NEWS

Amended version of $311M budget adopted

Council’s changes add new positions in canvassing, inspections; all of mayor’s vetoes overridden

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 5/12/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE The final days of the City Council's annual budget review proved to be the most consequential - and charged - of a process that involved many hours of hearings and debate over the course of more than five weeks. The council on May 6

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NEWS

Amended version of $311M budget adopted

Council’s changes add new positions in canvassing, inspections; all of mayor’s vetoes overridden

Posted

The final days of the City Council’s annual budget review proved to be the most consequential – and charged – of a process that involved many hours of hearings and debate over the course of more than five weeks.

The council on May 6 adopted an amended version of Republican Mayor Ken Hopkins’s roughly $311 million city spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1, approving a series of line item adjustments that, among other things, provided funding for new full-time positions in the canvassing and inspections offices.

Hopkins then took advantage of the expanded authority granted to his office by voters in November, vetoing a number of the council’s moves.

But during a special session Monday, through a series of votes – some unanimous, and none strictly along party lines – the Republican-controlled council overrode each of the mayor’s vetoes.

The adopted budget is balanced and retains the key elements Hopkins proposal, including a $1.5 million increase in local funding for Cranston Public Schools, the use of nearly $8 million in federal stimulus funding and new positions in the Police and Fire departments. It also reduces the residential and commercial tax rates, although the administration has acknowledged some property owners will pay more based on the results of last year’s revaluation.

The process has clearly created some tension among officials, though. A council amendment that redirected $3,900 from a discretionary account in the mayor’s office became a particular focus, but far from the only source of disagreement. Hopkins issued nine separate veto messages regarding the budget amendments.

During Monday’s meeting, Democratic Ward 2 Councilwoman Aniece Germain said she was “really stunned by the tone” of some of those messages, describing it as “really disrespectful.”

Countered Anthony Moretti, Hopkins’s chief of staff: “Mayor Hopkins respects each and every person on this council … For anyone to suggest that he’s been disrespectful is propaganda, and it’s out of line.”

Hopkins himself weighed in with a statement issued just after the council’s meeting concluded.

“The decision of the Cranston City Council to override the veto messages that I exercised for the adopted 2021-2022 budget passed last week is both disappointing and concerning to me as Chief Executive,” the mayor said. “Their actions tonight are a loss for the taxpayers of our city … As Mayor, I will take the necessary steps to preserve our financial health and protect Cranston taxpayers. The City Council fell short of their responsibility this evening.”

After the meeting, Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan, leader of the Democratic caucus, said while he does not “love” the budget, the council’s successful amendments represent a “significant improvement.”

“At the end of the day, the council did the right thing,” he said.

In a joint statement Friday, the council’s four Democrats said: “With bipartisan support, City Council Democrats were able to make net-neutral amendments to move funding towards departments and programs that will benefit our community … While no budget is perfect, we believe that the amendments we offered and supported highlight the City Council Democrats’ commitment to, and investment in our Cranston community.”

Before adjourning Monday’s meeting, Republican City Council President Chris Paplauskas suggested a silver lining could be found in the discord.

“I don’t think I’ve ever voted on a budget or passed a budget where I’ve been totally happy … So if we’re all not happy, we might be doing something right,” he said.

On Tuesday morning, Paplauskas added: “The mayor presented a great, zero tax increase budget. The council made minor changes to further improve city services. The council strongly agreed with the mayor not to increase taxes for our residents coming out of a pandemic. At the end of the day, I am happy that the council worked in a bipartisan manner to go line by line in the budget. The council worked very hard for the residents of the city … I’m just proud of how hard the council worked over the last six weeks.”

Asked about the tensions that arose in the final days of the process, he said: “I think politics brings passion, but at the end of the day the council looked at the mayor’s budget, which was a great budget, and did it’s job.”

Canvassing position

Some of the amendments made during the council’s May 6 budget adoption had been foreshadowed during earlier sessions.

The new full-time position within the Canvassing Department – which will replace a part-time position that currently exists in that office and carry the title “bilingual elections specialist” – became a top priority for the Democratic caucus and received support from Republicans as well.

Ultimately, the key votes on funding the full-time position, as well as Monday’s override vote, came on a 7-2 margin, with Citywidewide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli and Ward 6 Councilman Matthew Reilly – both Republicans – opposed.

