Mayor Ken Hopkins FY 24-25 Budget Address – April 1, 2024

 Mayor Ken Hopkins FY 24-25 Budget Address – April 1, 2024
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CRANSTON – Mayor Ken Hopkins Monday, April 1, presented a $323 million budget to the Cranston City Council for Fiscal Year 2025 – a reduction of $2.3 million from the previous year.

“Three years ago, I presented my first budget under different times and circumstances,” Mayor Hopkins said. “We all recall the challenging days of the covid pandemic and its effect on our daily lives and families as it touched all aspects of society, businesses, schools, and our local government. We have moved forward from those trying months to better days for our community and government. We have seen our citizens re-engaged, our financial health rebounded and community pride soaring once again.”

“As my financial team began to assemble the needs and details for this budget, they did so with two directives from me,” Hopkins said. “First, that this budget as presented to the city council and Cranston residents would meet the needs of Rhode Island’s second largest city but require no tax increase from local taxpayers.”

“This budget I propose for your consideration does not increase the amount of local tax dollars that can be raised to fund it,” the mayor said. “I will discuss the state mandated revaluation in a moment but in short, that means we will operate the government on the same level of taxpayer support we received this year.”

“The second mandate I issued was that we would not use ARPA funds or monies we received from the federal American rescue plan act to fund city operations,” Hopkins said. “While we have appropriately used ARPA funds in the past for direct taxpayer relief, this would be the last year we could use them to balance the budget. Prudence dictated that we move in a different direction.”

Last year the council approved an overall city budget of $325,718,075 that was $4.7 million less than the previous fiscal year 23 budget. On Monday, Hopkins submitted an overall city budget of $323,328,164 for fiscal year 25. This is a further reduction in spending of $2.3 million from last year, the mayor said.

“In short, we will operate the city on a budget that has been reduced by $7 million from the budget two years ago,” Hopkins stated. “I question how many of our surrounding communities can make that same claim. We do that despite challenging times, inflationary factors, and ever-increasing pressure to spend more.”

“In 2021, I took office with certain expectations of the city’s financial health,” the mayor said. “Like a buyer of a pre-owned car sometimes you get under the hood and find some issue that you need to deal with. We soon learned that we would have some fiscal challenges to overcome.”

Hopkins said his administration inherited deficits in areas like health care of some $5.6 million and a $2 million shortfall in our required OPEB funding for future pension costs.

“I did not complain but went to work to fix things and get our financial house in order,” he said. “I am proud to report that Cranston’s fiscal posture is on strong financial footing. We can take nothing for granted. We want to keep working every day to maintain respect and positive comments from the rating agencies. They have recognized our strong financial practices and last year reaffirmed our aa+ bond rating.”

The mayor said the audit the city recently received from auditors for last year reflected more success on Cranston’s financial front. The $4 million surplus was excellent news and helped the city to restore and exceed its rainy-day fund requirements of the city charter.

“You will recall that in 2021, the state auditor general required us to reclassify pilot monies received from the state and in a swipe of the pen eliminated $4.7 million from our rainy-day fund,” said the mayor. “My predecessor resisted following that state directive for years and just kept kicking the can down the road. That is not my style and I confronted it and fixed it.”

“Today our rainy-day fund or unencumbered fund balance exceeds the required five percent of our annual operating budget,” Hopkins said. “With diligence and careful management of tax dollars and city spending, my message tonight is in part very encouraging for our city. But my message is cautionary.”

“The next year will require attention and scrutiny in how we do business to control our spending,” he continued. “We have made great strides in our financial status through complex decisions like eliminating twenty-four positions to downsize our workforce and other cost cutting initiatives helped to reduce the size of our government. Our improved financial direction will be presented with serious challenges going forward.”

“On the city side I can control spending and ask that we try and deliver the same level of constituent services,” the mayor said. “All city department heads will be directed to manage their budgets while meeting my expected level of services to our taxpayers and do so with current staffing levels.”

Included in this budget, Hopkins said, the city will fulfill contractual obligations and step increases for city employees. Cranston will also be fully funding its annual contributions to the state pension fund and obligation for OPEB.

“All my choices in this budget plan for the next year reflect difficult decisions necessary for our long-term financial health,” the mayor said. “Tonight, I am asking our school committee colleagues and school administration to work with me through this challenging budget year. Some of my dear friends and political allies serve on the school committee and I know they will be good advocates for our students and schools.”

The mayor proposed an overall school budget of $179,822,712. This is an overall increase from last year of $1,079,760.

“Fortunately, Cranston schools are receiving an increase of about $3.4 million from the state of Rhode Island,” Hopkins said. “I recognize that some of that aid is categorical, but it is additional funding over last year nonetheless that the schools are receiving. Considering that, and mindful of my decision not to raise local taxes, I have not proposed any increase in the local school appropriation. Even level funded, Cranston schools continue to represent about 56% of the overall budget I am submitting tonight.”

Under this proposed budget, Cranston taxpayers will pay $99 million towards an overall school budget of approximately $179 million.

