PAWTUCKET — The public had its say Wednesday night on Mayor Donald Grebien’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and it was a mixed bag of messages that was sent to the City Council.
Grebien himself addressed the City Council prior to the start of the public hearing to lobby support for his proposed spending plan and to reiterate the need to take decisive actions that will stave off bankruptcy. The mayor’s $198 million budget contains no property tax increases but does depend on the city lowering its current motor vehicle tax exemption from $3,400 to $500 as one of its key pieces.
“There is no middle course—I can’t stress that enough,” Grebien stated. “The time for budget gimmicks and one-time fixes is over. Either we make the hard decisions to cut our spending and live within our means, or we will lose control of our city, and our future, to others who will make those decisions for us.”
The mayor, accompanied by his wife, Laureen, sat through the hour and a half of public commentary from residents, city employees and others who lobbied for various interests having to do with the FY12 spending plan. Demonstrating the various factions present, comments drew applause both from those who wanted to see services restored, such as for the library and the Information Technology Department, and the fiscal conservatives who urged even greater budget cuts.
Befitting its purpose, the Pawtucket Public Library had the most well researched and organized group of speakers behind it to protest a proposed reduction in staffing. More than a half dozen people, young and old alike, spoke about the importance of the library to the residents of the community and urged the City Council to maintain its current level of funding.
Casey Richards, a longtime library employee, said the planned lay-offs would mean no computer classes for students and job-seekers, no teen programs or summer reading program, and a big drop in the level of customer service that the library would be able to provide. She noted the heavy use that the library gets from the community, and invited the members of the City Council to come in and work alongside her some time “to see what your tax dollars are paying for.”
Julio Olivo, a recent Tolman High School graduate, credited the teen librarian who is slated for a layoff as giving him and other city youths “many tools that we used in high school,” while Steve Flynn, a teacher at Tolman, spoke of the importance of the library to students who need to use computers as well as the after school “homework club” that has now been eliminated.
Karen Miller, a representative from the state office of Library and Information Services, told the council that if a proposed budget cut of $225,000 is made, it could jeopardize the library’s eligibility to receive state funding of some $365,000 and would affect its ability to participate in the inter-library system lending program.
A couple of speakers urged the council to not go through with some further budget-cutting suggestions that have been discussed: the closure of Daggett Farm and its animal compound and the Visitors Center at 175 Main Street.
Debra Firth spoke of the importance of both venues in bringing people in to the city and to Pawtucket’s overall image, and other residents noted how Daggett Farm, in particular, is one of the few family-oriented activities that the city offers free of charge.
Robert Billington, executive director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, described the Visitors Center as playing an important role in helping those who come to the city to find their way around and said it will be even more vital once the Slater Park Museum and surrounding area receives designation as a National Park.
On a different note, Darcy Viner, who works as the city’s Information Technology Director, told the council she was concerned about the staffing reductions that have recently occurred in the IT Department and what she maintained is the “lack of evidence to support it.” She said that, running concurrent with these lay-offs is the recent appearance at City Hall of a company called City/State computers, which, she said, had submitted a proposal to take over the municipal IT functions.
Viner told the council that the vendor was reportedly losing its contract with the City of Providence over excessive billing costs and said, “Theirs is a cautionary tale…privitizing does not save you money.” She also expressed concerns about alleged privacy violations, proprietary software violations and purchasing irregularities that could be occurring due to the company’s arrival on an interim basis. “I am asking this council to restore the IT technical staff to its full complement of six members,” Viner said.
There were some speakers, like Mary Lou Kuras, who told the council that she liked what the mayor was doing. “Make the tough decisions…save our city from bankruptcy,” she said. Other fiscal conservatives, like Joel Tirrell and John Sawyer, faulted the budget for not going far enough with spending cuts and an overall scaling back of government employees, programs and services.
One elderly speaker, Blossom Segaloff, noted that she was “so poor that I don’t pay any taxes. I have no car, no house.” Still, she asked the council what had happened to the concept of “noblesse oblige” – and of not being afraid to go into debt for the common good. She questioned, “Is there any way you can put a little more on those who can take it?”
While Segaloff’s comment about noblesse oblige drew applause, it was referenced later by an angry Chris Caramela, who lambasted the current council and past city leaders for many decisions that he said have led to the current financial problems. Unlike Segaloff, and her supporters, he said he wanted government to “get out of my pockets” and added that he would be putting a “for sale” sign on his front lawn next week.