standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — The Town Council will conduct a public hearing Wednesday on its proposed $95 million combined municipal and school budget for 2021-22. 

The proposed budget, which will be presented during a hearing scheduled for 5:30 p.m., would increase local funding for education by $600,000 and includes money for a new municipal grant writer as well as body cameras for police officers.

The council finalized the budget Saturday after completing the second of two lengthy workshops that reviewed proposals submitted by Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau and Town Manager J. Mark Rooney, as well as considering recommendations from the Board of Finance.

The combined proposal represents a 1.63% increase in spending over the current year and would require a 2.52% increase in tax liability. The tax rate would increase from 11.31 to 11.51, according to preliminary estimates by Finance Director Dyann Baker.

Those wishing to comment on the budget or watch the hearing can do so by visiting https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83822390363 or calling 929-205-6099 or 877-853-5257. The meeting identification number is 838 2239 0363.

The budget proposed by the Town Council includes the same amount of fundin as that proposed by the Board of Finance, but council members made changes to how funds would be allocated. One of the most notable changes involves the proposed allocation of local tax dollars for schools.

The Board of Finance recommended increasing the current allocation of $56.7 million by just $200,000 to reflect an anticipated reduction in state assistance for education. The Town Council, by reducing Garceau's capital project request by $600,000 instead, is proposing a local appropriation of the same amount.

The council agreed to reduce the capital request after Council President Sharon Ahern and Rooney said they were both confident the town and school department would receive COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government that could be used for the now not budgeted capital projects.

The council spent the bulk of the workshop on Saturday reviewing the budget that was submitted by Garceau and approved unanimously by the School Committee. Garceau proposed a $59.39 million budget, an overall increase of 2.32% from the current schools budget and a $1.6 million or 3.32% increase in the local allocation.

Maintenance, declining enrollment, and per pupil spending were all touched on by members of the council. Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. said he believed Garceau had succeeded in getting the schools well maintained and while he proposed the increase in the local allocation Cooke also asked when school budgets would reflect declines in student enrollment.

"At what number does the equation change ... at what point does the budget adjust with the declining population?" Cooke asked.

Council President Sharon Ahern said she would support Cooke's motion on funding the school budget, but said her support was contingent on school officials agreeing the town would discuss whether the current maintenance of effort requirement is appropriate for guiding the local education budget in light of enrollment declines.

According to Section 16-7-23 of the state's Foundation Level School Support law, "each community shall contribute local funds to its school committee in an amount not less than its local contribution for schools in the previous fiscal year." The budget provision also states that "a community that has a decrease in enrollment may compute maintenance of effort on a per-pupil rather than on an aggregate basis when determining its local contribution."

Councilors said they had received several letters from teachers and parents expressing concern about the education budget proposed by the Board of Finance.

The council, on Saturday, also agreed to eliminate a code enforcement position from the municipal budget.

The council is required to conduct at least two public hearings on the proposed budget. The second hearing has not yet been scheduled.

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