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More with less

Schools outline financial needs, Council hears mayor’s plan to trim city departments

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Mayor Joe Solomon presented a budget to the City Council Tuesday night that sought to do “more with less” by laying off city employees and cutting department budgets rather than raising property taxes for local residents.

Members of the council, the mayor’s team, and members of the public tuned in via the online application Zoom to review the city budget in a process that would typically take place in the confines of Warwick City Hall, were it not for the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing guidelines. Review of the budget, including revenue estimates, will continue online on Wednesday, with a remote vote scheduled for Saturday morning.

As he presented his budget to the council and fielded questions, Solomon stressed that the $323.5 million budget, a 0.52 percent increase over the current year’s budget, was “doing more with less,” with cuts to almost all city departments, many in the form of layoffs. Solomon said that with a projected drop in revenues, city salary expenditures had to be reduced, and he went to the municipal employees union, Warwick City Employees Local 1651, with the option of foregoing planned raises or taking layoffs. The union voted to keep their pay raise.

“We are shaving this budget close to the bone, where we can provide services to taxpayers, be fair to our employees, and we are adhering to what was overwhelmingly voted by [the union] rank and file,” Solomon said.

But Walter Hartley, president of Local 1651, said that the proposal wasn’t that simple, and that the mayor and his staff wouldn’t provide financial information to the union about the layoffs and refused to answer basic questions. Hartley said the union wanted to provide alternative options to the administration, to avoid layoffs, but that the mayor refused to meet with him or other union representatives.

“To us, it felt like it was a take it or leave it offer,” Hartley said. “I had asked numerous times for the mayor to talk with us and the answer from them was no. I would still welcome a sit down conversation with the mayor to talk through this.”

As of Wednesday, 38 jobs had been cut from the budget – eight laborers and four machine operators in the Department of Public Works, a machinist in the police garage, a senior tax collector, as well as many other employees scattered across city departments.

“I’m not sure what the ‘more is less’ message is going forward,” said Hartley, who said there could be reduced quality in city services. “To me, that sounds like there is going to be more work for less people to do.”

Department budget increases are planned for the Board of Canvassers – to prepare for a general election year and projected high turnout – as well as a $2 million increase in funding for Warwick Public Schools. Still, the School Committee submitted a budget asking for an increase in community support of $8.3 million, leaving a large gap between what the schools want and what the mayor and council, as of Wednesday, are willing to give.

Warwick Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Phillip Thornton said that there are still many unknowns about the school budget for the upcoming fiscal year, including the amount of savings due to remote learning, the amount of money to be received in the form of state aid, and the costs of reopening schools in the fall in the midst of a pandemic.

Anthony Ferrucci, the chief budget officer for Warwick Public Schools, said that the fiscal year 2021 budget was “the most challenging of my 10-year tenure with the department.” He said that the Warwick School Committee and the school department were fully aware of the budget constraints the mayor and council are operating under, and that they were working to reduce costs as much as possible.

Ferrucci went line by line through the budget approved May 6 on a 4-1 vote by the Warwick School Committee. He said that compared to fiscal year 2020, there had been a $7.6 million increase in expenses, a 4.5 percent increase from the year before, with most of the new expenses coming in the form of contracted salary and benefit increases for school employees, as well as rising number of students attending schools outside of Warwick’s district.

Also, Ferrucci said there had been a $755,000 reduction in revenue for Warwick schools, mostly linked to reduced levels of education aid supplied by the state due to falling student enrollment. An outstanding issue is the current contract negotiations with the Warwick Teachers Union. As of now, no possible pay raises or cuts for union members have been factored into the school budget.

Questions from council members focused on possible sources of savings for the schools, with Edgar Ladouceur, chair of the Finance Committee, asking about savings in transportation costs over the last 60 days of the school year, when students began remote learning.

Ferrucci said that even with cost savings associated with remote learning in fiscal year 2020, there was still going to be a budget shortfall for fiscal year 2021.

Councilman Rick Corley asked about salaries for spring sports coaches. Karen Bachus, chairwoman of the School Committee, said that they didn’t want to pay the coaches unless required.

Councilman Anthony Sinapi said that he had already met with members of the School Committee and the school department for over seven hours, reviewing the budget and asking questions, trying to head off a conflict like happened last year when hundreds of Warwick Public Schools students crowded City Hall, protesting the lack of school funding that almost led to a cut in high school athletics.

“The goal is to make sure students are not negatively impacted for their learning, athletics are not impacted, and teachers are not impacted in their ability to do their job,” Sinapi said. “Because they have been on board working together, this has been a much better process than last year, infinitely so.”

The current city budget assumes slightly increased state-aid payments, and when asked about the chances that the state proceeds with those funding levels, Solomon said “maybe the powers that be up at the State House can work on that.”

One point of contention was over $150,000 put away in fiscal year 2019 and 2020 in the legislative department for the city council to fund investigations and surveys. Rob Cote, Warwick resident, asked City Council president Steve Merolla if the results of those studies and investigations were public. Merolla asked Cote to file an official request with the city.

Also, the mayor’s team voiced confidence in the city’s pensions, with the stock market and rates of return on pension investments rebounding from lows in March.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Solomon said at the end of the five-hour online session. “Other cities and towns wish they were Warwick.”

opinion, editorial

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