By STEVEN STYCOS At first glance, it sounds great. Mayor Kenneth Hopkins's budget funds city services with no tax increase, even as it increases spending. How is that possible? Unfortunately, Mayor Hopkins' budget, unveiled last week, meets short-term
At first glance, it sounds great. Mayor Kenneth Hopkins’s budget funds city services with no tax increase, even as it increases spending.
How is that possible?
Unfortunately, Mayor Hopkins’ budget, unveiled last week, meets short-term political needs, but sets the stage for major financial problems in Cranston’s future.
Hopkins’s budget uses $7.9 million of the $27 million from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, a once-in-a-century financial windfall. And he proposes to borrow $35 million that taxpayers would repay with interest over 20 years for roads, new school construction and a baseball stadium overhaul.
But the one-time $7.9 million infusion will create a structural deficit the following year. In July 2022, Cranston will have to replace the $7.9 million plus pay interest and principal on the borrowing. Where will that money come from? A hefty tax hike? Major service cuts?
Hopefully, the City Council will be more prudent as it reviews the budget this month. It could start by trimming the 11 percent increase in the mayor’s office budget, including a $25,000 raise for Hopkins. Among other questionable spending proposals are $200,000 for “Cranston Stadium Inlaid Lettering” and $1 million for the Cranston baseball stadium.
The council could also save hundreds of thousands of dollars by repealing the ordinance banning panhandling. Cranston has already spent more than $150,000 to fight a lawsuit to overturn the Republican-backed ordinance. Constitutional precedents make winning the case highly unlikely. And taking a case to the U.S. Supreme Court is costly.
Another area needing the mayor’s attention is the Fire Department, which has gone $2 million over budget in both of the last two years, mostly due to overtime.
Meanwhile, the council should make solar power plants pay their fair share of property tax. A Harvard University survey of solar power plants in Massachusetts revealed that on average they pay double the special tax rate Cranston projects pay. Increasing taxes to the average Massachusetts level would raise almost $200,000. Last year, solar industry lawyer and Hopkins confidant Robert Murray astoundingly told the council that while homeowners and businesses regularly face property tax hikes, the multi-million dollar solar industry should never have its taxes increased. The council should make solar pay its fair share.
And finally, Mayor Hopkins should consider withdrawing from the Achievement First mayoral academy. More than a decade ago, Mayor Fung unilaterally decided Cranston would pay for students to attend the school. That decision now costs the Cranston Public Schools more than $1 million a year. In the last few years, budget pressures have forced the school committee to close both Chester Barrows and Waterman elementary schools. We cannot afford to send a small number of children to the mayoral academy, when we are closing well-respected neighborhood schools.
These and other steps would enable Cranston to use most of the Biden rescue funds for needed capital projects, rather than burden taxpayers with 20 years of interest and principal. Let’s not squander the Biden rescue money, let’s secure Cranston’s future.
Steven Stycos is a former chair of the City Council’s Finance Committee.