Solomon budget moves ahead in face of uncertainties

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Mayor Joseph Solomon says his desk is cleaner than it has been for weeks, although that was hard to tell from papers stacked on it Tuesday.

Now that the $322.9 million budget is in the hands of the City Council, Solomon can get to filing all the paperwork that went into his plan calling for a 3.46 percent increase in the tax levy and a $3.5 million draw down of reserves.

In the big picture, Solomon’s budget provides funding to carry on the road repaving program he championed as the City Council president; virtually level-funds schools and provides for contracted increases in benefits of municipal employees other than firefighters, which have been without a contract since last July 1.

What’s difficult to calculate is the impact the Solomon budget, or for that matter the budget approved by the City Council, will have on individual property taxes as a result of the recently completed citywide revaluation. Generally, across the board, property valuations increased by 15 percent. But the revaluation does not evenly distribute the growth in values, as homes previously valued in the range of $180,000 to $220,000 led the hot seller’s market of the past two years. Many of these properties saw 30 percent and higher increases while homes valued at $400,000 and higher, that weren’t in demand, saw minimal increases, if any.

How this all shakes out remains to be seen, although the revaluation spawned the Warwick Financial Crisis Committee that now is following the budget and is expected to have a major presence when the City Council opens budget hearings at City Council Chambers on Tuesday at 4 p.m.

The proposed tax rates all show declines, as values overall have increased. The proposed residential rate is $18.73 per $1,000 of valuation; $28.10 for commercial and $37.46 for personal property. The automotive tax is frozen at $34.60 by state law.

In his budget message, Solomon acknowledges the revaluation won’t evenly impact homeowners. He also expresses his frustration in being handed situations from the prior administration for which he had no control and the departure of key finance personnel soon after winning the election last November.

In an interview on Tuesday, he emphasized that, contrary to those forecasting financial Armageddon, he has put together a budget that doesn’t call for the maximum 4 percent tax levy and maintains the current level of services.

Yet there are gaps and uncertainties. The 2018 Fiscal Year audit that by state law was due Dec. 31, 2018 has not been completed (the city has been given an extension to June 30). Solomon cannot say for certain the status of city reserves, although the budget for the current and next year depends on them.

Further clouding the financial picture is the unsettled firefighter contract that has been the subject of interest arbitration. Solomon had hoped to reach an agreement that would have resolved the current as well as next year’s contract. While the union leadership went along with no pay increase for the two years, the rank and file didn’t.

In his message, Solomon expresses his disappointment saying firefighters “chose not to join with their police and municipal employee brethren who understand and have shared my belief that sacrifices needed to be made.”

In Tuesday’s interview, Solomon explained additional funding for the Fire Department is based on the premise that overtime costs will increase since he has put a freeze on filling department vacancies.

The tentative agreement Solomon had with the union leadership would have resolved the Tier II pension system that applied to police and municipal employees hired after 2015. Firefighters challenged their inclusion in the plan for reduced benefits although their inclusion was intended and believed legitimate. An arbitration ruling favored the firefighters.

Solomon did not say whether he intends to appeal the ruling, but he added until Tier II is resolved he wouldn’t be hiring additional firefighters.

According to firefighter union president Michael Carriero, the department ranks stand at 188, or close to 30 down from the planned manning of 212.

“Obviously, staffing is a big concern. Hopefully, it doesn't have that much of an impact, but I know it will,” he said.

Although staffing reductions will result in higher overtime costs, Carriero notes it does save money over hiring recruits.

“It'll put a burden on the members and definitely impact them and, hopefully, we'll get a resolution soon and be able to make some new hires soon and lessen the burden on the city with the overtime,” he said.

Meanwhile, as the offer was rejected by the membership, interest arbitration talks are projected to resume next month, said Vincent Ragosta, who is representing the city. He expects sessions to continue through the summer and that they could be wrapped up by this fall.

The ruling will apply only to the July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019 year. It will retroactively apply to the current fiscal year and could further impact city reserves.

As Ragosta observed, ongoing arbitration does not preclude the sides from resuming talks and either narrowing the unresolved issues or arriving at a contract.

“I think the mayor has good concepts in mind,” said Ragosta.

He added, however, that Solomon is faced with defending proposals made by the prior administration.

(With reports from Ethan Hartley)

Comments

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Steven C.

“In his message, Solomon expresses his disappointment saying firefighters “chose not to join with their police and municipal employee brethren who understand and have shared my belief that sacrifices needed to be made.”

Chose not to join them? They are all getting a 3% raise next mont. the firefighters are not. I’m guessing they would join them in a second, just give them a raise like ALL other city workers.

Thursday, May 23
PaulHuff

"He also expresses his frustration in being handed situations from the prior administration for which he had no control and the departure of key finance personnel soon after winning the election last November."

Joe still hasn't gotten the message that pointing the finger at the past administration is weak leadership. Joe was on the council, a council that holds all the power in this city, for 20 years and most recently served as the council president.

Mr. Solomon....the people of Warwick blame you and the rest of the City Council for the situation we find ourselves in. Show some leadership and own the problem and quit acting like a little kid blaming others.

