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$10M surplus brightens budget debate

With the prospect the city could close the 2016 fiscal year with a $10 million surplus and complete the current year with an additional $2 million, Mayor Scott Avedisian has proposed a $310.5 million city budget, an increase of $11.8 million for the next fiscal year.

Avedisian would end years of basically level funding schools, giving them an additional $4.1 million in local funding that in part would be linked to a teachers contract. The School Committee has offered teachers a 3 percent raise in the first year followed by 3 percent raises in each of the next two years.

Avedisian’s budget would provide for a $3 million draw down of reserves or what is commonly called the “rainy day fund” while increasing the residential tax rate by 46 cents per $1,000 of valuation or $92 for a home valued at $200,000. The residential rate would be $20.70; commercial $31.05 and tangible $41.40. The motor vehicle tax would remain unchanged at $34.60 with a $2,000 valuation exemption.

In an interview Tuesday, Avedisian called his school budget “a new beginning in the relationship between schools and the city.” He is hopeful schools and the teachers’ union will reach a contract and end the impasse that has put the parties on edge for the past 18 months. The mayor said he has an agreement with Superintendent Philip Thornton that $2.4 million of the additional school funding be earmarked for the contract and should a contract not be reached during the year it would not be spent on other purposes. The mayor remains actively engaged in seeking an agreement. He will be meeting in mediation May 23 and will facilitate meetings on May 30 and June 2. He said his aim is to narrow down the issues that separate the parties prior to a decision on interest arbitration, hopefully arriving at an agreement.

Although not specified in the budget and still under review, the prospect of substantial surpluses last year and this year, bode well for the mayor’s plan to dip into the rainy day fund. Currently the reserve fund is about $8 million. It would climb to $18 million if the $10 million surplus for 2016 holds true; then drop to $15 million with the budget, but bounce back to about $17 million depending how the current year concludes.

The mayor said schools are projected to show a $3 million surplus for the 2016 fiscal year that they would keep.

News of the potential surpluses resulting largely from improved collections and a drop in tax abatements was a surprise to Ed Ladouceur, chair of the Council Finance Committee. Ladouceur said he will be vigilant in questioning the mayor and department directors on their budget requests.

“If you need it you’re going to get it, if don’t need it you’re not going to get it,” he said.

Ladouceur zeroed in on the increase for schools. Schools will be the first of the departments to come before the City Council. The public hearing is set for Friday, May 26 starting at 5 p.m. in Council Chambers.

Speaking about education nationally, Ladouceur said “trillions of dollars has been thrown at schools” since 1970 when he graduated and students are coming out of the system unable to read, write and do math.

“[We] can’t continue increasing taxes without getting more for the money. People don’t object to paying higher taxes when they see results.”

The mayor’s spending package, if approved unchanged by the City Council, would increase the budgets of both the Police and Fire Departments by about $1 million and pension payments by $2 million. A portion of the increase in pension payment is attributable to the projected rate of return on pension investments that was dropped from 7.5 percent to 6.9 percent said City Finance Director Ernest Zmyslinski.

Other major increases include a $1.7 million in employee benefits for a total $27. 9 million and Public Works with an increase of $600,000 for a total of $14.4 million. Avedisian said he was pleased with the council’s approval to enter into a contract with West Bay for health care, an action that was taken Monday night following nearly two hours of debate.

Overall there are no new positions in the budget other than seasonal jobs in Parks and Recreation, where the mayor is looking to have an improved city presence at beaches and parks. He said he would recommend another class of firefighter recruits in the fall so as to sustain “floaters” who fill in for those on vacation. He said current department staffing, where, in fact, there are seven more personnel than budgeted, has enabled a reduction in overtime costs.

Under capital improvements, the mayor is looking for $350,000 to be used as a match with Department of Environmental Management funding should the acquisition of open space become possible.

In a 5-page budget address accompanying the budget, which along with the spending package can be viewed on the city website, the mayor gives a glowing overview of city developments over the past year from the Apponaug Circulator project, to a longer runway and improved service at Green Airport to hotel occupancy rates, business growth, revitalization of Pontiac Mills and new development at City Centre.

The sweeping overview also highlights quality of life achievements including the work of the Warwick Wildlife and Conservation Commission in preserving 3.5 acres of waterfront property on Passeonkquis Cove; the Warwick Boys and Girls Clubs program to offer after school programs from the Cooper Armory and improvements at Rocky Point Park including the city’s repainting of the arch supplemented by a grant won by the Rocky Point Foundation.

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