PAWTUCKET — Wednesday night, residents will have a chance to weigh in on Mayor Donald Grebien's proposed operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year—a spending plan that would require an 80-cent tax increase per $1,000 of assessed valuation for homeowners. A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the City Council chambers on the third floor of Pawtucket City Hall at 137 Roosevelt Ave.
The proposed $178 million budget for FY13 is roughly 3.25 percent higher than the $169.3 million figure for FY12, and includes the proposed School Department budget of almost $98.8 million. The general fund on the city side rose from approximately $106.9 million for FY12 to $109.3 million for FY13, while the school budget changed from $91.2 million in FY12 to the $98.8 million figure.
The property tax increase of 80 cents or whatever final number the City Council approves for the budget, would come on top of the new “equalized” tax rate that is needed to compensate for a decline in property values from the recent revaluation.
Because the value of average properties in the city dropped by about 20 percent from three years ago, city officials must adjust the tax rate in order to collect the same amount of dollars as last year. The equalized rate takes the current residential rate of $17.78 per $1,000 and increases it to $22.26 per $1,000 to bring in the same base amount of tax dollars. However, if the budget was simply level-funded, it would not be enough to account for contractual obligations, losses of revenue and various increased costs in the new fiscal year.
When combined with the mayor's proposed 80-cent budget increase, the estimated tax rate would be $23.06 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for residential real estate, and $30.88 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for commercial/industrial/mixed use.
According to the Tax Assessor's office, the average single-family home declined by about 17 to 20 percent from three years ago when the last property revaluation was done. Under the equalized rate, the average city homeowner will see a property tax increase of about $109. About 38 percent of residential property owners will see their tax bills go up due to the equalized rate while others will stay the same or decrease.
In his address to the City Council at the budget presentation, the mayor said the property tax hike is needed for the city to function in light of a drop in revenue, decreased property values and increased expenses, including pension obligations for municipal employees.
During two days of budget worksessions held last week, the City Council had the chance to question municipal department heads about their various budget requests. Several councilors have indicated that they intend to pare down some of the line items or new spending requests in the budget to reduce the proposed 80-cent tax hike, but a tax increase of some amount appears to be inevitable.
On the chopping block could be the funding for the financially troubled Blackstone Valley Visitors Center, which operates in the Chester Building at 175 Main St., as well as a proposed plan to renovate the lobby of the Police Station and some other DPW projects.
Councilors also raised questions last week about a $60,000 outlay in the budget to move the economic development director position under the umbrella of the Pawtucket Business Development Corporation and add an administrative assistant and funds for marketing that would be paid for partly through city money as well as private donations and grants. The goal, according to the mayor's office, is to achieve 100 percent funding from private sources. The council requested additional information on the proposal.
According to the mayor's office, the budget proposal shows savings resulting from two direct lay-offs and 11 positions that will be left vacant or eliminated for a total projected savings of $786,459 over the current year's budget. However, city leaders had been hoping to gain significant savings from concessions in new collective bargaining agreements with the municipal workers' unions—a scenario which didn't occur. All of the current union contracts expire as of June 30.
City Council President David Moran said Tuesday that the councilors are “definitely looking to reduce that 80-cent rate” and he looks forward to hearing their input at Wednesday's meeting. “I feel confident we can get it down somewhat, but it's not going down to zero. That's just not realistic,” he said.
Moran said he knows the administration had counted on gaining concessions from the unions to deal with the city's structural deficit. While the contract negotiations are an ongoing process, he said it is disappointing to see that movement in this area seems to have stalled.
Moran added that councilors are well aware of the double hit that taxpayers will be taking this year due to both the equalized tax rate and the need to increase the budget. “It's not good news for the average taxpayer,” he conceded. But, he said the council will do what it always does—scrutinize the budget and try to find a way to lessen the burden.
While the budget is up for first passage on the council agenda, Moran said he doesn't think this will happen Wednesday night. He said he expects amendments to be made, which will necessitate another public hearing on the changes. “I do not want to rush this process. It's too important,” he stated.
Moran said the council will likely hold another meeting on the budget in the middle of next week, with a possible vote on first passage the following week.