Mayor’s budget gets cool reception from city councilors

Mayor’s budget gets cool reception from city councilors

WOONSOCKET – Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget appears headed for significant changes after a majority of city councilors supported amendments to the budget ordinance at Monday night’s council meeting.

Council member Jim Cournoyer, supported by council members Jon Brien and Denise Sierra and Council President Daniel Gendron, presented members of the administration with a list of amendments cutting funding to nearly all departments, reducing overall spending and cutting the proposed tax levy by $799,735.

The biggest hit to the mayor’s proposed budget came with the cuts of several new positions, notably a $70,000 economic development director Baldelli-Hunt says is necessary to advance commercial growth in the city. The cut signified a sharp contrast in approaches to economic development, with members of the administration claiming a full-time director would boost development in the city, and Cournoyer and several other council members saying only a lower commercial tax rate more in line with the rates of neighboring suburban communities, and not a new position, would accomplish that.

“If they’re smart, they’re going to go to Dowling Village or Smithfield Commons,” said Brien, referring to business owners. “What we need to do is lower the commercial rate and get out of the way.”

Cournoyer’s proposed budget includes a 3.3 percent decrease in the overall tax levy from the current fiscal year. While the amended budget still includes a 5.6 percent increase in the overall commercial tax levy, that increase is significantly smaller than the 15.1 percent increase in the overall commercial tax levy proposed in the mayor’s original proposed budget. Cournoyer’s proposal would bring the commercial tax rate down to $33.20 per thousand, compared with $36.19 in the mayor’s proposed budget.

The amended budget also cut a chief of staff position from the mayor’s office, but added a “floating” administrative assistant under the council budget, along with a full-time grant writer/planning analyst in the Planning and Development Department and increased the planning director position to full-time from four days per week. The amendments also reduced funds dedicated to eradicating blight in the city and added $150,000 for the lease/purchase of three new police cruisers.

The remainder of the cuts were achieved through the elimination of “temporary services” funding, a budget item across several departments that was questioned by members of the public at last week’s public hearing.

“I just don’t understand what the word temporary means. Are we going out hiring temporary help so we don’t need to hire people, so we don’t have to pay them benefits?” resident Gary Thurber asked of members of the administration during the hearing.

While some of those services were clarified to refer to regular part-time positions, such as library administrative assistants, others, according to Cournoyer, referred to positions that could be better served by the city’s full-time employees. His budget proposal included a 2 percent raise for salaried city employees across all departments, an amendment that lowered some of the salaries in the mayor’s proposed budget and increased others.

Despite the changes, the mayor and the council reached a consensus on the addition of a deputy police chief, a new position that came after two years of lobbying by Chief Thomas Oates. Oates told The Breeze the position would assist with ongoing restructuring of the police department, hopefully leading to a reduction in overtime.

“It’s something that the public may not see directly, but there’ll be benefits that they don’t see,” he said.

The amendments also eliminated the absorption of the firefighters’ retirement benefit contributions into the general revenue, a move Cournoyer and other councilors said would have been an inappropriate use of funds dedicated to post-employment benefits.

“It is completely irresponsible to say that anyone could or should take that in one lump sum,” said Gendron. “Firefighters have contributed of their own money, and it’s being wiped out to disguise an election year budget.”

The proposed budget amendments passed by a 4-3 vote, with council members Christopher Beauchamp, Richard Fagnant and Melissa Murray voting against. Councilors voted to table the final vote until the June 18 meeting and revisit the budget at that time.

Several heads of departments present at the meeting expressed concern with the budget amendments and indicated a desire to meet with council members to discuss the changes prior to June 18. Gendron said he hoped the City Council would be able to reach a consensus with the mayor and members of the administration by that time in order to avoid a veto of the approved budget.

