Questions remain as mayor's budget plan nears

Posted 3/24/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE Taxes are on the minds of many Cranstonians, and not just because of the looming filing deadlines for state and federal returns. Residents recently received letters outlining new property valuations based on Vision Appraisal's

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Questions remain as mayor's budget plan nears


Taxes are on the minds of many Cranstonians, and not just because of the looming filing deadlines for state and federal returns.

Residents recently received letters outlining new property valuations based on Vision Appraisal’s revaluation last year, and for some, the numbers were eye-popping. As the real estate market remains hot, some homeowners have seen the assessed value of their property increase by 20 percent or more.

That, in turn, has led to worries over what the next batch of property tax bills will look like.

But as Mayor Ken Hopkins prepares to submit his first budget plan to the City Council, officials are seeking to reassure anxious taxpayers and cautioning them not to project what they will pay in the coming year based on the current tax rate.

“The mayor understands the environment, with people suffering from COVID and its impacts … Certainly, he will do his best to hold the line on taxes,” Anthony Moretti, Hopkins’s director of administration, told the Herald late last week. “That’s what his intention is.”

On Monday, Moretti told the City Council that Finance Director Robert Strom has concluded his budget meetings with municipal department heads and taken part in “initial discussions debriefing the mayor and I.” Hopkins, Moretti said, will present a budget plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 to the council “on or by April 1,” as required by the city’s charter.

Moretti told council members the mayor’s office has received “a lot of inquiries” since the valuation letters went out to city homeowners. The property tax rate, he said, will change – and almost certainly be lowered – as a result of the increased valuations, although firm figures will not be available until the mayor’s budget plan is ready.

Moretti cited the example of prior revalution processes, after which an increase in values led to a decline in the tax rate as the overall tax levy remained largely steady. As he put it last week: “In terms of what it means to taxes overall, there’ll be an equilibrium, if you will … Every residence will be affected differently.”

Moretti also said homeowners who believe their assessment is incorrect can pursue an appeal through Vision Appraisal.

Some City Council members have addressed the assessments and the coming year’s tax rate on social media in the weeks since the letters were issued.

Citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli echoed the administration in a post on Facebook, saying applying the current tax rate to the latest assessments would produce inaccurate projections of next year’s tax bills.

At least two council members have flatly rejected any tax increase for the coming year.

Citywide Councilwoman Jessica Marino wrote on Facebook: “This is one lady who doesn’t need convincing. Reevaluations should’ve been postponed but that is a function of the administration not the council. We’ll see what the administration sends to council as the budget is due soon, but this gal isn’t raising taxes in these times. It’s just not fair during these difficult times to place that burden on the people of this City.”

In his own post, Citywide Councilman Robert Ferri wrote: “Everyone is very concerned about their property values going up an average of 20%. So am I. As a matter of fact I had my telephone appointment with Vision Appraisals last week because mine went up 23%. Yes the tax rate will be lowered but I am opposed to any increase in taxes. I do not think that at this time with the economy needing to recover from the Pandemic that anyone’s taxes should go up.”

Meanwhile, some developments on the state and federal levels bode well for a budget year that just months ago many had predicted would be particularly challenging.

Gov. Dan McKee’s initial state budget plan for the coming year would preserve some key sources of aid to the city, including funding through the state’s Distressed Communities program and payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, program. The former is designed to assist communities with high tax burdens relative to the overall wealth of their population, while the latter seeks to compensate municipalities for tax revenue lost due to the placement of state facilities.

The governor’s $11.2 billion plan would also fully fund the continuation of the car tax phase-out and the state’s education funding formula.

Hanging over both the state and local budget planning, however, is how exactly the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan will impact the overall picture. McKee’s budget is expected to change significantly as more clarity emerges regarding how the more than $1 billion in aid the package includes for Rhode Island can be used.

Moretti said based on his understanding, Cranston is slated to receive $27 million on the municipal side through the latest federal stimulus package, while the city’s schools would receive another $22 million. He said he and Hopkins have spoken with U.S. Rep. Jim Lanvegin, who has indicated more details on how the money can be spent are forthcoming from the nation’s capital.

“We’re waiting anxiously for that guidance,” he said.

Cranston faces another major challenge as it approaches budget season. Projections from the state Department of Education show the city’s schools receiving a state aid increase of just about $36,000 for the coming fiscal year – well short of what it typically receives, including an additional $4 million-plus for the current fiscal year. As a result, the district’s initial $171.9 million budget plan seeks a $3.8 million in the city’s contribution.

The decline in the city’s state aid hike appears to stem from the aspect of the funding formula based on a community’s wealth, including its property values.

Moretti last week said the school funding issue is the administration’s “biggest concern.” He noted that communities such as Barrington are projected to see state aid increases even as Cranston’s aid would be essentially level funded, calling that “disproportionate” given the comparative wealth of the two communities.

The City Council and School Committee held a joint meeting on the situation earlier this month, with broad consensus emerging in favor of a push for a state review of the decade-old educational funding formula. There was largely a shared acknowledgment, however, that any change favorable to the city is unlikely to occur before the start of the next fiscal year.

On Monday, the council unanimously approved a resolution sponsored by Marino, Renzulli, Council Vice President Ed Brady and Ward 2 Councilwoman Aniece Germain calling on state lawmakers to “re-examine and change the key components currently being used within the Fair Funding Formula resulting in a more predictable forecast in future years.”

“We know that the formula is antiquated … We’re hoping that this well help us,” Marino said.

“It’s 11 years old, and it needs to be reviewed,” Brady said.

Added Germain: “This resolution is not a partisan issue … equitable funding for all children, regardless of their ZIP code, is not a partisan issue.”

General Treasurer Seth Magaziner testified in support of the resolution Monday at Germain’s request.

“I started out my career as a public school teacher … I know first-hand that every student is capable and deserving of success if the adults can set the right circumstances,” he said.

He added: “I do think that the time has come for the state to take a fresh look at the funding formula … It has been over a decade since the funding formula was first adopted into state law.”

Moretti last week said the mayor’s administration is also reaching out to state officials regarding the funding formula.

mayor, budget


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