WESTERLY — More than five weeks after the School Committee approved a proposed $58.9 million education budget for 2018-19, and about three weeks after Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy proposed a $35 million municipal budget, members of the Town Council are offering their views on what they think the town can afford.
Kennedy’s original combined municipal and schools proposal — after he cut $600,000 from the school plan — was $91.57 million, an increase of 3.58 percent from the current spending plan. The $600,000 reduction was necessary, Kennedy said, to avoid a combined budget that would have exceeded the 4 percent tax-levy cap imposed by state law.
Both Kennedy and Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau have reduced their proposed budgets since they were originally released, and the Board of Finance is now ensconced in reviewing the two plans. The proposed school budget the finance board started with represented a 4 percent increase over the current $56.2 million plan.
Kennedy’s original plan called for $35 million for the municipal services portion of the budget (including town and school district debt), an increase of $1.5 million or 4.5 percent
On Monday, at the request of Town Councilor Jean Gagnier, the council discussed the budgets. Gagnier expressed regret that the council had not established a goal for Garceau and the School Committee during a joint meeting of the committee and the council in November, but said he hoped to convey the council’s “mindset.”
Councilor Philip Overton acknowledged that the council is limited, by state law, to setting a bottom-line budget number for the schools and must leave decisions on how education is delivered to the School Committee. After considering the rate of inflation for the past year as well as a small raise in Social Security payments, Overton said he could support a school and town budget increase of about 2.5 percent.
“I would be willing to deal with 2.5 percent, which is higher than the rate of inflation for the past year, just to allow the schools to consolidate their finances and put themselves in a better position, but I will not vote for higher than 2.5 percent and I want to see 2.5 percent on the municipal side as well. We have to have budget restraints on all levels of town government,” Overton said.
Councilor Karen Cioffi said the two budget proposals contain elements she described as “wish lists.” By discussing the budgets on Monday, Cioffi said the council was delivering a message.
“The School Committee doesn’t have an exact number, but I think they should have their erasers ready because I have no intention of approving a budget that goes beyond the expectation of a 2 to 2.5 percent” increase, she said.
Councilor Jack Carson said the council and other town officials must remember the need for repairs to town roads and infrastructure. He also noted that contracts are being negotiated with school and town employees. When it comes to budgets, Carson said he has been guided by a simple maxim.
“I’ve always used, in my past 10 years in government, if it’s essential we need to fund , but if it’s just nice to have, the red marker comes out,” Carson said.
Councilor William Aiello, like Cioffi, said the council’s discussion should help the School Committee and others understand the council’s perspective. He stopped short of discussing percentage increases, saying he believed the council was close to overstepping its bounds, but said continual level-funding can lead to problems in the future.
Aiello also encouraged residents to attend the Board of Finance’s public hearing on the budgets scheduled for March 27 at 6 p.m. at Town Hall.
A 2.5 percent overall budget increase will allow for growth in services provided to residents but also respect their ability to sustain a tax increase, Gagnier said.
The state law that imposes the requirement for the annual joint meeting of the council and the School Committee requires the council to submit to the School Committee an estimate of projected revenues for the next fiscal year, including anticipated changes in the property tax base. The law also requires the School Committee to submit to the council anticipated expenditures and projected enrollments with related staff and faculty requirements, anticipated payments to charter schools (if applicable), and any necessary or mandated changes in school programs or operations.