COVENTRY — Hoping to come up with a budget that taxpayers could get behind after last month's failed referendum, the Coventry Town Council this week approved an alternate Fiscal Year 2023 budget with cuts totaling $339,000.
With council president Ann Dickson and councilor Hillary Lima both absent from the meeting, councilors on Monday voted unanimously to apply a number of changes to the $114.4 million budget adopted in early May.
The town council scheduled Monday’s joint meeting with the school committee last week, after deciding against adopting an alternate budget proposed by the town manager that made only a couple of line item changes and left the total budget amount unchanged.
“We’re trying to be very responsible, very frugal, with the tax dollar, but also maintain the level of services that our residents have come to expect,” Town Manager Benjamin Marchant said of his proposed budget.
While she was supportive of the original budget, council vice president Jennifer Ludwig said she didn't think it would be appropriate to present a new budget that’s nearly identical to the one that residents rejected.
“I personally feel putting forward the exact same budget doesn’t feel right,” she said. “To not acknowledge that costs are up and that a ‘no’ vote happened doesn’t feel right to me.”
The other councilors agreed. Still, councilor James LeBlanc pointed out, many residents have also said they don’t want a level-funded budget.
Among the changes made Monday to the budget originally proposed are the reduction of one receptionist position, saving $28,629; a $21,855 cut from computer repairs for the police department; a $50,000 cut to the allocation for street and sidewalk repairs; and a $150,000 reduction in what had originally been proposed for the contingency fund.
In addition to allocating funds for capital improvements and restoring parks and recreation funding to a pre-pandemic level, in building the 2023 budget a large focus was placed on contingency, or funding for emergencies. With the cut, the alternate budget earmarks $236,050 for contingency — still well above what was set aside in the current year’s budget.
LeBlanc, who had proposed many of the changes, noted that the town has plenty of American Rescue Plan Act funds available to cover the approved reductions — Coventry so far has received around half of the approximately $10 million it anticipates.
The council also chose to reduce proposed salary increases for numerous department directors, including the finance director, town manager, tax assessor, public works director, planning director and library director.
“They’re planning, organizing, administering, they’re responsible for making sure we have people out and serving the town’s needs,” Marchant said of the various department directors, who “work tireless hours” and “generate huge benefits to the town.”
Many of the town’s directors are paid less than their counterparts in other Rhode Island municipalities, he added, noting that raises would be subject to performance evaluations.
Still, considering the state of the economy and current hiring trends nationwide, LeBlanc said he’d prefer that the raises included for many department directors be reduced.
“It’s us tightening our belt,” he added.
Councilors approved increases in just two areas, opting to tack on $3,072 to the information technology administrator’s salary, and to add $20,000 for budget advertising.
Many residents who spoke at the meeting suggested that had there been better communication on the town’s part, the referendum would have seen a better turnout.
Only 1,536 of Coventry’s approximately 26,000 registered voters participated in the referendum, and the budget was rejected by fewer than 100 votes.
Where councilors decided not to make any cuts was on the school side.
In Fiscal Year 2023, the school district, whose budget makes up around 69 percent of the overall municipal budget, is seeking a 2.86 percent increase to its local appropriation.
In creating the school budget, Supt. Craig Levis said, the focus was on maintaining services, implementing high quality curriculum, addressing learning loss and social-emotional learning, and working with the town council to meet the state's 3 percent minimum maintenance requirement.
Following the shooting in late May at an elementary school in Texas, Levis added, the budget also aims to improve safety in Coventry’s schools.
Although the district had been anticipating receiving an addition of only around $4,000 in state aid for 2023, it learned last week that it can likely expect an increase of around $907,000.
If the school committee ultimately OKs it, that additional state aid will go to making safety improvements — including outside door replacements and additional surveillance — identified during a recent All Hazards Site Safety Survey of each of the district’s school buildings.
“If the budget is to fail… we’ll have to use this $900,000 for operations,” Levis said.
Considering that Coventry spends among the lowest per-pupil in the state at $16,873, yet its high school is ranked 22 out of 63, Ludwig said she opposed taking away funding in the budget from the schools.
LeBlanc and councilor Kimberly Shockley agreed, with LeBlanc pointing to contractual obligations and the safety needs as reasons not to cut funds from the district.
Having approved numerous changes on Monday, the town council will vote next week with the full council present — Lima had to skip this week’s meeting after testing positive for COVID-19, and Dickson had a family vacation that couldn’t be rescheduled — on presenting the alternate budget to voters during a second referendum.
According to the town charter, if a budget is not approved by voters by the July 1 start of the fiscal year, then the town will operate month-to-month on the previous year’s budget until a new budget passes.
“Working on a month-to-month budget, the biggest issue is uncertainty,” Marchant said. “Next year is a new year, and what worked this year may not work next year.”