Tax rates down 1 percent in proposed city budget

Tax rates down 1 percent in proposed city budget

State budget woes could mean cuts for school aid

WOONSOCKET – City residents could be in for a tax break after the release of this year’s budget proposal, which includes a 1 percent rate reduction on both commercial and residential property taxes for 2020-2021.

The proposal, released by Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt last week and scheduled for a virtual public hearing this coming Tuesday, May 26, includes a slight decrease in municipal expenditures along with an approximately $150,000 decrease in the overall tax levy compared with projections for the current fiscal year.

In a letter accompanying the proposal, Baldelli-Hunt said the COVID-19 crisis weighed heavily on this year’s budget process. With many city residents out of work and businesses facing long-term economic impacts, the administration, she said, aimed to meet the city’s financial obligations while streamlining city services and eliminating inefficiencies.

Along with contractual salary increases, those obligations include a $374,000 increase in municipal pension contributions along with a $300,000 increase in employee healthcare. In most cases, she said, this was accomplished without increases to individual department budgets.

Speaking to The Valley Breeze, Baldelli-Hunt said this was possible due partly to the city’s improving economic situation in recent years. New development, she said, has accounted for an additional $190,000 in revenue, while refinancing of bonds resulted in a $950,000 decrease in debt service. After the city lost out on more than $1.5 million in tax payments due to Landmark Medical Center’s conversion to nonprofit status last year, a tax deal returned about a third of that revenue back into the city budget.

“There’s definitely economic uncertainly across the country, but fortunately in the city of Woonsocket, we have definitely seen an uptick in interest in the city,” she said.

The budget also includes $100,000 for blight removal, about half of what the mayor proposed last year, and cuts $75,000 for streetlights due to expected savings from an LED conversion. Several items that proved contentious in previous years, including an economic development director and a chief of staff, were noticeably absent from this year’s budget. Baldelli-Hunt acknowledged those items have not been received well by councilors in the past.

“I know that right now, that’s something they don’t have an appetite for,” she said.

Including school expenditures, the proposed budget comes to approximately $152.2 million, about $6 million more than the budget approved by the council last year. Most of that increase is in the form of a $5 million boost to state education aid projected earlier this year. With state leaders now projecting an $800 million budget deficit due to COVID-19, school officials around the state are growing increasingly uncertain over what they can expect from the state.

During a School Committee meeting last week, Woonsocket Education Department Finance Director Brad Peryea said the district currently expects to end the year with a $160,000 surplus due to savings obtained through COVID-19. The largest of these is $1.1 million saved on busing costs as students learn from home.

At the same time, however, district leaders cautioned against remaining too optimistic due to the uncertainty of state aid.

“Everyone’s holding their breath to get more federal stimulus money,” said School Committee Chairman Paul Bourget. “Any savings we have this year is certainly going to be applied either to next year’s budget or it’s going to go back into our reserves.”

Bourget also pointed out the current teachers’ contract, which was approved last summer, is due to expire next year.