Mayor Ken Hopkins announced Monday a series of initiatives his administration is undertaking to meet budget challenges resulting from the pandemic and structural cost increases that …
Mayor Ken Hopkins announced Monday a series of initiatives his administration is undertaking to meet budget challenges resulting from the pandemic and structural cost increases that Cranston will face in the months ahead. The announcement brought outcries from council members who learned of the development from the news media.
“While the budget that starts July 1 is being implemented, I am leading a comprehensive effort to review the entire budget landscape and operations of city government,” said Hopkins in a June 6 press release. The Herald was unable to contact Hopkins Tuesday to learn the severity of the ‘budget challenges.”
In the release, Hopkins said he has advised department director to implement the $1.1 million in budget cuts he had proposed on the night of the council budget vote.
Hopkins said everything is on the table in this budget review.
“We are exploring all options and I am prepared to make the tough cost cutting decisions that I feel are necessary.”
Hopkins said his goals are to minimize impact on public services and city personnel.
“Unfortunately, the range of options I am considering will no doubt mean that there is ‘no one size fits all’ approach to budget balancing,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said he has already advised department directors to implement the $1.1 million dollars in cuts he proposed and supported on the night of the City Council budget vote on May 4.
“In the end, the size of our local government must be reduced to lessen the burden on local taxpayers as we face a cyclical mismatch between our revenue raising ability and essential expenditure needs.”
Hopkins emphasized that “Small incremental changes will not get us to the comprehensive response that I think we need.”
Hopkins highlighted a series of options relating to personnel and the operation of government that he is considering.
“We have already begun discussions with our employee bargaining groups,” Hopkins said, noting that salaries and benefits drive the budget discussions.
“We need help from our unions or else we will need to make difficult choices on personnel,” Hopkins said.
In the short term, Hopkins has ordered the following: a hiring freeze for all positions except essential critical positions, a hold on open vacant positions unless a department director makes a compelling argument for filling a job, minimizing overtime wherever possible, deferring all expenditures and purchasing except for essential services, a ban on out of state travel paid with tax dollars, a review of city paid cell phones and pagers for only essential personnel, the reduction on electricity demand when not needed with conservation measures and prevent idling of city vehicles when not needed to save fuel costs.
In the area of personnel, there are other items being considered that will be pursued with collective bargaining groups. Those items include a renegotiation of employee contracts in light of recent financial circumstances, employee layoffs and furloughs, pay reductions where possible and a review of all benefit packages.
In the area of operations of municipal services, the following options are being considered for implementation: an examination of all city services, targeted cuts of programs deemed non-essential, examination of program fees and rental rates for city facilities, privatization of some city services, a rebidding or restructuring of vendor contracts, eliminating non-essential contracts or provisions, sale of unused or vacant city property or assets, a review of cash management and investment strategies and explore public-private partnerships for some services or programs.
Hopkins said he knows some of these action items will affect morale and productivity and impact the ability to retain or attract talented staff.
“I need all stakeholders, employees and taxpayers to know that we are at a critical stage and faced with an opportunity to constructively reshape our city government as we recover from the economic effects of the pandemic and in these days of declining resources and historic inflation impacting our spending powers,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said more than half the budget is for Cranston schools and beyond his ability to control or effect.
“I urge the School Committee and administration to re-evaluate their budget to see if cuts and reductions can be made,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins called on the governor and General Assembly leadership to analyze state aid to Cranston in light of services the city provides to the Howard complex.
“The State has more diverse revenue services, where we are limited to the property tax to principally fund our local government and services,” Hopkins said. “As mayor, I want to position the city for the years to come. We need to do more than just weather the storm.”
Councilwoman Jessica Marino said she wasn’t happy to find out about the press release from residents during the Council’s Finance committee meeting.
Marino asked Communications Director Steven Paiva when the press release was sent out and why it wasn’t provided to the Council.
Paiva explained that it has been common practice to send press releases to the press and doesn’t recall sending press releases to the Council as well.
“I can tell you now Mr. Paiva that we and the residents that pay your salary I don’t find that acceptable. I will take pleasure in putting forth an ordinance that will require those press releases get shared with the Council before they go out to the press,” said Marino.
Chief of Staff Anthony Moretti said that it was a mistake that the Council didn’t receive it in advance.
“It wasn’t intentional on the Administration,” said Moretti.
Councilwoman Lammis Vargas asked who approved press releases that go and pointed out that not only Democrats voted against the budget noting that Republican Matt Reilly also voted against it.
“They are approved by the Mayor,” said Reilly.
Reached by phone on Tuesday morning, Council President Chris Paplauskas said, “It's obvious that the city needs to cut some spending.”
“I’m happy to see that the Mayor has taken a proactive approach with his administration to look at ways to do that. Certainly not going to be an easy task but I’m glad to see he’s taken a proactive approach,” said Paplauskas.
Asked about the press release being sent out before it was provided to the Council, Paplauskas said that members of the council and the Administration have “every right to send out press releases.”
“The whole press release issue is a non-starter for me,” said Paplauskas.
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