WARWICK, RI — The Warwick City Council’s first remote budget hearing was more casual and intimate as officials reviewed a $323,508,909 COVID-19 burdened budget Tuesday night.
Officials using Zoom teleconferencing software checked in with open collars from basements, living rooms, bedrooms and home offices, and City Hall as they reviewed the City department’s budgets, where the numbers alternated between the pandemic’s dire impact on City revenues somewhat offset by Mayor Joseph J. Solomon’s frugal approach to City finances.
Council President Steve Merolla and Solomon were in the minority of officials in suits for the hearing, and Merolla and Councilman Ed Ladouceur, checking in from Council Chambers in City Hall, each wore masks.
Solomon’s proposed budget increases Warwick municipal spending by $1,686,653, or .52 percent over the FY20 budget. Although it increases the proposed FY21 school budget by $2 million,the $171,538,668, is still $6,327,732 less than the Warwick School Department’s requested $177,886,400.
School Finance Director Anthony Ferrucci acknowledged the enormous ask the School Department presented to the City Council as they asked for whatever extra beyond the extra $2 million they could manage.
“We hope the City Council can help us come up with a little more money,” Ferrucci said, at times suggesting anywhere from $1 million to $2 million more, the larger of those two numbers he said would still leave them with millions of dollars of cuts to their budget.
“I don’t know how you guys could do it and it would be wonderful if you could,” Ferrucci said, but that would still leave them with $4 million to cut.”
Ferrucci commented, “I feel like I’m on the Titanic rearranging the deck chairs.”
During a discussion of transportation, which the suspension of classes for about three months allowed the district to save about $2 million on, Superintendent Phil Thornton said new pandemic guidelines for filling school buses may require them to only half fill buses when, and if, classes resume in the fall.
Board of Canvassers girded for Presidential election Nov. 3
Dorothy McCarthy, director of elections at the Board of Canvassers, expressed confidence in her department’s $316,246 budget, despite an acknowledged likely increase in the number of mail-in ballots this year and only two polling places opening election day.
The previous year’s budget for the department, which did not include an election, was $217,388, or about 45 percent less last year.
“There is a major election this year,” McCarthy said, “We are going to have a huge turnout.” She noted that about 69 percent of Warwick’s registered voters turned out for the mid-term elections – a bigger percentage than that of the state at large.
Councilman Jeremy Rix asked if the likely increase in mail-in ballots would affect the budget, or if the change would require more staff than usual.
“I’d like to stick to the budget item,” Solomon interjected.
Councilman Richard Corley said that his mail in ballot for the primary was addressed to the Board of Elections in Providence, where he expected the other ballots to go in November. However, the state elections office will have its work cut out for it.
“I anticipate there will probably be more mail ballots than we’ve ever had before,” Corley said.
Layoffs discussions nixed due to union grievance
On three or four occasions, Local 1651 President Walter Hartley, whose union saw the layoff of 50 city worker members following an impasse in negotiations with Solomon, asked questions about cut positions in City offices, but both Merolla and Solomon cut the questions short, noting the positions discussed were part of the union’s grievance against the city, and not suitable to a budget hearing discussion. Rather, they said on several occasions, the matter was appropriate for the negotiation and grievance process.
City pivots away from tourism, toward business development
While explaining a drop in the City’s tourism department budget from $725,608 to $594,000, a $131,608, or 18 percent, drop, Solomon noted both director Karen Jedson’s recent retirement and his plan to pivot the city away from a tourism industry that will likely take 3 to 5 years to recover from the pandemic’s economic blight and toward business development.
Solomon said the tourism industry will not rebound quickly enough, and that business development would provide a quicker recoup of the city’s economic losses, though he noted plans of companies planning to relocate to Warwick are also frozen by the pandemic.
Solomon and Merolla each noted they hoped to convince the state to compensate the city for the use of hotels for the state’s quarantined homeless population and other quarantine housing. Each said using the city’s hotels for the purpose tied up those spaces, preventing the businesses and the city from receiving revenue.
Interim finance director introduced
In other personnel change news, Solomon introduced Lynne Prodger, former City Treasurer, as Warwick’s interim finance director. Prodger, a longtime, regular presence at meetings and budget hearings, had been promoted from City Budget/Financial Reporting Analyst to treasurer in 2018.
How to access the Zoom budget hearings:
The budget hearings continue Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.
You may access or participate in the meeting using the Zoom Application on a smart device or on a PC via the Web at zoom.us and clicking on JOIN A MEETING in the upper right part of the page.
The Webinar ID is: 896 3550 5826.
Anyone wanting to participate via telephone only, may call one of the following Toll Free numbers:
- 877 853 5247
- 888 788 0099
- 833 548 0276
- 833 548 0282
You will then need to punch in the Webinar ID, 896 3550 5826 on your touchtone keypad.
While everyone joining the meeting will be muted, if at the appropriate time during the proceedings you wish to ask a question, you may: If using a smart phone or a PC – click on the “Raise Hand” icon. The meeting moderator will then ask for the participant having raised their hand to be unmuted. After the question, answer, and any further discussion, the participant will be muted again and will need to click on the Raise Hand icon or punch in *9 to ask another question.
If phoning in – punch *9 on the touchtone keypad. The moderator will indicate when it is your turn to comment/ask a question.