PAWTUCKET – The City Council unanimously endorsed Mayor Donald R. Grebien’s $135.33 million budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, the third straight year in which the council has approved the mayor’s budget with no amendments or alterations to the proposed spending plan, although councilors noted that with uncertainty in the air stemming from the COVID-19 crisis, the book is far from closed on the budget.
Grebien’s $135.33 million budget represents a $3.49 million, or 2.6 percent, increase over the current $131.83 million spending plan and does not increase residential or commercial tax rates in the coming year. The current residential tax rate of $20.89 and the commercial tax rate of $34.47 will stay the same in 2020-21.
The council on May 6 voted unanimously for first passage with no changes to the mayor’s proposed spending plan, then did so again on May 14 for second and final passage.
“I have never in my years on the council seen us in a position like we’re in this year and I give the mayor a great deal of credit for calling a number of weeks ago in the beginnings of this pandemic and this financial crisis to say they’ve been working on the budget … His instinct was right, that what we need to do is to assure our residents that we’re not going to inflict any greater harm on them and try to give them some certainty going forward that we’re going to hold the line,” said District 4 Councilor and Finance Committee Chairman John J. Barry III. “This budget holds the line.”
However, Barry noted that there exists the possibility that the council may have to reconvene “many times” over the coming months to examine the budget.
“My hope is that the feds come through with a significant pool of money to help the states out, so the states can help the cities and towns out … Everything’s up in the air,” he said.
“We’re going to do the right things by the residents of this community, we’re going to make this burden on them as light as we have to and we hope we don’t have to come back to them in the middle of this budget year and say we can’t get through…” Barry said. “At this moment in time, this is the right thing to do for the residents of this community, so I’m happy to support this budget.”
The 2020-21 budget factors in initiatives such as the implementation of a fourth rescue, the continuation of the K-9 Unit within the Pawtucket Police Department, increases in school construction projects – most notably the coming demolition and rebuilding of Henry J. Winters Elementary School, and green initiatives such as converting streetlights to LED.
Major revenue changes in the budget include a roughly $20,000 increase in property taxes and a $557,000 increase in school construction aid. The city is also facing a $1.2 million decrease in state aid as the governor’s budget cuts PILOT and Distressed Community aid to the city.
Major expenditure changes include the fully-funded pension ARC payments and $200,000 more to the OPEB trust, approximately $1.8 million in contractual salary increases, and an $820,000 increase in debt service for infrastructure reinvestment such as voter-approved school upgrades, as well as parks and road reinvestments.
No city employees were laid off and no positions were eliminated in the budget proposal.
Grebien, during his annual budget address before the council, said “we all take our responsibilities to protect taxpayers and provide services to our residents very seriously. However, never has it been more critical as we face this pandemic together, with businesses closing their doors and our residents getting laid off, that we continue to do all we can to provide services while holding the line on taxes for those we serve.”
“This budget should not and does not raise taxes,” the mayor said. “Our commitment is a joint effort around shared goals as we protect our residents and honor our communities and our commitments to the hard-working city employees and first responders who continue to provide our community high-quality services during these trying times.”
“Together, we are proud in providing those we represent a small level of certainty in these uncertain times through no tax increase,” Grebien later said. “We continue to make real progress and achieve real results for our taxpayers as we move Pawtucket forward in the right direction. We are all in this together, Pawtucket’s strength as a community is truly shining as we get through these times collectively.”
District 2 Councilor Mark J. Wildenhain expressed appreciation for Grebien and members of the mayor’s administration, but noted that the COVID-19 crisis could have “far-reaching problems” beyond this year’s budget.
“Until we get a fix on what the federal government, the state government’s going to provide us with to help keep us in line here, I would still continue to challenge them to make sure that they do everything they can for the residents of this city,” he said.
District 1 Councilor and Council President David P. Moran lauded the budget, saying a no-tax-increase proposal was the “morally correct thing to do.”
However, like Wildenhain, Moran saw a future with “so many variables, so many unknowns that we don’t know about for the next several months.”
“It’s not the end of the road, it’s still a work in progress, and let’s not kid ourselves, we could be back here five, six, eight, nine months from now…” Moran said of the budget. “I think we’re doing the responsible thing for the taxpayers but I don’t think this is the end of the book right now, we’ve still got a few more pages to write potentially.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette