By Mark Schwager
The views expressed below are my own and are not an official communication from the Town Council or Town of East Greenwich.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge the ways we live and work in East Greenwich. Since March 16, the state of Rhode Island and the Town of East Greenwich have been under a state of emergency in order to protect the health and safety of our community from the coronavirus. Over the past four weeks we have faced not just the adverse health effects of coronavirus but also the economic earthquake that has shut large portions of our local economy and the emotional toll of being deprived of many of our family, social and religious connections.
It is likely that these challenges will continue in some form for many months and we will be required to continually adapt and adjust our lives in the short, intermediate and long term. One of the challenges facing town government in the short term is putting together our 2021 town budget, which must be adopted in June, and starts July 1, 2020. During this emergency the town needs to ensure that our budget funds the increased demands the pandemic places on first responders, public safety, and community services. We must also continue to support the ongoing operation of schools, the maintenance of our facilities, financial operations, information technology and access to records, permits and licenses. We are required to meet debt obligations for prior investments in our community.
There are simply too many unknowns surrounding COVID-19 to predict when a national and Rhode Island economic recovery will occur and what it will look like. Right now, East Greenwich does not have good information on the revenue we will receive from the state including state aid to education, school housing aid, the state PILOT program, motor vehicle phase-out revenues, and meals tax payments. It is possible that our property tax collections and fees for permits and licenses may decrease.
In putting together our 2021 budget the town will pursue lowering debt service by refinancing existing debt obligations, and saving on energy costs through energy aggregation contracts and street lighting programs. However, in the uncharted financial waters we are sailing, the town needs to discuss a variety of financial responses to a decrease in revenues. We may need to consider delaying some planned capital improvements and new staff positions, and using a portion of our reserve funds for one-time expenses. Some vacant staff positions may remain unfilled for now, and short-term employee furloughs are a last resort.
Town Manager Andrew Nota has delayed the deadline for adopting our budget until the end of June. This gives the town a solid two months to assess the public health and economic landscape before we have to make final decisions. The more information we have available, the better we can construct a budget which provides high quality, necessary town services, while understanding that many East Greenwich families and businesses are coping with an unprecedented economic downturn.
We are fortunate that our town has a tremendous spirit of resilience and community. The coming months, whatever their ups and downs, will bring us back to the path of recovery from the medical, emotional and economic setbacks we have experienced. At that time, the hard work and planning going on now by the Town Council and our town’s professional staff will allow us to pursue the enhanced town programs and services that may need to be delayed this year.
Mark Schwager is president of the East Greenwich Town Council.