2021 town budget proposed at $15 million

Fri, 03/20/2020 - 12:15pm

The proposed 2021 municipal budget for the Town of New Shoreham will top $15 million for the first time. Department heads, as well as the School Department, have submitted budgets that total $15,721,670, which represents a five percent increase from the current fiscal year.

The proposed school budget is $5,233,958. (This is down from a $5,274,380 original request from the School Committee, but Finance Director Amy Land said that some health care costs had been reduced after the budget had been submitted.) According to the budget summary submitted by Supt. Mike Convery, the proposed salary allocation for 2021 is $3,094,214. Health insurance will see an increase of $55,000 to $558,403. Teacher and administration pension costs are at $340,607.

Town Hall was packed with members from the school, town and community on Wednesday, March 11 to hear updates on the proposed budgets.

On the revenue side, taxes are expected to bring in $11,103,203; licenses, permits and fees are projected at $467,215; town fees and other income: $1,943,172; State aid: $1,425,633; Reserves and transfers: $782,447 — for a total of $15,721,670.

According to the budget summary submitted by Town Manager Jim Kern, “My objective as Interim Town Manager has been to provide day-to-day management of town government and to minimize the disruption and loss of momentum that inevitably occurs during a transition of permanent town managers. As such, although I have ideas and questions that run the gamut from trivial to global, and include both procedural and philosophical elements of the creation and management of an annual budget, I have to a very large degree refrained from interjecting those ideas in the preparation process and the budget as presently constituted, deferring to the process already in place and the corporate knowledge held by the important participants in the budget development. What follows is a summary of the Fiscal Year 2021 budget and a brief narrative regarding the more important budgetary concerns.”

The departmental breakdowns look like this: 

Town Administration: $1,473,334

Finance Department: $431,798

Fire and Rescue Management: $335,696

Police: $1,139,838

Highways Department: $972,089

Building Official: $306,127

Recreation: $428,265

Library: $569,081

GIS/Technology: $327,480

Boards and Commissions: $207,201

Community Support (Medical Center, Visitor Center, membership in various civic agencies, et. al): $699,169

School Support: $5,233,958

Grant Expense: $0

Capital Tax: $588,000

Debt Service: $2,394,683

The proposed budget will need to be finalized and approved by the Town Council, and then voted on at the Financial Town Meeting on Monday, May 4. However, with the proposed ban on meetings of large groups, that meeting may be rescheduled.

School budget discussion

Convery said initial internal budget discussions resulted in a budget with an 8.5 percent increase over this year’s allocation. That budget was whittled down through the elimination of a teaching position due to retirement and a maintenance contract, a decrease in purchasing athletic equipment, (which Convery described as a temporary cut for the next school year), the elimination of the school committee stipend, reduction of funding some extracurricular activities and the reduction of what was termed “technology refurbishment.”

Resident Molly O’Neill, who currently has a child in the Block Island School, shared her thoughts on the school eliminating technology refurbishment and replacing the Chromebooks.

“As a parent, you’re behind on technology. I’m alarmed that’s where you are going to cut it — they were just notified of getting Chromebooks, and other schools have these. Our kids are using our own computers in the high school. I just think we finally got this technology when other schools have it, and now you want to cut that,” said O’Neill.

“Yes we are behind, but we are moving in the right direction,” said Convery.

First Warden Ken Lacoste asked Convery if he had any final thoughts on the school budget.

“We understand the town is in a difficult position... I believe we did our best to break down the numbers. Would I like to move in a direction we would all like to see? Yes,” said Convery.

School Committee Chair Bill Padien, sitting in the audience, shared his thoughts on the recent school cuts.

“I would like to say that all of the items that we didn’t want to cut, and we did cut . . . that they are needed, and that they will be needed. A lot of those items will be put back in, or tried to be put back in. I just wanted to make sure we are aware of this. We did cut quite a bit,” said Padien.

At a previous School Committee meeting on February 10, the request for a four percent increase was adopted.

“However, since that time we have a new reduced, estimate healthcare . . . [and] dental coverage is expected to not increase and may possibly decrease,” said Convery.

Convery noted there was a final list of 27 items totaling over $240,000 that was cut.

“There were a lot of administrative costs in the school [dental] contract... School Finance Director Melanie Reeves and myself met with the Medical Center, and we have worked up a new contract — there was a cut there. We also plan to use $30,000 from existing funds to bring down the overall requested increase,” said Convery.

