WEST WARWICK — Despite looming uncertainty around what local budgets will look like in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the West Warwick Town Council tonight will meet virtually for its first workshop to discuss the proposed Fiscal Year 2021 municipal budget.
The budget proposed by Town Manager Ernest Zmyslinski comes to $104.7 million, of which $61.3 million would be allocated to the school district with the remaining $43.4 million covering municipal services. That budget would result in a 3.77 percent increase in the tax levy and a 3.95 percent, or 89-cent, increase in the tax rate.
Zmyslinski warned, though, that the yet-to-be-realized impact of the pandemic on both state and local budgets makes it difficult right now to know exactly how the next fiscal year will look.
“The landscape as to what the state aid may look like is very disconcerting to most cities and towns,” he said during last week’s town council meeting. “How do you build a budget based upon that?”
Before the virus hit, the state had already been facing an approximately $200 million deficit in its 2021 budget. Through various new revenues and expenditure reductions — like reducing aid to seven distressed communities, including West Warwick — Gov. Gina Raimondo in January presented a budget that would close that deficit. That budget, however, had been based on projections from the Revenue Estimating Conference held in November, several months before the pandemic caused a significant decline in the state's income.
Another conference in early May will paint “a completely different picture,” Zmyslinski added.
“There’s going to be a lot less revenue for the state to close the fiscal year,” he said. “For the town, as well.”
Tonight’s workshop will be streamed live on the town’s website and will be held using Zoom.
Councilors and town department directors have convened for their last few meetings using the video conference service, each one participating from his or her own home.
Councilor Maribeth Williamson made the suggestion last week that budget workshops and hearings get underway virtually.
“I think we can pretty much rely on the fact that there will be a cut in aid coming to us from the state,” she added. “However, we can at least go through the budgets, look at what the departments are asking for… and if, at the end of the day, the state comes down and says, ‘there’s going to be a 30 percent cut across the board,’ then we’ll have to deal with that.”
While plans for the town’s financial town meeting and budget referendum are still up in the air — under its emergency declaration the town is allowed to postpone the dates for those events — Williamson said it’s a good idea to get the budget process rolling.
West Warwick is one of 17 Rhode Island towns whose annual budget is determined through a financial town meeting or referendum. And now, Zmyslinski said, each one is struggling to figure out what this year’s budget adoption process will look like.
Still, Zmyslinski agreed that it makes sense to begin the process of working through his proposed budget.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty out there,” he said, “but measures can be taken to move the process along so as things become a little more clear we’ll be in a position to move forward.”
The budget workshop will kick off tonight at 6 p.m. and will be streamed on the town’s website, www.westwarwickri.org. Directions for participating in the workshop are written at the top of the meeting’s agenda.