Providence’s $736.7M budget wins first passage from the City Council

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The smoothest budget process of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s short political career continued Thursday as the City Council gave first approval to a $736.7-million tax-and-spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The budget – comprised of seven separate ordinances – includes no changes to the city’s current tax rates and increases the city’s contribution to its school department for the first time in seven years.

The council is still required to approve the budget one more time, although the outcome appears to be a foregone conclusion. A special meeting has been scheduled for Monday. Elorza is expected to quickly sign it into law.

Under the budget approved Thursday, 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.

On the spending side, the city’s appropriation to the school department is slated to increase 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, 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.

The budget does set 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 finalized budget largely mirrors the one Elorza proposed in April, but the City Council did make same last-minute changes before the Finance Committee approved it earlier this week. Unlikely in previous years, the administration and council were rarely at odds throughout the budget process, in part because there was less concern about the city’s immediate financial challenges.

The budget approved Thursday 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.

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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