By EMMA BARTLETT
After seven hours of voting on amendments for the city’s operating and capital budget for FY 2023, council members voted 6-3 not to accept the budget’s amendments …
By EMMA BARTLETT
After seven hours of voting on amendments for the city’s operating and capital budget for FY 2023, council members voted 6-3 not to accept the budget’s amendments – resulting in the adoption of Mayor Ken Hopkins’ proposed operating budget of $330 million per Cranston’s City Charter.
On April 1, Hopkins presented his proposed budget to the City Council, which called for a 6.3 percent increase from the $311 million FY 2022 operating budget. The budget included a 2.85 percent tax increase to finance the city’s spending plan, a $12 million deficit and the use of $19.4 million of the city’s $42.6 million American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. FY 2023 begins July 1, 2022.
For reference, a three-bedroom colonial in Edgewood will see an increase of $127 in taxes; in Garden City, a three-bedroom will see an increase of $138 in taxes; a duplex in Stadium will also have taxes increased by $127; in Western Cranston, a four-bedroom colonial reviewed would see an increase of $209.
Steven Frias, a local historian and author of “Cranston and its Mayors,” described Wednesday as "a historic night in Cranston."
"It was the first time the Cranston City Council had ever refused to adopt any operating budget for an upcoming fiscal year and simply allowed the mayor's operating budget to go into effect," said Frias.
At the budget adoption meeting on May 4, Councilman Robert Ferri said the mayor’s budget would result in raised taxes for years to come. Councilman and majority party leader John Donegan agreed, mentioning there could be a tax increase for the next three or four years due to the proposed budget.
Hopkins came before the council again Wednesday night saying he level-funded most of the departments except for commitments and contractual obligations; additionally, he noted the city had been negatively impacted by inflation such as the increase of electricity prices, tipping fees for waste management and use of Providence water.
“Contrary to public comments I have heard, these are not irresponsible spending items but actual obligations of our city beyond my direct control,” said Hopkins.
Hopkins listed the expenses and revenue loss beyond the city’s power – including $7 million in several years of claims and health insurance deficiencies.
Hopkins said former Finance Director Robert Strom told him the auditor general wanted the $7 million matter addressed, causing Hopkins to fund the deficiencies now rather than later. He went on to say that there were $1.6 million in expenses for contracted employee obligations and step increases. Additionally, there was an increase in debt service of $1.7 million for capital projects and an additional $1.2 million for school projects that the mayor was contractually obligated to fund. Hopkins listed additional revenue expenses that were in the thousands of dollars or lower.
Hopkins said he didn’t know about this budget shortfall and wasn't notified until a week before presenting the budget. Hopkins told Gene Valicenti on Valicenti’s WPRO talk show on May 4 that one of the biggest problems is paying for IODs (injured on duty). The city currently has over 25 members of firefighters on IOD who have been out for two to five years.
At the budget meeting, Hopkins said he fulfilled his duty to present the council with a balanced budget and was “comfortable with the level of spending he proposed”; he said the proposed capital and operating budgets meet the city’s and constituents’ needs.
He said at the request of the Republican council members, Hopkins looked at the budget after it had been proposed and made adjustments with department heads on areas where they could do with a little less.
Hopkins singled out Councilman Robert Ferri and Councilwoman Jessica Marino who have been outspoken about the budget, causing Council President Chris Paplauskas to ask Hopkins not to call out specific council members.
“I take great offense to the mayor standing before this council and calling out two members of this distinguished body in such a negative way, and that should reflect the record and the mayor’s decorum this evening,” said Marino.
Hopkins said there would absolutely be budget challenges next year and going forward. Throughout the night, council members expressed their concerns about the budget being fiscally irresponsible.
Donegan’s concern came from using $19.4 million of ARPA funds to plug holes in the budget – these funds would be close to half of the city’s ARPA money. For last year’s budget, Hopkins received approval to use $7 million in ARPA funds for the budget (to offset revenue loss suffered as a result of the pandemic) and this year was approved to use close to $20,000 to administer a poll on how ARPA funds should be used.
“Based on surveys, based on conversations, that’s not how our public – our community – wants to see those funds spent,” said Donegan, mentioning that the funds should go toward addressing infrastructure, improving parks and open space, preparing for climate emergencies and addressing the health disparities that have been magnified and brought to light due to Covid.
Donegan said his vote was on principle and the budget itself; the amended budget was still a failing budget and he couldn’t vote for it in good conscience. Due to the City Charter, by not voting for the amended budget, the proposed budget would pass.
“In four weeks, the council cannot reasonably be expected to accomplish what the mayor failed to do in a year with the full array of administrative supports: resolve, or even address, the underlying structural deficit and put forward a fiscally responsible plan for the year(s) to come,” Donegan said in a press release Monday.
After going through the amendment process, the savings would have come to $1,372,000 from the operating budget and just under $2 million from the capital budget.
“This budget is an F. The fact is the administration, this is their task to work on this and present it to us,” said Marino.
Reilly said the council was given an opportunity to fix the budget, but people were voting no left and right.
“Anybody who voted no on certain things and then wants to tout on certain things and point fingers right now, it’s just disingenuous,” said Reilly.
Reilly put forth amendments and said he didn’t get support on any of them.
“Nobody has the will to make the cuts that need to be made, so we have to blame ourselves as much as the mayor,” Reilly said.
On Tuesday, Reilly shared that he voted no to the budget because there were simply not enough cuts.
“We can’t ask the taxpayers for more until we put skin in the game. Through discussion and some formal amendments I proposed $13.4 million in savings to the taxpayer. My colleagues on both sides of the aisle were not willing to do what needed to be done,” said Reilly.
He said he didn’t blame the mayor but rather the state from Cranston’s financial situation – saying it cut millions from the city this year.
“The tax increase and use of ARPA funds and the structural deficit is the sole responsibility of the den of thieves at the state house by withholding needed funds and petty Cranston democrats for doing nothing to solve the problem,” Reilly said.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Renzulli shared sentiments about the budget not being in great shape, but discussed the fact that the council was able to find over $1 million to cut.
“Why would we put this aside? If the mayor fails, the city fails,” said Renzulli.
Chief of Staff Anthony Moretti said the council was not short on criticism Wednesday night but were inept at finding any solutions to the issues that they raised. He said the decision was an attempt to cause disruption and fiscal chaos in the city.
“The city council as a whole failed to carry out their responsibilities as council members,” said Moretti, noting it is their critical job to review and approve a budget for taxpayers.
Because the capital budget was not approved, Moretti said the city cannot progress with any long-term projects since they have no authorization to proceed. Additionally, he said one of the resolutions that was voted down was a resolution for the approval of a tax levy. By not imposing a tax levy, the city is not able to send out tax bills or collect tax bills. Moretti said the administration will take this up with the council and if they choose to ignore the issue, the administration plans to look at legal options.
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