On a separate matter, council members approved Scott MacLennan as a full member of the Zoning Board of Review by a 4-3 vote. MacLennan previously served as an alternate on the Zoning Board, a mayoral appointment that did not have full voting powers. Council members were also considering appointing former City Council President Albert Brien to the vacant seat, but the vote on his appointment was tabled at his request. Council members also voted to appoint Martha Tetreault as a member of the Board of Canvassers and Registration, reappoint Ernest Dispirito as a member of the Library Board of Trustees and reappoint Stephanie Roberts as a member of the Library Board of Trustees.

Comments

It should be noted that Scott MacLennan's appointment as a full member of the Zoning Board of Review was changed to a 3 to 3 vote, which voided his appointment. Councilor Sierra had vote "YES" by mistake and, thereafter, changed her vote to "NO".

Let em' eat cake

The argument that tax cuts create or increase revenue is myth.

The logic behind this is that cutting taxes will increase spending that will result in economic expansion. This expansion will result in increased tax revenues so significant that they will more than offset the drop in tax revenues that result from a lowered tax rate.

The inverse to this is that increased taxes lower tax revenue by discouraging investment, which in turn lowers tax revenues so drastically, that they offset the added increase coming from the tax rate increase.

In reality investors are confident when the economy was growing and thus make investments that are largely, but not completely independent of tax policy. When the economy climbs so does investment, when it declines so does investment, but it never comes to a halt.

As a small business owner (food & beverage) and a real estate investor it's my experience that chasing tax rates is a fool's errand. I look for a supportive/collaborative local government and sustainable value creation opportunities in the local market. In virtually 100% of cases (barring incompetence) a director of planning, economic development, community development creates economic value for their city in multiples of their salary. The loss of man/woman power to chase grants in itself is a net loss for Woonsocket.

Call your elected officials to the table on decisions like cutting a value creating position like economic development. Ask them for facts not annadotally based opinions. Where is the data? Every decision related to the city's budget should be tied to data points.

Personally, I decided not to invest in Woonsocket because of a toxic political culture. I can measure market risk, but the political risk present in Woonsocket is beyond dangerous for a small business owner. I'm always content to pay my fair share of taxes when I see a city making sound investments with those funds that pave the metaphorical road ahead for my businesses.

Woonsocket could be special (in many ways it is), but voters need to raise the bar in City Hall.

You don't have to be fictitious character from a JD Salinger novel to know that government budgets that result in the taking of people's property via taxes should be developed in a thoughtful, prudent manner, based on facts and data, as opposed to emotional rhetoric.

It is a fact that that the City has the highest tax burden in the State relative to its assessed values.

It is a fact that the City's Commercial levy, at 30% of the Total Levy, is the second highest relative burden in the State - and the Mayor's proposed budget wants to exacerbate that problem by increasing the Commercial burden to 35% of the total levy.

It's a fact that an actual (as opposed to a fictional) investor gave us the gift of feed-back when he very clearly explained, in writing, that he was not investing in the City because the tax burden was too damn high, twice what his alternatives were in other communities - despite an enormous amount of outreach and hand-holding that was afforded to him.

Its a fact that having a taxpayer-paid Business Outreach Coordinator did not make a lick of difference to the Brickhouse restaurant which went out of business, despite all the outreach and help they received from the City's Business Outreach Coordinator.

It's also fact that the Council's amendments did not cut any existing services or existing staff. Rather, the amendments eliminated / controlled new, additional and unnecessary spending requests and in fact added back a position to the Planning & Development Department that was being eliminated by the Mayor's budget and also restored the Planning & Development Director's position to Full-Time as opposed to Part-Time as proposed by the Mayor.

The Council's Amended budget provides for significant ongoing investments and continued services to the community. It does not, however, accommodate unnecessary new spending, particularly in light of the head-winds that lie ahead (loss of Landmark taxes) and the election-year budget gimmicks that are contained in the Mayor's budget proposal (a one-time $1.2 million use of the Surplus and a one-time $0.5m use of the Fire Fighters' OPEB reserve).