WESTERLY — The Town Council will start its deliberations on the proposed 2021-22 combined town and education budget Saturday morning at 10.
The Board of Finance on Monday presented the council with a recommended $95 million consolidated budget, an increase of 1.63% over the current budget of $93.5 million. The proposed budget would require a 2.54% tax increase.
The proposed budget is composed of $25.3 million for general government; $56.7 million in local tax dollars for education; $1.1 million for restricted accounts and municipal capital projects; $1.6 million for school capital projects; $4.2 million for municipal debt; and $6 million for schools debt.
Town Manager J. Mark Rooney submitted a $100,614,734 proposed budget to the finance board that included a $4.8 million deficit. While Rooney expected the board to reduce the proposed budget and he provided ideas on how to do so, he also hoped the board would approve a slightly higher budget figure. Rooney's preference was a budget that would have required a 3.5% to 3.75% tax increase. He said the bigger budget was necessary to reverse a long trend of deferring spending on maintenance of roads, utilities, and facilities.
The finance board reduced Rooney's budget and recommended a modified level-funding approach for the schools. The recommended appropriation of local taxes is $220,000 more than the current local appropriation. The increase anticipates a reduction in state aid for local schools.
In a letter to the Town Council, Stephen Lynner, Board of Finance chairman, said the board's school-funding decision was based on its belief that the state planned to reduce aid for local schools because of declines in enrollment. The letter notes overall enrollment decreases, as well as some students deciding to attend other public high schools.
"We do not pretend to understand the state's algorithm; however what it said to us was that the state viewed financial need to be a function of 'bodies in Westerly Public Schools seats.' ... We believe, by its actions, the state is projecting the amount of resources required to serve the prescribed community is less than that which was required in the prior year," Lynner wrote in his letter.
The board also pointed to the potential for the town and school department to qualify for federal funds under the American Rescue Plan, President Biden's COVID-19 relief package. Specifically, the board noted the school department's five-year capital plan calls for spending about $4.8 million on heating, ventilation and air conditioning work at six school facilities.
"We hope the school and town will vigorously pursue such funding both to provide the student and staff population with a cleaner environment and afford the town an opportunity to redirect funds on such projects to other pressing needs," Lynner wrote.
Councilors thanked the finance board for its work. Councilor Karen Cioffi asked if the board had discussed the possibility of the school department using its surplus or fund balance to offset the reduction proposed by the finance board. The board did not discuss the school department's surplus in the context suggested by Cioffi, but at least one finance board member noted, during the board's deliberations, that both the town and the school department completed the previous fiscal year with surpluses.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau, in a memorandum to the finance board that accompanied the board's budget transmission to the council, asked the board to reconsider its funding recommendation.
"We respectfully request that the finance board reconsider its decision to level-fund the district for a second consecutive year and that short of this, the Town Council does not accept this recommendation and instead gives consideration to working with the district to reach a balanced approach to adequately and appropriately funding the district's operating budget request," Garceau wrote in his memorandum.
Garceau had requested a $59.39 million budget, an increase of 2.32%. The budget proposed a 3.32% increase in the local appropriation to offset the decrease in state aid and a drop in tuition into the district caused by one student moving and another graduating.
In his memorandum, Garceau said that enrollment declines do not translate to direct savings or reductions to teaching staff levels. He also discussed the school district's fund balance of $5.37 million, of which he said $3.1 million is unassigned. The fund balance is $204,877 over the School Committee's policy of capping the surplus at 5% of the school department's operating budget.
Finance board members said they would have preferred more time to review the budgets. The board started its review on March 16 and completed it on April 1 in order to get the budget to the council by the first Monday in April, as required by the Town Charter. The board's deliberations have been significantly compressed since 2020, the first year that new deadlines for the superintendent of schools and town manager to submit their budgets went into effect.
Prior to the change, which was approved by voters as part of a revision to the Town Charter, the finance board commonly undertook a line-by-line review of the budgets and met with both school and town department leaders. The change caused long-time board member Kenneth Swain to resign from the board.
"I think that we would have found it helpful if we had at least one or two more sessions to dive into detail more thoroughly. Ours was a top-level review, it wasn’t a very deep review," Lynner said.
Other board members echoed Lynner's comments.
The council's meeting can be viewed at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86559876310. The council will conduct deliberations on the budgets and schedule two public hearings on them. The final hearing must occur no later than the fourth Wednesday in April.
The finance board advises the Town Council, which can accept the board's recommendations or make its own changes to the municipal budget and the amount of the local appropriation to the school department.