minutes.
As requested at Monday’s meeting, the council was provided a list of programs that would be restored if the School Committee’s initial budget was approved. Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi argued for the restoration of three elementary school math interventionists with the funds coming from the $4.4 million fire overtime budget. It didn’t get the support to pass. Similar efforts to supplement the school budget as well as cut into the fire overtime fell short of passing. Even if the council had found additional funding for schools, there is no obligation for the School Committee use them as intended. Neither the council nor the administration have the authority to dictate how schools spends its budget once approved.
Fire overtime, which has exceeded budget year after year despite efforts to regulate it through full manning and the use of “floaters” to fill in for sick and absent personnel, was a hot button. The overtime is triggered by minimum manning requirements dictated by contract.
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur questioned how the department with a full complement of 236 that has not always been the case would need to budget so much for overtime. In proposing $1 million be trimmed from overtime, he said “I don’t see where we can do both (fund a full complement of firefighters plus overtime). In the course of the hearing, Ladouceur introduced amendments that would have trimmed about $5 million in spending. None were approved, “they didn’t even get a wink.”
“I think spending is totally out of control, and it continues to grow,” he said. He was appalled that the School Department was not prepared to answer the number of students in the system, throwing out a number that is 700 more than there are. He is upset that the budget does not provide for increased exemptions for the elderly, handicapped and veterans when municipal retirees continue to get free health care.
In a departure to prior budget hearings where the public was permitted to comment during the line-by-line budget review, but not given a voice when the council voted on the budget, Council President Steve McAllister opened the meeting allotting a half hour for public comment. The council did not respond to comments.
Barry Cook of the Warwick Taxpayers Association suggested the city consider zero based budgeting as a means of bring costs under control. The system requires looking at each element of a spending plan rather than simply applying a growth factor.
Rob Cote charged that fire apparatus are left running unattended and are being used for personal runs, claiming that and the use of sick time “is the worst it has ever been…and you don’t do anything about it.”
Lamenting the escalation of costs, Ann Sheridan suggested a range of solutions from asking all department directors to cut costs to charging more for rescue runs and investing in improving the quality of “basic education” before considering the construction of new high schools.
Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teacher Union, said the system’s 900 teachers put “their hearts and souls” into their jobs.
“I know the budget is large, but we’re a big city,” she said.
Elaine Gambardella was frustrated by the revaluation and how increased values will especially impact the taxes of those on fixed incomes. She pointed out that senior and veteran exemptions have not kept pace with inflation or the revaluation.
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix zeroed in on the $7.1 million drawdown in city reserves to balance the budget as setting the city up for a for a $9.6 million ($7.1 million plus $2.5 million in one time revenues from the sale of former school property) structural deficit next year. He made a motion to increase taxes by 1 percent, increasing the residential rate from $14.76 to $14.90 and reduce the city’s dependence on its reserves. The amendment failed.
Ward 9 Councilman Vincent Gebhart was likewise concerned by the use of reserves to balance the budget and what that could mean for future budgets. He recommended cutting fire overtime as a means of reducing use of the reserves. It failed to pass and in a newsletter to constituents Council President Steve McAllister explained his no vote saying, “Overtime is going to happen so we should have an accurate number in the budget for that expense. Even if we did reduce the number in our budget, once those funds are exhausted we would still have to pay for continued overtime. We must have firefighters working every shift and there are state laws, that we at the local level have no control over.”
In an interview Friday, City Finance Director Peder Schaefer explained the use of ARPA funds carry regulations. The funds cannot be used to pay down municipal debt, for pensions or to build reserve. As city reserves are about $31 million, or slightly less than 10 percent of the budget, Schaefer does not see the city’s reserves as being an issue. However, it could be if the drawdown was reduced.
On the positive side, higher interest rates are working to the city’s favor. In 2022 the city budgeted $115,000 in interest revenues. Schaefer said as of March 31 the city had earned $1.5 million in interest revenues and he expects it to be $1.7 million next year.
“The banks are calling all the time to give us some of your money,” he said.
The closest vote of the night for other than minor budget adjustments was on Sinapi’s amendment to give schools and additional $370,000 which failed 4-5. His motion to properly allocate $15,000 in fees to schools was approved.
Ladouceur’s multiple efforts to address what he sees as burdening taxpayers and handcuffing future administrations with mounting post employment benefit costs, including free health care for retirees which he has made a crusade of, did not pass. The budget does include a plan drawing upon a reduction in contributions to the Fire/Police 1 plan and a one time use of $2 million from the $8.5 million in health insurance reserves.
The councilman also attempted to make several minor budget adjustments deemed as oversights. One of those had Mayor Picozzi on his feet.
“This is my daughter,” he said, “she was given (budgeted) a longevity raise that she was not entitled to.” She won’t get the longevity payment.
The mayor was asked if the City Clerk’s overall budget should be adjusted to reflect that.
“My suggestion is to leave it there,” he said explaining that over the course of a year, people move in and out of jobs and the funding would be used. The council left the money.
EMPTY GALLERY: Warwick resident Ann Sheridan suggested the city increase its charge for rescue runs and that before building new schools, the School Department concentrate in improving education. Only a handful of residents attended the meeting where the council approved a $353.2 million budge and a tax increase. (Warwick Beacon photos)
MAZE OF WIRING: Mayor Picozzi surveyed the wiring to the council chambers audio system when it failed to synchronize with the live streaming of the meeting. Although familiar with wiring, the mayor didn’t touch anything. The system was restored in about 45 minutes.
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