Mayor Diossa's FY 2017 City Budget Address

May 12, 2016

Good evening and welcome to Central Falls!

One of the great things about living in a small, walkable city like ours is the opportunity to connect with neighbors and business owners on a daily basis. Many mornings, when I walk to work, I often get the chance to talk with a mom bringing her child to school or with a shop owner getting ready for the day ahead.

I treasure these conversations because they are real. They help inform the decisions that I make every day. What we do in this building impacts people’s lives directly and we must never lose sight of this fact. Yet, one thing that I hear all the time from residents and business owners is this: Even though many have been hit hard by the state’s prolonged recession, even though they may be facing many obstacles in their lives, there is optimism in their voices as they speak to me about Central Falls, how far we have come and what the future holds for us. 

When you think about all that we have been through over these past few years - uncertainty, painful cuts and even more painful tax increases - it sometimes seems amazing how resilient we are as a community.

Our collective sacrifices, fiscal responsibility and hard work have not been in vain. That’s why this is such an important moment for all of us and it’s why I am so excited to share some great news with you today as I present my proposed FY2017 budget – the final budget under the state’s 5-year bankruptcy plan.

Today, I am proud to submit a budget to the City Council that calls for a reduction in the residential property tax rate. That’s right, for the first time IN A DECADE; Central Falls homeowners will finally get a break on their taxes. The residential tax rate, currently at $27.63, will be brought down to $26.69 – a significant 3.4% decrease.

This, coupled with an increase in the homestead exemption that would impact 840 homeowners, will provide much-needed relief to existing owner occupants while helping to incentivize homeownership in our city. It’s no secret that Central Falls currently have one of the lowest homeownership rates in the state and we are going to change that. We want more proud homeowners like Joaquin Ortiz and Trudy Crespo, who recently purchased their first home on Washington Street. Increasing the homestead tax exemption by 15% is an important step forward in that direction.

Furthermore, 268 senior citizen homeowners will also see their senior property tax exemption increase by 25%. Many of our seniors are living on a fixed income and, frankly, every penny matters. I am proud to present a budget that helps them improve their quality of life.

An additional 209 veterans will also see a 25% increase in their veteran’s tax exemption. Fairness and justice for our veterans is extremely important to me and it should be for our whole city. This is just one small way that we can thank veterans like Jerry Barzykowksi for their honorable service to our great country. Thank you, sir!

Now, I have spoken a lot about residential property taxes, and that’s important. But we all know that commercial tax rates also have a big impact on our ability to grow our local economy and help our businesses prosper. That’s why my budget freezes our commercial tax rate. We are working hard to encourage economic development in our city at every level and providing a predictable tax structure is an important part of that. That’s what I heard from business owners like Tony Fonseca, of Packaging and More. Tony, we are listening to you! Thank you for being a great Central Falls business owner!

My proposed FY17 budget is a budget that makes sense for our residents, our businesses and our future. We’re lowering the residential property tax rate for the first time in ten years and we’re increasing tax relief for owner-occupants, seniors and veterans. We’re freezing the car tax and we’re even freezing our business taxes.

How is this possible? Simply put, we’re doing more with less. By cutting expenses and increasing efficiencies, I am proposing a budget that is 1% lower than last year’s. Let me put it another way: the city will spend less money this year than it did last year. Indeed, this budget, the final budget under the bankruptcy plan, reminds us of how far this city has come since those dark days and how far we have to go. And, let’s be honest, we still have a ways to go.

One area where we must continue to be vigilant is our unfunded pension and OPEB liability. Thanks to a strategic investment of $100k in last year’s budget to create an OPED Trust, we have now cut our future OPEB liability in half. In this budget, we are continuing this fiscally responsible decision by allocating an additional $100k towards this purpose.

We are making progress with our pension liability as well. Once again, we are submitting 107% of our Annual Required Contribution so that we can accelerate the full funding of our pension plan. Gone are the days when budgets were balanced by not making the full annual required contribution and kicking the can down the road. From 2010, when our pension was funded at 14%, our efforts have now increased our pension funding to 22%. Now, we are set to achieve 60% funding, out of critical status, in just 10 years.

This year we will also fund a Rainy Day or Emergency Reserve Fund equal to 1% of the city budget. It’s the responsible thing to do, and ratings agencies have taken notice. In fact, it’s a major reason why our bond rating has increased significantly, from B2 to Ba2 over the last three years. 

These have been challenging times for our city, yet we have risen to the challenge. Above all else, my priority as Mayor has been to steer the city through its fiscal crisis and build a strong fiscal foundation for future generations.

However, a city cannot succeed simply by balancing its ledger. It’s the people of Central Falls who make our city great and who are busy building a brighter future for all of us. That’s why my proposed budget makes strategic and responsible investments in infrastructure, economic development, public safety and our youth.

