EAST PROVIDENCE — Mark down the date, March 28. The Budget Commission is leaving the City of East Providence.
At its bi-weekly meeting Thursday, Feb. 28, the Commission set in motion its exit strategy to depart the city after 15 months in charge.
Saying the “time has come” and in fact had already past by, Commission member and former Chairman Michael O’Keefe recommended a resolution be approved by the rest of the state over-sight body to bring its work to a close over the next month. It was.
As part of the exit plan, the Commission implemented its five-year budget summary, which takes East Providence through Fiscal Year 17-18. The budget is balanced. To do so, however, the Commission did institute small taxes increases over the final four years — 1.6 percent in FY14, 1.9 percent in FY15, .5 percent in FY 16 and .4 percent in FY17. The Commission did not raise taxes in the current fiscal year, but did implement the gradual elimination of the Homestead Exemption, one percent over the next 15 years.
“We’ve been preparing for this day for the last 15 months. We’ve set up work plans and timelines and we haven’t always followed them,” Mr. O’Keefe said his dissertation on the topic. “What we’re doing now is trying to make sure the city stays within the budget plan we created, but at some point the city has to do it themselves.”
It became increasingly apparent over the last several weeks the Commission was straying from its main mission and into the daily operations of the city.
With its last bit of important business just about complete, that of negotiating new contracts with the nine unions of East Providence employees, the clock was beginning to tick on the Commission’s tenure.
The Commission and its lead negotiator, Attorney Joseph Whelan, agreed Thursday that bargaining with the police union, the International Brotherhood of Police Officers (IBPO) Local 569 should be and are in the final stages. The remaining city workers, Council 94 (janitorial staffers), and the East Providence Firefighters are not obligated to open their contracts, which have either several months or a year to run.
Mr. Whelan said if the Commission is willing to accept the latest terms of the agreement and is willing to pass the police contract on March 28, then his work, and by extension the Commission’s, would be complete.
Mr. O’Keefe gave some insight into one of the more contentious aspects of negotiations with police, their other post-employment benefits (OPEB), which has mostly to do with healthcare in retirement. Currently, the city pays 100-percent of a family plan for all retired officers until they reach Medicare age of 65.
The Commission, on behalf of the city, has been attempting to create more level terms on the matter. Mr. O’Keefe said future hires and those with several years left on the job should pay a reasonable share of healthcare in retirement, but those who are have significant service time or are near the end of their tenure on the force should not.
“Someone who is half-way to retirement should have a percentage increase in their co-pay. That should be able to be negotiated,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “But someone who is a day away from retirement should get exactly what they have right now, which a 100-percent co-pay by the city. I’m not worried about the police contract. There is a fair way to resolve it.”
The Commission appeared more than ready to step aside, producing a one-page exit plan Thursday, which returns oversight to those political bodies and administrators according to the City Charter and other ordinances.
The City Manager, Schools Superintendent and Finance Director would regain their authority of day-to-day operations. The City Council would regain its power to make appointments as would the School Committee, including the selection of a new Superintendent.
As part of the statute creating the Budget Commission, however, the state still has partial oversight of the city for the next five years in the form of a Municipal Administration and Finance Officer (AFO).
State Director of Revenue Rosemary Booth Gallogly was in attendance at Thursday’s meeting to explain the new position, which will be paid for out of the city budget. No figure has been formally established or approved, but it’s been approximately budgeted for a total compensation package (salary and benefits) in the range of $110,000-$135,000 per year.
Mrs. Gallogly said the job will be posted and likely filled over the next month. The state will conduct the search, sending its recommendation to the most senior elected official in the city for final approval, City Council President James Briden.
The AFO, according to Mrs. Gallogly, will work with both City Manager and the Schools Superintendent. And while in theory will have oversight of all governmental aspects, the director said the position should be seen as one of support, as “belts and suspenders” to staff already in place.
City Manager Peter Graczykowski questioned Mrs. Gallogly on the specifics, though she admittedly had few.
“This is first time we’ve implemented this with this form of government (City Manager),” Mrs. Gallogly said. “Certain things need to be worked out. I don’t see the positions bumping into each other if there is a good working relationship, which I expect there to be. But if there’s not, there could be conflict.”
The director said the AFO should be there to augment what the City Manager, Superintendent and Finance Director do on a daily basis while also assisting the Council in making sure spending remains appropriate and under budget.
Mrs. Gallogly concluded, “This five-year oversight is there to make sure financial accountability becomes embedded in the community.”