PAWTUCKET — Two City Councilors are raising questions about some expenditures made by the Grebien Administration for municipal jobs and even the spending philosophy behind the budget itself.
At Wednesday's City Council meeting, Councilor Lorenzo Tetreault asked for an explanation of a $37,500 salary expenditure for a secretary-trust agency position in the Planning and Redevelopment Department that he thought had been vacant. He noted that this position and a grants management assistant in the Planning and Redevelopment Department had been left unfunded by the council in the current year's budget, and said he was surprised when one of these positions showed up as being filled on a recent personnel listing he had requested.
Tetreault also said he wanted some answers about two other expenditures in the Planning Department budget, one for approximately $3,200 and another for about $1,165, that were listed as “temporary services.” “I want to know what these are for. We're supposed to be watching our pennies here,” stated Tetreault.
Tetreault raised the points after the council was being asked to approve minor changes to the titles and pay plan for two other city positions that was on that night's agenda. One was to delete “Superintendent of Recreation” and create “Director of Recreation” and the other was to delete “Switchboard Operator” and create “Receptionist/Customer Service.” He said, “It's good we're being asked to do this, but we were never asked to do this for the $52,000 or $1,000 a week Special Economic Projects Coordinator.”
Jack Gannon, director of administration for Mayor Donald Grebien, responded to Tetreault's points. He said the councilor's previous request for a legal opinion on whether the creation of the Special Economic Projects Coordinator should have come before the City Council for approval would be coming shortly from the City Solicitor.
Gannon also noted that the Administration is also awaiting an opinion from the state Ethics Commission about whether private funding can be used wholly or in part to pay for the Special Economic Projects Coordinator job.
Speaking to the $37,500 secretary position in the Planning and Redevelopment Department, Gannon said that a person was hired prior to council's final approval of the budget. He said the position would remain filled and “the administration will find the money somewhere else in the budget” to fund it.
Gannon told Tetreault that he did not know the answer about the other expenditures for Temporary Services he was questioning, but said he get back to him. would find out and report back.
Councilor Jean Philippe Barros also said he had “similar concerns” about some of the positions that have been created by the Administration, and asked if the two positions on the agenda involved more money or were just language changes. Gannon said these positions were just job title changes with a minor salary adjustment (less than $500) for the receptionist salary.
Councilor Thomas Hodge told Gannon that he objected to several previous references made about the city's operating budget being a “guide.” Gannon replied that the budget is a “floating” document, while Hodge sharply disagreed, saying, “It is not a pot of money to move where the administration wants it to be.”
Hodge added that the budget is not a guide, but a financial document that the council had taken pains to finalize and which the Administration should adhere to. Gannon responded that he and Hodge would have to “agree to disagree” on the subject, noting that the budget doesn't contain responses for any circumstances that come up, such as Tropical Storm Irene. Hodge shot back that there are reserves built into the budget to cover unanticipated expenses.
When asked about the points that Tetreault had raised about the jobs and the budget, Mayor Donald Grebien told the Times this week that the secretary in Planning and Redevelopment had been hired back in February or March prior to the council eliminating the funding. “We're not pulling that person out of that position,” he stated.
As to the other expenditures in Planning and Redevelopment that Tetreault referred to, Planning and Redevelopment Director Michael Davolio told The Times that these funds were used to pay for the temporary services of two employees who retired but were retained for a number of extra days to handle some tasks in the department. He said there is an allowance to bring back a retired municipal employee for up to 75 days per year, and these individuals were the best people to handle some work that needed to be done.
Davolio also said that the secretary position in question handles duties involved with the Pawtucket Planning and Redevelopment Agency and the Business Development Agency, which come under the umbrella of the city's Planning and Redevelopment Department.
Grebien insisted his administration has been “transparent” in the actions that have been taken involving the budget. “When you look at the whole thing, we came in with a $12 million deficit, which represents 10 percent of the $120 million budget,” the mayor said. He further noted that the salary figures being questioned amount to about “thirty-one tenths of a percent.” “I wish they were that aggressive last year in worrying about a $12 million deficit,” he stated.
As to the budget overall, Grebien said he takes the document seriously and knows he must live up to the dollar amount, but also maintains that it must have some fluidity in order to address all of the city's operational needs. He noted that the council chopped his original budget proposal down by about $800,000, including cuts to some items where he thinks there was a lack of due diligence. “We made it clear there are areas we aren't going to be able to live with,” he said.
For example, Grebien noted that the council cut by half of the amount of funding needed to operate a Welfare Office in the city. However, he said that in conversations he has had recently with the state Department of Human Services, it appears that the city should maintain this office. He said he was told that about 50 percent of the people served there are Pawtucket residents. He also said the city is under contract for a lease on the office until June. “We're going to the state to see what we can do with this office,” he said.
Grebien also noted that the council cut out half of the funding for dues so the city can belong to the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, made cuts to the Blackstone Valley Visitors Center that affects the staffing at its busy information desk and chopped other areas which have turned out to be problematic.
Grebien said he feels that some of the recent picking apart of the budget by some of the council members is “political.” “Clearly, we're trying to manage above it, but the politics has to be separated out of it,” he said.
However, the mayor also said he was happy to receive the recent news from Finance Director Ronald Wunschel that the fiscal year 2011 budget deficit had finally been erased. The mayor credited this to good management and cooperation. “We implemented some one-time fixes and worked with the School Department to get this budget down. The $12 million budget we inherited is down to zero now,” he said.
In other municipal job news, the City Council on Wednesday approved a request by Pawtucket Library Director Susan Reed to use money from a $185,000 restricted account that is funded by collected fines and donations to pay for a teen librarian.
Reed said the teen librarian position was lost to lay-offs, but the library would like to restore the job. She said she feels the use falls under the guidelines for the account, which is to “improve library services” and has requested enough funding to restore the position through June 30, 2013.