$540 million Providence budget OK’d by council panel

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence City Council Finance Committee on Tuesday approved a nearly $540 million city budget by a slim 3-to-2 margin, sending the measure to the full City Council.

The amended version of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s initial proposal from April includes an increase in police funding, no change in tax rates, a $15 minimum wage for city employees and millions of dollars less in school funding than the state-run Providence Public School Department had requested.

The slightly delayed budget is for the 2021-22 fiscal year, which began July 1. The budget ordinances must pass the full council twice before going to the mayor’s desk for his signature, likely in mid-July.

The budget also relies on millions in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, the most recent federal stimulus law, to remain balanced. The ARPA funding is contained in a separate $42 million ordinance that passed the committee last month but has not yet cleared the full council.

The separate ARPA ordinance includes a $7 million small business relief fund, $4 million for a new welcome center at Roger Williams Park and several million in youth investments. The ordinance is expected to be amended on the council floor to include $300,000 for WaterFire Providence, as well.

The city budget keeps all tax rates the same as the current year, with the exception of the motor vehicle excise tax, which will decrease in line with the state’s car tax phaseout law. The mailing of the tax bills will be delayed until the taxation portion of the budget is signed into law.

Voting in favor of the budget were Councilors Jo-Ann Ryan, Nicholas Narducci and Carmen Castillo. Councilors Helen Anthony and James Taylor voted against the measure. All the councilors are Democrats.

Taylor, the council majority leader, said he voted against the budget because it funds the $175,000 position of fire chief, a job that has been vacant for six years. Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré is currently the acting chief, and is paid out of both jobs’ budget lines, though not the full salary for each job.

“If he is not planning to hire a fire chief then the line item in the budget should not be there,” Taylor said in an email. He suggested the money budgeted toward the fire chief job could be used to “fix our schools, Recreation Centers or — here is a good idea — maybe we could fix sidewalks that every month we get claims on for people falling and getting hurt throughout the city.”

The budget does remove funding for a fire captain position that has been vacant for several years, and eliminates proposed funding for a hypothetical fire academy that is not actually scheduled to take place in the upcoming year.

Anthony said she voted against the budget because it increases the $93 million police budget even beyond the increase that Elorza proposed.

The original budget plan included a $2 million increase for the Police Department to pay for 4.5% raises for police officers and a new police academy currently underway to hire 50 new officers.

Chief Financial Officer Larry Mancini said the amended budget includes an additional $48,500 for future police recruitment, plus another $66,000 for the police legal fund. He said the latter amount was negotiated in the union contract but inadvertently left out of the original budget proposal.

“We’ve really turned a deaf ear to people who have been calling for police reform, and this was just the icing on the cake,” Anthony told 12 News in explaining her no vote.

Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, who is not a member of the Finance Committee, also spoke against the increase in police funding at the meeting. She said she has received hundreds of emails asking the city to reform policing.

“It just seems imprudent to allocate those additional funds to the Police Department,” LaFortune said. “At this point we’re not listening to the community.”

But Narducci said he felt the police recruitment money is necessary.

“If anybody can think that we have enough police officers in the city of Providence, maybe they need to listen to news better,” Narducci said. “We can’t spend enough money on the Police Department.”

He noted that the city could lose a number of officers to retirement in the coming year, and some of the 50 officers in the current academy could fail to graduate.

The council opted to send $130 million to the school department, about $5 million less than Elorza proposed and $9 million less than the state-controlled school department claims it is entitled to under a state law known as the Crowley Act.

City officials have been in an ongoing disagreement with the school department over how much money it must provide to the schools that are no longer under municipal control. (The school department also receives hundreds of millions in state and federal funds.)

While the school department contends the city must increase its appropriation by the same percentage as state aid increases, city officials have pointed out that the schools ran a surplus last year. At Tuesday night’s meeting, Mancini read a section of the city charter that says surplus money from the school department must be returned to the general fund.

Theresa Agonia, a spokesperson for Elorza, said negotiations are still ongoing with the school department over its funding. A spokesperson for the school department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the budget reduction.

In the meantime, Mancini said the nearly $5 million removed from the school appropriation line item was added to debt service instead.

The spending plan also creates a new city Department of Equity, Inclusion and Belonging; funds a pilot program to divert certain calls away from police; and includes pay raises for both union and non-union employees.

Other changes from Elorza’s original proposal include additional salary increases for employees of the Department of Inspections and Standards to “attract and retain licensed personnel,” according to Mancini, and $10,000 to pay for concessions and supplies for the Movies in the Park program.

“In a very difficult environment filled with uncertainty and the continued impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am thankful to have worked collaboratively with my colleagues on the Finance Committee and the Elorza administration to pass a city budget that invests in our recovery and key city services, while holding the line of property taxes,” said Ryan, the finance chair, in a statement after the vote.

The full council’s next scheduled meeting is July 15, though a special meeting could be called before then to consider the budget.

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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