Providence’s $736.7M budget on track for passage after clearing council committee

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Hours after just eight individuals spoke at a public hearing on Providence’s budget proposal, a City Council committee on Monday evening swiftly approved a $736.7-million tax-and-spending plan that includes no tax increase.

The City Council Finance Committee voted 5-0 to send the proposal – the city budget is made up of seven separate ordinances – for the fiscal year that begins July 1 to the full council later this week. The first vote will be scheduled for Thursday evening, with the second and final vote likely being set for next week.

“I think the overall obligation we all have is to promote a good budget for the people of Providence,” Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi said, referring to the committee’s six-week vetting process of the budget. “This year, it’s even more important to provide stability and civility in the process.”

Under the budget approved Monday, Providence’s owner-occupied property tax rate would remain $18.80 per $1,000 of assessed value, with the non-owner-occupied rate also staying put at $31.96 per $1,000. The city’s commercial tax rate will be $36.70 per $1,000, and car taxes will remain $60 per $1,000 with a $2,000 exemption.

At the public hearing, five city landlords implored the council to reduce the non-owner occupied rate, arguing that it forces them to raise rents on their tenants. The landlords have benefited from small rate reductions over the last two years, but the council has not followed through on a vote it took in 2014 that promised to lower the landlord rate to 160% of the owner-occupied rate.

“Don’t make my tenants choose between utility and rent,” Clinton Aneni, president of the Providence Apartment Association, told the committee.

Although the budget doesn’t include any changes to the non-owner occupied rate, Majority Leader Bryan Principe said he hopes the Elorza administration will propose a “much more significant reduction” in its next budget. Acting Council President Sabina Matos said she understands why the owner-occupied rate is lower, but “we need to close that gap” for landlords.

The budget approved Monday is about $2.5 million greater than the one Mayor Jorge Elorza put forward in April, due in large part to an increase in anticipated tax revenue. The city’s line item for fines and forfeitures also grew by $270,000 due to a council-led initiative that will place police details in neighborhood “traffic hot spots” where speeding is common.

City officials are also committing to move forward with what Igliozzi calls a “tax reform” that will end the “aggressive practice” of charging interest and penalties on an individual’s total tax obligation even if they are only late with a payment in one quarter of the year. The new policy will charge interest only on quarters where the payment is late.

The council also set aside $1.5 million for its neighborhood improvement program, an initiative first created last year that helps address minor infrastructure problems across the city. The council allocated $200,000 for a blight removal program that will seek to demolish properties that have been vacant for several years. In addition, the council and the mayor’s office agreed to earmark $250,000 in the budget for PVDFest, the popular summer festival Elorza created in 2015.

The rest of the budget mostly mirrors Elorza’s original proposal.

On education, the committee supported Elorza’s proposal to increase the city’s appropriation to the school department by $3.65 million, bringing the city’s contribution to the school department to $128.5 million. The district is also anticipating $241.7 million in state aid through the education funding formula.

The extra funding will support hiring more staff to improve outcomes at seven city middle schools, a newcomer school for refugees and recent immigrants, and expected raises for teachers and administrators. The city budget also includes $500,000 for the highly regarded Providence Talks program for young children, as well as five new recreation camps, more Chromebooks for students and a consultant to craft an infrastructure plan for the district’s crumbling school buildings.

Aside from earmarking raises for Providence teachers – whose union contract expires Aug. 31 – the budget also includes small, contractually-mandated pay increases for police officers, firefighters, school clerical workers and members of Local 1033, the municipal employees union. The budget also factors in a 2.75% raise for non-union employees.

For public safety, the budget includes funding for 40 additional police officers on top of the current 57-member academy. The police department is currently functioning with fewer than 400 officers, well below the nearly 500 allowed by city ordinance. The city is also planning an 80-member firefighter academy that will begin in June as well as another 70-member academy next June, paid for using a $15-million federal grant the city secured last year. There are currently 335 firefighters.

Aside from new police hires, the budget sets aside $370,000 for additional staff, training and technology associated with the Providence Community-Police Relation Act (PCPRA), the far-reaching police reform ordinance that was approved by the council earlier this month. The budget also calls for $317,000 to fund the Providence External Review Authority, a nine-member panel appointed by the mayor and the council that the PCPRA would empower.

The budget approved Monday also includes funding for Elorza’s proposed municipal ID program as well as a six-week paid family leave program that begins with non-union employees who have worked for the city for at least a year. The anticipated price tag is only $13,000 because employees would be required to expend all but one week of their accrued sick and vacation time before taking advantage of the program.

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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