WARWICK, RI – Hearings for a proposed $341.1 million FY23 Warwick budget, with no tax increase kicked off with a marathon seven-hour meeting Monday, reviewing school, public safety, and parks and recreation budgets.
Highlights of the evening included discussions of a projected decline in revenue for FY23.
“It’s safe to say that everyone here tonight, the council members, the administration, the public, we all want what’s best for our city,” said Council President Stephen McAllister.
The city council will continue the public hearing today, May 24 at 4 p.m. in the council chambers, and are expected to pick up with the various public works budget lines and employee benefits and fixed costs still on the docket.
The big item on the agenda Monday night was the school budget. The requested school department budget of $178.6 million is just over 52 percent of the total operating budget.
“There is a 3.81 percent increase in local appropriations due to the decrease in state aid, as well as increases in contractual obligations, outside tuition, and rising costs of goods and services,” said School Committee Chairperson Judith Cobden. “The budget has been thoroughly reviewed by the School Committee to make sure the district has the funds to provide quality academic, athletic, and artistic opportunities for our students.”
School Finance Director Tim McGrath said the two biggest pieces of the school budget pie are personnel services (salaries) and employee benefit costs, making up close to 80 percent of the total budget.
The school district came into the budget process with $6.2 million in increases it has no control over, including a contractual salary increase of $3 million in FY23, healthcare cost increases of $500,000, and $2.7 million in increased pension costs.
During the discussion on the budget, Ward 3 Councilman Timothy Howe noted that the school department is faced with a number of unfunded state and federal mandates that they are forced to provide and escalate the cost of education.
“As we look at this, I know it’s easy to get lost in the numbers, it’s easy to see the cost of the salaries, it’s easy to see the challenges,” said Howe. “I do appreciate the challenges (the school) department and the School Committee faces and the work that has been done in dealing with a mandated-heavy spending (budget).”
Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi noted that the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) recently proposed changes to student graduation requirements, which he said would only increase unfunded mandates in the budget.
“Those who take issue with the school budget, I highly recommend you write to the state legislature and the governor and RIDE please, because the unfunded mandates are a very large problem,” said Sinapi. “It’s one thing to pull up mandates that help everybody; that’s all well and good, but when you force cities and towns into the ground while doing so it doesn’t help anybody.”
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix asked about the school department’s understanding of a proposal by the mayor to return $2.1 million to the city if the school department gets that additional amount from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Superintendent of Schools Lynn Dambruch said the city would be allowed to take those funds back if the schools receive the additional ARPA funding.
In addition to the school budget, another big chunk of Monday’s hearing was taken up on a discussion of expected revenue in FY23.
Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur took the lead on the revenue debate, focusing on some smaller projected revenue amounts, as well as questioning the amount of money the city receives annually from the TF Green Airport Corporation.
Ladouceur asked how the city tracks the money it gets from the airport for parking and rental car surcharges, and was told that the state is responsible for auditing those numbers and forwarding the money to the city.
“We don’t know if those numbers are right or wrong,” Ladouceur said. “How do we know if the check is the right amount if we are not provided with how many cars are rented for rental income?”
The good news in the parks and recreation debate wasn’t necessarily about the budget, but about the expectation that the city’s McDermott Pool and three public beaches will be fully staffed with lifeguards and open to the public for the full season this year.
Parks and Recreation Director Beverly Wiley said there have been several lifeguard training events, and at least a dozen people have expressed an interest in working as a lifeguard this summer.
“Our hope is we will have enough lifeguards to be able to staff all three beaches as well as be able to keep regular hours at the pool,” she said. Last year, the city was not able to open the pool until the middle of July, and could only staff two of the three beaches.
Wiley said the parks department has also addressed an issue it had with beach passes last year. Last year, the city had 500 passes at the beginning of the season and they ran out in under two days, according to Wiley.
“This year, we have 4,000 in hand,” Wiley said.
The proposed police department budget is just over $23 million, and provides for a total of 175 uniformed positions. A 3.75 percent raise is built into the budget for uniformed union and non-union personnel. ARPA funds are being set aside for vehicle acquisitions and broadband communications upgrades.
Warwick Police Colonel Bradford Connor said there are currently eight vacancies on the department rolls.
“We hope to be at a full complement in the next 12 months,” he said.
The proposed fire department budget is just over $24 million, and includes close to a full complement of personnel, with 23 new firefighters who entered service in February and another 12 Fire Academy graduates expected to enter the service in June.
The weekly overtime in the budget is reduced by $80,000 per week in the budget, and the total for FY23 comes in at $800,000 under the current year’s projected budget.
The Tourism, Culture, and Development department was the last department to come before the council Monday night, shortly after 11 p.m.
After some mild confusion over the continued less-than-stellar acoustics in the council chambers, Tourism Director may have summed up the night best.
“Sorry, it’s late; I’m usually in bed by now,” she said.
Assuming the council completes the budget hearings tonight, the council will meet on Thursday, May 26 at 4 p.m. in the council chambers to make potential amendments and vote on the FY23 operating budget.
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