12 things to know about Providence’s new $717.9M budget

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – From tax rates to hiring more police officers and firefighters, the $717.9-million budget Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza signed into law Tuesday includes significant changes to city government.

So what do you need to know before the budget takes effect July 1?

Here’s an overview.

Property tax rates are down, but many homeowners will still pay more overall.

Start with the good news. Providence’s owner-occupied property tax rate is falling 48 cents to $18.77 per $1,000 of assessed value and the non-owner-occupied rate is dropping $1.19 to $31.91 per $1,000. Commercial rates are down 10 cents to $36.65 per $1,000. Here’s the not-so-good news, at least for your wallet. Because property values have increased by nearly 10% on average throughout the city, there’s a good chance you’ll still end up paying more to the city in total. (Property owners can expect to see those tax new bills any day now and first-quarter tax payments will be due by the last week in July.)

Landlords picked up another win.

While the spike in property values will also likely result in rental-property owners paying more in overall taxes to the city, they were able to convince the City Council to lower their rates for a second consecutive year. Over the last two years, landlords have seen their tax rates drop $1.84 per $1,000 of assessed value. Of course, there are two sides to every story. As a recent study comparing tax rates around New England showed, most cities similar in size to Providence do not require rental-property owners to pay higher rates than residents who live in their homes. Keith Fernandes, who represents the Providence Apartment Association advocacy group, told WPRI.com he will keep pushing for the non-owner-occupied rate to be only 60% higher than the owner-occupied rate.

Your car tax payment is going down $60.

The city is keeping its car tax rate at $60 per $1,000 of assessed value, but the budget raises the exemption from $1,000 to $2,000. That may seem more symbolic than anything else, but consider this: in 2010, if your car value was anywhere below $6,000, you paid the city nothing in taxes. (State lawmakers actually had a plan to phase out the car tax altogether, but it was abandoned during the recession.) By 2011, the exemption dropped to $1,000 and the owner of a $6,000 car in Providence was required to pay $300 in taxes. Former Mayor Angel Taveras called the decision to lower the exemption one of his biggest regrets of his four-year term.

Nearly $1 for every $4 in the budget goes to debt service or retirement obligations.

Call it dead money. The budget includes $73.1 million for the annual required contribution to the pension system, $64.9 million for debt service and $31.6 million for retiree healthcare obligations, which equals out to about $169.7 million. Remember, the total city budget is only $717.9 million. When Moody’s Investors Service cut the outlook on Providence’s credit rating to negative last year, it cited these fixed costs as one of the reasons.

The city is level-funding its contribution to the school department. Again.

For the seventh consecutive fiscal year, Providence will send $124.9 million to the school department and rely on state funding to cover the remainder of the district’s $363.8-million budget. (The state’s education funding formula guarantees the city about $10 million more than last year.) Governor Raimondo actually proposed a provision in the funding formula that would have required municipalities to increase local funding to cover the rate of inflation or enrollment increases, but that was taken out of the state of the budget. On the bright side, the city budget sets aside about $500,000 to purchase more than 1,200 new Chromebook computers.

Providence will hire more police officers and firefighters.

The budget sets aside funding for 60 new police officers and 80 new firefighters, two academies that are desperately needed. The police force is down to around 400 officers and the fire department has fallen to 345 firefighters, its lowest total in several decades. City Council leadership has indicated it wants to budget for another police academy again next year.

The council created a $1-million infrastructure fund.

This late addition to the budget sets aside funding specifically designated for improvements to public property like sidewalks, roads or parks. The 15 City Council members will be able to request funding for projects in their neighborhoods, but they will not be assigned $67,000 each. It’s still unclear who will approve these projects. The fund generated criticism from some councilors, who suggested residents shouldn’t have to have a relationship with their council member in order to request small improvements to public property. Separately, the public works department also has a new $1-millon budget for capital improvements.

All eyes are on the fire department dispute.

With the administration and the firefighters’ union still locked in a legal battle over how much firefighters should be paid for moving from four platoons to three, the City Council decided to set aside $1 million for potential litigation costs related to that dispute. No one believes $1 million is enough to cover all of the potential costs, but it is more than the city had before. The mayor’s budget proposal included $2 million for firefighter overtime plus another $5 million for either more overtime or litigation costs, but everyone agrees all of that money will end up going to overtime expenditures. (Providence has spent more than $8 million per year on firefighter overtime since 2010.)

The city is getting closer to having a rainy day fund again.

The budget includes $6.1 million for deficit reduction as the city continues to chip away at a $13-million cumulative deficit. State law requires municipalities to pay cumulative deficits down over the course of five years. Paying down the deficit doesn’t mean that money is actually transferred to the state. The city is simply expected to run an operating surplus each year to offset the earlier red ink.

Many city employees are getting pay raises.

From teachers to the mayor’s staff, a lot of city employees will see a slight pay increase in the new budget. Members of the Providence Teachers Union are getting a 1.75% increase at the beginning of the school year and a 1.5% raise on the final day of the school year, both of which fall in the 2016-17 fiscal year. Members of Local 1033 of the Laborers’ International Union are slated for a 2% increase. Non-union workers, which includes the mayor’s staff, are getting 2% bumps in pay. Police officers are not currently scheduled for a pay increase, but they are still negotiating a wage re-opener that could result in a raise. The firefighters are also not currently scheduled to receive a raise.

The Providence Community Library is getting a boost.

The nonprofit that oversees nine community libraries in Providence was seeking a $250,000 increase in the city budget, but it ended up getting an extra $100,000 thanks to a late change from the City Council. All told, the budget for city libraries is about $4 million.

Five council members opposed the budget.

Ward 1 Councilman Seth Yurdin, Ward 2 Councilman Sam Zurier, Ward 4 Councilman Nick Narducci, Ward 8 Councilman Wilbur Jennings and Ward 14 Councilman David Salvatore all voted against the budget before its first passage last week; all but Narducci did the same during the final vote. (Narducci was absent for the second meeting.) Each councilor had his own reasons for voting no, but Yurdin, Zurier and Salvatore cited the tax increase and the neighborhood infrastructure fund as the key reasons for their opposition. Jennings said the tax increase was the sole reason he opposed the budget and Narducci said he wanted to hire more police officers.

Continue the discussion on FacebookDan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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