WESTERLY — The Board of Finance voted unanimously Thursday to approve a $95,170,690 proposed municipal and schools budget for 2020-21.
The board's vote followed quick public hearings on both the municipal budget and the education budget. The meeting was broadcast live via Zoom, an online platform that allows for remote public participation. There were no comments on either budget.
The current combined municipal and schools budget is $96.27 million but it includes $3 million for a proposed land purchase that is to be paid back to the town as part of a public-private solar project that is under development. Excluding the land purchase, the current combined budget is $93.27 million.
Town Manager J. Mark Rooney submitted a $96.19 million combined municipal and education budget for 2020-21. It would have required a 5% tax levy increase, one percentage point over the cap imposed by state law.
The budget approved by the finance board would require a 3.75% increase in the tax levy. The spending plan would allocate $49.55 million of local tax dollars to the schools, up from the current $48.45 million allocation. The overall finance board-approved 2020-21 schools budget is $57.85 million, a figure that includes anticipated state and federal funds. Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau and the School Committee requested a $50.12 million allocation of local tax dollars for 2020-21.The board's budget reduced the School Committee's request by $570,000 and the town's by $280,000.
The finance board's approved 2020-21 budget also includes $826,000 in spending on capital projects for the School Department, up from $582,493, and $668,500 in capital projects for the town, down from the current $851,000.
Changes to the Town Charter, which shifted deadlines for budget submissions and cancellations due to the coronavirus, resulted in the Board of Finance conducting just two meetings on the budget aside from the public hearings Thursday. The budgets do not reflect anticipated reduced revenues resulting from the virus and its effects on the economy.
The board decided to recommend a budget that required a 3.75% tax-levy increase, since the Town Council approved a similar increase for the current budget, said Kenneth Swain, Board of Finance chairman.
"A major issue this year for the board was the reduced number of meetings, so we couldn't go through the budget line by line. The board agreed a 3.75% increase was reasonable based on the Town Council's increase last year," Swain said during an interview following the board's meeting on Thursday.
The virus prevented the board from meeting with Garceau and the School Committee, but Swain said he discussed the budget with Christine Cooke, School Committee chairwoman.
The Town Council, Swain said, will have to develop a budget that considers the effects of the virus on revenue to the town. Significant reductions in funds the town receives from the hotel and meal-and-beverage taxes are expected.
In the future, Swain said he hoped the finance board could meet with the Town Council and the School Committee prior to their respective proposed budgets being submitted to the board to give it an understanding of the two bodies' mindset and goals.
The Town Council is set to begin its deliberations on the proposed 2020-21 budget during a meeting scheduled for Monday at 6 p.m. in Council Chambers at Town Hall. The meeting will stream live on the municipal website at https://clerkshq.com/westerly-ri.
The public can participate in the Council's meeting by using the Zoom platform and the following telephone numbers: 1-929-205-6099, 1-877-853-5257, and 1-888-475-4499. The meeting identification number is: 363 004 676. The public can also submit written comments to the Town Council prior to the meeting by sending an e-mail to email@example.com.