WESTERLY — The Town Council approved a $96.2 million combined general government and education budget for 2019-20 Monday, declining school officials’ request to restore funding the council had previously cut.
The budget allocates $48.45 million in local tax funds for education, $3.85 million in municipal capital-project spending, and $562,193 in capital projects for the school district. The current budget includes $47.54 million as the local allocation.
The combined budget requires a 3.77 percent increase in the property tax levy, which by state law cannot go up by more than 4 percent in any given year without special permission from the state.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau and the School Committee had proposed a $60,437,244 budget, a $2.45 million increase from the current $57,983,040 spending plan, but the council reduced it by $1,325,000. The difference between the local allocation for the education budget and the higher figure represents state and federal aid.
On Monday Garceau, School Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiaradio Bowdy and Barbara Perino, the school district’s director of finance and operations, asked the council to allocate an additional $328,986 to bring the budget back to the amount recommended by the Board of Finance. Without the additional funds, Garceau said the district will likely have to lay off teachers and other staff members above the 10 paraprofessionals that had already been identified for layoffs as a cost-savings measure to accommodate the Board of Finance’s recommended budget.
Prior to the council’s hearing on the budget, the School Committee met Monday and voted unanimously to endorse Perino’s plan to reduce the school district’s 2020 capital project request by $328,986 by instead using unused capital funds from previous years and moving some of the project’s to the proposed school redesign bond. The $328,986 would then be moved into the district’s operating budget for 2019-20.
“We’re in a bit of a desperate situation here. We’re trying, through the reappropriation of unused capital funds to make up that gap ... otherwise I have no idea where we’re going to get that money,” Garceau said.
Chiaradio Bowdy said the budget deliberations conducted by the School Committee, the Board of Finance and the Town Council as well as needs identified in the municipal recreation facilities master plan pointed to problems that have “been mounting for years and we haven’t done anything about it.”
Council member Caswell Cooke Jr. questioned why education budgets continue to increase despite reductions in both staffing and student enrollment. “At some point you have to hit a tipping point ... I know you reduced staff last year but don’t see how you can keep going up. And it’s not a cut ... you’re getting more than last year,” Cooke said.
Council President Christopher Duhamel reviewed highlights of the budget, including that it is based on projected 97.9 percent real estate tax collection rate, lower than the rate used by councils in recent years. The lower rate allows for flexibility in case revenue projections are off, Duhamel said. The lower expected rate also frequently leads to budget surpluses at the end of the year, Councilor Brian McCuin noted.
According to Duhamel, other highlights include the council declined to fund a proposed grant writer position and increased the percentage of municipal staff salaries paid for by the water and sewer departments. The budget also includes funds to make a recreation program coordinator full time from the position’s current part-time status.
Councilor William Aiello voted against the budget, saying the tax-levy increase could have been lowered by using a different projected tax-collection rate and by defunding the annual road and sidewalk maintenance line items in a year when the approved road bond will pay for extensive road work.
Duhamel, Cooke, McCuin, and Councilors Sharon Ahern and Suzanne Giorno voted in favor of the budget. Councilor Karen Cioffi was absent.