There is one area that is critical to the long term success of our city. That is our youth. They are our most precious resource and they hold the key to our future. A recent incident on Summer Street led to several conversations with city parents Luz Cedeno, Enid Aponte and Daines Rosario. They stated that our youth need opportunities in order to stay off the street. They are right. That’s why I am proud to announce tonight that this budget makes strategic investments in our youth through after school programming, youth fellowships and sports programming across the city. In fact, this summer we are even launching a midnight basketball league. Let’s invest in our youth and watch how successful they become!

Another youth initiative that I am very proud of is the Innovation Lab which we are developing in collaboration with Rhode Island College. We are all familiar with the run down house located across the street from the high school. Well, soon, this renovated space will become the Innovation Lab, where student teachers will live, high school students will be tutored and urban education researchers will research and write about best practices in the field. I want to personally thank Superintendent Victor Capellán for your leadership and vision on this project and in so many great things happening in our schools.

As Mayor, I want to make sure that our kids are given every opportunity to succeed in life and create a brighter future for themselves, their families and – ultimately - our city. This budget offers an important step forward in that direction.

Central Falls has a rich history of entrepreneurship and economic activity. Today, much of that activity is led by the small businesses that line Dexter and Broad Street and collectively employ hundreds of people. In addition to holding the line on commercial taxes, this budget will invest an addition $100 thousand in our façade improvement program, with a direct impact on many of those small businesses in our commercial corridors. We want these streets to be destinations for people from all over - shopping in our stores, eating at our restaurants and feeling our rich diversity. We are also investing $600,000 in our Redevelopment Agency to create even more opportunities for economic development across the city. We have already made great progress at the Landing with the selection of a developer and the beginnings of a redevelopment plan. And, after years of work, we are in the process of securing the necessary funding to develop a Pawtucket Central Falls commuter rail station which could bring unprecedented development to our city. 

Like many cities in Rhode Island, we have a lot of infrastructure needs. I’m proud of the investments we have made to date, including new garbage and recycling bins for every resident of our city which has led to higher recycling rates and major savings, a brand new, state of the art ladder truck and new fire apparatus for our fire department, and snow plows to ensure that our streets are safe and clear of snow. This budget proposes investing in major sidewalk improvements, a new street sweeper to keep our main streets clean, additional trees to continue beautifying our city, major investments in our Main Street Facade Improvement Program to assist business owners and attract additional commerce to our square mile as well as an investment in our Redevelopment Agency to ensure that we eliminate blight from our city and rehab our vacant properties. We have paved 26 roads over the past 2 years and will pave 32 roads across the city this year.

Furthermore, I am proud to announce that we have received confirmation from the state that Dexter Street will be paved this summer! Finally!

Our Nuisance Task Force continues to improve our streets - block by block. They successfully demolished a major nuisance property on Pine Street and are about to do the same on Fletcher Street. We are replacing eyesores and magnets for vandalism with affordable homeownership opportunities, and changing entire neighborhoods in the process. Also, we are buying our street lights back from National Grid and converting them all to efficient LED technology. This will save taxpayers an estimated 40% over the course of the year by reducing maintenance and electricity costs while minimizing our impact on the environment.

Speaking of the environment, this city with a bright future is on track to ensuring that 100% of the city’s electricity is generated through renewable energy by this winter, and we’re increasing the number of trees in our city. Last year we planted 50 trees and I am looking forward to planting another 100 this year. The greening of our city also extends to our parks and recreational areas. We will continue to invest in our green spaces, parks and sports field to improve our residents’ quality of life. Look for improvements soon at Illinois Street Park, among others.

We continue to invest in public safety because it is important for all Central Falls residents to feel safe in our city, at all times. My proposed budget accounts for the addition of 4 fire fighters, funded through a federal grant, and the addition of a School Resource Officer at Calcutt Middle School. Meanwhile, our men and women in uniform continue to strengthen their community connections to better serve all our residents. I’m proud of their work and its impact on our city.

Having our public servants reflect the city’s diversity is an important part of that connection to community. That’s why I would like to thank Councilwoman Stephanie Gonzalez and the police, fire and legal leadership for working hard to improve our hiring process and ensure that all Central Falls residents can feel proud of the men and women who serve them with honor and distinction on a daily basis. 

I want to end by thanking the City Council for your leadership and your support. We have accomplished a lot together over the past year and I know that I could not have done any of it without you. Thank you. The budget I have presented tonight is much more than a document containing proposed revenues and expenditures. It is a testament to our city’s character, resilience and innovation. It is proof that when we work together towards a common goal, there is nothing that can stop us. And, most importantly, it is a roadmap to ensure that our great city of Central Falls continues to thrive and succeed long after we are gone.

Thank you and good night.

Read the FY 2017 City Budget here.

Pawtucket Times story on the city budget.

The Bond Buyer story on the city budget.

The Valley Breeze story on the city budget.

RI Public Radio on the city budget.

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