Nick Lima, the city’s registrar and elections director, made the case for the position during a council Finance Committee hearing last month. While the coming fiscal year will not include an election, the case for increasing the current part-time position to a full-time role centers on the possibility – and likelihood, some say – that the city will be required to hold elections in both English and Spanish going forward based on the results of the 2020 Census. The redistricting process and new demands on elections personnel in the wake of last year’s cycle have also been cited.

During last week’s amendments meeting, Donegan said it is “incredibly important that [the position] is included in the budget this year” and that the move not wait until next year’s budget cycle, as some had suggested.

The Hopkins administration has countered by questioning the need for the new full-time post and noting that other municipal departments in need of staff were denied their requests as part of a broader approach to the budget.

In a statement issued after the council’s adoption vote last week, Hopkins said: “In a year when I demanded departments to do more with less, the council has added an unnecessary position,” said Hopkins. “I am committed to proper staffing at election time but we shouldn’t make budget decisions on who cries the most.”

In his veto message, he added: “The 2020 Election cycle was most unusual and complicated by the Covid 19 pandemic … There is no realistic expectation that in 2022 the same levels of activity will occur as life and our election process returns to a more normal level. The Clerk of the Board of Canvassers has used this once in a century 2020 election to increase his office staff. As mayor, I asked all department heads to do more with less to insure a no tax increase budget for Cranston residents. Every director could have made a valid argument for additional personnel. Yet, the canvassing clerk crusaded in hyperbole to justify a new position.”

The message also states: “I am absolutely committed to insuring that we have adequate staffing during election years and to insure an efficient and smooth voting process for our residents.”

The discussion over the canvassing position included Germain’s comments about the perceived “disrespectful” tone from the administration. She defended the creation of the bilingual elections specialist position as vital to the city, and said the debate was “not the place for politics playing.”

“There’s no place for feelings here … Be realistic, be bold, and match our words with our action,” she said.

Democratic Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas questioned the administration’s rationale regarding maintaining current staffing levels, citing the restructuring that took place in the mayor’s office earlier this year.

Republican Citywide Councilman Robert Ferri also pushed back against the administration on the issue.

“The other night, we found the money to create this position, and we all voted to create the position. So I don’t understand why the mayor vetoed it,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a personal thing with him. I don’t know if he’s trying to talk other people into opposing it. But the bottom line is, we found the money, it’s not an issue of the money.”

Paplauskas, too, supported the override. He noted that his mother-in-law, who lives in another community, relies on bilingual service when she goes to vote, which is one of the sole times she interacts with her local government.

“I think it’s needed in the city … I think it’s time that we have a bilingual full-time [position] in the Canvassing Department,” he said.

Reilly questioned the rationale for creating the full-time position this year, calling the framing of the debate by supporters of the move “masterful.” Ultimately, he said he views the question as being whether it is worth it for the city to assume additional salary and benefits for what will amount to an additional 10 hours of work each week.

“I am all for bilingual elections. I am all for anyone walking into City Hall having access to their government … But that’s not what’s before us tonight,” he said, adding: “It’s not about not respecting diversity … It’s about 10 hours versus the amount of money that’s requested.”

Other amendments

There was less contentiousness surrounding the creation of a new full-time position in the city’s inspections office.

Hopkins in a statement “applauded” Renzulli and Republican Council Vice President Ed Brady of Ward 4 for pursuing that position, which he said “will add value to the businesses and homeowners of the city.” The members of the council’s Democratic caucus, meanwhile, highlighted their support for the move in a joint statement.

A significant pay raise for Stephen Angell, the City Council’s legal adviser, did draw out the mayor’s veto pen.

The amendment approved by the council brings the compensation for the part-time attorney from $24,000 to $42,000, an increase of $18,000.

Hopkins’s veto message calls the increase “premature and not in proportion to the compensation of other legal counsel appointees of the city.”

Many council members, however, said Angell – who came aboard with the new term in January – is well worth the increase. He drew praise from the body’s Republicans and Democrats, particularly in terms of the expertise and accessibility he provides to a relatively young council.

“I think it’s money well spent for us, as the legislative body of the second-largest city in the state,” Donegan said.

Added Ferri: “He has never failed to call me back within an hour. He’s always there when I need him.”

Brady said while he understands why Hopkins vetoed the amendment, “I stand by the work this council did.” Brady had originally proposed a smaller increase in Angell’s compensation during the amendment process, but Ferri successful proposed the larger increase.

