Property tax bills for the first quarter of FY2020 were technically due yesterday. However, considering how some residents in Warwick only just received their bills on the original due date, the city’s decision to extend the deadline to July 31 is one that was born out of necessity.
It’s not exactly the city’s fault that bills were delayed in being sent out. The tax collector’s office transitioned from their makeshift offices at the former John Greene Elementary School, went through a computer system update just weeks before tax season started up and had to wait on the state to finalize the tax rate for motor vehicles within their budget before finalizing their own tax bills. On top of that, the printer that the city works with suffered a serious mechanical malfunction that pushed things back even more.
Regardless, throughout the past week residents have lined up dutifully within the Buttonwoods Community Center to make payments at the Tax Collector’s office. Many residents face total tax increases between $300 and $600, thanks to a recent re-assessment of property values in Warwick that resulted in properties in the “sweet spot” prince range (houses valued $200,000 to $300,000) to jump in value from anywhere between 15 to 35 percent in total value.
Although residential property tax rates for the most recent budget year actually decreased, the significant increases in home valuation has resulted in, for many – especially those who are on fixed incomes – a tax bill that hits significantly harder than even last year’s increase, when the Warwick City Council approved a budget that included the maximum 4 percent tax levy increase allowable by state law.
Don Fife has lived in Warwick his whole life, and has spent 49 years at his current address within the Gaspee neighborhood. His home that was valued at about $192,000 last year is now valued about $50,000 higher, resulting in a $650 increase in his total tax bill.
Fife, 77, is living off a combination of social security and a pension from his career as a computer operator for various manufacturing companies. He said that the increase has already affected his ability to spend money as opposed to prior years.
“That's a lot of money,” he said of his increase. “I'm on a fixed income. I don't have COLAs. I can't spend what I used to. I can't make any donations like I used to.” He mentioned several causes he enjoyed making donations towards, including the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, St. Jude’s Children Hospital and Saint Elizabeth Community.
Fife, who served abroad in Turkey during the Vietnam War, said he qualifies for the veterans and senior citizen tax exemptions, but that those exemptions haven’t kept pace with cost of living increases or the increases in taxes.
“Every time taxes go up, those should go up in proportion,” he said.
Others face even more drastic increases.
Jim Burns, a Warwick resident for about 25 years, said he just received his tax bill on Monday – which came at an increase of nearly $1,000 above last year’s total. Although Burns, a retired airline pilot, is in a good enough financial position to take the hit without worrying about his overall financial plight, he still has concerns about the way things have been going in the city.
“The city is in bad financial shape,” he said. “It's like spitting in the wind. You can complain all day and it's not going to do anything.”
Others are upset by what they perceive to be never-ending tax hikes year after year that don’t result in any discernible improvements to their surroundings.
Lifelong Warwick resident Sean McNamara, 39, who lives on Lakeshore Drive by Warwick Pond, was irritated by his increasing tax bill, which is now over $5,000 a year. He is especially frustrated since, he points out, road conditions in his neighborhood have not improved and environmental impacts caused by rising waters in Warwick Pond have caused him to lose up to 30 feet of his backyard.
“To know where the money was going would be nice,” he said. “They keep raising taxes and saying we have a deficit and they have to take sports away from kids in school…To see them taking away stuff like that because they say we don't have enough money, we’re the third largest city in the state, we should have enough money. That's just my opinion.”
The fiscal challenges seen in Warwick have prompted some to ponder whether or not the city could benefit from going into receivership, where a state-appointed receiver would have the authority to renegotiate collective bargaining agreements in the hopes to attain a more manageable financial picture. It is a solution that Mayor Joseph Solomon has continuously denounced as not an option. Regardless, to enter a state of receivership is out of the hands of local citizens or local government officials, as only the state Department of Revenue can start that process.
Still, that’s not stopping residents from pondering the idea.
“Warwick qualifies for receivership,” Fife said. “They should file for bankruptcy and re-negotiate these contracts and do it all over again.”
Fife called for a large presence at City Council meetings to ensure that city officials know that residents are getting uneasy.
“The people have to show up. That place should be packed wall to wall. If people don’t show up, they [City Council] do what they want,” he said. “What are they going to do, tax the people out of their homes?”