Council adopts budget without major changes

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The City Council adopted an amended version of Mayor Allan Fung’s $298-million city budget plan for the coming fiscal year on May 2, directing some additional funding to the city’s schools and a handful of other areas.

A special meeting had been scheduled for Monday night in the event the mayor vetoed any of the amendments, but it was cancelled. On Monday, Director of Administration Daniel Parrillo confirmed the mayor did not veto any of the council’s amendments.

The budget includes a tax increase of 2.37 percent for the coming year, which the mayor’s administration has said would amount to an increase of approximately $102 for the owner of a home with the median value of $213,100. The mayor said the increase was needed in order to make investments in several areas, including education, infrastructure, recreation and public safety.

Fung’s budget included an additional local appropriation of $1.5 million for Cranston Public Schools – roughly half of the additional funding the district had requested, but more than his budgets have included in the past.

Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse recently told council members that the district was facing a roughly $935,000 gap between its budget plan and the available funding based on state aid projections and the mayor’s budget plan.

The council, through its budget approval process, ultimately provided the district with another $100,000 that is intended to provide for an additional social worker at the high school level, along with roughly $45,000 in additional funding.

In short, council members considered two sets of amendments – those presented by Council Vice President Michael Favicchio, who represents Ward 6, on behalf of the Republican majority, and those offered by Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos on behalf of the Democratic caucus.

The Republican amendments, through a series of relatively minor line-item adjustments, provided $70,000 in funding to be directed elsewhere.

It was used to provide a handful of salary increases – including to Municipal Court judges – and to provide the council with an additional sum of $48,500 with the intent of supporting school field trips through parent-teacher groups and covering any cost overruns associated with plans to livestream council meetings.

Stycos said the Democrats agreed to split the funding freed by their amendments between two priorities – providing additional money for Cranston Public Schools and supporting the Comprehensive Community Action Program’s rental assistance program. He said the intention was to direct 80 percent of the available funding to the district and 20 percent to CCAP.

The Democratic amendments resulted in approximately $45,000 in additional funding for the school district and $10,000 for the CCAP rental program.

Several of the proposed amendments generated debate.

The council’s Republicans argued that the salary increases for Municipal Court judges – which were ultimately approved on a 5-4 party-line vote – were warranted, given the significant increases in revenue being generated through the court. Specifically, the raises will bring Chief Judge Matthew Smith’s pay from $8,000 to $10,000 and the increase the compensation for the other five judges from $3,750 to $5,000.

Council President Michael Farina said under Smith’s tenure, the court’s revenues have increased approximately $400,000.

“They are working significantly harder than they have in the past,” he said. “Therefore a raise is well deserved … This is just a token of thank you for all the hard work.”

“These are salaries that our much less than what our Democratic colleagues passed years ago … I don’t think this is a huge increase,” Favicchio said.

“We put a lot of thought into this, and because … revenue has gone up significantly by Municipal Court fines, we believe there should be an adjustment made,” Ward 4 Councilman Edward Brady said.

Stycos agreed that the judges’ salaries are low compared with other communities, but said that is because there are more judges serving in Cranston Municipal Court. He also pointed to the Democratic caucus’ priorities in questioning the use of money for salary increases.

“I think that [the school district and CCAP’s rental assistance program] are where are priorities should be, and not doing piecemeal pay raises for people that frankly like to be judges because they like to be a judge rather than the pay … The pay is low for a lot of people in the city, and I think we've got to get our priorities straight,” he said.

“I think that we should be rethinking any salary increase during this budget season,” Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas said.

The Republican amendments also provided a roughly $4,300 salary increase for City Registrar Nicholas Lima and additional $6,000 in funding to allow Lisa Kirshenbaum, the city’s grant writer, to perform work on behalf of the city’s Fire and Police departments. Farina noted that the grant writer works on an hourly basis.

Both were approved on split votes, with Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley joining the Republican councilmen in support of each and Vargas voting in favor of the increased grant writer funding.

Another Republican-sponsored amendment, which was approved unanimously, provided $2,000 to fund equipment for the Police Explorer program. That will allow the program to replace items lost in a recent fire – specifically uniforms – while an insurance claim is pending.

The Republican proposal to provide money to support school field trips – specifically through granting each PTO with $1,000 for a total of nearly $30,000 – also became the subject of debate and some confusion.

Favicchio said the GOP recommendation was based on the Dr. Ken Wagner’s issuance of a “guidance document” regarding field trip funding before his recent departure as commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Education. That document – which school officials have said will be reviewed in terms of its local impact – was written in response to an inquiry from the East Greenwich School Committee, and essentially states that students cannot be charged fees for school-sponsored field trips.

During discussion, the point was raised that not all schools – or all entities within the district that take field trips – have a PTO. Ward 5 School Committee representative Janice Ruggieri noted that some have “family engagement networks” or other kinds of organizations in place.

Stycos said the Republican plan is a “very well intentioned proposal, but it’s not a good one.”

“Giving everybody $1,000 benefits some schools more than other schools … It also opens the door, I think, for a legislative grant system that we continually hear complaints about and [that] abuses occur with,” he said.

Ultimately, a vote to put a total of $48,500 – the funding left from the Republican amendments after the salary adjustments and other amendments – under the council’s control was approved on a 6-3 vote, with Vargas voting in favor.

Action to provide specific direction and use for the funding – be it the stated priorities of PTO funding and livestreaming support or other areas – will be needed at a later date.

Favicchio noted the funding will not actually be available until the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

“It’s just an appropriation, puts it in our budget … we have time to decide what we do with it,” he said.

On the Democratic side, Stycos offered amendments in three batches – a set of proposals focused on “transparency,” a group of recommended changes in the capital budget and several line-item adjustments.

In terms of transparency amendments, the council unanimously backed the inclusion of new line items under the Municipal Court section of the budget to break out revenue from traffic fines, building code fines and other fines. Another proposal, which sought to include the Cranston Veterans Memorial Ice Rink as a new group in the budget, failed on a 5-4 party-line vote.

Several of Stycos’ amendments regarding line-item adjustments failed or had been rendered moot by earlier Republican amendments. Three proposals that sought to increase revenue lines with the intention of later raises fees – specifically mooring fees, fireworks sales licensing fees and gas/petroleum permit fees – were all unsuccessful.

The council did approve the use of approximately $39,000 from a “budget stabilization account” – which was described as a leftover from the city’s financial difficulties several years ago – for use toward the Democratic priorities.

Stycos said the $10,000 ultimately directed toward CCAP’s rental assistance program would help local families avoid homelessness.

Joanne McGunagle, CCAP’s president and CEO, said the program is designed to assist households facing a major disruption in income due to a death, illness or other significant event. She said the program provides one-time assistance and requires families to demonstrate financial sustainability going forward.

Support for the CCAP funding was unanimous, while the final vote to direct roughly $45,000 in additional funding to the school district was 8-1, with Favicchio opposed.

“The only group we haven't given anything back to are the taxpayers,” he said, later adding: “I think we’ve taken pretty good care of the schools this year … I just think we should give something back to the taxpayers.”

“We're giving them a good school system,” Stycos replied.

Farina said he would have been open to providing taxpayer relief, but that the amount of funding available would not have equated to even 1 cent off the tax rate.

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