NARRAGANSETT – When the town last month initially proposed a $62.3 million budget for FY 2020-21, which came along with a 3.9 percent tax levy increase, town council members immediately seemed united on cutting costs to lower the burden on taxpayers during the COVID-19 crisis. Since, town departments and the council have made cuts across the board, and on Monday night the council approved a new, $61.5 million budget in a first reading. The reduced budget will need to undergo a second reading and vote before being adopted.
As for the cuts, about $1 million was reduced in proposed capital improvement projects, the reductions including a new vehicle for the police department ($35,000), a new vehicle for the fire department ($35,000), a new vehicle for the engineering department ($30,000) and multiple projects at the parks and recreation department, such as court resurfacing and fence replacement (combined - $71,000), among other cuts. About $1.8 million was cut from various department’s operating costs, including approximately $441,000 from the library budget, which has been opposed by staff at the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library, some councilors and members of the public.
A PowerPoint presentation from the town Monday night described “level funding” the library with a proposed $400,000 allocation from the town. Councilor Jesse Pugh took issue with the characterization, stating that the description was disingenuous considering the town had last year in a controversial move reduced its allocation to the library by more than half. In recent years, the library had consistently received about $841,000 from the town, but last year, councilors, citing an excessive surplus in the library’s fund balance, elected to reduce that figure down to $400,000 in a split vote that drew much public scorn. This year, when initially presented with a $841,000 allocation from the town to the library in town manager James Tierney’s proposed budget last month, council president Matthew Mannix, council president pro-tem Jill Lawler and councilor Rick Lema formed a consensus through majority at a subsequent budget workshop to reduce that allocation again to $400,000. To “level fund” something means to fund it at the same amount in the current year as in the previous year.
“That’s a slick, marketing way to word it,” said Pugh in regards to the town’s characterization of “level funding” the library. “Last year, it was kind of marketed as a one-time cut because of that reserve. Typically, that budget would be $841,000 to the library.”
Pugh ultimately put forward an amendment to increase the town’s allocation to the library by $200,000 for a total allocation of $600,000, though the amendment failed to pass with Pugh and councilor Patrick Murray voting in favor and Mannix, Lawler and Lema against.
“19 percent of the schoolchildren in Narragansett live in poverty,” said Narragansett Library Board of Trustees Chair Laurie Kelly. “Add to this many elderly who are on fixed incomes, who are also unable to purchase technology and library materials. Now in the middle of this crisis, we have a great number of restaurant and shop employees who are out of work or maybe coming back to work now but have had to cut cable and internet. The library provides services. This is not the time to cut library services.”
“You cut the library budget last year on the basis of the surplus, well it would have been nice to have had that [surplus] this year,” she continued. “It would be nice to be able to pay our payroll, which, once again, the library payroll is $756,000 and you’re granting us $400,000. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors of where cuts should come from and ‘level funding’ the library.”
Two members of the public expressed their support for Pugh’s amendment and one was against. Pugh noted the virtual setting of the council meeting, and said “hundreds” would have spoken on the issue if the meeting was held in person, as was the case last year when the same cuts were proposed and ultimately approved by the council majority.
The council also, in approving the first reading of the new budget ordinance, postponed hiring of several vacant town positions, including fire recruits, a planning technician, a building inspector and network administrator, equating to about $216,000 in savings, according to the town. Finally, the town has also proposed raising annual fees on rental properties in town to slightly increase revenue and lower the tax burden on residences and businesses.
The total budget is an increase of about $562,000 over last year’s approved budget, or a .92 percent rise. Under the new budget, the residential property tax rate would come out to $10.51 per $1,000 of a home’s assessed value, with a commercial rate of $14.18 per $1,000 of a business’ assessed value.
Narragansett is also expected to lose about $376,200 in state aid in this year’s budget, a projection that was shared with the town on Monday, which angered Mannix. To compensate for this reduction, the town proposed cuts to the following: health and dental benefits for employees across all town departments ($57,000), revaluation sinking fund ($75,000), police .5 full-time employee ($50,000), department of public works truck driver ($92,000), upgrades and renovations to Veterans Memorial Park ($41,000), and police radios ($19,000), among others.
A second reading and vote on the budget is scheduled for Monday, June 15. If approved, the proposed budget ordinance will become law.