Council keeps tight hold on funds in $145.9 million budget

Council keeps tight hold on funds in $145.9 million budget

WOONSOCKET – The City Council passed a $145.9 million budget by a unanimous vote Monday night, wrapping up the city’s budget process a month earlier than in previous years.

The final budget includes a $55.8 million tax levy, some $3 million less than the current year’s levy. Under the new budget, the tax rate for residential property will remain steady at $24.08 per thousand dollars of value, while the commercial rate will drop 25 cents to $35.94.

Though the total budget amount and tax rates remained unchanged from Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s proposal last month, Councilor James Cournoyer again introduced a sweeping amendment that passed by a unanimous vote of the council and cut funding to several city departments before bringing the budget to a final vote. Close to $500,000 of those funds were removed to a contingency account, a maneuver allowing the council greater authority over their future use.

“There will be a significant contingency that we can use as we go along and once we get a little more clarity on some of these outstanding things from some of these people,” said Cournoyer.

Among the cuts were $350,000 from the road paving account, $100,000 from the city property division, $25,000 from energy conservation improvements and $100,000 from the mayor’s blight removal account. Councilors also restored $586,880 to a retirement benefit account for city firefighters that had previously been absorbed into the general revenue, a sticking point in previous budget years.

In a contentious decision opposed by Baldelli-Hunt, councilors eliminated $65,000 for a new veteran and constituent services position, opting instead to add $25,000 in veteran expenses under the Department of Human Services budget. Baldelli-Hunt fought to keep the position, first requesting councilors take the funds from the post-employment benefit account and then offering blight removal funds to maintain the line item. The position, she argued, would offer key support to the 2,000 to 3,000 military veterans living in the city.

“Making sure their concerns are being addressed is, I think, a small token amount to make sure our veterans have what they need,” she said.

Councilors stood by their decision, arguing veteran resources would be adequately funded under the human services budget, and also adding $25,000 for the Senior Citizens Center. With the amended budget passing by a unanimous vote, this year’s council dynamic offered little chance the changes would be reversed in the weeks ahead, as the council could easily override an attempted veto.

“To your credit and to your fault, this was a tight budget. You didn’t leave a lot of room for us to grab things,” said Council President Daniel Gendron.

Another controversial cut was the removal of $65,000 in park improvements to contingency funds, a line item Baldelli-Hunt had stated would be partly used to fund improvements at the city skate park. Councilor Jon Brien, supporting the change, said he wanted to ensure that all $65,000 went toward the skate park and plans to introduce a request for proposals to use the contingency money for skate park equipment at the next council meeting.

“We’ve done enough for athletic fields. There’s an underserved group out there that’s no less deserving,” he said.

In addition to restoring post-employment benefits and building up the contingency account, councilors added $250,000 to the city’s contribution to the Woonsocket Education Department. The increase, which brings the local contribution to $16,416,330, represents the first time the city has increased its portion of the school budget since 2013. The amount had been previously agreed upon by the City Council and School Committee contingent upon the negotiation of a new contract with the Woonsocket Teachers Guild by June 1. Gendron said he learned just a few hours before the meeting that the contract, finalized last month, had been signed.

“It seems like the School Committee put that together, and the City Council will be doing what we promised we would do for the extra quarter of a million dollars,” he said.

Councilors left several other budget items untouched, including $30,000 for a dog park, $50,000 toward an open space purchase at Holley Springs, $110,000 to the purchase of new police vehicles and $24,000 for grant writing services. Following the meeting, councilors defended their use of the contingency account, with Brien telling The Breeze he felt moving funds there offers greater transparency on their use in the future.

“The role of the legislative branch is to control the city finances and to make appropriations where necessary,” he said. “I think it allows for a lot more transparency when we do it this way.”