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By LINDSAY OLIVIER
NORTH KINGSTOWN â€“ For the first time this season, members of the public had a chance to speak their mind about the proposed fiscal year 2012/2013 budgets for both the North Kingstown School Department and the town as a whole.
And speak they did.
After a short public hearing on the municipal budget yielded a small turnout, the NK town council reconveyed after an hour-long recess to discuss the school budget with Superintendent Dr. Philip Auger and a large crowd inside the high school auditorium.
For the past few years, municipalities have been dealing with the stateâ€™s tough economic times and this year is no exception.
NK Town Manager Michael Embury compiled three General Fund budgets that would meet the budget policy requirements: one which included a four-percent tax levy increase, one with a two-percent expenditure increase and one that was level-funded from 2011/2012.
Those budgets resulted in, respectively, a 3.51 percent levy increase equaling a total budget of $26,244,580 (or an increase of $666,558 over last year); a two-percent increase equaling a total budget of $25,427,713 (for an increase of $498,584) and a zero-percent increase equal to a total budget of $24,895,131 (a decrease of $189,665).
The tax rate for a 3.51-percent tax levy increase would be $17.81.
â€śThe days of doing more with less are over,â€ť Embury said to the audience.
Most residents who spoke during the municipal budget hearing pleaded with the town council not to raise taxes, though one woman feels sheâ€™s not paying â€śenoughâ€ť.
â€śI understand some people are in tough financial situations, but I look at it as whatâ€™s a few more hundred dollars?,â€ť said Gigi Edwards of Saunders Road. â€śBy raising taxes, that money can be used for good things within the community, so then those things donâ€™t have to be cut.â€ť
In response to Edwardsâ€™ comment, local resident Dick Bee countered that thereâ€™s a section titled â€ścontributionsâ€ť on every agenda of the town council and Edwards could contribute more without taxpayers as a whole having to take a hit.
â€śIf you think youâ€™re under taxed, by all means, write a check.â€ť he said.
State Representative Doreen Costa was also on hand Monday and told the crowd that sheâ€™s a local resident whoâ€™s not rich and she canâ€™t afford an increase in taxes.
Costa decried how high taxes currently are, both locally and at the state level and said itâ€™s getting to the point where it seems as if state legislators are â€śtaxing our breathâ€ť. She urged the council that, before taxes are raised, there needs to be another way to look at the budget.
Rollingwood Drive resident Jeffrey Zucchi told the council that he and his wife moved to North Kingstown from Indiana and, before making the move, researched the stateâ€™s taxes to see if they were similar with what they were paying in Indiana. Because they didnâ€™t factor in the local taxes in NK, however, the couple had no idea that they would be paying almost $9,000 a year in taxes, a sum far greater than what they would have paid elsewhere.
â€śThis may be driving us to make a decision if we want to continue to live here,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s the overall number you have to look at. We donâ€™t want to leave, but itâ€™s coming very close to it.â€ť
The school budget hearing illicited much more of a mixed-reaction.
Before opening the floor to members of the public, Auger attempted to explain why the school district was asking for a four-percent increase for the next fiscal year.
He cited rising insurance costs that have raised premiums over 30 percent, talked about how 90 percent of the school budget is out of his control because of contracts and mandates and explained to the crowd that the town hadnâ€™t increased funding for the district in three years, something Embury disputed.
Auger said the public hearing is one of his favorite meetings of the year because it a time when people come out and talk about what matters to them.
He hoped, though, that those who would speak later would understand that the school district has tried to curb rising costs as much as possible the past few years and is not asking for an increase lightly.
â€śWeâ€™re not spending daddyâ€™s credit card,â€ť he said. â€śWeâ€™ve been accused that weâ€™re spending irresponsibly, but thatâ€™s far from the truth.â€ť
With a four-percent local tax support increase, the school department would still have to cut $1,421,019 in services.
Augerâ€™s recommended cuts include reducing a high school librarian, the reduction of paraprofessionals, the removal of one regular school bus and the reorganization of the athletic directorâ€™s position.
If the town council decides to increase the schoolâ€™s budget by half of what Auger is recommending, roughly a two-percent increase, the cuts would increase by an additional $868,417 and would include all of the actions listed above, reducing an elementary school music teacher, removal of middle school sports, removal of freshman sports and reducing middle and high school music programs by 25 percent.
Auger called a level-funded budget the worst case scenario and said that would result in a total cut of $3,005,766. This budget would reduce four paraprofessionals, reduce clerical and custodial overtime and ARC after school academic supports at the middle and high schools.
After Augerâ€™s presentation, Bee returned to the microphone to open public comment and immediately expressed his anger at the superintendent and the school committee.
Criticizing the way they lobbied for the $6.4 million health and safety bond, and saying they used the schoolâ€™s listserve and mailed out literature, bee said heâ€™s angry that the committee failed to maintain the schools and allowed them to â€śfall apartâ€ť.
â€śItâ€™s not about the students, itâ€™s about money and power,â€ť Bee said.
Bee also attacked Auger, who he said should have his certification rescinded by the Rhode Island Department of Education and be removed as superintendent.
Not all the speakers were against the increase, however.
Paul Marshall, of Duck Cove Road, told the school committee and town council that the residents and students need cooperation, consolidation and a participation in the solution of the â€śfiscal nightmareâ€ť.
Eleventh grader, Jessica Fournier, meanwhile, pleaded to the town council not to cut programs and staff and said itâ€™s those programs that make well-rounded students. And even though sheâ€™s not a taxpayer, Fournier said she sees the difficulty and struggles her parents go through.
â€śIf you eliminate all these programs, students are going to miss out getting scholarships,â€ť student Dan Caramante added. â€śIf you take that away from us, whatâ€™s left of us to say about North Kingstown?â€ť
Budget discussions will continue for the town council next Monday night during its regularly-scheduled meeting at the Beechwood Senior Center.
The school committee, meanwhile, will continue budget talks at its April 24 meeting.