Town Manager Housing Policy

Lacoste shifted the focus of the meeting towards the Town Manager and town employee housing project.

For the past several years, the town has paid the housing allowance for the town manager.

Land said that $33,000 has been cited as possible revenue from rent at the under-construction single family dwelling and the still-proposed renovations at the Thomas Property that would be rented by town employees. Both properties are on High Street.

That $33,000 breaks down to a year’s revenue in the single-family house being built for a senior town employee at $2,300 a month, if the occupant pays rent, and three months’ revenue at the Thomas Property at $1,800 a month. The proposal for the Thomas property is to have it rented by town employees in need of housing. Those two amounts total $33,000.

Included in the budget for discussion purposes only, however, was a housing allowance paid for by the town for the occupant of the main house at $700 a month, for a total housing expenditure of $8,400 a year. 

Land stated that “both of these numbers that are placeholders in here while the Town Council has this discussion, were from previous discussions that the Town Could had had.”

Land went on to say “it’s the council’s discussion on how we want to proceed. You have the question of how you are going to compensate the Town Manager, what level you are going to compensate them at, what the components of that package might be, and how quickly it is or is not tied to the facility that has been established.”

“I would like to see a discussion at the table, and to see something more than this budget to look at,” said Councilor Chris Willi. “I do remember a couple of conversations, but we never actually sat down and did an actual analysis.”

“And our discussion along those lines were part and parcel to the problem of finding that year-round affordable housing which is how we ended up looking at the building we are looking at now,” said Lacoste.

“Right, but there was also some discussion on how that would survive . . . I want to make sure we got there the right way. Amy’s last suggestion is that we don’t necessarily have to stick with this program or proposal . . . we can use this as a starting point,” said Willi.

“I do think seeing a page laid out would help . . . right now, $33,000 is the base for rent. I think seeing it all laid out, just to make sure we are being transparent,” said councilor Sven Risom.

Second Warden André Boudreau asked if the stipend should be included.

“Are we going to continue a stipend? That didn’t sit well with many people the last time we did this,” said Boudreau. (For the past three years, the town has paid for rental fees incurred by previous town managers)

“The reality is, it’s a package and we want to be transparent about the package, and now we are at that point. Let’s have that discussion sooner than later,” said Willi.

“But we need to flesh out the numbers,” said Lacoste.

“If you are providing housing for any position, there’s a stipend a lot of the times and that has to be approved as part of the compensation package and how it’s represented in the budget is important. This is a good place to start, and let’s come up with something that is transparent,” said Willi.

Willi asked how previous numbers were derived and decided upon for the housing.

“I think some of the numbers came up when looking for housing rental for the previous Town Manager, on a short-term basis,” said Lacoste.

“We had a piece of paper that had on it what the rents were at the various places that had been looked at,” said Councilor Martha Ball.

Resident Kim Gaffett, sitting in the audience, asked the council if they “know the annual debt service on that building? I think we should start with, what are we paying for annually for that building?”

“Amy, do we have a number?” asked Lacoste.

“The estimate would be about $44,000 a year for the single family dwelling. To Kim’s question, [that number] makes it unlikely that you would ever fully cover the debt service,” said Land.

Resident Molly O’Neill followed up with a similar debt question for the council.

“Do we still owe money on the Thomas House?” asked O’Neill.

“Yes, we do,” said Lacoste.

“Yes, we are two years left on that obligation until it will be paid off,” said Land.

Land then asked, “How do we get to the next step of this conversation?”

“I think we need to figure out how much a three-bedroom house is getting rented for, for year round,” said Boudreau.

“Does anyone have the inside track to come up with these numbers?” asked Lacoste.

“I think one of us can just call real estate for numbers,” said Boudreau.

Town Manager Search Committee

Search Committee Chair Margie Comings spoke on behalf of the Town Manager Search Committee, and the committee’s request to reduce the committee to five members.

“We are not eliminating or adding anybody,” said Comings. She said that Land and Highways Supervisor Mike Shea previously resigned from the Search Committee.

Boudreau made a motion to reduce the Town Manager Search Committee to five members.

Lacoste asked for an update on applicants.

“We will be interviewing in the next two weeks, and we should be finished at the end of the month,” said Comings.

The five members for the Search Committee are Chair Margie Comings, Vice Chair Jim Hinthorn, and residents Doug Michel, Zena Clark, and Robbie Closter.