WOONSOCKET — The state-appointed Budget Commission in charge of city fiscal affairs has accepted a proposed city budget of approximately $127.3 million that includes all projected cost savings proposed in its effort to create a balanced five-year spending plan for the city.
The Commission moved to forward the budget proposal to a public hearing it expects to hold on May 8.
Budget Commission Chairman William Sequino Jr. said the panel would not discuss the proposal as it came up for a vote at the meeting Friday afternoon and would instead leave that discussion for the public hearing.
Sequino later explained that the Commission’s budget plan includes the healthcare and benefits changes enacted by the City Council for city employees, beginning July 1, and also a school budget figure reflecting those savings.
The action follows the School Committee’s move to approve a budget of $67.8 million, a sum that represents approximately $2 million more in health care costs and other benefits than the budget figure set by the Budget Commission.
The higher school figure had been adopted by the Committee in a 3 to 2 vote with School Committee members Anita McGuire-Forcier and Christopher Roberts opposed. The supporting members, School Committee Chairwoman Vimala Phongsavanh, and Committee members Eleanor Nadeau and John Donlon argued the savings proposed by the Budget Commission had not yet been agreed to by city employees and as a result should not be counted on until they were finalized.
Sequino noted difference exist between the two school spending proposals but maintained the Budget Commission was still counting the saving in its budget plan.
“We are going to have a public hearing and we can revisit that again,” Sequino said.
The move to list the budget with the savings included came during a meeting during which the Commission approved conditions for union police department members for the new fiscal year if no contract settlement agreement is place. The change reflects the move to a 20-percent copayment on health care benefits and other pension savings already approved by the City Council.
That move, as well as the changes for school employees and other city union employees, may be a spark the Commission is attempt to set for a round of talks leading to negotiations on concessions from those groups.
John Burns, a representative of Council 94 city employees, told the commission no such agreement is in place with his group at this point and added that could change.
“We are always willing to set down and negotiate an agreement,” Burns said. “And we hope we can reach an agreement,” he added.
Sequino said the revised budget is an important step toward resolving the city’s budget crisis. The completion of a supplemental tax plan to increase local revenues will be the next step in that process, he added.
If those savings and additional revenues are realized, Sequino said it is possible that the city could avoid receivership as other fiscally-troubled Rhode Island communities have done.
“We need the supplemental tax and we need these changes to get us on the way there,” he said.