Grebien: Residents 'deserve' a year without a tax hike

Grebien: Residents 'deserve' a year without a tax hike

PAWTUCKET - After two straight years of "hitting up" taxpayers "almost to the max" to help keep the city solvent, Mayor Don Grebien says it's time for a break.

A number of positive financial developments, like a big federal grant to the Pawtucket Fire Department and ongoing privatization efforts have made it possible to submit a Fiscal Year 2014 budget with no tax increase for home or business owners, the mayor told The Breeze.

The good news comes after a year when homeowners saw an 80-cent hike on the tax rate.

"We're better, but there's a lot more to do," said Grebien. "I don't want to give the false reality that things are great, but I did what I had to do and I felt taxpayers deserved a break."

He's "not saying that we've solved all the problems" of the city, says Grebien, but the city is in a much better financial position than it's been in for a very long time. His administrations is expecting to finish the current fiscal year on June 30 with a surplus, noted the mayor.

Grebien's $111 million spending plan, submitted last week to the City Council, will undergo council committee review before going to a public hearing on May 22. The council is expected to refer the mayor's budget to its finance committee on Wednesday night.

Grebien's Fiscal Year 2014 budget is up about $1.7 million from last year's budget, but revenues have increased by $1.4 million.

According to Grebien, his budget is based on the assumption that the city will not have to borrow big money through a tax anticipation note to pay its bills off through the end of the fiscal year, as has been the method the past several years.

Though the city is still facing a "structural" budget shortfall of approximately $8 million, there appears to be enough money on hand, based on additions to the bottom line like extra revenue from service charges and interest income, to pay everything off, he said.

His administration's budget also accounts for the fact that officials still have not reached agreements with city unions on new contracts, said Grebien. Even if the sides are not able to reach deals on new contracts, he said, the city could still get through this year and next year "without any trouble."

The starting point for ongoing negotiations is a "zero percent raise," said Grebien. Even if a raise is given out, at a maximum of 1.5 percent, unions will have to more than make up for the cost increase in other areas, he said.

The unions will play a significant role in deciding how much of Pawtucket's structural shortfall will be addressed, said Grebien.

"We are at the point of the five-year plan where the residents have stepped up, controlled government expenses, and now the unresolved city contracts play a significant role as part of the collective resolution," he said in a statement.

Grebien said his budget focuses on several important priorities to promote sustainable growth and economic progress for the city, including a greater emphasis on tools needed for economic development, while promoting quality of life issues including road improvements and putting an emphasis on neighborhood issues.

"Under my administration we will continue to put forth responsible, honest and transparent budgets that will deliver the services our residents and businesses expect and deserve, at a cost they can reasonably afford," Grebien said.

Council President David Moran said Monday that he was happy to see a budget with no tax increase included, but pledged that the council will "continue to do what we always do" in being "diligent" about scrutinizing the budget.

"Just because there's a zero tax increase, doesn't stop the process," he said. "If there are cuts that are realistic and reasonable, we'll certainly put them through. To be practical, we'll probably divert it to the reserve fund."

The council's independent "fiscal analyst," Alan Tavares, will be put to good use during the budget process, said Moran.

According to Grebien, the keys to achieving a tax-free budget proposal include:

* A $1.1 million increase in state aid, including $677,000 from the state for submitting a pension fund improvement by the May 1 deadline;

* Ongoing "streamlining" of city functions;

* A reduction in the number of city positions by about 60 since he took office in 2011;

* Outsourcing the trash transfer station and sanitation operations;

* Receiving a federal SAFER grant that will allow the hiring of 21 new firefighters and shrinks a $2.78 million overtime line item to just $1.5 million.

* And sharing services with the School Department.

Grebien's spending package adds funding for services at the Mathieu Senior Center and Pawtucket Public Library, allocates $250,000 to continue rebuilding the city's "rainy day fund" reserves, and reflects an increase of more than $1 million in the city's annual contribution to its police and fire pension fund.

The city will contribute $29.6 million to its school department in the next fiscal year if the budget is approved as is. The only increase will be a $511,000 increase as part of a deficit reduction agreement reached in 2010.

"For the past two years, our taxpayers have stepped to the plate and supported our city with their hard-earned tax dollars," said the mayor in an email. "We fully recognize that Pawtucket still has a significant structural problem that we are working hard every day to get better control of, but this is simply not the time to ask for more from our taxpayers."

Grebien said that officials could make a significant dent in the city's structural budget hole, or total funding sources lost over the years that are outside the operational budget guidelines, but decided it wasn't right.

Find Grebien's full budget proposal at www.pawtucketri.com.