Council President Bruce Place banged his gavel more than once at Thursday night’s budget hearing, as he felt members of the public were speaking out of line and veering off topics relating to Mayor Scott Avedisian’s proposed $279,738,922 budget for FY2013.
The largest increase in city expenses involves employee benefits and capital expenses at $3,877,306, including employee pensions and health care. Pension assumptions, such as the rate of return, were revised and are consistent with those adopted by the Board of the Rhode Island Municipal Employees’ Retirement System. The other large expenditure involves public safety at $2,103,540.
Before the end of the hearing, Avedisian announced that due to additional savings he identified, he proposed increasing the motor vehicle valuation exemption from $1,500 to $2,000 per vehicle. The mayor and council reduced the exemption from $6,000 to $500 last year to raise an additional $8 million.
“I think that’s a good thing,” Place said of the mayor’s proposal in a phone interview yesterday afternoon. “I’m very much in favor of that because it relieves the burden for a lot of taxpayers.”
The council was expected to act on the budget last night. If he chooses, the mayor can veto their budget.
“I have no predictions at this time, but we’re ready to rock and roll,” Place said yesterday.
At the hearing, citizen Rob Cote, who spearheaded the Car Tax Revolt last summer, along with former council member and school committee member Bob Cushman and resident Roger Durand, was stifled not only by Place and his gavel, but also by jeers from the assembly of more than 100, which consisted mostly of Warwick firefighters and employees from the Department of Public Works (DPW).
When Cote addressed the council, as well as Avedisian and DPW Director David Picozzi, he asked if the DPW would benefit from cost savings by obtaining time clocks that require fingerprints for employees to punch in and out. According to Cote, the specific type of time clock costs approximately $1,200.
He also asked if they would consider obtaining GPS tracking devices for each vehicle, which he said would cost less than $1 a day per vehicle for the best software available on the market.
Cote said his questions stemmed from an investigation conducted by WPRI reporter Walt Buteau during recent months. In his research, Buteau witnessed a DPW employee clocking in another employee before using a city vehicle to transport his co-worker to DPW headquarters located on Sandy Lane on several occasions.
Buteau also had access to photos of the employee’s time card that listed the dates and times he was clocked in before he reported to work.
Further, Cote and a Beacon reporter tracked one DPW highway vehicle and witnessed the driver, along with a passenger, travel throughout the city for at least three hours on a few occasions without exiting the vehicle. That information was brought to Picozzi’s attention and the Beacon was informed that the employee involved had been disciplined.
When Cote asked Picozzi if he feels the equipment is necessary and whether he feels he has an honest staff, Picozzi replied, “I think I have a very honest department.”
With that, DPW workers and firefighters applauded, drowning out Cote’s response.
After the applause, Cote expressed that he feels certain employees do not conduct themselves in an “ethical manner.” Again, Cote was interrupted, but this time by Place.
“There isn’t a line item in the budget about fingerprinting or GPS [systems],” said Place. “It’s not part of this budget hearing. You’re not going to disrupt this meeting. If you continue, I’m going to have you removed.”
Again, the crowd applauded in an uproar. Before taking his seat, Cote said he believes his comments were consistent with the budget, as he feels the actions of certain DPW employees reflect a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Yesterday, Place said he doesn’t regret his actions and words, as he was doing his best to stay on target.
“I didn’t need to be thrown off track or confused by anyone trying to make comments about another subject,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let it go.”
After Cote spoke at the hearing, resident Richard Langseth, who frequently attends hearings and council meetings, echoed Cote’s sentiments about GPS devices.
“We should know where these vehicles are,” he said.
In response to the issue, Avedisian said he and his administration looked into GPS tracking devices in the past but discovered that there were a “number of downfalls” within the system. He also said the American Civil Liberties Union opposes the practice.
In relation to health care and Police and Fire 1 pensions, as well as the general fiscal security of Warwick, Ward 9 Councilman Steven Merolla noted that he is concerned. What he fears, he said, is ending up like Central Falls and West Warwick municipalities that have filed for bankruptcy.
“How can you even have an intelligent conversation about health care when it’s completely unfunded?” Merolla said at the hearing. “I hear a lot that we’re better off than other communities and I tend to think we have stage one or two of cancer and the other communities have stage five. I don’t want to have any cancer. But, the actuarial report speaks for itself. We don’t want to make promises we can’t keep.”
Merolla continued to express his feelings.
“We have a fiduciary obligation to the taxpayers and everybody that works for the city to make sure that when they retire, we have enough money to pay for their pensions,” he said.
Afterwards, Cushman and the mayor’s Chief of Staff Mark Carruolo debated about pensions. Cushman, a business analyst who is known in the city for creating and distributing charts and graphs at meetings, offered his calculations and said that from his point of view, the mayor and his staff are “ignoring” what he projects will be a future pension crisis.
According to actuarial reports, Cushman said, in 2021 the contribution rate will triple to $39 million. Eight years later, it will quadruple to $52 million.
“That’s not a crisis?” Cushman said. “It’s becoming unsustainable.”
While actuarial reports are done every two years, Carruolo said Cushman is looking too far into the future.
“Respectfully, these are very complicated formulas and ratios, but they are projections,” said Carruolo. “I am not an expert and neither are you.”
With that, the room again erupted in applause. When it ended, Cushman said, “You don’t have to be an expert to see we have a problem in this city when most of your tax dollars are going to pensions and retirement health care costs. I sometimes feel bad for the employees who don’t realize this.”
Durand was then jeered when he said, “Mr. Cushman, you’re a man ahead of your time.”
The assembly was mostly quiet, however, when Langseth and another resident Roy Dempsey offered the union workers some advice.
“People in the unions,” said Langseth, “make sure you understand that there are some issues for the employees,” while Dempsey added, “Get an expert’s advice and have them tell you what the implications are. I wouldn’t rely on a politician to tell you.”
In contrast, Wednesday’s hearing was tame and filled with praise for city department workers, including DPW staff. Words of adoration for department heads and employees of the Warwick Public Library, the planning department, human services, senior centers, family support services, community development and tourism, culture and development came from the council, as well as members of the assembly.