The Alliance for a Livable Newport held a public meeting at the Newport Public Library on Thursday evening to discuss the City of Newport's 2012 budget.
ALN Treasurer Ron Becker commended the city for closing a $8.2 million gap after the initial pass of the budget.
“I now find myself in the unaccustomed position of praising the city administration for tackling the problem head on and proposing a very tough budget with major cuts,” Becker said. “My praise for the city administration also extends to the city council for adopting the administration’s proposed budget without any significant modifications.”
To close that gap, Becker reported the following steps were taken:
- More than $2.7 million of proposed capital projects were reduced, postponed or eliminated
- Operating budgets for most departments were cut by 5 percent, which saved $3.3 million
- The school and library departments funding was leveled
- Reorganizations saved approximately $700,000
- Step salary increases were eliminated for all municipal employees with the exception of the police and fire departments
Becker pointed out that although the Newport home owner’s will pay 3.88 percent more in property taxes, Newport still enjoys one of the lowest property tax rates in Rhode Island as well as by national standards.
“The city gets high marks for recognizing its unfunded pension and other employee benefit liabilities and establishing amortization schedules to fully fund its obligations over a 30 year period," Becker said.
He said his concern is if the city has the discipline to maintain that commitment. Last year, the council closed a $800,000 budget gap for firefighter’s overtime by diverting from the Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) fund. He said over the next 26 years of the amortization schedule, the diversion will cost Newport taxpayers close to $2 million.
Transfers from Enterprise Funds
Becker said that over the past several years transfers have taken place between the general fund and the city’s various enterprise funds, which manage revenue generating programs.
The city classified the transfers as loans, however the city has not provided repayment schedules, despite requests made by the ALN.
One example Becker cited was a transfer of $1.5 million from the parking fund to the water pollution control fund in order to reduce the sewer rate increase.
The operating budget of the Newport Fire Department increased by 6.51 percent, Becker said. He compared that to the general budget, which increased by less than half that amount, or 3.06 percent.
One recommendation Becker presented was the adoption of the nationally prevalent shift schedule, which could reduce staffing by up to 20 percent. The existing shift schedule is imposed by state laws, he said.
Becker said the budget’s line item of $1.2 million for overtime was “troubling.” He said the change to the shift schedule could cut that amount by half.
“The school department is a victim of its own success,” Becker said. “It has proven year after year that it cannot only live within its budget, but also can produce substantial surpluses.”
The department is expected by the city to do the same this year, he said.
“More belt tightening is required,” Becker said. He also said the opinions did not necessarily reflect those of the ALN, but were his own as a presenter.
- Equipment replacement has been slowed, and it will have to be slowed further
- Staffing levels which were tightened and will have examined for further reductions
- Services provided will have to be cost-justified and impose new or increased fees
- Workflows will need to be examined to ensure efficiency
- Non-essential work will need to prioritized
- Negotiations with public employee unions should begin with the city clearly noting the amount of funds a union’s employee presently receives and the amount the city can afford to increase.
- Review opportunities for savings from join purchasing with surrounding communities
- The General Assembly should be lobbied to reduce mandates and labor restrictions
"Our city government leaders need to be measured and held accountable for how they deliver on these actions," Becker said. "Our quality of life in Newport depends on they deliver."