Mayor's budget stands after council fails to override veto

Mayor's budget stands after council fails to override veto

WOONSOCKET – Members of the City Council on Monday attempted and failed to override Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s veto of their budget amendments, cementing the mayor’s $144 million budget as originally proposed for fiscal year 2019.

Councilors voted along the same lines by which they had approved the amendments on June 18, with Councilors Daniel Gendron, Jon Brien, James Cournoyer and Denise Sierra voting in favor of the override and Councilors Christopher Beauchamp, Richard Fagnant and Melissa Murray voting against. While approval of the amendments was accomplished by a 4-3 vote, the city charter requires a 5-2 vote to approve an override.

The vote, in effect, undid several weeks of intense discussion between councilors over an omnibus amendment proposed by Cournoyer cutting nearly $800,000 from the mayor’s budget, eliminating several new positions and shifting the tax burden away from commercial taxpayers.

For taxpayers, the end result means an 8.4 percent decrease in the overall residential tax levy and a 15.1 percent increase in the overall commercial tax levy, as compared with a 5.5 percent decrease in the overall residential tax levy and a 5.6 percent increase in the overall commercial tax levy under Cournoyer’s amendments. According to Baldelli-Hunt’s original budget summary, the residential tax rate is set to decrease to approximately $24.08 from $30.10 per $1,000 and the commercial tax rate is set to decrease to approximately $36.19 from $36.93 per $1,000, though property owners could still see their taxes go either up or down depending on the results of their 2017 property revaluation.

In comments made prior to the vote, councilors and members of the public reiterated many of the same points made during the past several council meetings, with both sides lamenting the lack of communication or compromise between Baldelli-Hunt and the four councilors who voted against her proposed budget.

Those opposed to the mayor’s budget as passed expressed continued concern with its reliance on what they referred to as “one-time” revenue sources, including $1.2 million in non-utilization taxes on vacant properties, approximately $500,000 in firefighter post-employment benefit funds and approximately $1.7 million in tax revenue from Landmark Medical Center that is unlikely to feature in next year’s budget discussion. Legislation aimed at securing a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes upon the hospital’s looming nonprofit conversion failed to reach a vote in the House at the close of this year’s General Assembly session.

“I think that the future budget is as important as the current budget, and I don’t know of any magic beans that are going to grow out of the ground to grow that money for us,” former City Councilor John Ward said during the meeting.

Supporters of the mayor’s budget, meanwhile, continued to stand by the administration’s choices in revenue and spending, with state-appointed fiscal adviser Paul Luba asserting non-utilization tax funds were a perfectly legal revenue source for one-time expenses such as blight removal. In addition to blight removal, the budget as passed includes an increase in public works spending and the addition of an economic development director and mayoral chief of staff.

Several councilors expressed concerns with the budget process, including Beauchamp, who accused his fellow councilors, in particular Council President Daniel Gendron, of moving questions along without opportunity for full discussion, a charge Gendron denied.

“We always allow people to speak, whether they talk about the same issue four or five times,” said Beauchamp. “It gets frustrating at times, but that’s what we’re here for. And sometimes it seems like in the last year and a half, when you didn’t like what one of us was saying up here, that’s it, shut it down, move the question.”

Brien, meanwhile, questioned Baldelli-Hunt’s claim, made in comments to The Breeze on June 19, that due to the omnibus nature of the amendment, she was unable to veto individual line items in the budget and instead was forced to veto the budget in its entirety or not at all. He read from last year’s veto message, in which Baldelli-Hunt expressed her intent to veto individual line items within the council’s omnibus amendment, and claimed her reasoning was in direct conflict with her actions of the previous year.

The city charter mandates that in the case of budget amendments, the mayor must notify the council within 10 days of her “approval or disapproval of each such changed item” and does not specify whether these items would be grouped together in the case of an omnibus amendment.