2014-06-05 / Front Page

Voters unanimously adopt $22.66M spending plan for FY15

Taxpayers also OK fund for affordable housing
By Margo Sullivan

From right, Council President Kristine Trocki explains the proposed budget to voters at Monday’s financial town meeting as Councilor Blake Dickinson, Councilor Gene Mihaly and Town Administrator Andy Nota listen. 
Photo by Andrea von Hohenleiten From right, Council President Kristine Trocki explains the proposed budget to voters at Monday’s financial town meeting as Councilor Blake Dickinson, Councilor Gene Mihaly and Town Administrator Andy Nota listen. Photo by Andrea von Hohenleiten In a mere 27 minutes Monday night, voters at the financial town meeting dispatched the agenda, approving the $22.66 million spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year that will begin on July 1.

According to Canvassing Clerk Karen Montoya, 145 registered voters participated.

After approving the municipal and school budgets for a combined $22,658,804, voters supported a $400,000 revolving fund for affordable housing, which included a last-minute amendment, and approved four housekeeping resolutions. The resolutions authorized the town to assess the frontage tax rate for sewer lines at no higher than 68 cents per linear foot; to borrow up to $1 million in anticipation of taxes; to deposit all collected back taxes into the general fund; and to set the property tax rate at $8.75 per $1,000 valuation.

According to Council President Kristine Trocki, the tax rate of $14.42 per $1,000 on motor vehicles will also remain the same, meaning residents will not see any tax increases in fiscal year 2015.

Moderator John Murphy gaveled the meeting to order at 7:01 p.m. and explained the rules before calling on Trocki to explain the budget.

According to Trocki, the coun- cilors were presenting the voters with “a budget that we hope will improve the quality of life.” In advance of the meeting, the town administration held numerous discussions with department heads to assess their budget needs, and the council held five public workshops “to discuss and review the proposed budget recommendations.”

“I’m proud to say this will be the second year residents can anticipate zero tax increase,” Trocki said.

Although the state economy has struggled, Trocki continued, town revenues increased, creating an opportunity in the upcoming budget cycle to address “community priorities and initiatives.” Among them, she said, were advanced life support for the fire department and additional road improvements.

Trocki said ALS will be phased in over two fiscal years. The upgrade will allow emergency workers to perform “quicker and more responsive care,” and will also give the town the option to transport serious cases to Rhode Island Hospital.

As for capital improvements, which will increase by $155,000 over the current year’s expenditures, $425,000 for road paving is included, along with the “next phase of Fort Getty improvements.”

Moreover, money was set aside to complete architectural studies for renovations to the Narragansett Avenue fire station. Also covered are two public works projects for repairs on Bay View and North Bay View avenues.

Trocki thanked Town Administrator Andy Nota, Finance Director Tina Collins and School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser for helping to develop the budget, which recommends $10,283,286 for municipal spending and $12,375,286 for the schools.

Then Murphy called on Kaiser, who addressed some concerns about funding retirees. In past years, she said, school officials made a deal to provide teachers with lifetime health benefits in exchange for no salary increases. At the time, the economics made sense, Kaiser said, but since then, health costs have climbed. Facing a looming liability, the school department opted to start making annual contributions toward its retirement obligations. This year, the School Committee paid the annual contribution from its surplus instead of using money from the municipal side. She could not promise the same thing would occur next year.

Murphy then accepted a motion to approve the municipal budget first, followed by the school expenditures and then the combined spending plan. All the budget votes occurred without any discussion and without any opposition.

“That’s what I call good government,” Murphy said.

The four housekeeping resolutions also sailed through. When the affordable housing resolution was introduced, B.J. Whitehouse asked if striking the word “grant” was the only change from the original. His question was the only discussion.

The resolution passed overwhelmingly, but with some opposition.

The meeting adjourned at 7:29 p.m.

Regarding the affordable housing resolution, the councilors held a meeting at Town Hall two hours prior to the financial town meeting, which has held at Lawn School. They discussed concerns with the warrant article, including Councilor Blake Dickinson’s issue with the wording that authorized the councilors to award grants using the money. Dickinson wanted to limit the use of the $400,000 to a revolving loan fund, he explained.

Loans, Dickinson said, would ultimately have to be repaid, while grants would not. Furthermore, he added, the town already has an affordable housing fund that allocates $75,000 annually. The money is unrestricted and could be used for grants, he said.

Dickinson said he went to Nota and Collins to discuss removing the word “grant” from Resolution 5. Trocki said the councilors had discussed his concerns earlier but voted to include the language.

“We can’t vote on it tonight,” she said.

While the councilors couldn’t vote at their council meeting, Trocki said they could amend the resolution at the financial town meeting and the voters could vote it up or down. Councilor Mary Meagher, who originally proposed the $400,000 revolving fund, said she would second the amendment.

Although the bond counsel wrote “a comprehensive and broad” resolution, Meagher said, she understood that the wording about grants could be seen as “an open-ended checkbook.” That was not the intention, she said.

“I am completely in agreement,” Councilor Eugene Mihaly said, adding that he would like to see the word “revolving” added to the first paragraph. However, Murphy cautioned against doing so because “revolving fund is a term of art,” he said, and it might have a different interpretation under state law than the councilors intended.

Trocki agreed.

“I share that concern,” she said.

Summing up, Trocki said “the fund is intended to be paid back.” She called the plan a “win-win situation for everyone involved.” Ideally, it will allow teachers, firefighters and the elderly to live in town.

“We want as much diversity on the island as possible,” she said.

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