Town Council sets aside $840,000 for COVID-19 contingency in 2021 budget

Town Council sets aside $840,000 for COVID-19 contingency in 2021 budget

NORTH SMITHFIELD – The financial impact of COVID-19 is trickling down to local town budgets, and residents will begin feeling that impact with the start of the new fiscal year.

On Tuesday, town councilors voted to cut more than $800,000 from the proposed 2020-2021 budget to make up for an anticipated loss in state revenue. Those cuts affected everything from the food pantry to restoration of the Forestdale Schoolhouse, with the biggest piece coming out of a proposed $600,000 for road paving.

Rather than lower the tax rate, Town Administrator Gary Ezovski recommended placing those funds in a contingency account to guard against likely cuts in state aid. Based on his proposed tax rates, residential taxpayers can expect a new rate of around $16.29 per thousand dollars of assessed value, a 2.6 percent increase, and commercial taxpayers can expect a new rate of around $19.38, a 2.7 percent increase.

With many factors still uncertain about COVID-19, and the state yet to set a budget, Ezovski warned the town could be left to shoulder a far larger portion of the $46,727,061 budget than originally anticipated.

“We’re facing a buzz saw here that we’ve got to recognize is coming at us,” he said.

The biggest unknown is in education, where town and school officials fear their state aid could be cut by as much as 25 percent. That would translate to a loss of about $1.5 million in the School Department’s budget, which was originally set in January on the assumption schools would receive about $290,000 more from the state than last year.

All of this depends on what the state receives in COVID-19 funds from the federal government, a number that won’t likely be set until August.

During a painful seven-hour budget process, Ezovski recommended cutting several areas of his original budget that he had previously championed. In addition to reducing the proposed paving funds by $350,000, he suggested eliminating a $175,000 dump truck, delaying payment on a street sweeper, cutting the town’s other post-employment benefit (OPEB) contributions and waiting to demolish the Stamina Mills office building on School Street. He also recommended cutting $25,000 for repairs to the Forestdale Schoolhouse and eliminating a $5,000 grant to the food pantry that had been proposed by the Budget Committee.

“It’s not what I want to do, but it is absolutely what we are forced to do,” he said about the OPEB cuts.

Councilors approved all the changes, ultimately adding another $840,000 to an existing $100,000 line item for contingency funds.

School officials continued to argue for a 4 percent increase in their local contribution, warning they were already facing cuts of around $650,000 from their proposed budget. At one point, town and school officials found themselves arguing over whether the contingency funds should be earmarked for town or school expenses – and that’s only if they weren’t already used up to replace cuts to state education aid.

“In all serious, we don’t know. We’re all taking a huge leap of faith right now trying to do this budget with all unknowns out there,” said Council President Paul Vadenais.

In the end, councilors voted to keep the town’s increase to the School Department at 2.2 percent, the amount originally proposed by Ezovski and the Budget Committee.

Councilors also debated paying for trash pickup at the High Rocks Condominiums, an issue that started before the Planning Board last fall. Earlier this year, Michael Debroisse, a member of the condo sub-association board, approached the council about expanding trash pickup to the complex’s 128 units.

Councilors Paul Zwolenski and Douglas Osier Jr. voted in favor of setting aside $21,000 for the trash service, but were outvoted by three other council members. Councilor Teresa Bartomioli said she might have considered it during another year, but the budget costs in the current year were too high.

The budget also included a $15,000 increase in the administrator’s annual salary, a change councilors approved in May.

Even with the $940,000 contingency fund, Ezovski warned, the cuts would not be enough to make up for the loss if the state cuts education funding by 25 percent. Other towns, he said, have begun instituting furloughs or deferring pay increases, options North Smithfield may have to consider.

The final $46.7 million budget amounted to an increase of 3.69 percent over the current year’s tax levy. Rather than send out the tax bills immediately, Ezovski said he plans to delay the bills in case the council needs to redo the budget in the weeks ahead.

“Because of all the unknowns that we still have, there could be an advantage to giving the council another shot at this in late July and early August,” he said.

Comments

Wow call me dumb by rather than lower the tax rate let’s place the over budget of funds in a contingency for the administrator to spend anyway he pleases. But not lower the tax rate when taxpayers would get a 2.6% increase. Not lower the rate but taxes are going up. Is this some sort of new public school math. We should flatline the tax rate and tighten the expense budget. The school department has at least a million in a fat budget that easily can be trimmed. We also could have flat lined the budget if we did not give excessive raises to the already over paid unions. The current council and administrator need to go. My wallet matters.

Plexiglas dividers and masks seem to be sufficient protection for every business in the state, why is it not enough to open town offices? Is there some special reason our Town Hall employees can't work with the same protections as every other business in town? Unlock the doors and get back to work! If it is good enough for the private sector, it is good enough for the employees our taxes are paying for. I'm tired of phone tag, being futily transferred to another person and voice mail.