By DANIEL KITTREDGE Hearings on Mayor Ken Hopkins's roughly $311 million city budget plan for the coming year are complete, and the City Council is set to consider amendments ahead of a scheduled adoption vote next week. The council's Finance Committee
Hearings on Mayor Ken Hopkins’s roughly $311 million city budget plan for the coming year are complete, and the City Council is set to consider amendments ahead of a scheduled adoption vote next week.
The council’s Finance Committee on Monday voted to forward the budget to the full council for a special meeting on Thursday, May 6. That brought an end to the committee’s lengthy hearing process, which included five separate hours-long sessions over the course of April focused on various department budgets.
Initially during Monday’s session, the committee began consideration of amendments to the budget. Council President Chris Paplauskas began offering a series of amendments with the stated goal of providing funding for an additional full-time position in the Canvassing Department.
Based on time constraints and comments from Director of Administration Anthony Moretti, however, Paplauskas and the rest of the committee opted to change course, pushing any proposed amendments to the May 6 session.
Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan, the council’s minority leader, indicated the Democratic caucus will propose amendments aimed at funding the additional canvassing position during next week’s session.
The budget for Cranston Public Schools also appears to be a likely area of focus during the amendment process, as it has often been in years past.
During the April 21 Finance Committee hearing on the schools budget, the district’s leadership urged council members to fully fund Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse’s $171.9 million spending plan – while also thanking Hopkins and his administration for the $1.5 million local funding increase provided in his $169.6 million proposal for the schools.
The request for an additional full-time staff member in the Canvassing Department stems from Registrar Nicholas Lima’s presentation during the budget hearing process. The council also held an executive session on the department’s staffing on April 19.
In short, the request is for a part-time staff brought aboard during the 2020 election cycle to be made permanent to help the Canvassing Department prepare for the demands of future elections, including the possibility that the city will be required to offer bilingual elections going forward based on the results of the Census.
Randall Jackvony, chairman of the Board of Canvassers, addressed the Finance Committee on Monday to advocate for the additional position.
“In order to properly, safely and effectively run elections in the city of Cranston, the position is really necessary,” he said.
He added: “Having someone who speaks Spanish is incredibly important to the constituency in the city of Cranston.”
An initial amendment from Paplauskas, which would have taken the roughly $15,000 for the part-time position out of the budget as part of a series of moves aimed at funding the full-time post, was approved on a 4-3 vote of the committee. Citywide Councilwoman Jessica Marino, Citywide Councilman Robert Ferri and Donegan joined Paplauskas in the majority, while Citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli, Council Vice President Ed Brady and Ward 6 Councilman Matthew Reilly were opposed.
Then, after Paplauskas introduced his second proposed amendment, the debate opened up to more fully address the issue.
Reilly, while saying the Canvassing Department “did amazing work last year” and “went above and beyond,” questioned the rationale for making the part-time position full time, particularly in a non-election year.
“To take the same exact number of individuals … and to just put more money into that department, coming out of a pandemic where we need to be very careful, it doesn’t make sense,” he said.
He added: “Many departments came before us and made requests, asked for more, and that’s their prerogative … I don’t see that this one rises to a greater level than any other that requested it. So for that reason, even though they do do an amazing job and I wish we had the money to give them, I think we need to be more prudent and not go forward with this.”
Reilly also suggested that a current full-time employee within the Canvassing Department could learn Spanish to help prepare for the possibility of bilingual elections.
Donegan said he felt it would be “incredibly detrimental” for the city not to add the full-time post to the Canvassing Department.
“Elections really have changed,” he said, due to the expansion of mail and early voting in 2020. Going forward, he said, there is almost certain to be “increased demand on what the Canvassing Department is doing.”
The prospective requirement for bilingual elections, Donegan added, poses “another significant challenge going forward” based on current staffing. While that issue will not likely be finalized until the arrival of full Census figures in the fall, he said the city should act now and be prepared.
“It’s important that we do it this year, not next year,” he said.
