PROVIDENCE – There was a glaring hole in the annual budget proposal unveiled Tuesday by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza: For the first time in city history, it’s unclear how hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding will be spent.
In a call with reporters Tuesday, Elorza said he believes that the state’s decision to take over the struggling public school system last fall means that the city’s job is only to appropriate funding for the district, not decide or vet how the money will be spent.
That means Elorza’s budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes $134 million for schools – on top of the $264 million in state education funding included in Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal – even though the state has not put forward a corresponding spending plan for the district.
"We went into this with eyes wide open and we knew what the rules were,” Elorza said, referring to the decision by Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green to take control of the school system.
A spokeswoman for the school department said new Superintendent Harrison Peters will submit a budget to the school board in late May or June. It’s unclear whether the public will be able to weigh in on the budget before it’s finalized, especially since the coronavirus has forced all public meetings to be held online.
City Councilman John Igliozzi, who chairs the committee responsible for vetting the mayor’s budget, said he’s concerned about the “lack of transparency, accountability, and full disclosure to the public” when it comes to education spending.
“The battle cry for good government is oversight, and yet when it comes to the school department, it’s considered a detriment, not a benefit,” Igliozzi said.
The rest of Elorza’s $506.8 million tax-and-spending plan for the 2020-21 fiscal year looks similar to the current year’s budget.
Under the proposal, residential property taxes remain flat at $24.56 per $1,000 of assessed value (with a 40 percent reduction for owner-occupied homes), commercial rates will be $36.70 per $1,000, and the tangible tax rate is still $55.80 per $1,000. Elorza is recommending eliminating the tangible tax for all businesses with personal property assessments below $10,000.
Elorza acknowledged that the coronavirus has created uncertainty for all state and local governments, but because Providence is heavily reliant on property taxes to fund its spending, the challenge is less dire. He said the city is closely monitoring whether state lawmakers will reduce aid to the city as a result of lower-than-expected revenues.
Raimondo’s budget calls for Providence to receive $70.6 million in state aid through several sources, including payments in lieu of property taxes from nonprofits, distressed community funding, reimbursements from the continued phase-out of the car tax, and taxes on hotels, meals, and beverages.
“We're dealing with so much uncertainty in terms of public health, we’re dealing with so much uncertainty in terms of finances,” Elorza said.
Elorza has not said how much the coronavirus has cost the city, but common revenue enhancers like parking meters and school-zone speed cameras have produced very little since Raimondo issued a stay-at-home order last month.
For the budget that begins July 1, finance director Larry Mancini said the city made “conservative” estimates for those revenues because it’s unclear when business and social restrictions will ease. The budget includes no changes in fees from parking meters or moving violations.
On the spending side, Elorza is proposing $300,000 to provide legal assistance to residents facing evictions and $150,000 to help community-based health centers provide coronavirus testing. The budget also includes between $1.2 million and $1.4 million in funding for affordable housing, which will be allocated from a portion of the revenue that comes in through various property tax breaks with companies that are already in place.
In a bizarre turn of events, the City Council abruptly canceled its meeting Tuesday, at which it was expected to receive the budget proposal from Elorza.
Council President Sabina Matos claimed she canceled the meeting because the budget articles were not going to immediately be made available to the public. Emily Crowell, a spokeswoman for Elorza, said the administration was following the same process as in previous years, with the exception that the council is currently meeting remotely.
Crowell said council leadership and staff were briefed on the budget earlier Tuesday, and no one mentioned plans to cancel the meeting. The council rescheduled the meeting for Friday to receive the budget. The Finance Committee will spend the next six weeks meeting with department heads before finalizing the budget in June.
As for schools, it also remains unclear when Infante-Green and Superintendent Peters will release their turnaround plan for the district. Because the coronavirus forced all districts to implement distance learning plans for the rest of the school year, any reform plans have largely been placed on the back burner.
School Board President Nicholas Hemond said he and Vice President Nina Pande have been in close contact with state and district leaders. They briefly discussed the school budget last Friday, a day after Peters disclosed that several administrators were being laid off at the end of the school year.
On the school budget, Hemond said he isn’t concerned that a spending proposal hasn’t been introduced. He said he’s confident Infante-Green and Peters will put forward a plan that benefits students.
“I don’t know if you were paying attention when they stripped the city of its authority on the budget,” Hemond said.