CHARLESTOWN — At a special meeting Monday, the Town Council discussed several options following the June 3 defeat of the fiscal year 2020 budget, and settled on one that would lower the property tax rate. Residents were also invited to weigh in on the spending plan.
The proposed $30.3 million 2020 budget was a 6.4 percent increase over the current budget of $27.7 million. The property tax rate would have remained at the current level of $9.64 per $1,000 of taxable value.
The budget would probably have passed if not for a single line item: the allocation of a $3.1 million surplus to the construction of a new community center at Ninigret Park. Critics said there had not been sufficient public consultation to determine if residents would want such a facility and also questioned whether a center could even be built for $3.1 million.
The council asked Treasurer Patricia Anderson to present several budget scenarios and explain the consequences of each one. Anderson came up with three options, including one in which the current budget and tax rate would remain the same for 2020.
A second option would return some of the surplus by lowering property taxes by either $1 million, $1.5 million or $2 million. A third option would leave the current tax rate in place but would change the name of the construction fund and keep the money for future use.
The council agreed to endorse the second option with a $1 million property tax reduction, which would reduce the tax rate from the current $9.64 per $1,000 to $9.26. The owner of a house with a taxable valuation of $300,000 would pay $2,778.
“We agreed on an option and I think it’s the best option for good public policy and for the town,” Town Council President Virginia Lee said.
Council Vice President Deborah Carney said the $1 million tax reduction option would be the best one for the town.
“We did not get into an in-depth discussion on the other options, but in my opinion, by returning the $1 million, the taxpayers are realizing a savings, we are leaving the majority of the surplus that was going to be used for construction, we are setting that aside to let the people of Charlestown decide what to do with their money,” she said.
The council also agreed to commission a survey of taxpayers, which will be conducted by an independent firm. The funds for that initiative, $74,500, are being refunded to the town by the Federal Emergency Management Agency from expenses incurred during the powerful blizzard that struck the Northeast in early February 2013.
Nearly one third of the $3.1 million surplus, $900,000, is a result of the reduction in Charlestown's payment next year to the Chariho Regional School District.
However, Lee warned that the town’s share of the Chariho budget could very well rise in future years.
“We just don’t know, because we’ve got a lot of subdivisions going in and affordable housing,” she said. “It may actually be more, because we’ve been so careful to keep the taxes low, the fourth-lowest in the state, some people are moving in, because the schools are good and the taxes are low. They’re coming in from neighboring towns.”
Carney noted that an additional $250,000 had been built into the budget by the Budget Commission as a cushion in case the town’s Chariho enrollment were to increase.
“The budget that got voted down, the one that we’re going to be revisiting, there’s already $250,000 worked into that budget in case our enrollment goes up,” she said.
Many of the residents attending Monday’s meeting said they were growing weary of the budget discussion.
“This is just going to go on and on forever and ever,” Joe Quadrato said. “By the time you finish, it will be the end of the fiscal year.”
Grace Klinger was critical of the allocation of the surplus to the construction line item and wanted to be consulted on how those funds should be spent.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” she said. “That budget was great. That little stinker in there was not great … I stood at this very podium in March and asked that a survey be done and it was denied. So here we are, folks, so let's clean this up.”
In an effort to inform residents of the proposed changes, a summary of the revised budget will be included in the town’s Pipeline newsletter, and cards with budget summaries will be sent to residents in advance of the referendum vote. “The people spoke and were heard and we’re listening hard and moving forward in an open, transparent way,” Lee said. “The irony is, this is good news. What town wouldn’t be ecstatic to have a surplus.”
At the next council meeting on July 8, at Charlestown Elementary School, there will be a public hearing on the revised budget and the council is expected to adopt it.
“We will listen to public comment, and at that meeting we will make a decision on the budget to put forward on the ballot for another vote of the people of Charlestown,” Carney said.
A budget referendum, the date of which is yet to be determined, will follow.