WESTERLY — The Town Council's recommended combined general government and education budget for 2019-20 stands at $96.26 million. It will require a 3.77 percent increase in the tax levy.

The budget would require an 11.21 tax rate, down from the current rate of 11.88. The tax rate reduction is a result of anticipated growth in the Grand List stemming from a nearly completed revaluation. The Grand List is expected to jump from $5.8 billion to $6.2 billion.

The budget includes a $48.45 million allocation for education, $3.85 million in municipal capital project spending, and $562,193 in capital projects for the school district. The municipal capital project budget is unusually high because it includes $3 million toward the purchase of land on White Rock Road where a solar power project is to be developed. The $3 million will be repaid to the town by the developer selected to build and run the solar project.

Barbara Perino, director of finance and operations for the school district, told the Town Council on Thursday that she hoped to present a plan soon for reducing the department's capital request by using funds in the district's current capital budget as well as funds left over from projects in previous years. The presentation will also include a school district priority list.

The council removed $211,794 from the district's capital plan, the amount the district is seeking to upgrade technology wiring. The work is needed to facilitate a one-to-one distribution of laptop computers to freshman at Westerly High School and to address current technological deficiencies at the school.

But Perino said, "Let us prioritize instead of the council. The rewiring is needed to be competitive with other schools."

The council settled on the budget figures during a meeting sandwiched before and after a public hearing on the spending plan.

The council will conduct a second public hearing on the proposed budget on April 22.
Following the second hearing, the council will vote on the budget and file it with the Town Clerk, who must have the budget published within seven days. Voters then have eight days to review the budget. If voters present a petition signed by at least 3 percent of the town's qualified voters within the eight-day period, a referendum will be scheduled.

At the hearing on Thursday, the council heard from representatives of several social service agencies and other organizations that receive or requested subsidies or financial allocations.

Jon L. Peacock and Alana Rader, co-artistic directors of the Colonial Theatre  Education Program, thanked the council for allocating $5,000 for the organization's Shakespeare in the Park production, and provided a brief overview of their efforts that have reintroduced theater studies at Westerly High School.

Deb Tanner, executive director of Southern Rhode Island Volunteers, asked the council to consider reinstating a $2,500 allotment that was cut from the municipal budget two years ago. The organization assigns volunteers who provide rides for residents who need a way to get to medical appointments or to go grocery shopping. It also provides Meals on Wheels drivers and disaster preparedness training.

The council denied Tanner's request, deciding, for the most part, to level-fund current subsidy recipients. Councilors William Aiello and Suzanne Giorno voted against that decision. Aiello said he disagreed with the decision to fund New London-based theater group, Flock Theatre, for the first time when some social service agencies could have benefited from funding.

Giorno said he had hoped to increase funding for the Jonnycake Center of Westerly.

Mary Carol Kendzia, executive director of  Literacy Volunteers of Washington County, asked the council to consider the fate of the Tower Street School Community Center. The school department has moved most of its programing out of the center and is reducing funding for organizations that offer services there. The space has also been selected for use as a school during  construction on the proposed elementary school redesign project.

"I'd like to advocate for keeping the center at the foremost top of the agenda," Kendzia said.

During the Literacy Volunteers' time as a tenant of the center, Kendzia said she had witnessed "awe inspiring" programs there.

Town Manager J. Mark Rooney said he hopes to organize a meeting soon of various agencies that provide services for senior citizens. By working together, Rooney said, the groups might qualify for grant funding.


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