WESTERLY — The Town Council cut the proposed education budget by $1.32 million this week, exceeding cuts recommended by both the Board of Finance and Town Manager J. Mark Rooney. The council also eliminated the School Committee's request for $211,794 in the annual capital project budget — funds that had been earmarked to upgrade computer wiring needed to implement a one-to-one laptop distribution at Westerly High School.
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 on Monday night reduced it by $1,325,000. The Board of Finance had recommended a $1 million cut while Rooney had asked for a $1.2 million cut.
On Tuesday the council also cut the $211,794 capital improvement request. School officials had said the wiring and Wi-Fi work was necessary if the high school is to successfully implement a program that would have provided every high school freshman with a Chromebook at the start of the school year.
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. said he believed the School Committee could pay for the upgrade using money in its fund balance or surplus account. Cooke called the School Committee and Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau's original budget request "reckless and irresponsible."
When some councilors, including Councilor Brian McCuin, suggested making additional cuts to the School Committee's capital request, tempers flared and McCuin accused opponents of acting politically. "You're trying to get reelected," he said.
Council President Christopher Duhamel responded by saying that the council had previously committed to ensuring that school and town facilities are adequately funded to allow for maintenance. He also questioned whether the proponents of further cuts had factual knowledge of the school administration's plans for funds in the current capital improvement budget.
"It's not for reelection, it's having some integrity. I don't know that any of this is verified. You sit around the table with the School Committee and you promise to do maintenance and to work together and now you guys just want to cut this down to nothing?" Duhamel said.
As council members worked on other parts of the budget, Rooney informed them that $226,000 would be needed to cover anticipated shortfalls at the animal shelter in 2019-20, and $133,000 for the transfer station. Both facilities are being run as enterprise funds that are supposed to break even by charging fees for services. Rooney and most of the members of the current council have said the facilities should not be designated as enterprise funds.
Rooney also informed the council that the town would have to come up with about $600,000 to fulfill a match required as part of a $1.8 million federal grant approved for dredging Winnapaug Pond. Rooney suggested that the council use most of the $650,000 it had restored for annual road and sidewalk work.
The council voted to give $5,000 to the Colonial Theatre for its Shakespeare in the Park production, reconsidering its earlier vote not to fund the group. The council is also allotting $5,000 to Flock Theatre, a New London-based group, for productions in the park.
Rooney has proposed a $41,012,042 municipal budget, a $6.65 million increase from the current budget. The overall increase is deceiving because it includes $3 million that will be repaid to the town as part of a solar power project being developed on White Rock Road.
The first of at least two public hearings on the proposed general government and education budgets is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday in Council Chambers at Town Hall.