The Cranston City Council approved a $284.6 million city budget for 2017-18 at a special meeting Monday night, setting aside an extra $420,795 for the school department in contingency funds in the process.
Pairing that total with the original $700,000 the mayor proposed to give the schools in additional funding, the department received just over $1.1 million to help offset some of the cuts handed down by the Rhode Island Department of Education. When 300 fewer students were found on the free/reduced lunch roles in Cranston, under the education funding formula the state allocation to Cranston was trimmed by $763,000.
Cranston’s total school budget is $154,857,265.
The bottom line of the city budget was adjusted to $284,569,439, which Finance Director Bob Strom said is a 3.39 percent increase from last year. Mayor Allan W. Fung will still have to sign the budget into effect, which he is expected to do later this week according to Special Assistant to the Mayor Mark Schieldrop.
The final vote was split down party lines, 5-4, with Council President Michael Farina breaking the 4-4 tie. After the rest of the Council had its chance to speak, Farina offered his comments on the conclusion of the budget proceedings prior to the vote.
He said that diving into the rainy day fund, a proposal advocated by some Democrats on the council, was an implausible plan to provide more funding for the schools. That fund contains $20 million.
“We did work very well together up until this point,” Farina said. “Realistically, no councilman wants to vote for a tax increase. Looking at taking money from the rainy day fund, that would create a structural deficit for the city. That money is having the roof cave in, not when the roof has a small hole in it. It’s different. It’s for when everything is bad. We’ve had two tax increases in six years. The sky is not falling.”
The 2.18 percent tax increase, which is 49 cents per $1,000, was something first-term Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley couldn’t support.
If approved by the mayor, the tax increase would mean an additional $98 in real estate taxes for a home assessed at $200,000.
“We maybe could’ve done more, but I’ll be voting against the budget,” McAuley said. “Simply because my first vote will not be for a tax increase.”
Ward 3 Councilman and Minority Leader Paul Archetto also opposed the budget. He understood the emergency situation for the schools, but was disappointed the administration didn’t dip into the rainy day fund to eliminate any need for a tax increase.
“I can attest to the fact it is their intention to decrease the tax levy,” Archetto said. “This year council was hit with an emergency, they needed extra funding because something had happened on the state side. However, with a rainy day fund in the system with a surplus, it’s raining now so I can’t understand why the administration didn't look at that and tap that to reduce the lax level.”
Ward 5 Councilman and Majority Leader Christopher Paplauskas voted in favor of the budget, noting that if it were not approved the schools wouldn’t received the extra funds.
“Nobody on this body wants to vote for a tax increase,” Paplauskas said. “If we don’t vote for this budget, we’re not giving the schools the $420,000 they need. Schools do need more money. If we don’t vote for this, the budget won’t be able to give the school department this money.”
Finance Committee Chairman Michael Favicchio, who oversaw all of the budget hearings, said it was difficult to cut more money out of the budget with 85 percent of revenues set aside for “contractual obligations.”
He echoed the belief that no one wanted a tax increase, but the school crisis made it unavoidable.
“I was in favor of cutting the increase before the school issue,” Favicchio said. “We have very little room within our operating budget on the city side. I don’t like voting for increases, but we do need to pass the budget and most amendments made, we tweaked it, but couldn’t come up with $1 million, $2 million in cuts to avoid a tax increase. That’s the stark reality of the situation.”
The final vote saw Farina, Paplauskas, Favicchio, Citywide Ken Hopkins and Ward 4 Councilman Trent Colford voted in favor. Archetto, McAuley, Citywide John Lanni, Jr., and Ward 1 Councilman Steven Stycos voted against.
Small cuts were made across the budget to help provide more money for the schools. Paplauskas moved to slash the sidewalk program by $40,000, a measure approved 5-1 last week. The planting of trees budget was fazed out entirely, moving $10,000 to the schools, but Monday saw $5,000 allocated to that section from “spraying and caring for trees.”
One of the few Democrat amendments that saw bipartisan support without alterations was Archetto’s $30,000 reduction from legal fees, bringing the line item down to $270,000. That extra money was also sent to the contingency fund for the schools, approved 8-1 with Colford dissenting.