Mayor won't veto no tax increase budget
For the first time since 1998, Warwick taxpayers won’t see an increase in their taxes as a result of an increase in the tax rates.
Saying he is a political realist in a message sent Tuesday to the City Council, Mayor Scott Avedisian said he would not veto any of the 29 budget amendments to trim $5 million from his $310.4 million budget and hold the line on taxes. That means the tax rates will be unchanged when bills go in the mail later this month. The first quarterly payment is due July 15 and taxpayers have until September 15 should they choose to pay bills in full.
Possibly impacting taxpayer bills are efforts of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to phase out municipal car taxes over the next six years. The House Finance Committee has not acted on the legislation that could start reimbursing municipalities for reduced car tax revenues as soon as this year.
Avedisian said Wednesday the city would proceed with issuing car tax bills. In a statement, Avedisian expressed his support for reducing the burden on the taxpayer, adding, “Should the exemption change after tax bills are prepared, we will work collaboratively to issue credits for future tax payments.”
The council budget essentially level funds schools, cutting the $3 million in additional city funding Avedisian had budgeted. But in making the cut, the council also pledged to provide the $3 million should the School Committee and the Warwick Teachers Union end their extended contract dispute. The council sees that money coming from the city reserve account, or rainy day fund, of $18.5 million.
“The cut of $3 million proposed for the Warwick School Committee may certainly hamper mediation and the progress that has been made in resolving this long contract dispute,” Avedisian writes.
He continues, “At the request of the Warwick Teachers Union and the Warwick School Committee, I joined mediation talks earlier this year. Just last week, significant progress was made. I am encouraged that the parties will meet again on Friday. Make no mistake about it, I will be returning to the City Council in the future to ask for a special appropriation once mediation has brought forth an agreement.”
Tax relief was the mantra of Council Finance Committee Chairman Ed Ladouceur going into the budget process and, with the budget amendments that he largely sponsored, he’s been able to achieve that. In addition to amendments cutting department expenditures, the council voted to change the projected rate of tax collections from 98.5 percent to 99 percent to produce an additional $1.2 million in revenues.
Holding the rate in a non-revaluation year is a first during Avedisian’s administration. During years of a revaluation implementation, tax rates usually decline as values go up, meaning higher bills for a majority of taxpayers.
“I’m glad to see the mayor signed on to the budget,” City Council President Joseph Solomon said Wednesday. Solomon took issue with some of Avedisian’s observations about the council’s ability to cut salaries, saying, “there may be a certain misinterpretation on things.” He disputed the mayor’s conclusion that there may not be sufficient funds to pay lifeguards and some beaches may have to be closed.
Solomon defended council action to eliminate a $15,000 pay raise for the library director, which the mayor reasoned is the purview of the library board of trustees, not the council. Of the library’s nearly $3 million budget, Solomon noted that only about $300,000 goes into resources and materials benefiting library users.
“We are sending a message that we would like to see more resources for the general public,” he said.
Solomon also took exception that the council cut funding for fire department equipment mandated by the state.
“The mayor may have been misinformed,” he said.
“I feel very comfortable with the budget,” Solomon said, “and as we move forward we will continue to pay attention to this.” He also said he is looking forward to working with the mayor and council colleagues.
Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis was especially vocal on the school budget and action to trim $3 million from the mayor’s proposal.
“They don’t know how to handle their money,” she said of schools. “There’s no pleasing these people.”
She also defended action to trim the fire department budget with a reduction in personnel and overtime costs. Chief James McLaughlin had budgeted for a complement of 227 uniformed personnel, seven more than needed to run the department because that was the number of personnel when the budget was presented. Since then, he said, there have been seven retirements reducing staffing to 220.
Nonetheless, Travis said, “It’s time to make adjustments. We have to make cuts.”
Although taxpayers won’t see an increase in the rates, Travis noted that water and sewer rates continue to increase, making it difficult on residents and businesses.
“I don’t care what you call it, it’s a tax increase. We have to set a standard. Enough is enough,” she said.