WESTERLY — The subject of hiring new employees was a central focus Thursday as the Board of Finance began its review of Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy’s proposed 2018-19 budget.
The budget calls for a new assistant town manager position, an assistant town planner position, an assistant director of public works for utilities, and a fourth lieutenant at the Westerly Police department. The police position would be created by eliminating a patrol officer job that is expected to become vacant. A part-time code enforcement officer and a part-time administrative assistant for the Department of Development Services, a new custodian for Town Hall, and a part-time recreation program coordinator position are all recommended in Kennedy’s budget.
Finance Board Chairman Jay Goodman noted that school Superintendent Mark Garceau started his position in July and that Kennedy will be leaving his position at the end of April.
“There is a lot of upheaval...this is a good time to be cautious about bringing in new positions,” Goodman said.
While discussing the proposed new position for the Department of Development Services, one board member said a new town manager might have different priorities.
“I want to wait for a new town manager and let them show how we want to move forward with this organization,” said the board member, Kenneth Swain.
Board member Paula Brouillette disagreed. “I would understand if we were talking about direct reports to the town manager, but this is basically a need that is necessary for the operation of that department,” she said.
Swain also questioned the addition of some of the new positions based on concerns related to the Town Charter. He noted that the charter does not call for an assistant town manager or an assistant town planner. Swain also said that the position of chief of staff, similar to that of an assistant town manager, was eventually eliminated in 2014.
Kennedy said the assistant manager position is needed to provide adequate service to residents, the Town Council, town employees, and municipal board and commissions.
Kennedy originally proposed a $91.57 million combined school and municipal budget, but on Tuesday recommended a $90,864,882 budget, a 2.5 percent increase over current spending. Under the new budget, Kennedy is calling for the use of $711,000 from the $1.4 million surplus anticipated in the 2016-17 budget to “prepay” for one-time capital spending and restricted account items that were originally part of the proposed 2019 budget.
On Thursday Goodman equated Kennedy’s proposal to use the prior year’s surplus to “use of the fund balance,” a practice town officials, including Kennedy, staunchly oppose. Rather than use half of the $1.4 million for capital items in Kennedy’s proposed budget, Goodman said the funds could be used to build the town’s fund balance.
But Kennedy explained that even with the use of the $711,000, the overall undesignated fund balance would be $1.2 million higher than the amount required by the Town Council’s fund balance policy, and within the range that receives favorable treatment from bond rating agencies.
An item in the Town Council’s budget — a request for 10 new chairs at the council dais — drew some attention. Swain called the current chairs, which Kennedy said were purchased five years ago, “new.” Goodman said he was “not thrilled” with the $4,100 earmarked for new chairs. “That’s something they will have to explain to their constituents,” Swain said.
The board is scheduled to continue its review of Kennedy’s proposed budget Tuesday night at 6 in council chambers at Town Hall.