Providence City Council approves belated budget with leadership in flux

Providence

Councilman John Igliozzi presides over a special meeting of the Providence City Council Thursday night.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) –The Providence City Council on Thursday approved a $511 million city budget for the fiscal year that is almost over, also approving a separate plan to rebuild the city’s school buildings.

The ordinances must pass a second time before going to Mayor Jorge Elorza’s desk for his signature.

The votes took place just a short time after City Council President Sabina Matos won approval as lieutenant governor by the Senate Judiciary Committee, setting her up for a final Senate confirmation vote next week.

Matos did not attend the special City Council meeting, which is likely to be her last as council president, pending any surprises. She has not yet resigned.

The meeting was instead led by Councilman John Igliozzi, who is expected to preside over the council temporarily once Matos is confirmed as lieutenant governor and resigns her seat. His ascension to the job is due to his status as the longest-serving councilperson, and the absence of anyone currently holding the title of president pro tempore.

The leadership transition has had City Hall buzzing for months, ever since Matos applied for lieutenant governor, with behind-the-scenes maneuvering to pull together the next leadership team increasing as it became more apparent she was a top contender for the job.

The council’s recently hired chief of staff P.J. Fox was let go this week, senior adviser Jim Lombardi confirmed, as the next council president is expected to select a new chief. Lombardi has been put in charge of the transition in the meantime, according to an email from Matos to council staff.

The city budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year — which ends on June 30, less than three months from now — was suddenly amended and approved by the Council Finance Committee last week, on the same day Gov. Dan McKee nominated Matos to be lieutenant governor.

Thursday night’s debate on the full council floor focused less on the content of the $511 million budget and more on the process. Multiple councilors expressed dismay at what they called a lack of transparency around closed-door negotiations between council leaders and the mayor.

Councilwoman Helen Anthony, who is a member of the finance committee, lamented the fact that she was provided with the amended budget two hours into the meeting last week in which she was expected to vote on it.

“We have a leadership team that is used to conducting their business behind closed doors,” Anthony said.

She voted against the budget, along with Councilors John Goncalves and Nirva LaFortune. All three represent parts of the East Side.

“This city budget should not be immune to additional scrutiny from our taxpayers,” Goncalves said.

Majority Leader Jo-Ann Ryan contended there was no transparency issue since the city had been functioning on a month-to-month basis during the pandemic, and the new budget plan amounts to technical changes to reflect contractual obligations and revenue adjustments.

“It was a difficult year,” Ryan said. “I think we did the best we possibly could with what we had before us. … We need to pass a budget and we need to move forward.”

Councilman James Taylor lamented the fact that the fire chief position remains funded in the budget, despite the position being vacant for six years. (Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré doubles as acting fire chief.)

“If the fire chief is in the next budget I will not be voting for it,” Taylor said.

Voting in favor of the budget were Councilors Igliozzi, Carmen Castillo, Michael Correia, Pedro Espinal, Mary Kay Harris, Nicholas Narducci, David Salvatore, Jo-Ann Ryan and James Taylor. (Councilors Matos, Kat Kerwin and Rachel Miller were absent.)

The new budget is an amended version of the one Elorza proposed back in April 2020, near the start of the pandemic, when the city’s financial outlook was highly uncertain.

The usual revenue assumptions were unreliable because of significant changes in behavior due to COVID-19. Fewer people went out, which means less parking meter revenue. Hotels were closed, which decreased the normal rooms tax. And the municipal court was shuttered, delaying revenue from speed-camera fines, parking tickets and more as residents waited to get their day before a judge. Nor was it clear how much state and federal aid might come into the city.

The lost revenue was made up in several ways, including citywide furloughs and a freeze on nonessential spending. Federal relief funds also significantly bolstered city coffers. Plus, property tax collections were strong despite the pandemic, which leaders think could be because people so heavily valued the homes they were spending all their time inside.

In the end, the amended budget was $4 million more than what Elorza had originally proposed. It included raises for employees including police officers, who are getting back pay and increases as part of a collective bargaining agreement that also includes pension reform.

The budget includes the full $73 million annual payment to the pension fund, and adds $100,000 to the rainy day fund.

The spending plan approved Thursday also creates six new positions specifically to “manage and deploy” funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, the newly enacted relief law championed by President Biden that is expected to deliver well over $131 million to Providence.

The positions, which will be funded with federal dollars and have not yet been filled, include a “director of PVD recovery,” a compliance director, three recovery specialists and a recovery communications manager.

The recovery director job has been advertised online with a salary range of $106,518 to $141,531.

Another soon-to-be-hired position funded in the new budget is for a new police major to oversee community relations and diversion services.

The taxation side of this fiscal year’s budget was approved last summer, which allowed the city to collect property taxes while holding off on approving a spending plan. The tax rates remained the same from the prior year.

The council on Thursday also authorized the borrowing of $100 million to go toward the school capital plan, which is using voter-approved bonds to rehabilitate and repair the city’s school buildings.

The full $300 million plan includes a $75 million project to turn the former St. Joseph’s Hospital building into a K-8 school, as well as $30 million to turn the long-vacant Windmill Street School into swing space, where students can learn while their schools are being renovated.

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

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