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. But now, as we approach Memorial Day and the symbolic start of summer, there is cautious optimism as East Greenwich begins to reopen and commerce slowly resumes. The town has temporarily suspended some zoning and parking regulations to allow retail businesses and restaurants to operate in outdoor areas including sidewalks, parking areas, and tents. State parks are now open and houses of worship are able to resume services the end of the month, with social distancing efforts in place. Salons and barber shops should be back in business in early June.
And in town government, when June rolls around, the town council is focused on the town budget. The town’s 2021 budget begins on July 1, and the council must sign off on this budget by June 24. It looks to be a very tough year.
The State of Rhode Island is predicting a total revenue shortfall this year and next of approximately $800 million. When state revenues decline, East Greenwich may see downstream reductions in our state funding for education and municipal support. The town will also likely have losses in local revenue from meals taxes, license and permit fees and other revenue sources. The pandemic has triggered escalating local costs devoted to pandemic relief such as personal protective equipment, emergency services and additional personnel time.
Our challenge this year is to both maintain current town services and keep property taxes at a minimum to avoid adding to the economic hardships faced by many in our community. Achieving this goal, while facing likely state and local revenue reductions and the increased expenses associated with the pandemic response, will force some difficult decisions.
On the town side, we will need to delay some planned capital improvements, leave several staff positions vacant, and use a portion of our emergency funds. The school budget will likewise be impacted by the fiscal constraints facing our town.
The town manager’s preliminary budget was completed May 15, and is available on line at https://bit.ly/2zRAWHe. The manager’s budget has proposed an increase in the residential tax rate of 0.35%. For an East Greenwich taxpayer living in a home at the town’s average value of $455,000 this will result in a tax increase of $36.40. The budget includes a 1.79 percent increase in school funding. This preliminary budget will be reviewed at several public hearings and will be subject to change before final adoption on June 24. Our final budget must hold the line on taxes and preserve government services until we can rely on increased revenues and better control of our expenses to begin implementing some of the goals and objectives the Town Council envisioned prior to the declaration of emergency.
Please review the manager’s budget and submit your questions to our Town Manager, Andrew Nota at [email protected]. Questions, with a response from the town, will be posted on the town website and presented publicly at upcoming budget hearings. Our next budget meeting is a remote joint session with the School Committee on May 26 at 7 p.m. on Zoom. You can view and participate in this meeting at https://bit.ly/2TmpTwG.
Mark Schwager is president of the East Greenwich Town Council
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