HOPKINTON — Members of the Town Council, assisted by Town Manager William McGarry and Finance Director Brian Rosso, held the second in a series of budget workshops Monday.
Several departments were examined, including public works, recreation, tax assessment, tax collection, municipal court and the capital improvement plan. In addition to those departments, two pressing issues came up again and again: the demolition of the vacant 1904 elementary school building and the problem of dead trees and whether to allocate funds to deal with them.
The $26.3 million 2020 spending plan is a 3 percent increase over the current budget of $25.5 million. Hopkinton officials attribute the increase to a corresponding 3 percent jump in the town’s contribution to the Chariho schools budget, which is rising from $18.7 million to $19.3 million, an additional $605,227. Combined with a decrease in state aid for education of $97,000, that hike has resulted in a shortfall of $702,000 and will in turn necessitate an increase in the tax rate of $0.83 per $1,000 valuation. The property tax rate, which is currently $20.07 per $1,000 will be $20.90.
The proposed tax increase of $0.83, or 4.9 percent, surpasses the 4 percent tax increase cap set by the state, and the town has made a request to the Rhode Island Auditor General to allow the additional increase.
The town is also facing the prospect of finding a way to pay for the removals of hundreds of dead trees on town property. After two years of severe gypsy moth defoliation, there are about about 1,000 dead trees that need to be removed and only $1,500 in the public works tree line item.
Councilor Sylvia Thompson described the problem as an emergency.
“I don’t see how we can’t find a way to do it. We have to find a way to do it, because it is an emergency.”
Thompson suggested working with the finance department to get a loan to fund the removal of all the town’s dead trees, or take some of the money from the capital improvement plan that has been set aside for the demolition of the 1904 building.
“I think that we have to deal with it and I would prefer to get a recommendation from finance, if they could think about it and make a recommendation to us,” she said. “Also, look at the CIP. I know we promised we were going to take down the 1904 building, but if I had to make a choice this year between 1904 and trees, it would definitely be trees — but we could still leave an amount in for the 1904 [building].”
Town Council President Frank Landolfi said that in light of the town’s tight budget, borrowing would be out of the question.
“I’m just not of the opinion to borrow $300,000, $500,000 extra because we have a tree issue,” he said. “We’re going to have to try and figure something else out … It’s definitely a long term discussion, but I can’t add any more to this budget. It’s irresponsible, given the current state of the budget.”
Councilor Barbara Capalbo agreed with Landolfi and Councilor Sharon Davis sided with Thompson.
“What we will do is ask the DPW how many of the 1,000 trees needing to come down are of an emergency nature,” Landolfi said. “Then we can attempt to quantify what the potential cost will be to perhaps start saving through a new capital improvement project.”
The council also discussed at length the issue of the 1904 Ashaway school building which the town was planning to demolish this summer. Now, it appears that the cost of razing the large structure, which will likely include asbestos and other remediation, has gone from $180,000 to between $300,000 and $400,000. The town had set aside $135,000 in the capital improvement budget.
Landolfi said he had spoken with Ashaway School Principal Jeffrey Scanapieco and told him that the demolition could not take place as planned.
“I don’t think we can conceivably knock this building down, add another $150,000 to that quote that we have there,” Landolfi said. “I told him that we were hopefully at a point where we would just delay it another year, and he understood.”
Landolfi suggested leaving the $135,000 in the capital improvement budget for when the demolition eventually gets underway.