Mayor: No tax rise for most in city
Baldelli-Hunt budget calls for rate cuts following property revaluation; most tax bills will stay flat or shrink
WOONSOCKET – Tax bills will remain flat or shrink for more than 80 percent of city residents as rates plummet in Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s post-revaluation, $144.3 million budget for fiscal year 2019.
Unveiled Tuesday, the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 represents a complete overhaul of the tax structure, because the city just completed a state-mandated revaluation of all real estate. As a result, the average home increased in value by more than 14 percent, pushing down tax rates from $30.10 to a proposed $24.08 per $1,000 for residential property, and from $36.93 to $36.19 for commercial. That’s a 20 percent cut for homeowners – 2 percent for businesses.
Because the increases in property values resulting from revaluation was not entirely uniform, the re- wards will filter down to the majority of homeowners, but not all. By the mayor’s calculations, the bills for 83 percent of homeowners will stay the same or decrease. For the 17 percent whose tax bills increase, the reason is that their assessments also rose – more than the average home, usually because their properties had been historically undervalued, the owners remodeled, built additions or made other upgrades prior to revaluation, according to the mayor.
“I’m proud and excited about this proposed budget,” Baldelli-Hunt told The Call Tuesday. “This is three years in a row that we’ve decreased tax rates, which is not only beneficial for the city but encouragement for others to call the city of Woonsocket home.”
Despite the comparative frugality of the mayor’s spending plans, the City Council has found places to further trim them during each of the last two years. The proposed budget will be on the agenda for Monday’s meeting; members may talk about it, but they won’t take any action until after a public hearing, scheduled for May 31 in Harris Hall.
Overall, the spending plan calls for a year-over-year increase of roughly $2.9 million – all of it on the Woonsocket Education Department’s side of the budget – which is to say, about 60 percent of the entire
package. But most of the increase reflects an increase in revenues, in the form of state aid, rather than new expenditures. Collective bargaining talks with the Woonsocket Teachers Guild, whose contract expires at the end of the month, are ongoing, but school officials have vowed to trim expenses to make ends
meet for the inevitable hike in labor costs that is coming.
Also, the city’s contribution to the mix of state, federal and local dollars that’s devoted to supporting the WED remains relatively unchanged next year, at roughly $16.1 million.
On the city side, Baldelli-Hunt’s budget calls for no spending increase at all. She describes the budget as flat, but it actually shrinks a tad, from FY 2018’s $79,680,560
to the proposed $79,658,386 for FY 2019.
Nevertheless, Baldelli-Hunt’s budget resurrects some new programs and personnel, among them two positions that were shot down by the City Council during its perennial tweaking of the administration’s spending plan last year.
Once again, Baldelli-Hunt proposes hiring an economic development director at a cost of $70,000 per year. The position would essentially create a one-person Department of Economic Development for the first time since 2013. It was the mayor who abolished the position, asserting that she’d handle the chores that are usually the domain of economic development directors.
Those actions came at the tail end of the Budget Commission’s reign, when the city was still haunted by the ghost of bankruptcy. Baldelli-Hunt says times have change dramatically for the better, and it’s time for the city to acquire a few tools that it needs to keep the momentum going.
As she explains in her preamble to the 169-page spend-
ing plan, “We’ve made much progress during the prior four years, and while this budget reflects the fruits of our past efforts, it more importantly allows us to accomplish even greater things in Fiscal Year 2019 and beyond.
“Our finances are in much better condition than they were four years ago,” she continues. “Our improved finances have allowed us to focus on improving the quality of life for our residents whether it’s through enhancing public safety, eradicating blight from our neighborhoods, repairing our streets, beautifying our parks and public places, bettering recreation, and developing new businesses.”
In addition to adding an economic development director, Baldelli-Hunt proposes a deputy chief of police at an annual salary of $80,131 – another position that was cut from the mayor’s budget last year, despite vigorous lobbying from Police Chief Thomas F. Oates III.
The deputy chief will not only enhance the Woonsocket Police Department’s abili-
ty to respond to emergencies “but will also help us develop and implement strategic organizational changes that will help the department operate more efficiently (and) move closer towards our goal of providing the best police services for our residents,” the mayor says.
And, for the first time, Baldelli-Hunt seeks to hire a chief of staff for the administration, with a starting salary of $65,000 a year.
The mayor said she’s able to propose the new initiatives with a level-funded budget despite encountering some unexpectedly high costs, including a $506,000 increase in required pension contributions and $219,000 in hikes in tipping fees and recycling charges associated with the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, operators of the Central Landfill in Johnston.
The mayor said she was able to find the flex in the budget by sheer thrift, but she also credits the aggressive collection of delinquent taxes by Finance Director Christine Chamberland. As a result, the mayor said, the city has an unassigned credit of $1.1 million in the current year’s receipts that’s essentially free cash because the city didn’t anticipate taking it in.
Among other things, those collections have enabled her to call for a $500,000 renewal of the urban blight and density reduction program. The mayor also proposes a firsttime “infrastructure protection” program of $150,000 to
address a variety of concerns at city buildings – everything from aging HVAC systems to windows. She proposes another $175,000 for energy conservation improvements; $64,000 for “urban and cultural arts” programs; and $65,000 for “general improvements” to various city parks.
The mayor intends to commit $700,000 – the same as this year – to continue Public Works Director Steve D’Agostino’s “almost legendary” road repair program. She says D’Agostino is running “the only in-house road reconstruction program in the state, and not only has it saved us money over the years, but it has also provided some our our employees with a valuable skill.”
Though the city is “clearly moving in the right direction,” Baldelli Hunt says “there is a new elephant in the room...the looming non-profit conversion of Prime/Landmark Healthcare” to for-profit status, a move expected to result in a revenue loss of some $1.7 million to the city. It won’t hit the city in fiscal 2019, the mayor says, but it’s coming.
“While we are diligently working to either delay or avoid this occurrence, there is a chance that it could happen as early as the 2020 Fiscal Year. “We need to consider this in projecting our our future, as it may affect nearly everything we do.”