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 Call - - FRONT PAGE - By RUSS OLIVO ro­livo@woonsock­et­call.com

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.”

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