Council budget at issue
Mayor seeks to reconcile cuts, added school, repaving funds
After four days of hearings, the City Council has shifted funds from numerous accounts in Mayor Scott Avedisian’s $288.8 million budget to provide an additional $1 million to road repaving and schools.
However, Mayor Scott Avedisian is considering vetoing the budget because cuts leave certain departments lacking enough funds to last throughout the fiscal year. As of deadline yesterday, it couldn’t be determined whether or not the mayor would veto the budget.
Under the council’s budget, taxes would be raised the same amount that was proposed in Avedisian’s proposed budget: 1.16 percent, 23 cents on the residential tax rate. The residential rate, if the budget passes, would be $20.02 and the commercial and industrial tax rate will be $30.03 and $40.04, respectively.
Last Thursday the meetings began running relatively late into the night and continued throughout the weekend. The council continued questioning the purpose behind increases and reductions throughout the new budget.
On Monday night the council convened without the mayor and his staff to discuss the budget amongst themselves and the amendments they would like to see within the budget.
Councilman Joseph Solomon (D-Ward 4) began with a slew of amendments. Councilman Ed Ladouceur (D-Ward 5) also proposed a few of his own amendments to the budget. The council civilly discussed each amendment’s pros and cons before voting. Many of the cuts made reduced funding to levels used in the 2014 fiscal year. Professional services for the legal department was reduced $100,000, but even with the reduction the allocation was still increased by $75,000 more than the current budget, a solid “cushion” for the department, but not so much that it would cost the Warwick taxpayers, said Ladouceur.
Ladouceur questioned, “Where is the cushion for the taxpayer in these difficult times?” when he showed support for the amendment.
Seventy-five thousand dollars was deducted from the salaries of the city planning department.
It was believed Tuesday this would result in the loss of one or more Planning Department personnel.
Council Finance Committee Chair Camille Vella-Wilkinson said that would be an “unintended consequence” if it was to happen. Solomon said yesterday none of his proposed cuts cut jobs.
The largest reduction in funds came through a 2.1 percent reduction in funds allocated health care premiums, a $607,929.31 cut.
Solomon commented on the possible deficit that would be left in the wake of this amendment saying, “Based on what we were given, this amendment makes sense. The council was presented a deficit budget [the mayor balanced his budget with $3.6 million from reserves] from day one even before any of the amendments.”
Chief of Staff Mark Carruolo, on the other hand, said the $607,929 cut is not “fiscally prudent.”
Carruolo said, “To make up for the deductions from the city council, about 33 family health plans would have to be eliminated. Yes, our premiums had been lowered, but we have had an increase in memberships and the 2.1 percent reduction had already been accounted for in the budget. To say the new amount is unsustainable would be an understatement. The reduction would take money away from existing plans.”
Carruolo mentioned that last year there was about 20 new employees for the fire department alone and after they finished training, possibly eight more firemen by the end of the summer.
Solomon said that the mayor has yet to contact him since the amended budget was approved to discuss the issues it may present to the city.
Most of the amendments that did not pass concerned salaries for city workers from the two new maintenance positions at the police station, overtime pay for firemen as well as the pay of seasonal workers at McDermott Pool.
All together, the reductions total $997,292.31.
Solomon said, “This is what cooperation can accomplish. Almost one million dollars saved.”
Solomon then made his two largest amendments to the budget. After the controversy from the first night of budget meetings about road conditions throughout Warwick, Solomon suggested that $597,929.31 from the saved $997,292.31 be added to the previous allocated $450,000 to road repaving funds. This brought road repair up to $1,047,929.31.
Solomon said, “It isn’t a home run, but it is a step in the right direction.”
Ladouceur said ignoring Warwick’s infrastructure would cost more in the long run and showed support for Solomon’s amendment. Both he and Solomon suggested that every year $1 million, or more, should be allocated to road repair.
Steve Merolla (D-Ward 9) said $1 million isn’t enough to catch up on the damage done to the roads, but favored continuously investing in roads in succeeding years.
Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Ward 3) said that repaired roads would not only help to ensure the safety of their constituents, but also help promote the city as a place of business and be a good first impression to businessmen looking to expand.
The council unanimously voted yes on the amendment.
The final amendment discussed by the City Council was whether or not the remaining $400,000 saved from the previously discussed budget cuts should be allotted to the schools. Council members agreed that schools are a priority and they wanted to invest in the children of Warwick’s education.
Solomon said he would like to have the money go to sports, after-school programs and technology updates for the schools “to help formulate the characters of students as members of our community,” but was aware that there was no way to guarantee where the money would go once allotted to the schools.
The council discussed that money has, of late, been used to boost administrators’ salaries, not the teachers, and that kids are missing out when money is handled in such a way.
Pounding his desk, Ladouceur said, “You don’t cut the kids.” He preferred that schools and administrators be reduced throughout the system so that students can get the full benefit from the funds allotted to Warwick Public Schools.
Merolla, who has had four elementary schools close in his ward, said, “Our kids are suffering because of the decisions other people make.”
Vella-Wilkinson expressed her frustration that despite continuously funding schools, the public blames the council for a lack of funding when the council has no way of delegating where the money goes, only how much they get.
She said, “It is the administration that is discrediting the kids.” She wanted the $400,000 to go to the kids, but was wary because it is out of her power to see where the funds would go whether it would be to bump the salaries of administrators or to benefit the kids.
Steven Colantuono (R-Ward 1) said he would support the amendment because even though he couldn’t be sure where the money would go and shared the same frustrations as the rest of the council, he wants to fund schools in good faith for the students of Warwick.
The council unanimously voted to have the $400,000 be reallocated to the school system.
Solomon felt the money saved through budget cuts should be invested in roads and the school department because it is what matters to the community.
He said, “The public testimony at the hearings and the calls myself and my colleagues receive from constituents throughout the year show that this needs to be addressed as best we can with the limited resources we have.”
The amended budget discussed throughout the night was passed with a 6-3 vote. Avedisian will have until Friday to approve or veto the new budget amended by the council.
Carruolo said, “It doesn’t make sense to reduce the funds to a fixed line. You can’t take over $600,000 from a fixed line and move the same sum to another line like repaving. I agree the roads need to be addressed, but the money can’t come from a fixed line. The mayor can make a line veto but then has to equalize that decision somehow. The council made incorrect assumptions from what was presented to them and there are other options that need to be considered.”
He mentioned that the mayor had not yet made a decision on whether or not to veto the budget.
If Avedisian were to veto the budget, Solomon said, “I would vote to override his veto based on the facts, testimony and materials presented throughout the meetings. I have been involved with budget meetings for 14 years and every time cuts are made, it is predicted that the sky is falling. The sky never fell.”
Mayor Avedisian had not returned phone calls on the subject by deadline.
The proposed and amended budget can be found and read as a PDF at www.warwickri.gov.