NEWS

City Council amends budget, boosts taxes 1.97%

By ADAM ZANGARI
Posted 5/30/24

By a 6-3 vote, the Warwick City Council approved an amended version of Mayor Frank Picozzi’s Fiscal Year 2025 budget last Thursday, which Picozzi said he would sign.

The amended budget …

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NEWS

City Council amends budget, boosts taxes 1.97%

Posted

By a 6-3 vote, the Warwick City Council approved an amended version of Mayor Frank Picozzi’s Fiscal Year 2025 budget last Thursday, which Picozzi said he would sign.

The amended budget comes to a grand total of $361.2 million, an $8 million increase over the Fiscal Year 2024 budget and $400,000 over what Picozzi initially proposed. Dissenting were Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur, Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis and Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi.

Among the biggest changes from Picozzi’s budget is a drop in projected revenue plus additions by council members.

Two amendments by the City Council led to a total increase of $1,050,000 in the total tax levy. Overall, the tax rate for the city will jump from a 1.48% increase in the proposed budget to 1.97% in the amended budget. More specific increases, according to Finance Director Peder Schaefer, will be a 49-cent jump in the commercial tax rate compared to the FY24 budget and a 28-cent rise in the residential tax rate per $1,000 valuation compared to FY24.

Much of that increase was due to an amendment proposed by City Council president Steve McAllister, which removed $1.3 million in revenue that was projected from the use of cameras to detect school zone speed violations and motorists who run stop lights. The Police Department is exploring the plan, which has yet to be presented to the City Council.

Multiple council members said that there were simply too many unknowns about the traffic camera program for them to feel comfortable including it in the budget. The plan will likely come before the council next month, and Picozzi projected that the cameras would be installed in December or January should it be approved by the council.

“I respect the mayor, the way that he came and spoke on the revenue on the municipal court fines, I just think it’s jumping ahead,” McAllister said. “There are just so many factors we don’t know at this point- we don’t know who the vendors are going to be, how many cameras, where they’re going to go, what the policy is- all that is to come.”

McAllister’s amendment removing the traffic camera revenue also saw an additional $15,000 allocated to the municipal court salary for an additional judge with an increase in traffic fines, $45,000 to increase the Warwick Police Department’s night program, $90,000 split evenly between the nine wards for smaller-scale projects proposed by each councilor and $250,000 to Public Works’ field maintenance- adding $400,000 to the tax levy in total.

The first two items drew the ire of Picozzi, who argued that it was hypocritical to add money for an extra judge to process an increase traffic violations if the Council wouldn’t be including the revenue projected from new traffic cameras in the budget, and said that in conversations with Warwick Police Chief Bradford Connor, Connor had told him that the issue with expanding the night program was an issue with personnel, not funding.

The only vote against the amendment came from Ward 3 Councilman Tim Howe, who said that he had no issue with including the $1.3 million in revenue.

“I for one am not bothered by the $1.3 million because each budget has a projection,” Howe said. “I do understand where my colleagues are concerned… that then leads me to the municipal judge, which contradicts this. We want to include the expenditure, but we don’t want to include the revenue?”

Two later amendments- one made by Ward 1 Councilman William Foley and one made by Ward 9 Councilman Vincent Gebhart- eventually led to the city’s drawdown from reserves being increased by $650,000.

Foley’s original amendment offset the $1.3 million no longer projected in revenue and added it to the drawdown. Following its passage, Gebhart said that he would not be comfortable with adding that much money to the drawdown, and proposed an amendment splitting that total, with half going to the drawdown and half going to the tax levy, moving the tax rate up to 1.97% and total levee increase to $1.05 million.

“We are going to enter into territory in the next 4-5 years where we are likely going to depend on the fund balance to help us through the short-term borrowing costs related to the high schools,” Gebhart said.

Gebhart’s amendment ended up passing in a 5-4 vote, with Foley, Howe, Ward 4 Councilman James McElroy and Sinapi in opposition.

Sinapi brought up two amendments later in the meeting, both amending the projected revenue from traffic cameras- first back to the original $1.3 million and then later to $1,300,001.

“The overarching proposal is to raise taxes more than necessary, given that we are ignoring a projected revenue even though projections are literally what the budget is based on,” Sinapi said. “To summarize, we can acknowledge reasonably projected revenue that is incredibly conservative by all accounts or we can ignore reasonably projected revenue, which is mind-boggling because of all the other projections in the budget that we are acknowledging.”

Following a comment by McAllister, Sinapi asked if the amendment was in violation of the City Charter, and eventually asked if he could ask a question of the administration. Sinapi’s request led to a brief shouting match between McAllister and Picozzi, with McAllister claiming that Picozzi was out of order and could not speak before the council and Picozzi attempting to invoke Article 3-10 of the City Charter, which states that the mayor “shall have the right to take part in the discussion coming before the council, school committee, and municipal governing boards.”

After the council ruled that Sinapi’s amendment was not out of order, Howe and McElroy joined Sinapi in voting in favor of the amendment, though it ultimately failed.

Picozzi strongly disapproved of McAllister’s initial amendment, saying that its passage would cause him to seriously think about whether or not to approve the final budget.

“I’m asking you to leave it in the budget, the projected revenue, we can deal with it later without causing a tax increase,” Picozzi said. “I don’t want to put a greater tax burden- more than 1.5%- which hurts me to do as it is.”

Other key amendments

After Warwick Public Schools finance director Brandon Bohl mentioned the repair of the track at Warwick Veterans Middle School as something that could be cut with a smaller budget than requested on Monday’s budget hearing, two separate amendments allocated $500,000 for the repair of the track- though not by transferring it to WPS.

Gebhart proposed putting the money into the DPW’s field maintenance fund, noting that that would ensure that the money would go towards the track, and that with all four of Warwick’s secondary schools using it in the near future, making sure the track is repaired would be a priority. This was done with the addition of the $250,000 in McAllister’s amendment.

In addition to McAllister’s amendment, one from Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix boosted funding of the track to $500,000, the amount Bohl estimated for full repairs.

Rix’s amendment moved $250,000 from the Fire Department’s overtime budget to Public Works’ field maintenance account. He justified the move by projecting that the WFD had initially over-budgeted their total projections for their total salaries, overtime, sick time and on-the-job injuries.

“Very conservatively, the Fire Department has over budgeted by $362,000, just based on their own numbers,” Rix said. “I think it’s reasonable for us to take $250,000.”

budget, council

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