If the mayor and the City Council were to fund the budget requests of every department for the upcoming fiscal year starting July 1, including the request of the School Committee, taxpayers would need to come up with an additional $6 million to $7 million. But that’s not going to happen.
And, given the finalization of the tax rolls, which is proving problematic because of valuations for about 10,000 motor vehicles, holding the line on taxes is going to be challenging even with cuts to budget requests.
Yesterday, Chief of Staff Mark Carruolo gave an overview of the budget process, saying department directors have submitted their requests and the administration is in the process of “paring” them back as it finalizes a package to go to the council by May 20. He put the requests as representing a $4 million to $5 million increase on the city side of the budget, although the city has contracts with fire, police and municipal employees that maintain wages where they are for another year. Carruolo said about half of those increases are in the area of pensions, while the balance is in the area of public safety (police and fire) and debt resulting from the sale of bonds to build the Potowomut fire station..
Last week, the school committee approved a $160.7 million budget, representing an increase of $2 million from current expenditures. While the teachers’ contract expires this August, the committee’s budget does not include provisions for salary increases. The additional funding would go for buildings, administrative personnel, math coaches and programs.
Generally, Carruolo said of all department requests, “We’ll try to level fund where we can.” Unlike prior years where the administration requested directors to submit budgets reflecting 5 and 10 percent cuts, there were no such instructions to directors this year. However, as Carruolo made clear, this is not an invitation for directors to come up with their wish lists. He made that especially evident when it comes to the School Department.
He said the committee’s action to boost its budget by $2 million is an indication that they don’t understand the city’s financial position. Carruolo said the committee has identified it can save more than $2 million a year through school consolidation – money that can be put into programs and the school infrastructure – yet it continues to look for more funding from the city.
Reflective of his frustration, Carruolo said he talked with committee member Eugene Nadeau more than a year ago, and at that time Nadeau said he wanted to see the money realized by consolidation go back to the city. Carruolo said he told Nadeau he would prefer the money stay with the department and go toward upgrading buildings and programs. Mayor Scott Avedisian has also said he favors schools retaining any savings they realize through consolidation.
However, when it came to the vote to consolidate Gorton and Aldrich at Veterans High, thereby giving the city two junior and two senior highs, Nadeau favored tabling the action for further study. Nadeau is among those who also voted for $2 million more in city funding for the upcoming budget.
“We’re holding our position [on funding] until the school department does what is necessary and proper. We’re not doing anything different,” said Carruolo. “They can find at least $2 million if they do the consolidations.”
He doesn’t see the administration recommending additional school appropriations “until you can prove that you can do what you can.”
Carruolo said the budget all comes together when the administration gets a clear picture of expenses and revenues. Budget revenues are still being estimated. The city has a fix on residential values but is working to complete commercial and motor vehicle values.
The process has been delayed with the resignation of City Assessor Evelyn Spagnolo earlier this month. Avedisian has named Bruce Keiser, retired Jamestown manager who has a career in municipal government, as interim assessor pending posting of the position.
“He’s got vast municipal experience and has a well-rounded knowledge of city government,” Carruolo said of Keiser.
Further delaying the process, Carruolo explained, is that the Vehicle Value Commission provided values for about 80 percent of the motor vehicles registered to Warwick owners. He said the assessors department, therefore, has had to look up about 10,000 values in preparation for the bills to be issued once that budget is approved. That piece of the revenue picture, as well as that of commercial valuations, is yet to come into focus.