HOPKINTON — In an all-day referendum Tuesday, voters rejected the town’s proposed $26.3 million budget by just four votes. The final count was 114 for the budget and 118 against.
Of the town’s 6,593 eligible voters, a total of 232 voters cast their ballots, a turn-out of 3.5 percent.
Adopted by the Town Council on May 15, the fiscal year 2020 spending plan was a 3 percent increase over the current budget and would have resulted in a property tax rate of $20.87 per $1,000 valuation, an increase of $0.80 per $1,000 of assessed value.
The proposed increase in the tax levy was $826,138 or 4.74 percent, which exceeded the state tax increase cap of 4 percent. The town had asked the Rhode Island Office of the Auditor General to allow the increase, and it was approved.
The increase is not the result of municipal spending but rather Hopkinton’s higher enrollment in the Chariho Regional School District. The town will pay about $600,000 more to Chariho. Compounding the issue is a decrease in state aid of $97,000.
The town will now continue to operate on the current year’s budget of $25.5 million. Using the current budget means that the property tax rate will be lower, $20.68 per $1,000. However, Town Council President Frank Landolfi said the town would now have to dip into its fund balance, or surplus, to be able to pay its higher Chariho contribution as well as contractual obligations to unionized town employees.
“It’s going to result in a lower tax rate but we have to take the money out of the fund balance to fund the expenses for this year going forward,” he said.
Voters looked more favorably on a separate ballot question. By a margin of 162 to 68, they authorized the town to earmark $51,000 in the off-site improvement fees restricted account. The funds will be used to remove dead and potentially dangerous trees throughout the town.
Like other southern Rhode Island towns, Hopkinton is faced with the problem of hundreds of oak trees that were killed over the past two years by gypsy moth defoliation.
The town has been grappling with a tight budget since its budget workshops began back in February. Each department’s expenses were carefully 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 town has set aside $135,000 in the capital improvement plan as a partial payment for the demolition of the 1904 school and voters have now approved the $51,000 for tree removal.
Landolfi said he did not expect to submit a revised budget to voters this year.
“It got defeated in ’06 or something like that,” he recalled. “I think we’re just going to revert to last year’s budget and I don’t think we’re going to have another one. What are we going to do? They turned it down. All we can do is try lower it, but essentially now, because it got defeated, it’s going to be lower anyway.”