Community support budgets reviewed by Council

Thu, 04/01/2021 - 5:30pm
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The Town Council’s review of proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budgets for the library, the Block Island School and other groups funded under the Community Support category stretched over two work sessions.

At the Wednesday, March 24 virtual meeting, representatives explained their requests for the new year beginning July 1, while Town Manager Maryanne Crawford presented the staff’s funding recommendations. (Not-for-profit organizations that receive funding from the town include Block Island Health Services, the Block Island Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, the Early Learning Center, the BI Chamber of Commerce and the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Block Island. The school, Senior Advisory Committee, and the Island Free Library are town government functions.)

The discussion continued on March 29, with the Council revisiting funding amounts for the Fire Department, Health Services, and the Chamber. (See related article.)

Block Island School

Supt. Mike Convery informed the council that the Block Island School did not receive any Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief II and ESSER III funding (the American Recovery Act), leaving a gap of $50,000 to fill in the school’s budget. The school did not meet the requirements based on student poverty data.

“[Town Manager Maryanne Crawford] pointed out that the student census count data is wrong,” said Convery. “I’m not encouraged that anything will happen soon, or anything at all. We are the only district in Rhode Island that is receiving nothing. We did receive ESSER I funds in the fall under FY2020.”

“Right now we just don’t know how we are going to make up that $50,000 gap,” added Convery.

School Committee Chair Jess Willi said she “did not feel great about the possibility of Block Island getting any of these ESSER funds.”

The biggest drivers of the school’s requested budget increase are the reinstatement of a special education teacher at the secondary level, and the addition of a part-time school nurse. Salaries and benefits, in general, are the largest expense items in the school budget.

“With most of the school budget being comprised of school salaries and benefits… it’s going to be a challenge to maintain with a $50,000 gap,” said Convery.

Block Island Health Services

Speaking on behalf of the medical center, Director Dr. Tom Warcup said: “I wanted to set a foundation to help understand some of the additional challenges we had in the last several years.” 

He said that health care payments have decreased over the years as patients are utilizing Medicare as opposed to private insurance. Although there have been increases in patient visits, insurance and bad debts write-offs have also increased. There has also been an increase in the center paying for behavioral health needs due to the pandemic.

“We have the combination of chaos as well as poor reimbursement – it’s a tough mix for the medical center. We have had generous donors, but we continue to rely on them and it’s a difficult ask, each and every year,” said Warcup, noting they have to close an operating gap of $300,000 each year.

“If [the $300,000] were to fail in one particular year, we would be in even more financial difficulty,” said Warcup. “One of the things we would like to do is advocate for an incremental change, but probably more of a three- to five-year plan from the town on what offerings you would find important for us to have going forward.”

Block Island Volunteer Fire and Rescue

Lt. Chris Hobe joined the call to share his thoughts on the BIVFR department’s budget.

“We put in a $220,000 [request], [and came] back with $195,000 and change. Everything is super important to us and the increase in calls continues to go up,” said Hobe. “Last year, we had over 500 calls – we are trying to keep up with the growth of the town and there’s a lot of stuff in the air.”

The fire department’s budget includes funding under the following categories: Vehicle and equipment maintenance, education and training, payroll (mainly for summer EMTs), insurance, communications, medical supplies and equipment, and transportation and freight. There are other minor and/or miscellaneous items as well.

Fire Department Treasurer Mike Lofaro added: “It’s been a tremendous year for outside town support. Town support amounted to 35 percent of our total revenue. On average over the last six years, town support was 40 percent. That’s telling me something right there. But I believe because of Covid-19, and sensitivity, that we have received many large donations this year in our fiscal year ending 2020, that I do not think will repeat next year.”

Lofarro spoke highly of the department, highlighting the continued training and opportunities the island fire department provides and invests into its volunteers.

“We have upgraded this department ability-wise tremendously [through training]. We are one of the only volunteer fire departments that have sent people to the fire fighter academy.”

“It’s really important that we continue to do that, and we invest in them and they invest back into us,” said Hobe.

Senior Advisory Committee

Co-Chair Sandra Kelly and Senior Coordinator Gloria Redlich joined the call speaking on behalf of SAC.

“In 2020 and going forward, our main objective was to stay in contact with seniors. Currently, I’m grateful to say most of our seniors have survived these isolating times,” said Kelly. She listed examples of programs and activities provided by the SAC during the pandemic: delivery of monthly meals to seniors; programs and activities continuing through Zoom; and neighbor-to-neighbor “buddy systems” for friends to stay in touch.

“I realized capital projects have to always be funded and budgeted, but members of the community can’t be off the radar. Our citizens are our most important asset,” said Kelly.

“We are among the folks largely responsible for keeping our community running,” added Redlich.

Redlich went on to list programs that would provide assistance for the senior community: a training program for individuals interested in being care givers, and continuing to run the senior ride service.

“We need more structure to continue to serve adequately,” said Redlich. “In the meantime, we are simply asking for a commitment from the town beyond the usual support of our ongoing programs, perhaps a little bit for us to sustain the senior ride service, and also to provide some funding that would allow us to grow programs [for senior needs].”

National Alliance on Mental Illness – BI

Crawford read from a memo NAMI-BI President Jim Hinthorn had sent to the council:

“For FY2021, NAMI-BI’s modest request for funding was denied and, given the financial challenges facing the town last year, we did not make much of a fuss over the denial. For this year, FY2022, the NAMI-BI board has decided not to request any funding from the town but we do have some requests we would like you to consider.”

Hinthorn listed the following requests for the future: the expansion in hours for Human Services Director Maryanne Seebeck’s social and human services position; the placement of a yellow bench on the island for promoting suicide prevention awareness; and looking into a Crisis Intervention Team on the island.

“We are not looking for money but we do need to consider these other requests,” said Hinthorn.

Crawford recommended not increasing Seebeck’s hours, and to explore the designation of the bench, possibly outside the Chamber of Commerce’s office.

“[The Crisis Intervention Team] would have to be something easily revisited,” added Crawford.

Early Learning Center

Director Julie Conant joined the call to speak on behalf of the Early Learning Center. 

“Once again we are asking to be level funded,” said Conant. “The absolute minimum we can request, that number [$147,785] is reflective of the large portions in our budget as of today – rent, payroll, and regular insurances. We look forward to continuing our school year this year and our camp [in the summer].”

Risom asked Conant what the current staffing was at the center.

“We have two full-time teachers, and a part-time aide, and a director. We wear many hats and cover all those hours,” said Conant.

Island Free Library

“Although the operating of the library looks different this year, the budget level is the same,” said Town Finance Director Amy Land as she introduced the FY2022 budget for the Island Free Library. 

Library Director Kristin Baumann said: “My comment would be that we were [going] to expand our staff pre-Covid and we didn’t do that. We were asked not to during the last year’s Covid-19 budget. And it’s not included in this year’s either. I’m not asking for it to be included, I know it’s tight, but I would like people to recognize that,” said Baumann.

Baumann noted that the library’s ongoing programs, and the ongoing building maintenance continue to be areas of focus.

“We are very busy, work very hard, and work a lot of programs,” said Baumann. “But we received a grant from the American Library Association and will have an intern through that grant this summer, and starting next school year we will have an intern through the Block Island School.” She added the library would “make up money to finish the window project from past capital money projects that didn’t get completed.”