Johnston's Budget to Go Up — But Not Taxes
On Monday night, the Johnston Town Council voted 4-1 to approve Mayor Joseph Polisena's $90.7 million spending plan for fiscal 2013.
Even with an expected increase in town spending of about $1.2 million — or about 1.3 percent over current levels — Johnston's tax rate will not go up for fiscal 2013 under Mayor Joseph Polisena's budget, which the town council approved on Monday night by a 4-1 margin.
Prior to the meeting, held at the Johnston Municipal Court, Polisena explained that the increase in costs will be covered by a higher tax collection rate in 2013 — meaning no hike in the town's current $24.75-per-$1,000 residential tax rate to cover the new $90.7 million spending plan.
"Whatever bill [homeowners] got this year, they'll get the same bill next year," Polisena explained, adding he felt holding taxes level was important in the midst of the current financial climate. "I think it's great, especially in these economic times."
Councilman Ernest Pitochelli (I-Dist. 2) cast the dissenting vote on the spending plan, saying prior to his vote that he didn't feel he had received the information from Polisena's administration that he needed to support the budget — specifically, the names of each employee to match with their salaries.
"There are no names with certain things, and I want to know why there are no names — it was suggested that if I wanted them, I should ask for them, [but] I shouldn't [have to] ask for them — the names should be there," Pitochelli told Finance Director Joseph Chiodo.
In response, Chiodo said he was following procedures used by other communities and the State of Rhode Island, adding that he had consulted with Town Solicitor William Conley who advised him that "we should be able to put the job title and the salary, but not the particular person's name in a personnel supplement."
"We always had that before," Pitochelli stated.
"Then you always did it wrong," Chiodo answered.
Pitochelli also explained that the numbers from the town's recent audit didn't match up with the information given about the fiscal 2013 budget.
Pointing to the legal department budget for the current year, Pitochelli said: "you've got 'town council approval 2010-2011,' bottom line number [of] $397,384 — that tells me nothing. The actual expenditure [according to the recent audit] was $855,298 — that's why I would like to have a line next to it, so you know which one went over [and] which one didn't go over."
Pitochelli, who announced last week that he does not plan to run for another term this fall, made a point before his vote to say: "It was my decision not to run for reelection — it had nothing to do with what took place here tonight."
Immediately after his vote, Pitochelli rose from his seat and left the municipal court, saying "I don't feel too well — I've got to go."
During an interview outside the courthouse before he departed, Pitochelli explained his vote.
"When I look at the numbers they gave me, they don't jive with the audit report — they don't give us the true number," Pitochelli said. "They put down what was budgeted; they don't tell you that they went way over, and we always had that before."
The one resident to speak at the meeting was Peter Filippi III, founder of the Johnston Taxpayers Association, who took issue with the contracts that he said "are loaded with provisions that are causing a lot of financial harm" to the town.
A self-described conservative Republican, Filippi said that in Polisena's budget address, "I didn't hear 'free enterprise,' I didn't hear about alternatives, I didn't hear about privatization — and those are the tools that we need to reduce our taxes, not keep them level-funded."
After Filippi pointed to contract provisions like $500 payments to firefighters for holding EMT and hazardous materials licenses, both Pitochelli and Polisena told him that trying to roll back some of the concessions given in past years is a difficult task.
"What you've got to do is get the General Assembly to follow through," Pitochelli explained.
"I wish you had been around when [late former Mayor] Bill Macera was giving the store away, because you're right — why should someone get paid to have their EMT license? Here's what happened, Peter — when he made them pay for their Blue Cross," Polisena then paused to give an exaggerated wink, then added: "he gave them $500 payments to hold their EMT, which they should have anyway, and then he gave another $500 stipend for haz-mat — you can't just yank those things out of the contracts."
Filippi then argued against a pair of $1,000 legislative grants awarded to the Johnston Housing Authority by Rep. Stephen Ucci and Sen. Frank Lombardo.
"You should have given them hell because you've got people out of work who can't pay their bills, and this is politics as usual," Filippi said.
Pitochelli then asked Filippi: "Are you running for mayor?"
"I don't know — we'll see what happens next week," Filippi replied, referring to the candidate filing period in Johnston.
"Well, I would advise you against it," Pitochelli said. "That's just me, Ernie Pitochelli, telling you that I would advise you not to do it."
Following the vote in favor of the budget, the council also held its first reading of a separate ordinance that sets the tax rates for the different types of property — residential, commercial, tangible, and automobiles.
A second reading is scheduled for the July council meeting.