PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence City Council on Monday gave first approval to a $717.9-million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, but not before five councilors voiced concern with the tax-and-spending plan.
The budget will again appear on the council agenda at Thursday’s meeting for a final vote – the city charter requires ordinances to be approved twice – before it is sent to Mayor Jorge Elorza for his signature. Elorza has already voiced support for the budget.
“Regardless of how you vote, I won’t devalue you,” Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi, a Democrat, told his colleagues before rattling off the reasons to support the budget.
Ward 1 Councilman Seth Yurdin, Ward 2 Councilman Sam Zurier, Ward 4 Councilman Nick Narducci, Ward 8 Councilman Wilbur Jennings and Ward 14 Councilman David Salvatore all opposed the budget.
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Assuming the council will give the budget final approval later in the week, Providence’s owner-occupied property tax rate will drop to $18.77 per $1,000 of assessed value and the non-owner-occupied rate will fall to $31.91 per $1,000 of value. The plan also lowers the city’s commercial tax rate to $36.65 per $1,000, which is actually 15 cents higher than Elorza proposed but is still lower than the current year’s rate. City car taxes would remain $60 per $1,000, but the exemption goes from $1,000 to $2,000.
Even with lower rates, the average homeowner in the city is still expected to see a tax increase because property values have increased by nearly 10% on average throughout Providence, according to the city’s recent property revaluation.
The budget approved Monday includes funding for a class of 80 new firefighters as well as 60 new police officers. The fire academy does not rely on a $15-million federal grant the city applied for in March, but administration officials say they are still seeking the extra money. The budget also sets aside $500,000 to purchase more than 1,200 computers for the school department, a much-needed technological investment administration officials have touted in recent months.
In late change to the budget made last week, the council will set aside $1 million for what it calls a neighborhood reinvestment account, a fund that will assist with “bricks and mortar projects” throughout the city, according to Igliozzi. He said the fund will function similarly to the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), with councilors making recommendations on how the money should be spent.
The new council fund drew sharp criticism from Salvatore, a Democrat, who announced his plan to vote against the budget earlier in the day. In a message to his constituents, Salvatore called the fund “reckless.”
Jennings cited taxes as the reason he opposed the budget, noting that while rates are being decreased, the city still expects to generate an additional $12 million in taxes this year.
“People are taxed out,” Jennings said. “People don’t want to hear it.”
Narducci, a Democrat who represents the city’s North End, said he couldn’t support the budget because certain departments – including the council and mayor’s office – have seen their budgets grow exponentially over the last two years while other departments have seen only modest increases.
Narducci also said he wanted to see a police academy of “at least 100, maybe 150” recruits. The police department is expected to fall under 400 officers this summer.
Zurier and Yurdin, two Democrats from the East Side, cited several reasons they opposed the budget.
Zurier said he was concerned the new tax revenue the city will generate is not being used with “maximum efficiency.” He also suggested the $1 million the council is setting aside as a contingency account in the event the city is forced to pay back wages to firefighters for a 14-hour average increase to their work week needed more controls.
Yurdin said the tax increase, the city’s failure to set aside appropriate funds for its dispute with the firefighters and what he considers a lack of transparency were the reasons he opposed the budget.
“It is not a fair budget,” Yurdin said.
But members of council leadership said the budget is as good as it is going to get. Both Council President Pro Tempore Sabina Matos and Majority Leader Bryan Principe acknowledged the plan is not perfect, but they said they felt comfortable supporting it.
“This isn’t easy street,” Principe said.