The Town Council voted 5-0 to approve a $59.8 million budget Monday night. It now goes before voters at the annual Financial Town Meeting June 10, but if recent history is any guide, this will be the town’s budget for fiscal year 2015 (which starts July 1). That’s because by town charter at least 250 registered East Greenwich voters must attend the meeting for any vote to be taken and a quorum has not been reached in eight years.
The budget brings the tax rate to $23.29 per $1,000 assessed property value. For someone with a house assessed at $400,000, that comes to a property tax bill of $9,318, an increase of $158 over this year. While it is an increase, it is the lowest increase in five years.
The budget is split, with $22.4 million going to the town and $37.4 million going to schools.
“This year we saw a real opportunity for having a lower increase than in prior years,” said Town Council President Michael Isaacs on Tuesday. “Given the impact of the recession on residents, we thought this was the right course to pursue.”
The council spent the past few weeks fine-tuning the budget proposed by Town Manager Tom Coyle in March and shaving it slightly. The budget approved Monday is $44,358 lower than Coyle’s original budget.
Among the tweaks were a $5,000 reduction in IT hardware maintenance, $14,558 in human services staff pay, $3,000 in fire department office supplies, $13,000 in fire department rescue billing fees, and a total of $4,300 in the board of canvassers budget.
Also cut from the budget was $4,500 in repair costs for the basketball courts at Academy Field but that money will be made up through a grant from the state.
A few requests for additional spending were denied Monday, including $9,000 in the Dept. of Public Works auto parts budget line, which prompted a debate over the size of government. DPW Director Joe Duarte said his budget was drawn up back in October and since then he’d seen an increase in the number of repairs to town vehicles, prompting the request for the increase. Councilor Brad Bishop made a motion in favor of adding the $9,000.
“We have challenged this manager’s decisions at point after point after point,” Bishop said. “When do we, the smart people sitting on the dias here, let him do his job?”
“Wouldn’t everything in the world run better if we spent more money? Every year [the budget] gets a little bigger,” countered Councilman Jeff Cianciolo. He went on to argue the town should “keep it tight,” suggesting that East Greenwich be an island of solvency in the sea of Rhode Island debt.
The motion failed, 3-2.
Bishop then made a motion, which was seconded, to give the new Historic Cemetery Advisory Commission a $500 line item in the budget. His motion the previous week to give the HCAC $5,000 failed to get a second.
Isaacs reiterated what he’d said at the earlier meeting, that the town was already helping the commission by providing in-kind services, including help from the Planning Department and DPW.
Gee said he and his children had volunteered to clean up the cemeteries and he didn’t think the commission needed a budget, but should rely on volunteers. Cianciolo said there were many groups in town doing good works that were supported by their “natural constituencies,” such as groups benefiting the schools or sports, and that the commission should rely on its own such natural constituency.
Commission member Gene Dumas said he understood asking for $5,000 had been too much, but that expenses such as fees to get rid of old tires and woods have already totaled $168.
“We don’t need a lot,” he said. “I can’t go to Benny’s and Ace every month asking for donations of brown paper bags. I need some fuel. It doesn’t take much.”
“I prefer to do it through this year’s budget through in-kind services,” said Isaacs. Next year, he said, money for the commission could be allocated to the Planning Department, which manages the board.
The vote failed, 3-2, with Bishop and Councilman Mike Kiernan casting the two “yay” votes. (You can watch Bishop express his frustration at the lack of support here.)
Bishop had one last motion – to raise the Town Manager’s contingency fund by $12,500 in light of the tightness of the overall budget.
That motion failed for lack of a second.