A guide to understanding how Providence’s budget negotiations work

Providence City Council chambers. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When the Providence City Council meets Monday to consider a $717.9-million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, it will be voting on a plan that nearly blew up just one week ago.

So what happened between last Monday evening, when the Elorza administration was trading barbs with the council, and last Thursday night, when the two sides were sharing pizza slices shortly before the Finance Committee approved a spending plan that makes few changes to the mayor’s original budget?

Let’s use college basketball to tell the story.

Think of the relationship between the mayor’s office – whether it be Mayor Jorge Elorza, Buddy Cianci or Elisha Dyer Jr. – and the City Council as an NCAA tournament game between a major conference team like North Carolina or Arizona versus a mid-major conference team like URI or Valparaiso. (Note: This is not necessarily about the quality of the teams so much as the attention they get.)

When you’re the mayor of Providence, you play in a league with the governor, lieutenant governor, general treasurer, secretary of state, attorney general, House speaker and Senate president. (To make a 10-team league, let’s add the majority leaders of the House and Senate.) When you’re on the City Council, you’re playing at a level just below the Big 10, attracting attention similar to the mayors of Warwick, Cranston and Pawtucket as well as the chairs of the major House and Senate committees.

Considering they play in the same building (City Hall), the mayor’s office and the council are natural rivals. At the end of the season (fiscal year), they square off in a battle of budget negotiations at a pace that is considerably slower than a 40-minute game of hoops.

In those matchups, the mayor’s office starts the game as a considerable favorite. The mayor’s budget address is covered by every television station. His surrogates get to write op-eds in the paper touting his achievements. And he has plenty of other opportunities to advocate for his agenda. The council’s budget deliberations, while public, typically unfold in a near-empty room that generally includes a few city employees and a reporter armed with Swedish Fish.

But the council does have a few tricks up its sleeve. Because it doesn’t face the same level of scrutiny as the mayor, it has the ability to maneuver under the radar. Being veto-proof – like the current council might be – is like the ability to knock down three-pointers from anywhere on the court. The council might be the underdog, but it is certainly in the game.

When it comes to scouting reports, both teams have had their ups and downs.

The Elorza administration has taken some lumps during its first 18 months in office, struggling with relationships at the State House and taking a hit on a prolonged battle with its firefighters. But the mayor has his shares of wins as well. The city is expected to see more construction this year, homicides are down and the mayor has followed through on his campaign commitment to provide more recreational opportunities for kids.

For a while, the council was rolling. If you asked lobbyists or people in the State House who they would call to get something done in Providence, many would tell you Council President Luis Aponte. In some ways, the group was bolstered by having a veteran team: Aponte and Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi have been on the team since the 1990s. But the council effectively tore its ACL when then-Majority Leader Kevin Jackson was arrested in May. (Jackson resigned from leadership position, but remains on the council.)

That brings us to last week.

It’s worth noting here that unlike sporting events, there is some incentive to play a close game. If either side wins every game 91-60, the other side would find ways to enact revenge down the line. From the administration’s perspective, the ideal win is a 76-67 score where the mayor looks good, but the council comes away with a moral victory.

When the Council Finance Committee met last Monday night to approve a taxing plan without a corresponding spending plan, it was effectively saying, “we’re in a four-point game with three minutes to go and we’re going for the win.” For several weeks, the committee was disappointed with the lack of answers they were getting from administration officials on several budget matters. So they wanted to send a message. They issued a press release touting a plan that would cut tax rates for homeowners.

The mayor’s office was livid. It’s okay to play a close game, but when the favorite loses, everyone knows it. Elorza hinted that he would use his veto power if the council sent him a piecemeal budget. By Tuesday, Auditor General Dennis Hoyle and revenue director Robert Hull had made it clear to both sides they did not agree with separating the tax levy from the rest of the budget.

The letter Hoyle and Hull sent the city put the council in a tough spot. It was like a referee calling a charge late in the game. The fear every city official has is that state leaders are going to become fed up with Providence and its perpetual financial woes and appoint a budget commission to take over the show. (At this point, no one has publicly made that threat.)

Between Tuesday and Thursday morning, something happened. The mayor himself called some council members and met face-to-face with others. Both sides debated what an all-out war would mean for the city. But everyone agreed it was better to resolve the few differences they had and come to terms on a budget that makes only minor changes to the one Elorza proposed in April.

That’s where the sports analogy probably ends.

In basketball, there’s a winner and a loser. In this case, both sides spent an hour patting each other on the back prior to the Finance Committee approving a $717.9-million spending plan that will be sent to the full City Council along with the taxing plan for first passage Monday night.

So this battle has basically ended in a tie, with both sides living to play another day.

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

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