Donegan also said his intention will be to find sources of funding for the full-time position – which will carry a roughly $60,000 cost, according to figures officials provided Monday – within the mayor’s budget plan, making its fiscal impact neutral.
Moretti then weighed in, saying the Hopkins administration weighed “many, many factors” in how the mayor’s budget addresses staffing.
Regarding the potential bilingual elections requirement, he said: “The administration is not really keen on hiring with the potential of future laws.” He later added, however: “If it’s required by law, we’re going to do whatever’s necessary to comply.”
Moretti also suggested the discussion of the issue – which at points included references the current part-time canvassing staffer filling the full-time post – had potentially opened the city up to legal liability, giving the impression the proposed full-time job had been “earmarked.”
“From the administration’s end, we maintain that we are an equal opportunity employer in the city, and it would be unfair to characterize someone to be a shoe-in,” he said.
Moretti also stood by the administration’s decision not to add requested positions for a number of municipal departments, aside from planned hiring in the Police and Fire departments. Other department heads who made requests for additional personnel, he said, were “very respectful of the process.”
Moretti echoed Reilly’s concern over adding staff to the Canvassing Department in a non-election year, saying it “just seems like an odd time to be adding personnel.” He also said the mayor would “probably” prioritize new personnel for the inspections office were there resources for additional hiring.
At that point, Paplauskas withdrew the amendment on the floor and asked for reconsideration of his first amendment, which was unanimously approved. The committee then voted to forward the mayor’s budget to the full council.
On April 21, the leadership of Cranston Public Schools addressed the Finance Committee to make the case for full funding of the district’s budget plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The school budget has been a significant focus during this year’s budget cycle, largely due to the unexpectedly small increase the district is slated to receive in state aid.
For a number of years since the state’s adoption of its education funding formula, Cranston Public Schools has received increases of $3 million to $4 million annually through the Rhode Island Department of Education.
For fiscal year 2022, however, the district is slated to receive effectively level funding – an increase of just $36,000. That led Nota-Masse, in her budget plan for the district, to seek an increase of nearly $3.8 million in the city’s contribution to the public schools. The School Committee adopted that plan earlier this year.
Hopkins, in his budget, proposed a $1.5 million increase in the city’s contribution to the school district. While significantly more than the city’s typical increase in recent years, that level of funding would still leave the district roughly $2.3 million short of its adopted budget plan.
During last week’s hearing, district officials made clear they view Hopkins’s proposed funding level favorably. Nonetheless, they asked the City Council to do more.
School Committee Chairman Dan Wall said he is “very grateful for that figure from Mayor Hopkins.”
“City Council, we look to you to bridge that difference for the good of our city and the good of our students,” he said.
Citywide committee member Michael Traficante described Hopkins’s proposed local funding increase as “very positive and productive” and a “meaningful allocation.”
“Unfortunately and realistically, the school system will be facing difficult times in the times ahead if the state aid formula is not addressed immediately,” he said. “The Cranston School Department … cannot and will not survive appropriately over the years on just local aid alone.”
Traficante also defended the district’s adopted budget, pushing back against any suggestion it is “pie in the sky.” He spoke about rising contractual obligations and other costs beyond the district’s control.
“Let me assure you that that number is appropriate, is realistic and is truthful,” he said.
Nota-Masse also said the district’s budget was developed “in a very responsible manner.” Addressing the fact that the district has run surpluses in recent years, she added: “We should not be punished because we finished the year with surpluses … That means we have lived within, if not beneath, our means.”
The superintendent added: “I am truly appreciative of Mayor Hopkins’s commitment to our schools.”
The hearing included discussion of how the district will utilize federal stimulus money, along with issues such as an ongoing shortage of substitute teachers and the Police Department’s presence in school buildings.
Donegan at one point asked Nota-Masse how the district would address the roughly $2.3 million gap between the mayor’s budget and the superintendent’s adopted plan.
Nota-Masse said the district strives to ensure any needed budget reductions “don’t impact children on a day-to-day basis.” She spoke of the situation several years ago, when the district made major reductions in programming due to the effects of the global recession.
“We work really, really hard to never have that happen again,” she said.