Mayor Elorza: ‘Painful decisions’ may be coming for budget

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Mayor Jorge Elorza acknowledged Wednesday that his newly released budget plan may have to be revisited depending on what sort of aid comes to Providence in the coming months.

Elorza released the $507 million municipal budget plan Tuesday, but made his formal budget address in a pre-taped video released on Facebook Live Wednesday night.

“If the federal stimulus packages do not make their way to the city level, we may be forced to revisit this budget and make some very painful decisions in the months ahead,” Elorza said at the start of his address.

Elorza’s new budget plan basically level-funds city government, even though certain revenue like rooms and meals taxes and school-zone speed camera tickets have declined sharply due to the coronavirus pandemic. But property taxes — which Elorza proposes to keep the same next year — support the bulk of the city’s budget.

Also unclear is how much state aid will be coming, once the General Assembly starts meeting again to amend Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget plan. Elorza’s budget currently counts on $70.6 million in state aid (not including school aid), which was proposed by Raimondo before the pandemic tanked state revenues.

“We operated in an environment of extreme fiscal uncertainty,” Elorza said of crafting the budget this year.

In his address, he said he was holding tax rates the same while proposing a new tangible tax exemption for businesses with less than $10,000 worth of inventory.

“I know that small businesses are not just the backbone of our economy, but they’re also the backbone of our communities,” Elorza said. “Many of them are on the brink of closing for good, and if that happens we will be a worse-off city and I am determined to do whatever I can to prevent it.”

Elorza said students in Providence have “lost out on a significant amount of learning,” with schools closed and students doing distance learning instead. He said he recently joined a virtual 5th grade classroom, where he saw “structural inequality” at play.

“I saw a young girl trying to pay attention, but straining to control her infant brother whom she had to watch and care for,” Elorza said. “I saw some students who seemed to be comfortably set up at their desks with their computers, but I saw far more students who struggled to focus while competing for space with siblings in cramped apartments.”

He said he hopes the budget’s $580,000 for summer learning opportunities will help make up for learning loss, though he acknowledged it’s not yet clear how the programs will be administered because of the pandemic.

Elorza also touted other budget items including $150,000 for local health centers to do COVID-19 testing and $300,000 for eviction assistance for tenants. He said Providence would be one of the only cities in the country to provide this legal aid for evictions.

In addition to the $507 million municipal budget, Elorza is proposing to allocate $134 million to the school budget, even though the state-controlled school department does not yet have a public spending plan. The school budget is expected to be released in late May or June, according to a spokesperson.

The Providence City Council is planning to formally receive Elorza’s budget plan on Friday, after canceling a plan to do so on Tuesday because the budget documents weren’t publicly posted online.

The Council Finance Committee has planned its first meeting to start vetting the tax-and-spending plan on Thursday.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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