Residents call for cuts, question investments in already lean city budget

Residents call for cuts, question investments in already lean city budget

WOONSOCKET – Lean budgeting was the name of the game Tuesday as residents aired their thoughts during a public hearing on a proposed city budget that had already withstood cuts in the face of increasing costs and declining tax revenue.

Gary Thurber, a resident of Dawn Boulevard, told city officials this year’s budget process should follow a theme of “stop spending unless you have to.” He acknowledged the administration’s efforts to control spending but pointed to several areas of possible cuts, including blight removal, an initiative he said the city could no longer afford. His concerns were shared by William Doe of Woodhaven Road, who also advocated taking a year off from the blight account.

“We’ve been tearing down properties whether we were getting taxes from them or not,” said Doe. “I think we’ve done a lot for the blight, and I think we’ve got to give it one year’s rest and use that money more toward getting more taxes into the city.”

Thurber also had suggestions for paring down other areas of the city budget, including level-funding road paving, reviewing the allotments for police overtime and civilian personnel, eliminating a marketing budget and cutting $200,000 out of the contingency account.

Councilors also heard from former Councilor Richard Fagnant, who questioned an increase in the proposed salary for the director of planning and development. Councilor James Cournoyer clarified that the position, currently held by Steven Lima, would increase from four to five days per week in next year’s budget cycle.

Estelle Bubble, a Fairmount resident, criticized the allotment of $30,000 for a dog park, lobbying instead for funding to improve the skate park on Hamlet Avenue. The park, which opened in 2017, became a subject of controversy last summer when city officials banned BMX bike and scooter riders from the park for insurance reasons, leading supporters to call for better equipment and more funding.

“$30,000 for a dog park? No, we need more for the kids,” said Bubble. “Not every child is athletic for baseball, football, basketball. We need more for them.”

The $145.9 million proposed budget takes into account nearly $1 million in pension and health care increases along with the loss of $1.5 in real estate and tangible property taxes with the conversion of Landmark Medical Center to nonprofit status. While Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt highlighted several cost-cutting measures, including the elimination of a chief of staff and economic development director, two positions she previously championed that went unfilled this year, the budget also maintains several line items that have proved controversial in the past, including $700,000 for the contingency account and $200,000 for blight removal. The proposed budget also introduces $65,000 under “veteran and constituent services” for the creation of a new position she said would serve as a liaison to connect veterans with resources in the community.

She also addressed the call for skate park funding, telling The Breeze following the meeting that a portion of the $65,000 earmarked for “park improvements” would be used to fund improvements at the skate park this year pending approval by the Rhode Island Interlocal Risk Management Trust.

“Those improvements can only take place with the approval of our insurance carrier. So anything we do there we have to run by our carrier,” she said

The budget as written includes a $16,166,330 local contribution for the Education Department, the same funding the city has provided since 2013, though that number could change following the approval of a contract with the Woonsocket Teachers Guild last week. Former mayoral candidate Albert Brien questioned the new contract’s reliance on Education Department reserve funds, taking the opportunity to criticize the city’s continued relationship with RISE Prep Mayoral Academy.

The City Council will consider the budget on Monday, June 3.

“I’m hopeful that the council is understanding of the fact that to run a city of 41,000 people, the sixth largest community in the state, this budget is bare bones,” said Baldelli-Hunt.