“That funding includes the additional $3 million the schools received from me and the council in the last three years that is now built into the city’s required maintenance of effort,” Hopkins said. “To still try and assist the schools, I am prepared to recommend to the city council a sum of up to $1 million from our remaining ARPA funds for our schools.”

Apart from this budget process, the mayor said he would sit with the superintendent to review options to use the ARPA funds to relieve some of their planned expenses.

“The extraordinary support of my administration and taxpayers for Cranston schools is self-evident throughout our city. In 2020 voters approved a $147 million bond referendum for schools’ purposes,” Hopkins said. “We all admire the new garden city school, improvements at Eden Park school and the significant undertaking to build a new gladstone street school on June 4th, voters will be asked to approve another $40 million bond issue for Cranston schools. I fully support that June bond referenda.”

Among the purposes and projects of the bond will be to insure the completion of gladstone school, phase three of Eden Park school and the acquisition and renovation of the property for the apprenticeship exploration school which is run in collaboration with the Laborers International Union of North America. The school administration has represented that the spending on these projects will be eligible for up to 74% reimbursement from the Rhode Island department of education.

“I support vocational education as a critical pathway for serving some of our students who may not want to attend a two or four-year college,” the mayor said. “Instead, students get firsthand experience and knowledge for a career in construction trades.”

The capital budget Hopkins proposed will provide almost $77 million for Cranston schools. That would include $53 million for Gladstone, $15 million for Eden Park phase 3 and approximately $4 million next year for the AES charter school. Hopkins said the balance of the school capital budget will address things like a new parking lot at Cranston west, a new HVAC and boiler system at Cranston east. It would address flooring replacements at several elementary schools around the city.

“Taxpayers are investing heavily in our schools, and we will go forward and fund their debt service obligations to repay these bond issues,” Hopkins said. “The balance of the proposed capital budget or another $18 million will go to fund critical capital budget needs in city departments. Significant in that list is $9 million for citywide infrastructure, street paving as well as storm drain rehabilitation.”

The capital budget will also fund phase 3 of the Knightsvile rehabilitation project that will allow us to continue the revitalization of the area streetscape to complement the new Itri park and completion of phase 2 that is now underway. The remainder of the capital budget will fund important priorities in police and fire as well as the recreation department.

“As all property owners and businesses know Cranston has just completed the state mandated full revaluation of all residential and commercial properties in our city. This is a process required every nine years,” said Hopkins. “There were some who suggested that we should postpone the revaluation because it was an election year. I rejected that political escape hatch.”

By law, the value of properties needs to accurately and periodically be updated to reflect their fair market values, the mayor explained, so no one is paying more than their fair share and to equalize values for all residents. Working with the Cranston Tax Assessor’s office, Vision Government Solution, Inc. notified owners of their proposed new values as of December 31, 2023. The city has only started the process and for those with questions or disagreement there is still time to review new values with the city. Up until April 11th, residents can do so informally. After that there are other appeals and reviews they can follow.

“Every day we see published reports of extraordinary increases in home selling and property prices that must be reflected in the new values,” Hopkins said. “Vision appraisal can show how they arrived at the new values based on recent comparable sales in your area or the basis of your new assessments. I think most people will find that their friends and neighbors are selling their property close to the new assessed values. The bottom line for every taxpayer is how much taxes will they have to pay following the revaluation?”

If adopted as proposed by Mayor Hopkins, the tax rate for residential dwellings and land up to five units will be reduced from $18.90 per $1000 of value to $13.41. The tax rate for larger apartments, commercial and industrial property will be reduced from $28.35 per $1000 of value to $ 20.12 per thousand of value.

“This budget I share tonight will allow us to meet the financial needs of our city and allow us to deliver essential city services,” Hopkins said. “We will continue our service to meet the needs of our constituents. This is a sound financial plan for our city that deserves your support. I am committed to keeping Cranston going in the right direction at a reasonable price to all taxpayers.”

“We will invest in our infrastructure, work to enhance the appearances of our business corridors to encourage visitors to shop, dine and trade at our neighborhood businesses,” the mayor continued. “This budget reaffirms my commitment to public safety in our police and fire departments. We will keep our streets and neighborhoods safe with this budget.”

“The community pride we witness every day is seen in our citizens and their role in our exceptional quality of life,” Hopkins said. “They enjoy events like Cranston’s parades, fairs, and festivals. This budget will continue to support those community affairs.” 

Before concluding, Hopkins expressed appreciation on behalf of the city council and all our residents for the diligent service by city workers and teachers who serve as dedicated public employees. He thanked the many first responders who protect and serve Cranston “and who fearlessly respond to emergencies in our homes and neighborhoods.”

Thank you to all those who in the cold of winter plow our streets and in the heat of the summer help maintain our infrastructure,” he said. “But most of all I appreciate all who serve and help taxpayers and residents everyday as they interface with their local government at city hall or at offices around the city. I have the privilege to witness firsthand how you make our city work for its residents.”

“Our goal in preparing this budget was to meet the city’s ability to deliver essential services and to protect our long-term financial health,” concluded the mayor, urging the city council for their support. “We have done so for our residents with no property tax increase nor other increased fees like their sewer bills. This budget is my best effort to keep Cranston affordable for all taxpayers, families, and businesses.”

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