Fiscal year change headed to voters after block at FTM

Fiscal year change headed to voters after block at FTM

SCITUATE – After more than 20 years of discussion, the Scituate Town Council will begin the process of changing the town’s fiscal year to coincide with the state’s by sending the issues to voters to decide at a Special Financial Town Meeting in the fall.

The topic was the subject of heated discussion during the Financial Town Meeting last Tuesday, June 1. Town Councilor Michael Marcello initially attempted to make the change through the council by motioning to change the start of the town’s fiscal year from April 1 to July 1 no later than 2024.

Town Moderator David D’Agostino and Town Solicitor Wyatt Brochu blocked Marcello’s motion for the fiscal year change, saying they felt it was not appropriate at the time.

Both said the town needed to appropriately notify the public before a change to the fiscal year was made, though Marcello and others argued that notice is not required at a FTM.

“It’s completely unfair to residents of Scituate. It’s not an amendment to the budget presented to the Town Council by the Budget Committee,” Brochu said, adding changes should be quantitative.

Marcello argued that the nature of a FTM does not require notifications under the Open Meetings Act, and the Budget Committee had indicated to him that the FTM is the appropriate time to present the change.

School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Dias said the fiscal year move has bipartisan support across boards and committees and agreed with Marcello that the change needs to happen.

“I don’t want to kick the can down the road another year,” she said.

Town Councilor Timothy McCormick, who did the majority of research on the fiscal year change, said he intended to bring it before the town at the 2022 FTM, at which time he would have held informative meetings for the public to understand the costs associated with the change.

Due to the change, he said the next audit will be more expensive, and the town may need to purchase new tax software to support the new timeline.

“It’s not an OMA (Open Meetings Act) issue, it’s a fairness issue,” McCormick said, adding he wholeheartedly supports the issue.

Marcello ultimately agreed to withdraw his motion after receiving a commitment from Town Council Vice President James Brady to put the item on the next council meeting agenda, with the promise to hold an informative special Financial Town Meeting in the fall for voters to decide.

Town Councilor Gary Grande said he also supports the change and hopes that any legal or procedural roadblocks preventing the change will be taken care of before the motion comes before the public for a vote again.

Sixty-four residents, including four guests, attended the Financial Town Meeting in person last week. Many more watched the live video but were unable to comment on the proceedings.

The town approved the $38,716,193 budget, including $24,269,560 for the Scituate School Department, resulting in a real estate tax rate of $18.69 per thousand of residential assessed value, and $23.19 per thousand of commercial assessed value. In total, the tax levy increased 2.3 percent for the 2022 fiscal year, and the School Department budget increased 2.31 percent.

Marcello, the sole Democrat on the council, recommended the only significant change to the budget in a motion to change the interest rate on late taxes from 12 percent to 9 percent.

Originally, Marcello proposed decreasing the interest rate on late tax payments to six percent, as was done last year to assist residents struggling to make ends meet during a pandemic, but that proposal met with resistance from other councilors.

Voters agreed with School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Dias about splitting the difference and setting the late fee rate for fiscal year 2021-2022 to 9 percent in a 34-28 vote.

The change to 6 percent from 12 percent would have meant a possible $90,000 loss in revenue, according to McCormick. Marcello said that the revenue is dependent on residents paying taxes late and is not guaranteed to the town.

“Twelve percent is awful high for late payments,” he said.

Tax Assessor Karen Beattie said Scituate allocated for approximately $130,000 in late fees from taxes. She added that the tax collector is willing to work out payment plans with residents struggling to make tax payments.

Democrat Town Committee Chairwoman Alicia Kelley said many people are still struggling to make ends meet, and the town should accommodate to help people. She added that revenue from the Scituate Art Festival will return to the town this year, as well, and should help cover lost revenue from late taxes.

“This might give people who are still scrambling for money a meal on their table,” Kelley said.

Another change presented by Pawtuxet River Authority board member Al Durand involved reserving the $1,000 set aside for the board but holding it until the four other communities in the authority, including Coventry, Cranston, Warwick and West Warwick, committed to making the same contributions.