Paplauskas, the longest tenured member of the council, recalled that six or seven years ago, the role of the council’s legal adviser was “strictly parliamentarian.” In the years since, he said, it has “morphed” into a much more intensive position, one effectively “on call 24 hours a day” and heavily involved in the drafting of ordinances. He also noted that the city’s charter allows the council to hire two legal researchers, but those positions are unfilled and will remain so.

Reilly, who joined Renzulli in opposition to the veto override, called the size of the increase “a slap in the face to the taxpayers.” While also praising Angell, he said he was “baffled” that the council was “so freely handing out a 75 percent raise.”

There were a series of other amendments to the budget during last week’s session.

Early in the proceedings, Donegan relied on a series of successful line item reductions – many passed on 5-4 votes with Ferri joining the Democrats, and some for amounts as small as $250 – to free up the needed funding for the Canvassing Department position. Those adjustments were presented as being based on, and in line with, current and past year actual expenses.

Later, Renzulli and Donegan proposed other amendments that increased revenue line items to create additional funding to direct to other priority areas. Most of those proposals were successful.

During the initial line item reductions, Donegan successfully sought a $3,900 reduction in a $7,000 line item for the mayor’s office – referred to as “orders of the mayor” – that is essentially a discretionary fund.

Moretti told council members the administration intended to use the funding, which was being increased in the mayor’s budget, to help “build community spirit” through special events.

Donegan defended the move, saying he was not pursuing it for “political reasons” but instead felt the funding “would be better utilized going elsewhere,” particularly since the line item has gone untouched thus far in the current year.

The amendment ultimately succeeded on a 5-4 vote, with Ferri joining the Democrats. A later attempt to restore the $3,900 after additional revenue was added failed on the same margin as the council neared its midnight deadline for adjournment. The various late adjustments also led the council to place roughly $10,000 in additional funding in its own discretionary line item for dispersal to other areas later.

Hopkins was sharply critical of the council’s moves. In a statement after the May 6 meeting, he said: “It was clearly partisan pettiness for the council minority leader to chip away at the budget in my office while padding the council personal budget and special appropriations with tax dollars. Even when Councilwoman Renzulli suggested to restore the funds based on increased revenue proposed, some council members refused to fund the needs of my office for identified community projects.”

On Monday, Donegan said he felt the mayor’s veto message on this topic was “insulting.” He said he had a conversation about the topic with Hopkins on Friday morning and said he would support a move to restore the mayor’s line item in “an effort of good faith” and “bipartisanship.”

“Rather than extending his arm to meet mine, he chose to spit in my face,” Donegan said.

Moretti responded: “[The mayor] took an affront to hitting his department, which does not have much discretionary spending in it.”

Ultimately, the mayor’s vetoes were unanimously overridden to keep the budget in balance. But agreement emerged that steps would be taken as soon as next month to restore the $3,900 to the mayor’s line item.

“I’m glad that everyone had a change of heart,” Renzulli said, adding: “There is a chance that it doesn’t [get returned], and that does concern me.”

Council members also indicated they will seek to restore some of the other line items that were reduced during Donegan’s early amendments on May 6, including some for office supplies.

Final notes

Among the other amendments to the budget was an increase in the fireworks sales license fee to $150 from its current $50.

Hopkins had vetoed the move, with Moretti saying the mayor had “felt it’s a good year to be able to proclaim to the residents and the business community … that there are no fee increases in the city of Cranston.”

Donegan countered: “The administration would rather have a catchy sound byte than do what’s in the best interest of the city.”

The council voted unanimously to override the veto.

Other adjustments to the adopted budget, some of which involved veto overrides, include $10,000 for the city’s Diversity Commission, additional funding for the Arts Commission, and $20,000 in “program aid” for the Department of Parks and Recreation’s summer camps and programs. Donegan said he will soon introduce an ordinance outlining the parameters of the assistance program.

The council also overrode Hopkins’s veto of Democratic Citywide Councilwoman Jessica Marino’s successful amendment seeking the use of roughly $167,000 in Western Cranston impact fees for improvements to the bike path. Questions were raised by the administration over the legality of using the funds in that way, but since the funding would become part of the capital budget and not effect the balancing of the operating budget, the council opted to proceed with the amendment and make changes at a later date if required.

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