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Council level-funds NK schools

May 7, 2011

NORTH KINGSTOWN—North Kingstown Town Manager Michael Embury opened Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting with a light-hearted joke.
Producing his 2009 and 2010 W-2 forms in response to a request last week by School Committee member Larry Ceresi, Embury stated that his wages went down over $4,000 from year to year, prompting council president Elizabeth Dolan to smile and ask if Embury also had his “birth certificate with him”.
It was one of the few moments of light-hearted fun on an evening of otherwise painful decisions.
Citing a harsh financial reality, the town council voted Tuesday night to level-fund both the school department and the library, eliminating proposed increases of $713,417 and $69,225, respectively, and to freeze pay increases for all non-union town employees.
With those three cuts, the town’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 ends up with a total general fund of $24,991,186, or about $54,000 more than the 2011 year.
To fund the difference, the town will impose a 2.79 percent levy increase on taxpayers for FY2012, an amount slightly less than the three-percent increase asked for by councilman Charles Stamm and slightly more than the two-percent increase councilman Michael Bestwick had hoped for.
“It’s a very difficult decision,” Dolan said of the move to freeze all step, longevity and cost of living adjustments for non-union town officials. “Going into negotiations, I think there is a precedent we have to set. We’re setting an example for going into further and future union negotiations asking union members for certain concessions. We have to lead by example on our end. It’s a very hard decision, I know, for all of us.”
Tuesday’s council meeting was separated into three parts: An update by Embury on the budget as it stood on Tuesday, public comment on the proposed cuts and further discussion by the council.
Embury explained that some of the changes he made to the proposed budget since the last council meeting on the matter were to fully fund the North Kingstown Animal Shelter—the first draft of the budget called for its elimination, a later draft proposed reducing staffing from two full-timers to a full-timer and a part-timer—and increase funds for road overlay. Adjustments were also made to account for more projected savings in dental costs.
All told, the levy increase would raise the tax rate in North Kingstown to $17.31, a $0.47 cent increase that, to the average house in NK (with an average value of $333,822) would yield a total increase in taxes of roughly $217.14.
“I tell people, there are four things that could basically blow up the 2012 budget,” Embury said. “A hurricane; going into arbitration again with fire fighters and getting an unfavorable ruling; if gasoline keeps going out of sight and if we have 45-50 people retire. It’s going to be very, very difficult.”
Public comment on the budget was, as expected, divided.
School Committee Chairperson Richard Welch opened comment by asking the council to leave the school budget as it was presented, with an increase of $713,417 for a total funding of $44,134,255.
Welch stated that last year the school department froze pays and took no cost of living adjustments. Citing an estimated cut of $150,000 from state aid to the school district, Welch warned that, if the council level-funded the schools this year, serious cuts would have to be made.
“What we have left to cut is going to hurt the town’s school program,” he said. “It’s not a threat. I know that people want to say ‘Well, the first thing they’re going to do is cut sports’. We have to go where it doesn’t affect the educational programs first.”
To show how divisive the school budget is, Welch’s fellow school committee member Bill Mudge spoke Tuesday imploring the council to proceed with its plan to level-fund, saying the district’s $2.3 million surplus and 20 percent increase in supply costs are evidence more cuts could be made.
Mudge also stated that the committee’s removal of rental fees and gate receipts from its budget are both missed opportunities for further revenue and said he feels that the school committee needs to look harder into money that could be saved on transportation or made with a revised contract with Jamestown.
“We, in my opinion, haven’t done our job to squeeze the lemon to get out of these issues. We aren’t being efficient and I believe we haven’t been. That’s the reason that I believe we should be level-funded.”
After wrapping up public comment, the council began to form its plan for the revised 2012 budget.
First to go were pay increases for non-union town officials. In a 3-2 motion passed by Dolan, Bestwick and Stamm, the council voted to eliminate step, longevity and COLA increases for the 2012 year.
A motion by Stamm to remove funding for the School Resource Officer and DARE program from the town’s budget to the school’s budget failed 4-1.
Afterward, the council finalized the rate of the levy increase.
While Stamm had hoped to increase the levy to three percent, and put the difference into a reserve for OPEC obligations, Bestwick discussed his desire to lower the levy to two percent.
“It’s nice to have a reserve but people have to get by today,” he said.
Ultimately, the council moved to keep the levy at 2.79 percent after Stamm’s motion to move up to three percent failed to get a second.
Afterward, the council moved item by item through the budget, choosing to level-fund the library, increase the enterprise fund for the municipal court by $15,000. They also chose to restructuring a loan for the recreational department from 10 years to 15 years.
The council wrapped up Tuesday’s meeting with the biggest issue of the night—the school budget.
Councilwoman Carol Hueston stated that, with enrollment dropping in the schools by an estimated 124 students, at a projected savings of $1.3 million when considering per-pupil costs, the least the council should do is level-fund the schools.
Dolan agreed, saying that legally the council could cut the school budget if it wanted to because enrollment numbers are down. With that in mind, she said, level-funding the department was actually a compromise.
Bestwick stated his concern over the contract with Jamestown, wondering why the school department hasn’t gotten more money and saying he doesn’t want to see “NK taxpayers subsidize Jamestown students”.
Councilman Charles Brennan, meanwhile, felt the school committee failed to be transparent in its meeting with the council and wondered why several questions—such as why one truant officer was on the books for a $4,000 salary but had $19,000 in benefits—were left unanswered.
Wrapping up the discussion was Stamm, who wondered if more could be done to cut costs in the department and further consolidate costs between the town and school.
Ultimately, the motion to level-fund the schools passed unanimously.

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