COVENTRY — The Coventry Town Council voted unanimously Monday night to adopt a budget for the 2021 fiscal year that if approved by voters will increase the tax levy by 1.98 percent.
The adopted budget — the third one to go before taxpayers since the fiscal year started in July — is scheduled to be voted on during an all-day referendum next month.
Recommended by Interim Town Manager Ed Warzycha, the budget includes an additional $225,000 toward municipal operations, and a $1.2 million increase to the school district. It would result in an approximately 38-cent tax rate increase per $1,000 of assessed valuation, and a homeowner whose house is valued at $300,000 could expect to pay an additional $112 per year.
The increase on the town side would cover around $87,000 in salary increases for some 30 non-union employees, most of whom haven’t received raises in more than three years.
Among the top reasons employees end up leaving Coventry is the low salaries they’re paid compared to those offered for similar positions elsewhere, Warzycha said.
“I’m losing our finance director, and that’s not the main reason, but it’s one of the reasons that [John Arnett] is going,” he said. “I can’t even begin to compete with what else is out there.”
Warzycha said he isn’t looking to bring Coventry salaries to the top tier, but he’s “trying to stem the flow of the losses that we’re facing.” In addition to Arnett’s departure, the town has lost several tax assessors over recent years, he said. And on the school side, Finance Director Sarah Mangiarelli is also leaving.
Resignations like those ones will continue if salaries stay where they are, Warzycha said.
“People are dedicated, they’re putting in the time,” he said. “We can’t afford to lose them. The town can’t afford to lose the institutional knowledge.”
Warzycha’s proposed budget also earmarks an additional $129,331 to pay the salaries for the remainder of the year of four new employees that he's said are much needed in a couple of understaffed municipal departments.
Those new positions include three that over the years have been eliminated, as well as an economic development specialist, which would be a new position within the town.
The budget doesn’t include funding for the performance audit that residents and town councilors have both advocated for, but Warzycha said that there are options outside of it to fund the audit.
The additional $1.2 million that was approved Monday for the schools falls short of the nearly $1.9 million increase that the district had originally requested, as well as of the $1.5 million increase it’s said it could get by with.
“I can’t, in good conscience put the whole $1.5 [million] out there,” Warzycha said, noting that the school committee recently learned it would be saving around $483,000 this year on what it had expected to be charged for statewide transportation.
In its request for an additional $1.5 million, the school district still wasn’t going to be able to bring back athletics and extracurricular activities. But using those unanticipated savings on transportation, the school committee voted during its last meeting to cover the costs of sports and clubs, as well as of lease agreements to replace five physical plant vehicles that have seen better days.
If the school district does get the additional $1.2 million, Supt. Craig Levis said Monday, the district will still need help from the town’s fund balance to cover pandemic-related expenses. It’ll also make things difficult in the 2022 fiscal year, which the school committee and town council is scheduled to begin discussions on next Monday.
“The reduction from the $1.9 [million] to $1.2 is really going to set us up for failure,” Levis said. “It’s going to put us into a position where we’ll have to still come back to the town for funds for this year, but I’m really concerned about FY22.”
Katherine Patenaude, chair of the school committee, echoed that, adding that it’ll leave the district facing a deficit of at least $1.1 million in the fiscal year ahead.
“[With] $1.2 million, we can probably limp along and get through this year,” Patenaude said. “But, obviously, $1.2 million as a starting point for our maintenance of effort next year is going to kill us. We will have massive cuts.”
Still, having heard from many residents that a 2 percent tax levy increase is all they’d be willing to support, Town Council President Ann Dickson spoke in favor of Warzycha’s proposal.
“It breaks my heart to say this, because I want to support education to the full extent that the school has asked us for,” Dickson said, “but I do not have a reasonable expectation that the townspeople will accept a budget over the manager’s recommended budget.”
Dickson said she’s “looking for middle ground.” She said she wants to present a budget that will not only support basic school and town services, but one that voters will finally approve.
Jennifer Ludwig, council vice president, and councilor James LeBlanc also spoke favorably of Warzycha’s proposed budget and the 1.98 percent tax levy increase.
“I understand that the schools need more at this time,” LeBlanc said, “but I also understand that there’s a global pandemic, sewer... usage fees just increased, sewer assessments just hit some constituents in my district, and that Congress just passed additional stimulus that a lot of Americans so desperately need.”
Councilor Kimberly Shockley, on the other hand, spoke in favor of funding the schools’ request, putting forth an amendment to the proposed budget that would have included the district’s $1.5 million request.
“My thought is that, as we move out of this pandemic, as we move forward, we want our town to continue to work for us,” Shockley said. “We don’t want to lose service and be paying the same amount of money into taxes. We don’t want to lose children in our local school system.”
Shockley said she’s concerned that students, tired of fighting every year for the funding to cover things like athletics and clubs, are choosing to change school districts.
“We need to provide the schools with the $1.5 million, raises for our local non-union — after three years of not having raises, that seems perfectly reasonable — and assistance for the people who are already working for the town,” she continued.
Shockley’s motion to amend the proposed budget died without a second.
The Fiscal Year 2021 budget adopted Monday will be presented to taxpayers during a financial town meeting Jan. 19, with a referendum to follow on Jan. 21. And if voters reject the budget a third time, Dickson said, then there won't be another attempt.
“We need everyone to come out to vote, and we need to get support for this budget,” she said. “This is our last try at it, otherwise we will be level funded, and nobody will be a winner in that scenario.”