Thursday, May 23
Get Real

Joe did inherit a mess from Avedsian. It will take yrs to dig out from the fiscal mismanagement of the previous administration. That's a fact.

My beef with Joe is that after a yr. he has done nothing to address the structural problems destroying the taxpayers.

He should have never signed the police and municipal contracts but rather gone back to the bargaining units and ask for major concessions. The WFD is another story. Their budget should be cut to the bone and fire houses closed to cut costs.

The good time for the city unions is over.

If Joe can't handle it then step aside and let someone who will take over.

Thursday, May 23
had enough

Does the Mayor realized how stupid he sounds every time he blames the previous administration and was surprised by the financial situation the City is in? YOU served on the Council for several years; You were the Chairman of the Council. You did not know!! Nothing can be done without Council approval. Do you make a habit of approving contracts and budgets you have not read or do not understand? If he continues to insist that he new nothing then the only conclusion I can come to is he is not qualified to be Mayor.

Thursday, May 23
Joe k

Get Real

The Fire Dept is 8% of the total budget, the city needs to look elsewhere for cuts . But if they want to close fire houses prepare for the city’s bond ratings to drop and home owner insurance to go up. Which council member wants to tell their constituents they’ll have to wait 5- 10 minutes or even longer when there’s an emergency. If they went want by call volume per district guess who loses coverage ? I know do you?

Thursday, May 23
wwkvoter

Firefighters are certainly getting a lot of heat lately...

https://turnto10.com/news/local/in-dispute-with-firefighters-north-providence-mayor-targets-their-beds

Thursday, May 23
wwkvoter

When asked if he saw a scenario where Warwick filed for receivership, Merolla didn't hesitate.

"That's inevitable if we don't make changes," he said.

Friday, May 24
Goodjake

Hey West Warwick voter, than maybe Merolla should look at the other 93 % of the budget and look for ways to reduce our burden. Maybe even he can surrender his free healthcare for life he gets for being on the council.

Friday, May 24
Ben Dover

I believe it was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen who coined the Washington phrase, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money." Rhode Island seems to have that spending model down pat.

As the citizens ponder this $323M budget, $175M for schools, I was struck by something John Stark wrote a couple of weeks ago...The cost of an education, in Warwick, $19K per student, and the overall ROI...and I got to thinking, how much for education in other schools?

I took a quick look at tuition and fees for 2019-20 at Hendricken, LaSalle and Mt. St. Charles expecting Ivy League like numbers...How about 15175, LaSalle, 15675, 9-11 and 16050, 12 and The Mount, 14400...Gives one pause, ya think...

Of course if you are awash in cash, and you can afford Moses Brown @ 37865 or Rocky Hill @ 37600...Why worry? Did you ever wonder where many Warwick teachers send their kids to school? Jus' sayin'...OH, Harvard Business School, 101..."When is a deal not a deal?" When you can't afford it...Not to worry...A year from now, the same hand wringing and whining will return as nothing will change systemically, until it all crashes and burns...There has to be will and leadership...RI has very little of each.

Friday, May 24
justanidiot

Many teachers send their kids to private school. Back during one of the work to rule periods, I was at a meeting where a teacher, who lived in Warwick, was extolling a field trip their kid had gone on. I said I thought all field trips were off and she said "My child goes to LaSalle, Pilgrim is such a horrible school."

Nice she was honest, but that spoke volumes about teacher commitment to the local schools. Good for a paycheck -- lousy for an education.

Friday, May 24
Get Real

Joe K

Guess if you spin enough taxpayers will believe it. Let me say it loud and clear the taxpayers can no longer afford the WFD.

Why didn't you tell people 70 % of all fire dept calls are rescue runs? The city has only 4 rescue trucks so response time will not be impacted. The city should immediately contract with a private co. to assume this responsibility. The taxpayers will save millions.

The Mayor should next reduce fire stations. Another substantial savings. These steps need to take place because the WFD shows no restraint with their greed.

You and I both know the WFD is more than 8% of the budget. Another of of your fantasies. You and your cohorts never include your benefits that are too numerous to mention.

The WFD needs to be downsized now.

Friday, May 24
Joe K

Very true the city could definitely use another Rescue truck as many times there are multiple mutual aid rescues from other communities in the city. The numbers are probably more like 75% or higher as they are nationally , a Rescue with only 2 people is never dispatched alone hence why an engine goes for the extra man power that many medical emergencies require. Plus the closest rescue available may be coming from across the city or even a Providence hospital so it only makes sense to send a local engine Or ladder company . Maybe if the money generated by the rescue runs went back into the FD budget like in other cities instead of the city general fund some people would stop complaining about working men and women of the WFD . By the way it’s in the millions.

Friday, May 24
Jimmy

If anyone wants to look Back at my past comments, I believe I stated that Merolla was hiding the Audit for the fire department. After today’s revelation about him, does anyone not believe me. Your leaders are screwing this city up. Not the unions

Friday, May 24
wwkvoter

jimmy, what revelation? did I miss something?

as to rescues, I can say this, we had elder family member brought in, and it was an out of town rescue on a mutual aid call.

