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Budget legwork begun

December 26, 2010

The tie to count the beans has begun.

In a joint session alternately amendable and contentious, the Town Council and School Committee laid the groundwork for the fiscal 2012 budget season in a wide-ranging meeting Wednesday.
The sparring over plans for the projected $6 million surplus in the 2008 $52 million school bond began in interest, with council members questioning the committee's plans to use a portion of it to pay for roof repairs.

Plans to repair the remainder of the East Greenwich High School roof following renovations on the administration/guidance area this year were a bone of contention.
Town Council Presidnet Michael B. Isaacs said the roof repairs at the high school and other district buildings should have been included into the original bond, much of which is funding construction of the new Cole Middle School.
“If they were so critical, why weren't they factored in? What that did was deprive everyone of considering a list of priorities on how to spend that money. That's what really bothers me,” he said.
School Committee member Mary Ellen Winters countered that the roof work was a casualty of council efforts to reduce the bond.
“We went for $90 million originally, than down to $72 million. The council said we could only have $52 million. The (state Department of Education) made us take every school and say 'What do you need?',” Winters said.
(The School Committee voted Tuesday night to ask the Town Council to use $2,038,500 of the available surplus money to repair and replace roofs at the high school and Frenchtown Elementary School.)
The two boards also exchanged three-year projects, the town on revenues and the schools on expenditures.
The town projections, prepared by Town Manager William Sequino Jr., show only a slight rise in anticipated revenue, from the current $44,860,205 to $44,897,800 in fiscal 2014. Sequino based his figures on a level tax levy ($42,160,805) and level state aid ($673,502) throughout the period.
Under state law, the tax levy cannot increase by more than 4.25 percent in a given year.
The school budget projections, prepared by Superintendent Victor Mercurio, calls for a rise from the current $31,811,078 to $35,435,887 in fiscal 2014. Those figures may change, he said, based on the opening of the new Cole Middle School in April.
The largest portions of the school budget, salaries and benefits, are expected to rise during that period. Salaries are expected to rise from $19,366,324 to $21.656,113, and benefits from $6,264.740 to $7,317,720.
Council members voiced concern about school budget increases in the face of debt service on the school bond.
Councilman Michael S. Kiernan focused on salaries and possible personnel reductions.
“We're looking at some dire budgets, and this is the biggest cost there is. We 'dont want to see layoffs, but let's see if we can not just hold the line, but reduce it if possible,” he said.
School Committee Chairwoman Deidre Gifford said the current teacher conract, in the second of its three years, focused heavily on evaluation and support for teachers.
“I don't find it problematic that instruction is the largest expense,” she said.
Textbook replacement and technology upgrades, two items that have been heavily cut from school budget proposals, need to be addressed, said Gifford.
“Last year, we tried to find places within standard operations where we could save money. There were a lot of things we didn't do educationally that we need to talk about this year,” she said.
One area that drew more agreement from both boards was the construction of a permanent concession stand at the new high school football field. Even though a concrete pad exists on which to build a stand, high school booster and youth sports groups ran concession operations out of tents during the fall.
Isaacs said a stand could be built largely by Department of Public Works staff for $128,000, according to an estimate by DPW Director Joseph Duarte. Contracting out the work would cost an estimated $145,000 to $190,000.
The stand would be paid for, said Isaacs. by the impact fee fund to which local subdivision developers are required to contribute. Sequino estimated its current balance at about $200,000.
School Committee member Jack Sommer said deals with companies for naming rights or soda distribution could lower the cost to the town. He also said Tuesday a “Habitat for Humanity-style program” could result in a construction cost of as little as $15,000.
A memo of understanding would need to be drafted to determine who would actually control the stand and who would derive revenue from it, Isaacs said.

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