CHARLESTOWN — As members of the Charlestown Budget Commission begin to prepare the town’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget, Chairman Richard Sartor said the commission was currently in the process of hearing requests from department heads and there was still much left to be determined.
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, the process has been further complicated by the departure of Treasurer Julie Goucher, who has since been replaced by Irina Gorman.
“I don’t have a complete bottom-line figure yet, even in draft recommendations from the administrators,” Sartor said. “I have yet to receive the capital projects part of the budget. I received expense budgets and we’ve received draft revenues. It’s imminent. It should occur any day, the capital expenditure recommendation, which would then complete the bottom line.”
Sartor noted that he was not anticipating a delay in the submission of the capital projects budget.
Charlestown’s current municipal budget is $16.8 million, and the town paid an additional $13.3 million to the Chariho Regional School District. The current property tax rate of $8.20 per $1,000 of taxable property, one of the lowest in Rhode Island, is not expected to change significantly.
Town Council President Deborah Carney said she hoped there would not be a proposed property tax increase. Some homeowners saw tax increases in the current year after a revaluation resulted in higher values in some neighborhoods north of Route 1.
“I would hope that no taxpayers in Charlestown would see an increase in their tax bill this year,” she said. “There was no revaluation this past year, so there should be no reason for any taxpayer to see an increase this year.”
One large capital project, the renovation and expansion of the town’s animal shelter, will require additional funds. The project was budgeted at $400,000, however all five bids on the project have come in more than $300,000 higher.
“The issue is, the proposed amount in the budget is too little based on several competitive bids they received, and they require additional funding,” Sartor said. “If they wish to initiate the activity to renovate the animal shelter quickly, they would need to make transfers or other moves that would allow those funds to be available to apply to that project. If they choose not to proceed in that manner, we will undoubtedly get a recommendation to incorporate additional funding in the budget to be available July 1 ….In addition to the overage regarding whatever the bid is, the differential, there would need also to be a contingency considered there, because it is not uncommon in a renovation project of this nature to have change orders.”
Carney said the council had a couple of options to choose from, but noted that it would be prudent to wait until the fourth quarter begins in April to determine if there are unused funds from the current budget.
“We can either wait and include money in this coming year’s budget to complete the project, or, in the final quarter of this year, we can transfer money from another line item where it was not needed,” she said. “One of the concerns with waiting too long to begin the project is construction costs have been increasing due to the pandemic, so the concern with waiting too long is that construction costs will continue to increase and could eventually cost us more.”
The town’s unassigned fund balance, or surplus, is currently 38%.The town asked the Government Finance Officers Association to conduct a study that would help determine the fund balance policy, and Sartor said he was still awaiting the results and recommendations.
“The Budget Commission is very much looking forward to getting that information because the numbers that have been used, the percentages of fund balance that have been used in the last budget, have been based upon estimates and recommendations from many years ago,” he said. “ I don’t know if it will be in time for this budget or not.”
Carney said she supported a fund balance policy and had recommended that the town adopt one in 2019.
“The unassigned fund balance has grown to a level in excess of what the auditors had recommended over the past six years, so clearly, a fund balance policy is necessary,” she said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, Sartor said the commission was hearing from relevant town departments regarding additional, pandemic-related expenses, some of which will be reimbursed by the federal government.
“Many expenses have been submitted,” he said. “Depending upon how much of that is approved, the remainder will come to us.”
The town has also made additional contributions to several organizations, including the Charlestown Ambulance-Rescue Service, Wood River Health Services and RICAN.
This is the first year the town has had its own information technology department. Sartor and Carney agreed that the introduction of the new department had been timely, especially with virtual meetings having become the norm.
“We would not have been able to deal with the impacts of the COVID pandemic and the necessity for all the remote meetings. We simply did not have the capacity to do that effectively at the scale that became necessary very quickly,” Sartor said. “So what we’re finding is that we are implementing IT improvements throughout the town, but a significant part of the time of the new IT director is being taken to manage both the technical parts of Zoom meetings and the inexperience of all the rest of us who now have to use the technology in that way.”
Carney added that IT Director Christopher Pancaro had taken on a lot more than his original job description had required.
“Chris Pancaro has done a very good job with the department,” she said. “In addition to the responsibilities or the duties he was hired for, he’s gone above and beyond and has adapted extremely well to the increased pressures and the increased number of meetings and the increased responsibilities his department has taken,” she said. “So that was an investment that I think has already paid off for the town.”
The Budget Commission is expected to complete its workshops by March 31 and a public hearing on the budget must take place by May 10. The budget referendum is on June 7.