PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After nearly a year of delay, the Providence City Council Finance Committee approved a nearly $511 million budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year on Wednesday night.
The proposed spending plan — an amended version of the one submitted by Mayor Jorge Elorza in April 2020 — was not posted online or otherwise publicly available prior to passage.
The $511 million does not include the city appropriation to the school district, which was $130 million last year and is remaining unchanged, according to Larry Mancini, the chief financial officer for the city. The state-controlled Providence schools had sought a $5 million increase from city funds.
Councilors John Igliozzi, Jo-Ann Ryan and James Taylor voted in favor of the budget. Councilwoman Helen Anthony abstained from the vote, noting that she had only just received the amended budget documents via email at 7:09 p.m., more than two hours into the meeting that started at 5 p.m.
“The public has not been able to see this amendment,” Anthony said. “It’s incumbent on us as a council to have a more public process around this.”
Igliozzi, chair of the Finance Committee, said after the meeting Wednesday night he was unaware that the documents hadn’t been posted online, and said he would ask the clerk to post them. (The documents were posted online around 11 a.m. Thursday.)
The situation represents one of the pitfalls of virtual public meetings, which are typically banned under Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act but have been allowed for more than a year now because of an executive order signed by former Gov. Gina Raimondo.
“The budget is the most important piece of legislation the Providence City Council passes each year,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “It should be subject to maximum transparency, not voted on when the public and press has no idea what is in the document.”
Marion pointed out that during an in-person meeting, reporters or members of the public can insist on seeing any public documents being discussed.
“With online meetings it is not possible for the press or public to stand up and demand the document,” Marion said. “Taking advantage of the rules put in place to protect public health during the pandemic is shameful.”
Igliozzi argued the revisions to the spending plan amounted to just a “reconciliation” by Elorza’s office of revenues and expenditures during the pandemic, not a major change in city programs.
“Pre-COVID, there was a reason why no Zoom meetings were allowed,” Igliozzi added. “Virtual meetings are not a substitute for in-person meetings.”
Elorza’s office gave 12 News a three-page summary of the budget changes on Wednesday night, showing that the amended version of the plan was roughly $4 million more than the $506 million budget proposed by Elorza in April.
Roughly 50 line items were changed, including increased pay for Providence police officers, firefighters and other city employees, and decreased revenue from a variety of sources such as parking meters, speed cameras and hotel taxes because of the pandemic.
Despite the decreased revenue, Mancini said coronavirus relief funds, a hold on spending and worker furloughs last year allowed the city to balance the budget and avoid a deficit. The budget includes the full $73 million annual payment to the pension fund, and adds $100,000 to the rainy day fund.
Elorza’s original budget proposal from April of last year had sat in committee for 11 months, delayed because of the pandemic-related uncertainties about city revenues and state aid. Elorza had acknowledged just days after submitting it that the pandemic would likely upend the spending plan.
Even after the General Assembly passed its own delayed state budget in December 2020, providing both state aid and coronavirus relief funds to Providence, the City Council did not consider its own budget for three more months, as council leaders negotiated behind closed doors with Elorza.
The decision to finally amend the budget and vote on it came the same day the councilors learned they are likely to lose their president, Sabina Matos, who was nominated by Gov. Dan McKee to be Rhode Island’s new lieutenant governor. She has to be confirmed by the R.I. Senate before taking the job. (Matos was in attendance at the budget vote Wednesday night.)
Igliozzi is expected to ascend to acting president when Matos resigns.
Prior to voting on the budget plan, the Finance Committee held one public hearing about it. That was more than nine months ago, when hundreds of people testified in favor of defunding the police.
While the police budget was ultimately increased in the budget that passed Wednesday, the amended plan also includes more than $400,000 for unspecified diversionary services, as part of an ongoing initiative to find ways to divert certain calls away from police.
Wednesday’s action by the committee did not involve any taxes, as the city separates its spending plan from the taxation side of the budget, though it’s unusual to pass them at separate times. In this case, the tax levy for the current fiscal year was passed last summer, keeping tax rates the same, a move that let the city collect property taxes even without an approved spending plan.
Since the 2020-21 budget took so long to pass, the next city budget is already nearly upon us. Elorza is expected to propose a 2021-22 budget next month, for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The mayor’s office and the council will also be discussing how to spend the $131 million in stimulus funds from President Biden’s newly enacted American Rescue Plan Act.
“The City Council’s finance team and the administration’s finance team worked tirelessly to make sure that the focus remained the residents and our businesses and that we would be able to pass a responsible and fiscally prudent budget,” Igliozzi said in a statement after the vote. “There is still more work to do as we look to the FY 2022 budget, and I look forward to continuing advocating for the residents of Providence.”