2017-06-08 / Front Page

Voters OK $23.7M budget for 2017-18

About 160 voters approve plan with 8-cent tax hike

State Rep. Deb Ruggiero chats with Lisa Bryer and Andy Wade after casting her paper ballot Monday during the financial town meeting. In the background, a voting line stretches the length of the Lawn School gymnasium. 
PHOTO BY TIM RIEL State Rep. Deb Ruggiero chats with Lisa Bryer and Andy Wade after casting her paper ballot Monday during the financial town meeting. In the background, a voting line stretches the length of the Lawn School gymnasium. PHOTO BY TIM RIEL It took one hour for residents to pass the 2017-18 budget of $23.72 million Monday night, although the lion’s share of that time was spent completing a paper ballot for the town’s $10.66 million portion.

The 162 registered voters defeated the motion to reject the spending plan, which was made by Republican Councilman Blake Dickinson. A round of applause echoed through the Lawn School gymnasium following the announcement of the tally, 113- 48.

Although the paper ballot provided some fanfare, the meeting was business as usual. The school budget and combined plan passed only with a handful of negative votes, Dickinson’s included. No amendments were offered.

The budget represents an uptick of nearly $580,000, which is 2.36 percent more than this year. The total tax levy is $19.23 million, a 2 percent increase, which stems from the town’s $2.28 billion net value of taxable property.

That is the number driving an 8-cent hike in the tax rate to $8.66 per $1,000 valuation. The combined capital plan, down 7.4 percent, is $1.23 million, which includes $1.12 million for town projects and $108,000 for the schools.

Council President Kristine Trocki laid out the town’s side, which accounts for roughly 53.4 percent of the total measure. Along with financial stability and a healthy surplus, she credited the residents for their commitment to environmental stewardship, historic recognition and agricultural pursuits.

“Preserving what is unique and beautiful about our community are all accomplishments that we have grown accustomed to,” she said.

Trocki also credited the voters for recognizing the importance of investing in their town, including the Mackerel Cove bathrooms, North Road repairs, the Fort Getty gatehouse and the expanded fire station.

“These are all achievements that our community should be proud of,” she said. “I know I am.”

B.J. Whitehouse, chairman of the school board, outlined the district’s $13.07 million measure, which is up from $12.8 million. That 2 percent increase, he said, primarily is due to tuition. With 23 students graduating high school, the town is budgeting to send 44 freshmen to North Kingstown and Narragansett in the fall, accounting for $165,000, which is nearly 75 percent of the increase.

During his presentation, Whitehouse praised the district’s administrators, teachers and parents who have helped the schools achieve remarkable results, both in test scores and in extracurricular endeavors. He said the taxpayers should be proud of the support they’ve provided.

“The school committee takes a hard look at the budget and would not ask you to increase the amount if it were not essential,” he said. “It’s essential for the education of our youth.”

While the budgets ultimately passed comfortably, the waters were muddied following a motion to approve the town’s appropriations. Dickinson, who voted against the measure during the council’s adoption in April, said the proposal essentially represented a $650,000 increase when increased revenues and state aid are factored into the equation. He said the plan was shrouded in “government speak” to mislead voters. “There is little control by the voters over the real property tax rate, which is hidden in the home evaluation component of this calculation,” he said. “This is no way to do budgeting and it is not transparent, to put it mildly.”

Before motioning for a paper ballot, Dickinson informed the audience that dissenting wouldn’t shut down municipal operations or the schools.

“Should voters reject this budget, last year’s town and school budget will prevail until a proposed budget is adopted,” he said. “In short, the town will continue to function as normal. Armageddon will not arrive and the sun will rise another day.”

Needing 32 votes for a paper ballot to advance (20 percent of the registered audience), Dickinson persuaded 34 taxpayers to stand. The ensuing vote, however, failed.

Finally, after the tax rate was set and three housekeeping resolutions were passed unanimously, Narragansett Avenue resident Katherine Maxwell spoke in opposition to a $550,000 bond referendum to repair the South Pond dam. Because utility users will be responsible for paying back the debt, she urged voters to reject the resolution unless all residents are responsible for the burden. “The South Pond is a town reservoir. It goes beyond drinking water,” she said. “Hard-pressed water and sewer customers should not continue to bear higher and higher prices.”

Maxwell’s push for rejection garnered support during the voice vote, but Town Moderator John Murphy determined a clear count in favor of the resolution. No hand or standing count ensued. The meeting was immediately adjourned following that approval.

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