Warwick – After spending more than a dozen hours in special budget hearings which started Monday, May 23, members wrapped up the FY2017 budget on Thursday, May 26, leaving Mayor Scott Avedisian’s proposed budget as-is.
In earlier meetings the council had hoped to make substantial cuts and add additional funding for road repairs.
Among the additions were $140,000 allocated to 65-270 (parts-radio), to put GPS in town vehicles, and $40,000 to 63-294 (tree planting program) allocated for the re-planting of trees lost in last year’s microburst and to disease, to be equally allocated by ward. Both were unanimously approved.
Among the cuts discussed during Thursday night’s session was a motion by Councilman Edgar Ladouceur (Ward 5) to eliminate the salary ($63,654) for a newly created deputy clerk position, a line item on the city clerk’s budget. “This is a position that is not needed,” he said. A vote was taken, four voting yes, five voting no.
Ladouceur had also proposed a cut to line item 35-105 (Salaries – Fire II) of $113,605, eliminating one assistant chief position within the fire department. “We’ve been very supportive of our Fire Department, and rightly so, they’ve done a great job,” he said listing the expenditures made for the new fire station, new equipment and new accessories. “As I look at this proposed cut, I look at it from the perspective of the taxpayers. I think it is the taxpayers turn to realize the savings as we go forward. I cannot support adding a new assistant chief,” he said. Councilman Joseph J. Solomon (Ward 4) asked if the position was appointed by the mayor, or a management position. “I’m not sure if they promote internally, but it is a management position, not a union,” David Picozzi, chief of staff, answered.
Ladouceur and Councilwoman Kathleen Usler (Ward 7) also proposed making cuts to the Fire Department overtime budget. “When adding new firefighters, we had asked about bringing OT under control,” Ladouceur said noting that 17 new firefighters had been added over four years, along with a couple of graduating classes of the fire academy. He proposed cuts to line 35-110 and 35-111. While he made these proposals, sirens could be heard in the distance, which brought a chuckle from many of the members. Councilman Solomon said he had asked the same questions back in 2011 and 2012 of the Fire Chief at the time, who had agreed to abide by the overtime budget figures. “Year after year we’ve gone down the same road – yet the OT is not coming down,” said Ladouceur of $1.6 million in OT in 2015, and an estimated $1.4 million for 2016. He would like to bring the figure down to $1 million.
A vote was taken, unanimously passed, to cut $200,000 from 35-111 (Overtime – Fire II), proposed by Usler, and the vote was 8 to 1 (Colantuono voting no) to cut $100,000 from 35-100 (Overtime – Fire I).
During discussion, Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson (Ward 3) pointed out that a number of years ago, the City had a public safety commissioner, independent of both the fire and police departments, and wondered if re-instating this position might be a good idea. “I think that is a very good idea,” said Ladouceur, who changed his proposal to eliminate a third chief to move the monies to create this position.
Council members Donna Travis (Ward 6) and Joseph Gallucci (Ward 8) recalled serving on the council when the City had a public safety commissioner. “It was another person to answer to,” said Travis. “You can’t create a new position – that would be an executive decision,” Council Solicitor John J. Harrington noted. “You would have to talk to the mayor,” said Travis. Councilman Solomon agreed, saying that the money should be available should the mayor decide to do so.
Gallucci recalled that after the last public safety commissioner retired, the position was abolished. “Do we need it at this time – I would have to think about it. Did it serve a purpose and a function at the time? Yes it did,” he said.
Ladouceur amended his original motion to reduce line 35-105 by $110,000 and move the amount to asphalt (63-290), requesting that the executive branch create this position. A vote was taken, 8 yes, one no (Colantuono).
Another motion was made to reduce $110,000 from OT for the Fire Department and add it to asphalt. The vote was unanimous, 9 to 0 in favor.
Cumulative net cuts totaled $2,253,209 (net after approved additions). Councilman Ladouceur noted that the council could cut taxes by 22.5 cents, or move the entire amount to asphalt. There was a motion made by Ladouceur to move the entire amount to asphalt, seconded by Councilman Merolla. During discussion, Vella-Wilkinson recommended putting a portion of the amount in asphalt for any unforeseen costs, although she was “adamantly opposed to giving the school department any more money.” The school department is currently level funded. The vote was 7 yes, 2 no, with Solomon and Vella-Wilkinson voting against the motion.
“What we haven’t discussed is our budget report – our financial health, our debts and our assets,” said Merolla, pointing out that at the close of the last financial year, the city’s liabilities exceeded its assets by $298,263,722.
“For the first time in the city of Warwick, we’re in the red – officially. We’re a candidate for bankruptcy. For years, it’s been the case, but this is the first time we’ve reported it,” he continued, repeating the “ostrich policy” analogy he mentioned during the City council meeting of May 16. “The City’s net position decreased $333.2 million [during 2015], our unfunded liability in healthcare last year was $23.1 million. We are not paying our annual required contribution. For the first time in the City of Warwick’s history, we are in the red – and we were all sitting here while it happened. It’s probably one of the saddest days I have ever seen on this council. The City of Warwick is bankrupt. I will be voting no on this budget. We are in serious financial trouble, and we need serious financial resolutions to bring us out of this debt – we only need to look at Central Falls,” he concluded.
“We spent well over a dozen hours in council chambers on this budget, and countless hours prepping for the budget hearings,” noted Vella-Wilkinson, adding that she was excited about the cuts and additions that had been proposed. “I would have loved to have seen the lion’s share go to a tax cut. I cannot, in good conscience, agree to put all this money into asphalt, and not give any of this money back to the taxpayers. I will be voting no tonight,” she said of the proposed budget.
A vote was taken, three voted yes (Ladouceur, Solomon and Usler) and six voted no, rejecting the budget as amended, deferring to the budget as proposed by Mayor Scott Avedisian.
Regarding PCR-49-16, a resolution relative to Transfers, Supplemental Appropriations and Emergency Appropriations, a vote was taken – seven voted yes, two voted no (Merolla, Vella-Wilkinson).
“The budget is done, thank God,” said Travis as the meeting was adjourned.
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