PAWTUCKET — With tough times requiring some acknowledged tough choices, a public hearing on the proposed operating budget scheduled for tonight is likely to draw a crowd.
The public hearing, scheduled for 7 p.m. at City Hall (6:45 p.m. for public input), is the residents' chance to comment on the spending plan submitted by Mayor Donald Grebien for the upcoming fiscal year.
The $198 million fiscal year 2012 budget is $7.1 million higher than the FY11 budget of $191 million, representing an increase of 3.74 percent.
According to City Council President David Moran, a vote on the proposed budget will not take place on Wednesday night. A second budget workshop to discuss the Fire Department and Civil Defense spending plans and other revenue topics has been set for Thursday at 4:30 p.m., and Moran said he expects a special council meeting to be scheduled sometime after that to vote on the FY 12 budget.
Grebien's proposal is designed to eliminate the estimated $15.4 million projected shortfall—much of which he said he inherited upon taking office—and would represent a balanced budget. To drive home the point, the mayor even titled his accompanying budget presentation “Saving Pawtucket From Bankruptcy.”
The key to the budget balancing plan involves a proposal to lower the motor vehicle tax exemption from the current $3,400 amount to $500. This would generate an estimated $3.9 million in revenue and would mean about an additional $150 per car for the average resident. Grebien has said this option would be preferable to implementing a property tax increase because it would spread the burden to more city residents rather than just hitting the owners of homes and businesses.
Another piece, currently causing some heartache and anger in City Hall and in other municipal departments, is the elimination of 54 city jobs to save about $3 million. Of these job cuts, 18 were actual lay-offs while 36 came from attrition (leaving vacancies unfilled). The lay-offs are being felt in virtually every city department, with some such as the Public Library and Information Technology area being the hardest hit. The Fire Department is also losing five employees.
Last week, the seniority-based “bumping” process was set into motion as many who were laid off and had seniority could bid on the job of someone more junior. The employees with bumping rights then have 15 days to show they can do the new job, at which point the department manager can put in a recommendation that they become permanent.
The mayor's budget also depends on some $900,000 from increased program revenues and $300,000 from give-backs in stipends and health insurance benefits from appointed and elected officials.
An informal poll of city councilors shows a majority being willing to vote for the lower car-tax exemption—although reluctantly. While noting that the budget is still a “work in progress,” most councilors said they agree with the mayor that the lowering of the car tax exemption is preferable to a property tax increase and seem like the only way to achieve the amount of revenue needed to balance the budget.
However, in the previous budget workshops, several councilors have also suggested other ways that costs could be cut than what the mayor and his team have proposed. Some ideas have included closing Daggett Farm and its animal compound, eliminating the Visitor Center and related office space on the first floor of the city-owned building at 175 Main Street, and cutting back on security personnel at Slater Park and at the seasonal swimming pool at Vets Park.
An additional topic of debate was leasing out the city's transfer station to an outside company. Some estimates have shown that the city could reportedly save $1 million by privatizing and then generate additional revenue.
Other cost-cutting suggestions include eliminating the annual Rhode Island Philharmonic Concert in Slater Park that is part of the Pawtucket Arts Festival to save $30,000 and the annual city calendar, which costs $11,000 to produce.
Councilors John Barry and Christopher O'Neill have both questioned whether Daggett Farm, which costs an estimated $100,000 annually to run, should be kept operating at a time of fiscal crisis. Barry has also raised similar concerns about the information desk services and free office space in the Visitor Center that is provided to the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.
Barry told The Times that he is looking seriously at both of these budget lines because they are items that, “when we have a little more money, are nice to do. But whether they are essential city services or not, is another question.”
Barry argued that 19 or 20 years ago, he had made a similar argument about the Slater Park Zoo because it was time when “we couldn't fund the schools, but we had a zoo.” He added that he has even more cost-cutting ideas—some of which are likely to “have people howling”-- which he intends to present to his fellow councilors at the upcoming workshops.
O'Neill said he realizes that Daggett Farm with its animals is a place that many residents enjoy, but that in these financial times, “you have to look at everything, and these are some of the tough decisions.” He added that both Daggett Farm and the Visitor Center “are nice things to have, but can we afford them in this economy?” He added that he will be presenting additional figures about these costs to the Finance Committee.
O'Neill added that while he, like most of the other councilors, supports lowering the car tax exemption to $500, he has also drafted a resolution asking that the city lower its motor vehicle tax rate. At $53.00 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, Pawtucket's tax rate is the second highest in the state.
At Daggett Farm, Alan Gagnon, the full-time farm attendant, said the venue drew over 4,000 people during the month of April and that figure goes even higher during the summer months. “On a nice day, such as May 1 was, we got 450 people,” he noted. He said that, employee wages aside, the costs of maintaining the 15 or so animals is about $13,000 a year for hay, wood shavings and feed, and about $1,500 in veterinary care. His further noted that events such as The Haunted Tunnel and party rentals brought in over $10,000 last year.
Gagnon pointed out that the closure of Daggett Farm would also affect the plant and flower sales at the adjacent greenhouse, which is operated by the ARC of Blackstone Valley, as well as the business at the food concession stands. “We all exist because of one another,” he said.
Len Rounds, who just signed a five-year lease with the city on the concession stand also adjacent to the Daggett Farms building, also expressed concern about any possible closure. “The only things that bring in food customers are the farm and the playground,” said Rounds. “We get a lot of walk-in traffic. Without the farm, there would be a big loss in business.”
The Visitor Center, which has occupied the first floor of 175 Main St. for about a decade, costs the city about $55,000 a year in personnel and utilities. The offices of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council are provided with free space as well as the Slater Mill Museum Gallery and gift shop.
City officials say, however, that there are a lot of dimensions involved in the operation of the Visitor Center, which got its initial program started with federal funding from the National Heritage Corridor. Funding from this federal entity also paid for recent painting and other upgrades.
Robert Billington, executive director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, which oversees the information desk and other Visitor Center services, told The Times that he intends to present information to the City Council on what the Center does on a daily basis and its active role in the community.
Billington said that some 88,000 people annually come to the Visitor Center and another 20,000 utilize the information desk and other services because of the RIPTA bus station that is located there. He said the staff answers “thousands of questions a year” on topics that include social services and other referrals. “It's a lot more than just about a bus. They spend a lot of time helping to accommodate the community,” said Billington.