CHARLESTOWN — Members of the Budget Commission have begun the annual process of preparing a new budget, and Richard Sartor, who chairs the commission, said the town’s financial picture looks rosy.
“Charlestown is in excellent financial condition, we have been, we continue to be," he said. "We have a very solid tax base, we have one of the lowest tax rates in the state of Rhode Island. I would expect that to continue."
The proposed 2021 spending plan will be close to $29 million, a $1 million increase over the current year’s budget. The tax rate is expected to remain at or close to the current rate of $9.23 per $1,000.
There are still several unknowns which will affect the budget: the results of the latest revaluation, the town’s contribution to the Chariho Regional School District, and the state budget, including municipal aid.
Also affecting the new budget is money returned to taxpayers last year after they rejected the first version of the budget. Approved in a second vote after the Town Council removed a controversial $3.1 million line item for a community center, the 2020 budget returned $1 million of the town's surplus to homeowners in the form of a $0.42 per $1,000 property tax reduction.
That $1 million returned to the taxpayers, Sartor explained, will have a lasting impact on future budgets.
“Unless you put the $0.42 back in the tax rate, the $1 million comes out every single year, every year, into the future," he said. "That same $1 million is never raised again, unless you raise the tax rate. People don’t seem to understand that if you reduce the tax rate this year, it stays reduced and the revenue that the town has, has been reduced by $1 million and that is going to continue every single year, unless you move the tax rate back up to where it was, which, of course, we’re not going to do.”
The town maintains a fund balance, or surplus, of between 15 and 25 percent and as happened in the previous year, the most recent audit shows that the fund balance has increased again by between $1.2 million and $1.3 million, bringing it to 32 per cent.
Sartor said the town should proceed with caution when adjusting the amount of the fund balance.
“The fund balance needs to be adjusted, but we’ll adjust that based upon the circumstances and conditions facing the town, all of these factors,” he said. “Going forward, we need to make sure that we’re in good fiscal condition. We need to make sure that we’re adequately funded. We need to, and do, look down the road to see what the implications are going to be, two or three or four years down the road.”
Commission members approved the operating budgets of three departments at the Tuesday workshop: The parks and recreation department, at $198,000; the wastewater department, at $136,000; and the GIS, or geographic information systems department, at $115,000.
Several major capital expenditures have been proposed, including $200,000 for repairs to the Ninigret Park tennis courts; $34,000 for a new aerial drone and thermal imaging camera; and $250,000 over two years to implement more cost-effective nitrogen-removing septic systems. The septic system work would be carried out in collaboration with the University of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the town of Barnstable, Massachusetts, which is already researching the new systems.
On-site wastewater manager Matthew Dowling said, “We’re going to try and seek the approval of this technology for general use in Rhode Island as a nitrogen-reducing technology,” he said. “…My proposal is to replace eight existing substandard, failed cesspool, metal tank systems within proximity to the coast with this technology.”
The commission will consider the capital budget only after it has approved the operating budgets. However, Sartor said the town favored investing in technology and equipment over hiring additional personnel.
“We’re very hesitant to add personnel, but oftentimes we find that providing our employees with the best possible equipment and technology makes them much more efficient and reduces the need to increase staffing,” he said. “The science capability that we have with the geographic information systems and wastewater technology, there’s been a synergy there that’s just been terrific in terms of our capacity to work with the state or regulatory bodies. A lot of people do come to us now, because we are cutting edge.”
The next budget workshop will take place on Jan. 31.