Warwick, RI — The Warwick City Council worked amiably through its opening hearing on Mayor Scott Avedisian’s $298,728,119 FY2017 budget Saturday morning, ending promptly at 2 p.m. after a review of school consolidation plan elements, a new budget auditor and compensation for the DPW director’s new duties.
“I’m encouraged at the tone,” of the budget hearing, said David Testa, who said the session was the most cordial he’d witnessed in 12 years.
Testa also defended the Warwick School Department’s spending on a public relations agency, Martin & Associates. “The school department is a huge enterprise. It needs to craft a message,” Testa said.
But Testa’s comments weren’t all complimentary. He criticized the city for leaving maintenance of school buildings, which the city owns, to the school department. “That’s a stain on this city,” Testa said.
Councilman Edward Ladouceur asked about the School Department’s line item for unemployment insurance. “We’re bumping that up to $200,000,” said School Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci.
The funding will pay for a net of 42 laid off teachers on unemployment, at $600 per person weekly through September. If they stay on unemployment the entire year, the cost to the schools will be $400,000, Ferrucci said.
“I’m saying, bugetarily, they’ll be off by September,” Ferrucci said.
Some teachers capitalized on the public comment opportunity to lobby for the return of department head positions lost to consolidation.
Ken Castellone, the current department head for business education at Toll Gate High and Winman Jr. High, said his department head position is being eliminated, though he’ll still have a job. He said he doesn’t know what his new title will be.
Castellone said the students at Toll Gate will lose their educational edge in areas like business education and computer coding, “Because there’s not a strong advocate at the school.”
“We need financial literacy in our schools,” another teacher agreed.
Councilman Joseph Solomon reminded the audience and spectators that the Council had no control over such line items, only the total amount of money allocated to the schools. When it comes to specific things to spend the money on, “The Council can’t do anything,” Solomon said.
School Committee Member Eugene Nadeau said the teachers’ pleas weren’t necessarily in vain. “Nothing has been decided,” Nadeau said.
Nadeau had high praise for Castellone, who he said is a “real fine department head,” but, he said, some members of the school department are going to be unhappy with elements of the consolidation.
“When you consolidate, somebody has to go, and that hurts,” Nadeau said.
Stacia Huyler, former Republican mayoral primary candidate and author of the Warwick Watch blog, asked about $18,787 in the budget for the chief of staff position. DPW Director David Picozzi took on the role in addition to his own job in October when Bruce Keiser was unable to continue the job due to a back injury, according to a Warwick Beacon report.
At the time, Picozzi was not compensated for the new duties. The $18,787 compensates Picozzi for the extra work going into next year, Avedisian said.
Avedisian also told the Council, while responding to questions from Councilman Steve Merolla, that the Finance budget would allocate another $123,822 to fully staff the treasurer position at $95,000, according to the personnel schedule of the FY2017 budget (previously assigned as part of a combined Treasurer/Collector position).
The remaining $28,822 will be used to hire an accountant to help perform the annual city audit, which has been understaffed and delivered late in the year for years.
“So the budget seeks to rectify this problem,” Avedisian said.
Budget hearings resume today at Warwick City Hall at 5 p.m.