WESTERLY — As the Board of Finance heads toward a budget recommendation for 2019-20 that carries a tax levy increase in the area of 2.81 percent, the board's chairman is calling for a close look at services provided by the town and how certain expenses are justified.
For instance, during a budget workshop Tuesday, the board's chairman, Kenneth J. Swain called for an analysis of the municipal Recreation Department. Many recreation programs for children in the town are offered by private organizations rather than by the town, Swain said.
"I would like to understand why the town of Westerly has a year-round parks of recreation director or department or however we want to look at this. Is it the appropriate service for the town?" Swain said.
Betsy Gleason, a member of the board, agreed that some services should be studied. "When you are reaching a point where you're leveling off on revenue and your expenses aren't, you've got to maybe make some decisions," she said.
Town Manager J. Mark Rooney agreed. "I think it's time I have to fully address that question," Rooney said, referring to the Recreation Department.
But Rooney went on to say that the discussion could change depending on what the Town Council decides to do to address aspects of a recreation facilities master plan developed by a consultant last year. A committee of Rooney, Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau, and members of the Town Council and School Committee was scheduled to meet this afternoon to discuss how to move forward with the plan and the cost of implementing the consultant's recommendations. Buying land for new fields or installing synthetic turf at one or more of the existing fields is one of the recommendations.
Recreation Director Paul Duffy's current salary is $70,590. The Recreation Department is also budgeted for a part-time program coordinator, and it hires several seasonal employees, including lifeguards and others who work at the town's two beaches.
During the finance board's budget workshops, which started last month, Swain also recommended analyzing staffing levels in the municipal assessor's office.
After the meeting on Tuesday, Swain, who is employed as tax assessor in Charlestown, said many towns use outside companies to perform work related to revaluation projects. "We have to look at are we saving money by having these employees, or is there a greater savings through contracting for those services" Swain said, adding that similar-sized towns use outside firms.
During a workshop on his budget, Garceau noted that the School Department has reduced personnel in recent years, and asked whether the town was taking the same types of "belt tightening" steps. Before the start of the current fiscal year the following reductions were made in the schools: 0.75 parent academy coordinator; 0.50 library specialist; one bus driver, one bus monitor, one custodian, 0.6 social worker, 0.10 special education teacher, a Westerly High School math teacher, a Grade 3 teacher at Dunn's Corners Elementary School (a fourth grade teacher was added at the school), a kindergarten teacher at State Street School, first-grade teacher at Springbrook School, a 0.8 technician in the district's technical education program, a data analyst, a full-time position in technical education, and a full-time position at the Tower Street School Community Center.
"The schools have made cuts. I think they are being responsible on their side. I want to make sure we're being equally responsible on the town side," Swain said Tuesday.
The finance board will continue its review of the proposed combined municipal and schools budget Thursday when it meets with the School Committee and Garceau at 6 p.m. in the town manager's conference room at Town Hall.
In February Rooney presented a $96.76 million proposed combined municipal and school budget for 2019-20. To present a balanced budget Rooney, reduced Garceau's budget request by about $1.2 million. Rooney has since restored the cut in deference to the Town Charter, which calls for the Town Council to make cuts to the school budget. The finance board serves in an advisory role to the council.
Rooney's original proposal would have required a 3.81 percent increase to the tax levy. On Tuesday, finance board members said they would aim for recommending a budget that results in just a 2.81 percent tax levy increase.