CHARLESTOWN — Questions surrounding the town's $3.1 million surplus and ideas on how best to spend it will be aired at a public meeting next Monday, Town Council members decided this week after discussing their options in the aftermath of the proposed 2020 budget's defeat.
The $30.3 million spending plan was soundly voted down in a June 3 referendum. The property tax rate would have remained at $9.64 per $1,000 of assessed value, but many residents objected to the allocation of the surplus to a construction line item in the budget for a new community center proposed for Ninigret Park.
Members of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, who hold a strong majority on the Town Council, argued that the town had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build the center without having to incur debt. However, the opposition Charlestown Residents United urged residents to reject the budget with its construction line item, citing insufficient public consultation and a lack of information on how much a community center would actually cost to build. The CRU also suggested that the surplus might be better spent on other initiatives, including a property tax cut.
On Monday, in a packed council chambers, council members discussed whether the proposed budget would be amended before being submitted once more to voters, and if so, how.
Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero laid out the next steps the council could take. Since the town’s new fiscal year begins on July 1, tax bills based on the current budget would still be issued, since there would not be sufficient time to produce a new budget.
“You have to make an initial decision whether you take any action based on the rejected budget to propose a revised budget or not,” he told the council. “That’s really the first choice you have to make and if you do nothing, you can leave the last fiscal year budget in place going forward, and on July 1 the treasurer and the tax collector will act, based on that budget, to issue tax bills and run the government.”
Ruggiero also explained the process for the submission of a revised budget.
“The quickest way you could do it it, you would have to have a discussion and authorize a revised budget of some sort,” he said. “The charter doesn’t speak to it, but I would recommend you have some kind of public hearing, and then you can vote on the budget and send it to a referendum.”
Council Vice President Deborah Carney asked Treasurer Patricia Anderson about sending out tax bills without knowing what is in the Rhode Island budget, which has not yet been passed.
Anderson said it would be wise to wait. “There have been changes that have been suggested in the governor’s budget that will be voted on by the Senate and the House, and that’s coming up shortly, so I would suggest we not do anything about sending out bills until that’s done,” she said.
Anderson noted that last year, the town had sent out the tax bills, only to find out, once the state budget was passed, that it had to issue refunds.
Council members engaged in a lengthy discussion on what to do with the $3.1 million surplus if it was not used for a community center.
Bonnie Van Slyke asked Anderson how the money could be returned to taxpayers. “Can you tell us how this would work and the impact on the town,” she said.
“There’s really only one way to do it, and that’s to lower the tax levy,” Anderson replied.
Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz warned that lowering the levy would make it more difficult to raise it the following year, because of the state’s 4 percent cap on tax levy increases.
“If it’s reduced by any particular amount, it is permanent, and it is also subject to a 4 percent limitation by the State of Rhode Island,” he said.
Council President Virginia Lee invited questions and comments from the public.
“This is not a public hearing, this part of the agenda,” she said. “That means it’s usually reserved for discussion amongst the council members themselves, but as we have done, at least since I’ve been on the council, if you make the effort to come here, we could like to hear you.”
Resident Frank Glista described the budget process as a failure.
“I think it was premature that taxpayers were told that an ad hoc committee was being formed, what the surplus was being used for, where the structure was going to be placed,” he said.
Lee said there had been no deliberate attempt to circumvent the taxpayers.
“There’s been no effort at deception whatsoever,” she said. “We have engaged the public. We’ve been as up front as we possibly can at these public meetings and I represent everyone in this town … The town budget was voted down. I get that. The people have spoken. We’ll go from here.”
The council has endorsed the idea of an independent survey of residents, conducted by a professional outside firm, to determine how residents want the town to allocate the $3.1 million and whether they would even want a new community center. That survey will take a back seat to the budget for the time being.
Carney urged the council to schedule a public meeting as soon as possible to allow residents to weigh in on what to do with the surplus.
“If we have a series of meetings over the next couple of weeks it would get us to where we need to be quicker,” she said. “Still go forward with a survey but have meetings, solicit public input and then we can put together a budget that can be voted on and then take our time. We’ve got to work out this surplus issue.”
Stankiewicz urged the council to first deal with the budget.
“The ASAP is the budget,” he said. “The survey is secondary, in my opinion.”
The council agreed that while a survey would be necessary, the item could be tabled until after the public meeting on the surplus on Monday, June 17, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.