SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The Town Council Chambers were empty on Monday after a decision was made to cancel the scheduled preliminary budget adoption meeting.
The meeting has been rescheduled for the following Monday, March 23, according to Town Manager Robert Zarnetske, due to growing concerns over COVID-19 and how this might affect community members from participating in the budgeting process.
On Monday, Gov. Gina Raimondo issued an executive order suspending the state Open Meetings Act prohibition on government bodies meeting remotely. The order, which will only be in place until April 15, requires public bodies that do meet remotely to provide some form of public access.
South Kingstown is currently working to meet budget deadlines, yet still allow for community engagement.
“We’re contemplating how best to hold the meeting,” Zarnetske said in a phone interview on Tuesday morning. “We’re trying to figure out the best way to balance the need for public safety and public engagement.”
Although the form of the meeting has not yet been decided, Zarnetske said the public will be informed as soon as a decision is made to help allow everyone to be involved.
While the preliminary budget adoption did not take place on Monday night, the council did convene on Sunday afternoon for an emergency meeting. The purpose of the meeting had been to revoke certain licenses and limit capacities of local businesses, therefore limiting face-to-face contact within the community, but the issue of whether or not to meet was discussed.
When Council Vice President Bryant Da Cruz raised the question, Zarnetske recommended that the council continued as planned, since state requirements around budgeting and municipal finance have not been suspended or pushed back.
“I would suggest that we will try to figure out how to ensure that the public has a way to participate and watch, without necessarily having everyone elbow-to-elbow,” he said.
As of Sunday, the town council’s preliminary budget adoption meeting and a zoning board of review meeting that had been scheduled for Wednesday were still on. The town had decided to cancel several other public meetings that were scheduled for this week, however, including a recreation commission meeting, a sustainability committee meeting, and a bicycle-pedestrian advisory committee meeting.
As for the preliminary budget adoption, Zarnetske said time allowed for it to be rescheduled without community members being made “to feel like they had to show up in a room last night in order to participate in the budget process at this stage.”
Per the town charter, the council must adopt the preliminary budget before March 22, unless that date falls on a Sunday, according to Zarnetske. The two nights of public hearings, which had been advanced to April 6 and 7, but are now scheduled for April 15 and 16, must happen before April 18.
Final budget adoption must happen by May 1, according to Zarnetske.
These budget deadlines are complicated, he explained and driven by several factors. One large factor is that the Division of Municipal Finance and the Department of Finance Administration review the proposed budget for compliance with state law. It’s also driven by the town charter, of course, and those deadlines are driven by newspaper advertising schedules, he said, ensuring that the public has proper notice of these meetings.
As of now, there has been no guidance from the governor about whether the budget season will be delayed. In South Kingstown, the town has begun providing equipment and allowing non-essential personnel to work from home. The town is also expediting staff training so that others can do so soon, Zarnetske said.
As of this Monday Town Hall and all municipal offices that remain open to the public are no longer allowing walk-ins, and are open by appointment only.
While the need for social distancing continues, the town “will be figuring out how best to create an opportunity for the public to participate via video or audio devices,” Zarnetske said.
“The work of the government will be done,” Zarnetske said. “We will make sure that land transactions continue to get recorded, we’ll make sure that marriage licenses are still issued, we’ll make sure that the bills get paid and we’ll make sure that public highways and potholes are addressed appropriately. We’ll make sure the police department is responding to calls and we’ll make sure the parks aren’t overgrown.”
“We’re going to do what we have to do to keep the operations going,” he added. “That really is a matter of just keeping our distance from one another and the public where we can, and being smart about disinfecting and personal hygiene where we can’t avoid close contact with the public or each other.