Friday, May 24
Jimmy

Wwkvoter,

You must have not seen the news. Merolla his the 5 year forecast/audit last year before the council voted on the contracts. Big Boston globe story coming out. It was all

Over the news today. Plus Avadesian throwing his Solicitor undervthe bus for the WFD contract stuff

Friday, May 24
wwkvoter

Thanks Jimmy found it. Merola sat on audits showing gargantuan deficits until after new labor contracts were signed? Avedisian had no idea anything was going on with the side deals? This all gets weirder by the day.

https://turnto10.com/politics/avedisian-answers-questions-about-warwick-finances

Saturday, May 25
Jimmy

It should be deeply disturbing that the council doesn’t produce documents that taxpayers pay for. Where is the Fire Audit that was ordered in February of 2018. The union got theirs back 6 months ago.

Saturday, May 25
Jimmy

Maybe was wrong, maybe the FBI is investigating the city, maybe it’s about Merolla. He is the one talking to them, per his own words.

Saturday, May 25
Patient Man

Jimmy,

I think the FBI might be trying to put together a RICO case against Avedisian & the signatories on the secret side deals. The Chief & union President may not have been responsible for bringing the contract modifications to the City Council but they did know that the unratified contract was illegal. I can't imagine Avedisian's lawyer is going to fall on his knife for him. We'll have to wait & see.

Another point of interest; Someone in the media reported that the FBI is investigating because Federal funds go to the department. What about local & state law enforcement? Warwick & Rhode Island taxpayer funds also support the department. Are they cooperating with the FBI?

Certainly seems like Don Grebien's handshake deal with the Pawsox should be investigated as theft from city & state. It has to be illegal for public servants to throw away taxpayer money unilaterally.

Saturday, May 25
Jimmy

Patient,

I’m aware of all the federal grants we have received. They were written by our members to help the city. I am unaware of anything that was not done properly. I would be very shocked if there is anything done improperly. Side deals, I still Feel 100% that side deals are not being investigated either. I still wholeheartedly believe there is no active investigation. Only time will tell. I am positive not one member of the FD has been spoken to.

Saturday, May 25
Get Real

I so sick of reading the WFD wrote the grant. Why wouldn't they do it? It called doing your job. No praise necessary.

They have plenty of time on their hands. That is evidenced by the time spent at supermarkets , driving around the city doing nothing and getting paid to sleep on the job.

The WFD has been coddled too long. Avedisian did that for years and Solomon has done the same in spite his statements to the contrary.

The WFD needs to be downsized and salary and benefits cut.

Saturday, May 25
Jimmy

Get Real,

No it’s not the firefighters job to write grants, it’s the job of the Assistant Chief. The firefighters do it because there is a need in the city. To date they have secured close to 20 million in grants that would have gone to another community. When you say downsize, what do you mean, who are you going to shut down? I think the study that the mayor is paying $250,000 for is going to be shoved in a desk somewhere after it’s done because it’s going to say the WFD is in fact understaffed. Just like the last report they had done. But hey, go ahead and spend the money anyway.

Sunday, May 26
Bob_Cushman

Joe K writes, "The Fire Dept is 8% of the total budget".

Come on Joe, get real!

I guess if we take the Fire I employee salaries from 2018 fiscal year of $2,433,199 (line item 35-104) and the salaries from the Fire II employee salaries of $14,452,556 (line item 35-105) for a total salary expense of $16,885,755 and divide that by the total budget of $166,457,113, that would equal 10.1% of the budget.

But how about we consider an analysis of total firefighter costs which include the cost of all personnel line items, including overtime, sick pay, uniform allowance and all other compensation, active and retired firefighter healthcare costs, pension cost, services line items, commodity, capital expense and principal and interest line items?

Well guess what I did that and here are the results.

In 2004 all these expenses added up to a total cost of $28.6 million. Dividing the total number of firefighters of 213 at the time by that cost equals a per-firefighter cost of $134,515.

Based on the mayor’s proposed 2020 fiscal budget document, the total cost is projected to be $52.3 million. Dividing the total number of firefighters of 193 by that cost equals a per-firefighter cost of $271,089.

That means per-firefighter cost has increased 201 percent in 16 years from $134K to $271K.

As a percent of the overall fiscal 2020 proposed budget of $165,900,428, the firefighter budget represents 31.5 percent of the city budget.

To be fair if we subtract the $3.1 million from rescue fees, that leaves the total cost at $52.3 - $3.1 = $49.2 million / 193 firefighters = $255K per firefighter.

It also equates to 29.6 Percent of the overall budget.

Tuesday, May 28
Jimmy

Bob,

Please explain where you get 52.3 million as the fire department budget for 2020. Are you including retiree costs? $255,000/ per firefighter?

Tuesday, May 28
Joe k

Where does the 166,000,000 come from? Total city budget is 300 plus million . And FD budget is in the 24 mil range . I’m no mathematical genius and apparently neither are you but 24 mil is 8% of 300mil

Wednesday, May 29