No clear answers emerged from Wednesday night's public hearing, but one message was heard throughout -- No one wants to spend more than is necessary in Middletown.
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PUBLIC HEARING NO. 2 –
TOWN COUNCIL CONSIDERS CUTS TO
PROPOSED FISCAL 2022 BUDGET
MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (MAY 26, 2021) – The Town Council is looking long and hard at the town’s proposed $75.9 million budget for Fiscal 2022.
At the second public hearing Wednesday night from Town Hall, council members discussed some of the big-ticket items like pumper trucks for the Fire Department, vehicles for the Police Department and the potential consolidation of school and town finance and maintenance departments, among other issues.
No firm decisions emerged from the meeting, but it was clear from the questions and comments that some reductions might be on the way.
At the end of the session, council members agreed to sit down and discuss the budget again on Monday, June 7 at 6 p.m. from Town Hall.
“We just need to keep in mind that with all these requests, our taxpayers are coming off COVID too…” said council President Paul M. Rodrigues, keeping a consistent theme of “What’s nice to have vs. what’s necessary” throughout. “I know things change and I get it, but what I see changing is a lot of dollars that maybe taxpayers can’t afford.”
“Some catch up is necessary and we need to meet the service needs if it’s necessary,” Councilwoman Terri Flynn said. “I don’t want to raise taxes any more than we have to. I definitely know the council as a whole believes that.”
Going into this budget, town and education officials acknowledged this would be a difficult season emerging out of COVID-19, the economic difficulties facing many residents and businesspeople, no tax increase for four years and other realities.
According to figures from the town, the proposed residential tax rate is now expected to be $12.35 per $1,000 of assessed property value if the proposed budget is okayed as is. On the commercial side, the proposed tax rate is expected to be $17.40 per $1,000 of assessed value.
That means a home assessed at the median in town of $430,000 could expect to pay $5,310 in taxes in Fiscal 2022, about a $125 increase from the current bill. For a median commercial property valued at $805,000, the tax bill was projected to be $14,007, about a $970 increase.
On the sewer front, the new sewer rate is expected to be $16.89 per 1,000 gallons of use, or an 11-cent increase. The inflow and infiltration charge is expected was to be $13.71 with the customer service charge of $38.57. All told, the average single-family user was expected to pay $821.19 in Fiscal 2022, or close to $50 more than the current bill.
Numbers from the town showed 1 percent in the budget equals about $170,000 in spending, revenues or a mix of both.
Early in the hearing, several council members revisited the idea of trying to save money through consolidation of town and school departments – primarily finance and maintenance duties.
Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown said he was aware of the council’s interest in the consolidation, but there were several pitfalls the community should be aware of. For one, Brown said based on his research, no similar consolidation has worked in Rhode Island, minus one arrangement in Newport with the city and school finance offices.
Brown also warned there was a lot of messiness expected from combining labor contracts, something that could be contested by employee unions. Among other issues, Brown said it was unclear whether the town would be able to recoup money expected to be saved by the move from the schools, something that needs clarification from the state Department of Education.
Council members said no matter the work and time, they’d like to see Brown pursue the effort and dig deep to make it a reality, something he pledged to work on more in coming weeks now that the threat of COVID-19 has waned.
“If anyone can do it, it’s you and your staff,” Rodrigues said.
After talk about the tax rate, a discussion about a proposal for two new pumpers totaling $1.2 million was next. Brown the current pumpers were nearing the end of their useful life. He said if the council okays the vehicles, they wouldn’t cost property owners any new taxes because dedicated funding from the town’s Rescue Wagon Fund would be used to cover the purchases.
Police Chief William Kewer spoke about need from the Police Department for three new marked vehicles and one new administrative vehicle. He said because the town held off on purchasing replacement vehicles due to COVID-19, but the time had come to replace the older cars in the police fleet. Like the pumper trucks for the Fire Department, money from the Rescue Wagon Fund would cover the cost of the new police cars, again at no new taxes for property owners.
Kewer was asked about a proposal to bring in public safety interns, a first-time service intended to cut down on quality-of-life issues in town. Kewer said communities like Jamestown, Narragansett and Westerly have had success with such programs to assist police officers.
In response, some applauded the interns to help improve quality of life during the busy summer months, but others said $41,000 was a lot of money to spend for a program that might not yield tangible results.
A conversation about the addition of full-time employees to the Building and Public Works departments happened before things moved into a proposal from Councilman Dennis Turano about funding a new department to assist area youth as they moved into the “real world.”
As part of his plan, Turano asked for $95,000 in funding to get the department rolling, with Councilwoman Barbara A. VonVillas offering a counterplan that would put the Middletown school’s Assistant Superintendent Michelle Fonseca in charge.
During a lengthy chat, local leaders and educators agreed they wanted to do more for students – and adults – who needed extra assistance. But how that would be accomplished was not finalized.
“As I’m listening to everybody, it sounds like everyone wants to do the right thing and something that works,” Rodrigues said.
The entire proposed budget is available at https://mdl.town/FY2022ProposedBudget online. Check out a high-level overview at https://mdl.town/HighLevel from town administrator Brown.
Those documents and more about the proposed budget are available at “Middletown Shares” online. This includes about a dozen videos where department heads explain their proposed budgets and the necessity of those expenses. That site is accessible via the main page of the town’s website at MiddletownRI.com or by visiting https://mdl.town/Shares directly.