In Providence, budget season brings bickering

Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – On the night before Providence City Councilman Kevin Jackson was arrested for allegedly embezzling from the youth sports program he founded, he and other members of the Council Finance Committee spent more than an hour demanding the Elorza administration change the organizational hierarchy in the city’s recreation department.

The committee argued that recreation director Michael Stephens should be reporting to the city’s Recreational Advisory Board – rather than the superintendent of the parks department – and suggested the budget process was the appropriate time to make that change.

What went unmentioned that night was that the advisory board – which is chaired by Jackson – has not scheduled a meeting in nearly two years. The board last met on June 10, 2014, for 30 minutes.

While a brief spat between the mayor’s office and the council over an org chart means very little to Providence taxpayers, it highlights the disconnect between the two sides as they rush to put a bow on Elorza’s proposed $716.8-million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

From the administration’s perspective, there are two issues at play: the budget itself and the need to get it approved as soon as possible.

Elorza’s top aides have repeatedly called the tax-and-spending plan a “responsible” budget that begins to set Providence on the right path moving forward, while openly acknowledging that it wasn’t designed to make waves. The top investments include new police and fire academies that were supposed to be in the current fiscal year’s budget and the purchase of 1,200 Chromebooks for the city’s schools. Most city employees get a small raise and no one is getting laid off.

On the revenue side, Elorza’s budget lowers Providence’s owner-occupied property tax rate to $18.91 per $1,000 of assessed value and the non-owner-occupied rate to $32.76 per $1,000 of value. The budget also lowers the city’s commercial tax rate to $36.50 per $1,000 of value for a fifth consecutive year. Because property values are on the rise, most taxpayers are still expected to see an increase in their overall tax bill. City car taxes will remain $60 per $1,000, but the exemption goes from $1,000 to $2,000.

As for the timing, the administration has asked the Finance Committee to approve the plan on June 6, the same night the full council plans to accept public comment on the budget. That would allow the council to schedule its first approval of the budget on June 9 and final passage at a special meeting the following week. Because taxpayers must be given a month’s notice when their tax bills are changed, this timeline would allow the city to collect new revenue by the end of July, averting potential cash-flow challenges, according to Brett Smiley, the city’s chief operating officer.

“We’ve told the committee we’re willing to meet on Fridays and Saturdays [to meet the timeline,] Smiley said Tuesday.

Fire dept. a major issue

The Finance Committee, chaired by Councilman John Igliozzi, has different ideas.

Igliozzi has regularly referred to the budget process as a “job performance review,” demanding that department heads and some of their subordinates appear in front of the committee. When former Fire Chief George Farrell, who is currently working as a consultant in the fire department, refused to appear in front of the committee, Igliozzi suggested his agreement with the administration violated a city ordinance and ordered the treasurer to stop paying him. (The city solicitor’s office later said Igliozzi did not have the authority to make such an order.)

Igliozzi has also expressed frustration with the administration’s decision to require firefighters to go from working an average of 42 hours per week on four platoons to an average of 56 hours on three platoons, which has prompted a spike in retirements within the department. Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare has repeatedly said he believes the current system is safe for firefighters and the public, but Asst. Chief Scott Mello told the Finance Committee he believes it has been “tough, operationally” on the firefighters.

Aside from the fire department, the committee appears to have few disagreements with the mayor’s budget. But Igliozzi made it clear Tuesday he does intend to rush the process just so the administration can send out tax bills. He noted that the city charter allows the city to pass its tax levy as late as July 31, but acknowledged the he “understands the urgency” to approve both the levy and the budget.

“We’re the front line for people that are going to pay the bill,” Igliozzi said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The committee is scheduled to meet again Wednesday evening at 6.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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