Council budget holds line on taxes
After more than four hours of deliberation Saturday, the City Council unanimously voted to cut $5 million from Mayor Scott Avedisian’s proposed $310.4 million budget and for the first time in at least 18 years hold the line on taxes.
“This is a big thing. The taxpayers need a break,” said Finance Committee chair Ed Ladouceur in a telephone interview Saturday evening.
In an interview Sunday, City Council President Joseph Solomon commended the hard work of his colleagues, calling is a “joint effort” with an outcome “for the benefit of all taxpayers.” Solomon feels holding the line on taxes could send a message to businesses considering to locate in Warwick that the city “runs a tight ship” and that they would want to be here.
The council achieved a no tax increase budget by cutting department fuel accounts, eliminating seven positions in the fire department budget, reducing fire department overtime, eliminating or reducing salary increases for some administrative posts including the library director and increasing the projected level of tax collections from 98.5 to 99 percent. That half percentage increased revenues by $1,181,271, said Ladouceur.
Less than projected rates of tax collections are seen as a factor in producing the city’s single year largest surplus on record – more than $10 million for Fiscal Year 2016 – and for fueling a projected surplus expected to exceed $2 million when the current fiscal year ends on June 30. Reserves were $18.5 million as of June 30, 2016, according to the city audit.
Key to reaching an agreement, Ladouceur said, was Solomon’s compromise on school funding. For the first time in more than five years, Avedisian proposed substantially increasing the school budget that basically has been level funded. The mayor’s budget called for a $165 million school budget, an increase of $4 million, which was $2 million less than what schools requested. To ensure there was sufficient funding for a teacher contract, Avedisian said he had an agreement with Superintendent Philip Thornton to reserve $2.4 million for that purpose.
The council budget cuts out the additional $3 million Avedisian budgeted for schools and proposed taking $3 million from the rainy day fund when and if a teachers’ agreement is reached. Mediation between the parties continued last week with additional sessions planned for this week, according to Avedisian, who acted as the facilitator in the absence of mediator Vincent Ragosta. Ladouceur said Solomon’s provision would guarantee that the money is available for a teachers’ agreement because “a contract needs to be settled.”
Ladouceur sees efficiency and greater attention on tax collections as making the budget possible.
The council’s budget now goes back to the mayor.
Solomon said, “I’m hoping the mayor can join with us in what nine council members thought was the right thing to do.”
In an email, the mayor said he expects to have an answer to the council by today.
A big slice of the council cuts came out of the fire department with reductions in the salary and overtime accounts. Ladouceur said about $900,000 was sliced from salaries and overtime with the elimination of seven positions in the department. Word that the council was looking to eliminate positions promoted a flurry of calls Saturday that the council’s action would result in the layoff of seven firefighters. Ladouceur also said the council’s budget eliminates the position of a third chief.
Fire Chief James McLaughlin had an explanation Saturday night. He said when he drafted the budget the department had 227 uniformed personnel, or seven more than the department’s full complement at 220. Since the budget was drafted seven firefighters have retired, meaning that the department is at 220. He doesn’t see the reduction of seven as a problem. However, he notes that an assistant chief – Edward Hannon – has been named and is in that position. This gives the department a leadership staff of McLaughlin as chief and James Kenney and Hannon as assistant chiefs.
As for the cut in overtime, Ladouceur said he recalled promises by retired chief Edmund Armstrong that with added personnel the department could rein in overtime costs only to have the department go over budget.
“This has become a habit,” he said, advocating that the department live within its budget.
On Saturday evening McLaughlin said staffing at 220 provides the “floaters” needed to cover vacations without incurring overtime. That would contain overtime costs with the exception of unforeseen instances such as sickness where staffing drops below contract requirements.
As for the rainy day fund that the mayor planned to tap for $3 million, the council reduced the draw down to $1.2 million.
As has been the issue in other budget hearings, schools and the fire department were major issues this year.
At Wednesday’s budget hearing, citizen Rob Cote raised issues over the practice of firefighters substituting for each other, thereby enabling firefighters to extend vacations or, as Cote claimed, work two jobs. Waving papers as he stood at the podium, Cote said he had the evidence of a firefighter working a job at URI while also holding down his Warwick job using the system of substitutions. Cote said he was keeping the name of the individual confidential, but that he would provide the information to the administration.
While it once was prevalent, Chief McLaughlin said fewer and fewer firefighters are running businesses on the side and he said substitution is not to be used so a firefighter can also run a business. Mayor Scott Avedisian was alarmed by the allegation, saying the city would investigate. Also, Cote said his examination of fire department records found that at any one time more than six firefighters were on vacation, thereby creating a situation when overtime would be needed to meet minimum manning as required by contract. McLaughlin vigorously denied that is happening, to which Cote said he had the evidence as provided by the department records.
Cote also talked of the practice of paying firefighters up to 15 of their annual 20 sick days if they go unused. He said his examination of department records show virtually all those who meet eligibility requirements for the paid unused sick days are paid. He said his research “points to one thing where the system is being gamed.”
On Friday the mayor and the chief refuted Cote’s claims using the information Cote provided. In the four instances Cote’s cites, not all of the personnel are uniformed firefighters. The others are civilian dispatchers.
The chief explained that “floaters” (firefighters not assigned to a particular shift) are used to fill in for those on vacation on a predetermined schedule.
“There are always no more than six on vacation [at a given time]. Allegations that there are more are completely false,” he said.
Avedisian said he requested information about the firefighter also allegedly working a job at URI, but that Cote said it had cost him a lot to get the paperwork from the department and that he wanted $61.50 to turn it over. Avedisian accused Cote of lying about having to pay for the information, saying it had been given to him by Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla.
“He’s got information about fraud and he’s [Cote] not turning it over,” he said. Avedisian added, “as we get more allegations we’ll investigate.”
During the budget hearing, Merolla said he felt he had been misled over how many personnel the department needs. He said that prior chiefs had pegged the number at a complement of 209 and 217 and now McLaughlin is saying 220. Observing that the fire department has gotten new equipment and buildings, schools are in need of repairs and students and teachers are lacking equipment.
“This council and administration have been overly generous,” Merolla said, making the argument, “It’s for the fire department to do for us…it can’t just be one way. We don’t have enough money to go around.”
Merolla, who consistently has voted against the budget, joined his colleagues in supporting the council budget. Both Ladouceur and Solomon praised the efforts of the four new members of the council – Richard Corley, Timothy Howe, Jeremy Rix and Steve McAllister –for their diligence in analyzing the budget and raising questions during the hearing process. Ladouceur also gave a shout out to council liaison Joanne Cournoyer for her work in researching issues raised and requests for information during the budget process.