HOPKINTON — At the last in a series of budget workshops, Town Council members finished the fiscal 2020 budget that will be presented to voters during a budget referendum on May 7.
The $26.3 million spending plan will result in a property tax rate of $20.87 per $1,000 valuation, an increase of $0.80. With municipal spending level-funded, the rate is rising because the town's share of the Chariho school budget is going up by $600,000, and state aid is dropping by $97,000.
The proposed increase in the tax levy is $826,138 or 4.74 percent, which exceeds the state tax increase cap of 4 percent.
The town has asked the Rhode Island Office of the Auditor General to allow the increase. Finance Director Brian Rosso said Wednesday that he had not yet received an answer. “I spoke with the auditor general today and I was hoping to get confirmation from them and they said they’re willing to work with us,” he said.
If the town is not permitted to exceed the 4 percent cap, the money will come out of its fund balance, or surplus.
Councilors went through the remaining line items, including the conservation commission, which will receive an additional $1,000 for signs, bringing the commission’s budget to $4,500.
Over the objections of Councilor Scott Bill Hirst, the council voted to continue to leave the position of public welfare director unfunded.
The council also decided on funding for the ambulance services. Hope Valley Ambulance requested and was granted a $2,000 increase, bringing its annual funding from the town to $52,000.
“I think it’s a very well-run organization,” said council President Frank Landolfi. “I support them.”
The council was not as enthusiastic about funding Ashaway Ambulance. The town withheld funding last year, demanding administrative and policy changes, and restored the money only after the service submitted documents that had been requested, including a detailed financial plan.
Now it appears that the town has not received the required information for the past nine months. Town Manager William McGarry confirmed that he had not received the requested reports.
Landolfi said he was willing to level-fund the ambulance corps at $50,000, but he added that he was also prepared to withhold the money if the town did not receive the documents.
“I’m OK level-funding it, but … if they don’t come through with the agreed-upon conditions, we may have to suspend it until they do,” he said. “We’ve told them time and time again what these conditions are and what they have to supply.”
The council also had to decide how much to spend to deal with the problem of hundreds of oak trees that were killed by gypsy moth defoliation. The Department of Public Works has found 97 trees that pose an immediate hazard and should be removed as soon as possible. The estimated cost to remove each tree is $750, bringing the total cost of removing the so-called “emergency trees” to $72,000.
Hirst and councilor Sylvia Thompson said they favored borrowing the money to remove all the town's dead trees, which number about 1,000, but Landolfi said he was reluctant to borrow money in a tight budget year. In the end, the council agreed to take $72,750 from the fund balance and transfer it to the capital improvement plan to be used for emergency tree removal.
Landolfi said he felt better about the budget after the final workshop.
“I was discouraged at the beginning of these budget meetings but now that the tax rate’s come down three pennies from where we started, we get to tackle the tree problem that we had from the very beginning and we’ve gotten the conservation commission a little bit more money and the land trust a little bit more money. So I think we did some things municipally that I didn’t thing we were going to be able to do."