“It’s lean as it is,” Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon says of the mayor’s $279.9 million budget.
But starting tonight, Solomon and other council members say they will do what they can to reduce the city’s funding package and, if possible, keep the mayor’s plan to increase the motor vehicle exemption by $1,000 while eliminating a property tax increase.
“I know we will be working hard to see if we can do better,” Solomon said.
Increasing the motor vehicle exemption will mean a $34.60 savings to those owning vehicles valued at $1,500 or more. Mayor Scott Avedisian’s residential property tax increase of 45 cents per $1,000 would result in a $90 a year tax increase for a property valued at $200,000, which is about the Warwick average. If that family owned two cars, the net increase in taxes would be less than $16.
Holding the tax rate would impact more than the homeowner. The city has a tiered tax system with the commercial rate 50 percent higher than the residential rate.
“I look to neighboring communities where there is no tax increase,” says Solomon. “And I aspire to be like them. What’s wrong with setting that as our goal?’
“We’re going to do everything we can,” vowed Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson.
She said she’s not familiar enough with all the numbers to suggest where cuts could be made. Yet, she observed, “we’re in tough times” and she would do what she can to provide relief to the taxpayers.
Eliminating a property tax increase or significantly reducing it is going to be difficult without some major cuts.
An increase in the motor vehicle exemption is projected to result in a $500,000 decline of revenues. Motor vehicle taxes are estimated to total $23 million this year and, with the increased exemption, $22.5 million next year.
While the mayor’s budget level funds schools at $156.2 million in city tax revenues and foregoes salary raises for union and management employees, it provides an additional $5.8 million in city spending. The biggest chunk of added funds would pay for increases in pension payments and health care.
While looking to reduce costs and taxes on one hand, Vella-Wilkinson would like to find $45,000 to revive the Warwick Night Program. She explained the program to increase police presence in neighborhoods and reduce cut-through traffic was dropped for budget reasons in 2007 even though, she says, it generated enough funds in fines to offset its cost.
Charles “CJ” Donovan Jr. (D-Ward 7) would like to see the council double the motor vehicle exemption to $3,000, as well as work toward eliminating the tiered tax system. Doing either, or both of those, would require major spending reductions.
Where would Donovan start making cuts?
“I would like to cut IT [information technology]; it could be coordinated with the School Department,” he said. Donovan believes there are other savings to be had by coordinating efforts with schools.
Yesterday, Avedisian was asked if there are areas to be trimmed in the budget.
“It depends on what they want to trim,” the mayor said in reference to the council. As for Donovan’s suggestion to marry the IT departments of the city and schools, Avedisian said schools shot down that proposal some time ago because schools would lose the preferred rates it gets through a state program.
Ward 1 Councilman Steven Colantuono said it is going to be difficult to trim the mayor’s budget. Of concern are some of the assumptions, including no salary increases and increased co-payment for health care when agreements with the city’s three unions have yet to be finalized. He also noted that the mayor’s plan to reduce firefighter overtime, which is projected to run $3.4 million this year, with 21 additional firefighters to fill vacancies and increase the workforce to 217, is partially dependent on receipt of a federal grant.
Ward 6 Councilman Donna Travis said, “I’ll be looking for places to cut, but believe me it’s hard.”
The hearings start at 6 tonight with the school budget, and continue Wednesday and Thursday at the same time. Among department budgets to be reviewed Wednesday are Tax Collector and Tax Assessor. Police, Fire and Public Works budgets will be aired on Thursday.
The hearings will be continued to June 4 at 6 p.m. if needed.