`Hold down costs' is theme to budget process
City department directors can expect to hear the same message they got last year when it comes to putting their budgets together for the upcoming fiscal year – hold down costs.
City Finance Director Ernest Zmyslinski said the budget process that involves department directors reviewing their budget projections and then meeting with him and the mayor to review those plans will commence this month and run through March. The message Zmyslinski is getting out now is “expect a lean year” and for directors to have their budgets “scrutinized” to ensure costs are contained and services maintained.
But Zmyslinski would also like to hear new ideas.
“I don’t want to say no at this point,” he said in an interview last week. He said he wants to encourage initiatives “and a better way to do things.” Overall, he said he’s looking for a “free flowing dialogue.”
Chief of staff and public works director David Picozzi, who will be preparing his own department budget in addition to being involved in the process of reviewing the budgets of other departments, said, “We always look to try to level fund and see where it goes.”
From the perspective of the department of public works, Picozzi said until the past week the snow removal budget went virtually untouched. That obviously changed with last Thursday’s storm and, according to the forecast for Wednesday, could see some more inclement weather. He also pointed out that fuel prices have been consistent and lower than in some years past.
Is there the prospect of not only basically level funding city operations but also for the first time in 17 years of holding the line on taxes?
“It’s always our goal,” said Picozzi.
That may be difficult with pressures for increased spending by the School Department. The School Committee and the Warwick Teachers Union have yet to reach a contract. Assuming an agreement is reached, every one percent in salary increases amounts to an additional $1 million in costs. On top of that, school finance officer Anthony Ferrucci projects a $1 million increase in health care costs plus another $1 million to complete technology upgrades, including distribution of Chromebooks to all high school students and $500,000 in normal step increases.
Schools could be looking for an additional $3 million to $5 million in city funding. Superintendent Philip Thornton pointed out Monday that the department has been “level funded” in so far of city taxpayer support for a number of years.
There’s a bit of relief to the budget picture.
Zmyslinski pointed out that tax abatements resulting from tax disputes dating back to 2006 have been implemented, meaning going forward abatements won’t be a major budget consideration. The tax disputes resulted from declining commercial property values. In many cases, rather than issuing a refund, the city extended a tax credit going forward. However, the largest of the refunds – $1,075,000 – went to Leviton Manufacturing as part of the $3.6 million budgeted for abatements in fiscal year 2016. In the 2015 fiscal year, the city paid out $4.8 million in abatements, and in the year prior to that $8 million, for a total of $16.4 million for the three years, according to totals made public by City Tax Assessor Christopher Celeste in November 2015.
The largest department appropriation in the current budget is for schools, making up $161.1 million of the $298.7 million total. (The school budget has actually been adjusted to $163 million.) City support of schools was level funded in the current year at $119 million.