PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In a relatively close vote, the Providence City Council on Tuesday night approved a nearly $540 million city budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.
The vote was 8-to-6 in favor of the spending plan. The council must approve the budget for a second time before it goes to Mayor Jorge Elorza’s desk for his signature.
Councilors John Igliozzi, Carmen Castillo, Michael Correia, Pedro Espinal, Mary Kay Harris, Nicholas Narducci, Jo-Ann Ryan and David Salvatore voted in favor of the budget. Councilors Helen Anthony, John Goncalves, Kat Kerwin, Nirva LaFortune, Rachel Miller and James Taylor voted against it.
All 14 members of the council are Democrats. (The 15th seat is currently vacant, though Councilman-elect Oscar Vargas is expected to be sworn in as soon as this week.)
In a debate prior to the vote, some councilors expressed opposition to the budget’s increased spending on the Providence Police Department, including an amendment last week to add more funds for police recruitment. The budget also funds pay raises for officers and a 50-member police academy that is currently underway.
“We have not delivered on our word that we would create some police reform,” said Anthony.
Narducci argued the city should spend more money on police, potentially hiring 50 more officers even after the current academy graduates this fall.
“We can’t take from the Police Department,” Narducci said. “We’re shorthanded. Ask any one of your lieutenants or sergeants.”
The budget does include funds for a pilot program to study diverting certain calls away from police, and also funds a new police major for diversion services and community relations.
Taylor, the council majority leader and a former firefighter, said he voted against the budget because it continues to fund the long-vacant fire chief job that neither Elorza nor Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré has indicated they will fill.
But Ryan, the Finance Committee chair, called it a “fiscally responsible” budget that funds key city services while holding the line on taxes.
Igliozzi praised the budget’s passage despite the split vote.
“The majority of the council understood that we had to get a budget passed for the betterment of the entire city,” Igliozzi said. “I’m proud of all my council colleagues whether they supported it or not. … That’s called democracy.”
A separate ordinance to spend $42 million of federal stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan Act also cleared the council by the same 8-to-6 margin Tuesday night. It had first been amended to include $300,000 for WaterFire Providence after the organization said it may not be able to put on a season this year without more funds. (The state has also pledged more money for WaterFire.)
Multiple councilors expressed concern about transparency surrounding the spending of the ARPA funds. A public hearing was not held to receive input on how to spend the money; the city charter requires such a hearing when city funds will be appropriated, but not federal funds.
“We haven’t had any public engagement around this process,” Anthony said. “This is a large, large sum of money that we are spending.”
A task force is expected to be convened this summer to discuss how to allocate the rest of the roughly $164 million in ARPA money, but has not yet met.
The $42 million that passed on Tuesday includes $19 million to balance the city budget. The rest of the spending will fund a variety of projects and issues including $7 million for a small business relief fund, $4 million for a new welcome center at Roger Williams Park and $1 million for Wi-Fi at city parks and recreation centers.
Ryan said she was open to holding public hearings for the remainder of the ARPA funds, but asked her colleagues to approve the first tranche of money.
“I hear you,” Ryan said, responding to Anthony’s concerns. “These are essential, immediate needs that we worked on.”
The council released more specifics Tuesday on how the relief program for small businesses impacted by the pandemic would work. According to a summary of the ordinance, all eligible small businesses that apply will receive $2,500 one-time checks until the fund runs out. To qualify, businesses must have been registered in the city by Dec. 31, 2019; have tangible assets between $5,000 and $1 million; be up to date with taxes and licenses; and pledge to be in business for 12 months after receiving the check.
“We cannot afford to further debilitate our businesses,” Igliozzi said.
The tax levy — a separate ordinance from the spending side of the budget — cleared the council much more easily with 13 votes. Tax rates will remain unchanged this year, other than the car tax, which will continue to decrease per the state phaseout law.
Tax bills are slated to be sent out once the mayor signs the levy into law. First-quarter taxes are due July 24, but a grace period is expected due to the late passage of the budget.
Passing the budget after the fiscal year has begun is somewhat common in Providence, with the last three budgets approved after July 1. (The fiscal 2020-21 budget was approved 10 months late due to the pandemic.)
In passing the budget Tuesday night the council also appropriated $130 million to the state-controlled Providence Public School Department, about $9 million less than school officials say they are entitled to under a law called the Crowley Act that allowed the state to intervene in the district.
“We expect the full amount we are entitled to receive for both FY21 and FY22 under the Crowley Act, and will continue to make that clear in ongoing discussions with the city,” spokesperson Audrey Lucas said. She did not answer a question about how the $9 million school budget hole would be filled.
Tuesday’s special meeting was the second in-person gathering of the full City Council since the pandemic, after the council returned to its chambers earlier this month. The full council’s next regular meeting is scheduled for this Thursday, when the budget will be voted on for a second time.