COVENTRY — Months after taxpayers in Coventry rejected a Fiscal Year 2021 budget that would have resulted in no increase to the tax rate, the town council earlier this week voted to adopt a new budget to present to residents during a second all-day referendum, likely to take place later this month.
The budget, approved 4-1 with councilor Debra Bacon opposing, would cause a nearly 4 percent increase in the tax levy, and would increase the residential tax rate to approximately $19.85 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
The budget presented to voters during the first all-day referendum in July would have level funded the school district as well as departments on the municipal side, causing devastating cuts across the board.
Voters rejected that budget, however, and Interim Town Manager Ed Warzycha said that it became clear to him during a budget work session between the town council and school committee last week that many councilors are interested this time around in presenting voters with a budget that includes the school district’s full funding request.
“We presented a budget that we thought was going to be good with the fiscal times that we’re in,” said Kerry McGee, president of the town council, “and the taxpayers told us that they wanted to raise taxes. They wanted more money [in the budget].”
The budget adopted this week includes the $1.8 million local appropriation increase the school district has maintained all along that it needs.
“[Town councilors] were also adamant that they wanted money going back to the town,” Warzycha said Monday as he presented his revised budget. “This was not going to be a one-sided issue.”
The budget that will go before voters also includes an increase of $992,000 on the municipal side.
The town has been operating since the start of the fiscal year on a level funded budget, using one-12th of its 2020 funding each month to cover expenditures.
On the school side, that’s meant painful reductions in several areas, including athletics and extracurricular activities.
Municipal departments have also felt the effects, however, faced with reductions that councilor Gary Cote said Monday “decimated” some of them.
If residents vote in favor of the interim town manager's revised budget, $100,000 would be added to the public works department. Another $95,000 would go to parks and recreation, including $30,000 to cover temporary employees and $65,000 for things like equipment and repairs.
The additional funding on the municipal side would also go to bringing back a number of positions that over the years have been cut, creating what Finance Director John Arnett called “structural failures” within their respective departments.
“We are hurting in several areas on employees,” Warzycha told councilors.
The planning and zoning department, for example, is currently stretched very thin. Warzycha’s proposed budget would add another associate planner to the department.
The budget sets aside funds to hire an economic development professional — a new position for the town — in the planning department, as well. It also earmarks funds to hire a finance clerk for the tax assessor’s department, which Warzycha called “woefully understaffed,” as well as for another clerk that would float between departments.
In total, those four positions would cost the town around $310,000.
Under the budget, department directors who haven’t received raises in more than three years would see 4 percent salary increases, which all told would cost $87,000.
Warzycha said Coventry’s department directors are “woefully underpaid” compared to their counterparts in other towns.
The budget also allocates $100,000 toward a performance audit, although Warzycha said that won’t be enough to cover the entire thing. By adding another $100,000 to next year's budget, the town should then be able to afford to have the audit done.
Councilor Ann Dickson said she wants to be sure the performance audit does get done.
“There are many people in the community who say that government is not transparent,” Dickson said, “they believe that we’re not effective, we’re not efficient, and I believe that a performance audit for both the schools and the town is extremely important.”
Bacon echoed that, adding that she would have liked to see the full amount for the performance audit included in the proposed budget.
“That’s what the taxpayers want,” she said.
The hope, Warzycha added, is to eventually hire an internal auditor.
“An internal auditor is a great addition to any type of management technique,” Arnett said. “When you’re really involved in something, sometimes you don’t see things, so it’s good to have a third party coming in and looking at things.”
Also in the revised budget is an additional $200,000 increase for capital improvements, bringing the total increase to $400,000.
“That’s still not where I want it to be,” Warzycha added. “It still is substantially lower than what we need to see, and over the next few years we hopefully will be able to put even more into it.”
As the council prepared to vote Monday, Bacon shared a number of concerns regarded the budget that was proposed. For one thing, she said she wants to see the school committee commit to reinstating sports and clubs.
Bacon is also opposed, she said, to adopting a budget that would raise taxes by so much.
“I just think with so many people out of work, and with folks getting raises, I think it’s going to be extremely tough,” Bacon said. “I think going to 4 percent is just not what we should be doing during this.”
She said she would have preferred to present voters with a budget that didn’t meet the 4 percent tax levy cap.
“The nice thing about that is that the taxpayers have the final say-so,” said Cote, who added that, despite voting Monday to adopt the proposed budget, he doesn’t intend to vote in favor of it at the referendum. “If the taxpayers don’t want the 4 percent increase, then they will come out and vote this budget down.”
McGee shared a similar sentiment. After such a low voter turnout for the first referendum, McGee urged residents to participate in the next one.
Only a little more than 2,000 residents turned out for the first all-day referendum, with 946 voting in favor of the proposed level-funded budget and 1,088 rejecting it.
“I can’t stress enough for people to exercise their right to get out and vote,” McGee said. “If you want a tax increase, you will vote for this; if you don’t want a tax increase, don’t.”
A date for the second all-day referendum hasn’t yet been finalized, but Warzycha said it will likely happen on Oct. 22.