New Elected Officials Given Lay of Land
The East Providence Budget Commission holds a briefing on 'where things stand' for the recently elected city councilors and school committee members on the eve of their being sworn in.
Most of East Providence’s new city councilors and school committee members got a lengthy briefing Thursday, Nov. 29, on the way business is being done right now in the city under the control of the state-mandated Budget Commission.
The seven city officials also were inundated over 90 minutes with hard financial data that provides a framework in which the City Council and School Committee must consider making decisions.
“You can build upon the information here,” said Diane Brennan, chair of the Budget Commission, while toting a thick, white binder. “The Budget Commission can’t do its job without the elected officials.”
Responding to one of the few questions she was asked, Brennan said: “Yes, we are making progress. We are.”
Brennan spent about 10 minutes explaining exactly what the commission "has done and where things stand." From East Providence being unable to balance its budget, to a fiscal overseer being called in, to the Budget Commission being appointed last Dec. 20, to seeing cash flow problems, and then seeing its credit rating plummet, she said, there has been improvement.
Agencies have changed East Providence’s credit rating from negative to stable, for instance, Brennan said, and the budget has been balanced with no tax increase.
“We have an improved outlook,” she said, “but there are still challenges.”
Among the challenges:
- Weak financial operations
- Heavy emphasis on cash flow borrowing
- Severely underfunded pensions for police and firefighters
- Limited financial flexibility
- Limited ability to raise property taxes
The upside, she told the officials, is that there has been a significant reduction in expenditures and an increase in revenues. A five-year financial plan is in place that shows $59.3 million less in expenditures over that time period. And a “rainy day” reserve fund has been established.
Future strategies include more consolidation of positions, enhancing the city’s buying power, growing the tax base, uniform benefits for employees, regionalization of services and more trimming operating expenses. Just about all of those strategies will be implemented by the Budget Commission.
Brennan was joined in briefing the seven city officials by Rosemary Booth Gallogly, director of revenue for Rhode Island; James Savage, director of the municipal finance division, and Cynthia Brown, director of the Office of Statewide Efficiencies for the RI Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Savage analyzed the city’s property taxes in comparison with seven other similar municipalities: Central Falls, Cranston, Johnston, North Providence, Pawtucket, West Warwick and Woonsocket.
In most cases, he said, East Providence ranks #8 in a host of tax rate comparisons among those municipalities, including in real estate taxes, by class or property taxed, effective residency tax rate, the effective city town-wide tax rate, gross assessed value and the income-adjusted effective tax rate.
Savage would not say after the meeting, though, if the rankings mean East Providence taxpayers are being taxed too much or too little compared to the other municipalities.
Brown compared per pupil expenditures for the most part among the eight municipalities. East Providence was considered low in per pupil expenditures at all levels: elementary, middle school and high school.
That can be good or not so good, Brown said. It could mean effective and efficient use of funds, especially if achievement is high. Or a lack of emphasis on education.
Gallogly, who appointed the Budget Commission, said: “We don’t want to be here forever.”
She reminded the officials that the budget commissioners are not being paid extra for their work, which includes bi-weekly meetings. And she described the revenue department as a “resource and an ally” to East Providence.
The city councilors at the briefing in City Hall were Thomas Rose, James Briden, Tracy Ann Capobianco and Chrissy Rossi. The school committee members at the briefing were Richard Pimental, Joel Monteiro and Anthony Ferreira.