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City Council gives first budget nod

June 10, 2011

PAWTUCKET — The City Council, mostly through attacking overtime, a few vacant positions and some cultural “niceties” that are considered to be expendable in these lean financial times, passed an amended fiscal year 2012 operating budget Wednesday night that chops $876,193 from what Mayor Donald Grebien had originally proposed.
The amended budget would allow for this money to be put into the city's reserves. What it does not do is change the fiscal impact for residents by lowering the property tax rate, which would remain unchanged from the current fiscal year, or raising the motor vehicle tax exemption rate from the $500 that has been proposed.
A public hearing will be held on the amendments to the proposed FY12 budget on Monday, June 13 at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chamber, 3rd floor, Pawtucket City Hall, 137 Roosevelt Ave. Residents and property owners will have a chance to comment on the City Council's revisions before a vote is taken to give second and final passage to the spending plan.
Despite a lengthy City Council meeting on Wednesday, there was little comment or discussion on the budget amendments. Councilor John Barry read them off, and a vote on the amendments passed by an 8 to 1 vote, with only Councilor Christopher O'Neill in opposition. Yet, apparently signaling that not all of the councilors are in agreement with the amended budget in its entirety, the vote to approve first passage of the revised plan only passed by a 5 to 4 vote, with Councilors Thomas Hodge, Albert Vitali and Mark Wildenhain joining O'Neill in opposition.
Mayor Donald Grebien, who was in attendance for the entire meeting, made no public comment on the amendments made to his $198 million budget proposal. He told The Times after the vote that he needed to analyze the amendments, some of which he had learned about just prior to the council meeting. “I can say that I don't agree with all of what the council has proposed,” he said.
Grebien also said he would be speaking with the council further as well as listening to what the public has to say during Monday night's hearing. He said he would be addressing the council at that time.
The amended budget would force numerous municipal departments to do more with less while not increasing overtime. The hardest hit was the Fire Department, where a whopping $250,000 was slashed from the overtime account, and the Police Department, which was trimmed by $41,600 in the overtime line.
Finance Committee Chairman John Barry said the message, to all departments, but especially the Fire Department, which has been facing overtime costs of over $2 million in recent years, is to find a way to deal with staffing cuts while not adding to overtime costs.
Barry cited the fact that both the Fire Chief and Police Chief have maintained that their overtime expenses are largely the result of unfilled vacancies or lay-offs and then still having to provide a certain amount of staffing because of the union contracts. “Cutting (positions) and then increasing the overtime doesn't achieve any savings,” said Barry, who added that he considered the Fire Department's requested increase of over $250,000 for overtime to be “obscene.”
Barry added that he and the rest of the council realize that overtime costs can't be eliminated entirely, such as when a city worker is called out at night during an emergency, and said they looked at the past practices of the last few years to come up with their amended budget amounts.
While Daggett Farm was spared in the new plan at least for this year, the $55,000 in funding that the city annually gives to the Blackstone Valley Visitors Center was cut in half, as was the $30,000 that the city typically provides to fund the Rhode Island Philharmonic's annual summer concert in Slater Park.
Barry noted that the Pawtucket Teachers Alliance has been contributing $15,000 on top of the $30,000 from the city each year for this event, but said that additional sources of revenue will now have to be found in order for the concert to continue. Likewise, he said the budget cuts won't shut down the Visitors Center but other funding methods will have to be explored.
Eliminated also was $11,000 in a “public relations” line item that is annually used to produce the city calendar, while there were numerous other reductions in various line items for supplies, equipment parts and other more routine operating expenses.
The amended budget cuts $85,000 from the $169,000 in rental costs that pay for the city's Welfare Office located on Conant Street. While the city is required by the state to maintain a local Welfare office, Barry said there is currently vacant space available in the Chester Building (that houses the Visitors Center) at 175 Main Street.
The amended budget does include the elimination of two staffing positions that are in the Planning and Redevelopment Department--a secretary at $38,062 and a redevelopment grant manager at $57,020--and a temporary service used by the Law Department for $12,918. However, an earlier proposal made by Barry to eliminate salaried school crossing guards and to replace them with senior citizen volunteers was not found to be feasible because the crossing guards are represented by a collective bargaining unit.
The City Council did not go along with the mayor's proposal to eliminate all of the stipends for those serving on municipal boards. Approved instead was a 25 percent cut to the current amount of stipends, which reflects an increase of $75,254 from the mayor's budget. Barry defended this action by saying that many of those serving on appointed panels, particularly Zoning, Planning, Purchasing, Personnel, and the Board of Canvassers, put in a considerable amount of time and therefore deserve some compensation. The council also chose to keep its current health benefits, adding $79,697 to the mayor's spending plan.
As part of trying to increase revenue for the coming year, the City Council also on Wednesday approved several ordinances that will cost city workers, business owners and residents more in the way of additional fees. First passage was given to a new fee schedule that will charge business owners $400 annually for testing and maintenance of private fire alarm boxes and $50 to $200 for incurring three or more false alarms within the year (no charge for up to two false alarms).
The council also approved a new $16 disposal fee for the removal of mattresses, box springs and refrigerators that are either picked up by the city's Sanitation Department or brought to the city's incinerator.
Additionally, the council passed ordinances that will require a contribution of 25 percent of the annual fuel and maintenance costs for all municipal employees who opt to have take-home use of a city-owned vehicle, and 25 percent of the costs of their cell phone plan for a city-issued cell phone.
During the public input session on Wednesday, John Sawyer had urged the council to vote on the elimination of stipends for board members, and also urged the board to not approve another $350,000 in bonding for building maintenance funds.
Also, Joseph Knight suggested that the council look at the expenses generated by the School Department's Alternative Learning Program and JMW Arts High School as a way to cut budget costs going forward.
Additionally, Augie Venice, president of local 1012 which represents the largest number of municipal workers, addressed the council members to urge them not to cut any more jobs. He said the results of the layoffs that have already occurred can be witnessed throughout the city in many ways such as too-high grass on parks and playing fields, more litter, and less custodial care of municipal buildings.
Another speaker said she was upset at the reduction in the motor vehicle tax exemption to $500 and suggested that it would be more fair for the city to adopt a dual rate that would give a higher exemption for homeowners than renters. She also said the city should look to reduce the dollar amount of the motor vehicle tax rate.
City Councilor Christopher O'Neill was one of the few councilors who spoke at length about the budget amendments on Wednesday, saying that he was opposed because he did not think the cost-cutting “went far enough” to reduce the city's deficit. He said that more efforts need to be made to restructure the Fire Department with current staffing levels so that more firefighters can be put back on the trucks to reduce overtime and said he disagrees with Grebien's plan to add a third rescue while at the same time laying off some firefighters.

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