By JOHN HOWELL Mayor Frank Picozzi says it's not the political thing to do, but he's proposing a $333.1 million budget that doesn't raise taxes. "People are hurting. Small business have had to close because of COVID," Picozzi said Tuesday after providing
Mayor Frank Picozzi says it’s not the political thing to do, but he’s proposing a $333.1 million budget that doesn’t raise taxes.
“People are hurting. Small business have had to close because of COVID,” Picozzi said Tuesday after providing the City Council with the financial package that increases spending by 2.95 percent over the current fiscal year.
How can the mayor keep the lid on taxes yet spend an additional $6.4 million to replace aging fire apparatus, Department of Public Works vehicles and police cars; lease new office space for municipal offices in Apponaug; and bring back people who were laid off when positions were eliminated in the budget drafted by the former administration at a cost of $1 million? The answer is a $39 million boost over the next two years in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan.
The political thing to do, Picozzi points out, would be to raise taxes this year so as not to raise them in 2022, an election year.
It’s not a game Picozzi wants to play. He feels taxpayers need a breather now. That should be evident from the properties listed for the June 4 tax sale in this edition of the Beacon. This is the first sale for unpaid taxes, utility bills and sewer assessments held in two years. Former Mayor Joseph Solomon canceled last year’s sale when the pandemic hit.
In an effort to ease the burden on those unable to meet these obligations, Picozzi lowered the prepayment threshold from 50 to 25 percent of the balance for a payment plan. Still, delinquencies are running high. As of last week, more than 900 property owners were listed. That number dropped to about 700 by Tuesday as people worked out payment plans or paid of amounts due.
“Many of our residents and businesses have suffered financial hardships as a result of the pandemic and I’m sure that the City Council agrees that we cannot put any additional burden on them,” reads the second sentence of the mayor’s budget message.
It’s an assessment that resonates with City Council President Steve McAllister. He favors implementation of a replacement plan for Public Works, Fire and Police department vehicles with the mayor’s allocation of $6.2 million for lease/purchase agreements in the fiscal year.
McAllister credits Ward 3 Councilman and Council Finance Committee Chair Timothy Howe with initiating discussion of an annual appropriation for equipment replacement. Howe suggested a portion of rescue response payments be earmarked in a special fund for fire apparatus.
The vehicle replacement costs for future years is expected to be less, City Finance Director Peder Schaefer said Tuesday, since so many vehicles need replacement this year. Even before the city budget comes before the council for a vote next month, Picozzi is hopeful of gaining council approval next Monday of $250,000 to purchase a new rescue. Because of mechanical failures, the city is using two Cranston rescues to maintain a fleet of four rescues to serve the city.
McAllister said the first of the city budget hearings would address schools on May 24 starting at 4 p.m. He said the Fire Department budget would be heard the following night. McAllister anticipates the fire budget will generate the greatest public debate because of overtime costs and the issue of gaming sick and vacation time so as to generate overtime payments as outlined in a Hummel Report published in the Sunday Providence Journal.
Picozzi said Tuesday that according to the legal opinion given him, the city has no grounds to contest the overtime payments on the basis firefighters were using vacation and sick time to fill details. He said ending the practice would require a change in state law.
On Tuesday, in a review of allocations, Picozzi and Schaefer emphasized how federal funds for revenues lost because of pandemic would be spent over two years as a means of easing next year’s budget.
“We conservatively estimate those losses at $3.3 million this year and $2.2 million next year,” reads the budget message. The bulk of the losses are in the hospitality sector that includes revenues on airport car rentals and hotel room taxes. The city projects it will be eligible for $1.4 million in federal funds (all part of the $39 million) in those losses, including lost tangible taxes from business that have closed. The administration is also hopeful that the call back of laid-off employees will also be eligible for use of the federal funds.
Picozzi has earmarked about $11 million of the American Rescue Plan funds for infrastructure improvements. Of the total, $10 million would go to sewer and water maintenance, including the repair of a main water transmission line extending under Route 37 and Interstate 95 that ruptured more than three years ago (an emergency bypass line has been providing the service) as well as repairs to sewer lines that are failing due to age and corrosion and even the extension of sewers. The balance of infrastructure funding would go to replace broadband currently supported by Cox and Verizon that is being phased out. Picozzi said this is especially important to police communications as well as supporting communications once municipal offices move to the Sawtooth Mill building, which the city will be leasing from AAA Northeast.
The budget provides reserves for wage increases currently being negotiated with the firefighters and municipal employees union. A 2.75 percent wage increase for non-union employees, who have not received a pay increase in more than two years, is also part of the budget. There is also funding for a new fire academy with expectations of filling at least 20 slots and reducing overtime costs.
School funding that often is a budget hot button because of the mayor and council’s cuts promises not to hold the spotlight this year. The mayor’s school budget calls for a $173.9 million, an increase of $2.4 million or what he terms a “maintenance of effort contribution” of $130 million in local funding. That budget is what the superintendent recommended, however, the committee added $500,000 in its request. McAllister expects committee members to present an argument for the additional funding.
In his budget message, Picozzi notes the budget commits the same level of municipal funding, although enrollment has dropped 400 students and schools are projected to receive a $1.4 million increase in state aid plus $9.3 million in American Rescue Plan aid.