Coventry officials threaten ‘devastating’ results if voters don’t support tax increase

COVENTRY — Just ahead of Thursday’s first ever all-day budget referendum, the town will formally present its $108.45 million FY20 budget tonight during a financial town meeting that will look quite a bit different from those held in previous years. 

The budget to be presented—one that comes just $80,000 short of meeting the 4 percent tax levy cap – is what Town Council President Kerry McGee last month called “the best possible budget [the town] could come up with.” 

Voters Thursday will be asked to approve a budget that includes $29.46 million on the municipal side and $73.75 million on the school side, with a $47.4 million appropriation from taxes to support the school district. If approved, property owners can expect to see a 3.39 percent tax rate increase, according to Interim Town Manager Ed Warzycha.

Warzycha and Superintendent Craig Levis have said that the proposed budget is what will be required to operate the school and municipal departments over the coming year. 

“It’s not what we need. It’s what we can operate with,’” Levis said during a meeting last month. “We need more bodies, we need capital funds, we need to do improvements, we need to fix science labs. There’s a lot of work we need to do, but we feel this is what we can continue to move forward with.”

More than 90 percent of the school district’s $1.46 million increase over the FY19 budget is necessary to cover contractual obligations, according to Levis. 

On the municipal side, meanwhile, the $1.2 million proposed increase would cover mandatory increases in police, municipal and school personnel pension costs, increases in health and dental rates and debt service obligations. No funding has been proposed this year for capital. 

Warzycha said during a meeting last month that increasing local appropriations by 2 percent would be “devastating” and result in “draconian cuts.”

In a letter printed last week in the Coventry Courier, Town Councilor Ann Dickson urged voters to support the proposed budget. 

“We need to support this year’s proposed budget and immediately put pressure on both the school and municipal side to find revenue sources and lower expenditures,” Dickson wrote, adding that a “thorough examination” of the town’s expenditures would be necessary.

“We will need voter input to help us make these decisions,” she continued. 

As the town prepares for its first budget referendum, town councilors and school committee members alike have shared concerns over the possibility that the budget presented to voters won’t be approved.

“This is all fascinating, anecdotally, to see that right now the council and us are both very afraid that the budget won’t pass,” School Committee Member James Pierson said during a committee meeting last month. “This charter change has created a level of fear and anxiety on both governing bodies that I’ve not seen in a while, and I don’t like it.”

While the charter amendment narrowly approved by voters during last year’s general election has added a referendum, it’s also overhauled the format of the annual financial town meeting, making it strictly informational.

Although the meeting will still be managed by a moderator with town councilors, school committee members, the interim town manager, superintendent, financial directors and solicitors all present, voters will no longer be permitted to propose amendments. 

They will, however, have the chance to ask questions about any aspect of the budget. A three-minute limit per question will be strictly followed, and voters will have the chance to pose further questions after each other voter has had the opportunity to ask a question. 

The financial town meeting will be held tonight, May 14, at 7 p.m. in the Coventry High School auditorium.

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