Town’s 2020 budget unveiled
A series of appeals for increased funding from various departments and organizations marked the town’s first two budget session hearings on Monday and Tuesday when the proposed fiscal year 2020 operating and capital budgets were unveiled. Among those appeals were impassioned pleas by representatives from Block Island Health Services, the Fire Department, the Island Free Library, and the Senior Advisory Committee. In response, the Town Council said it would be taking the requests into consideration.
During Monday’s hearing, Town Manager Ed Roberge said the recommended budget for the Town of New Shoreham for 2020 was $14,936,680, a $437,605 increase over the current year’s budget.
Three line items were primarily responsible for the three percent increase, Roberge said: $155,821 to bring town employee wages closer to state and regional averages, $181,338 for the Block Island School budget and $160,675 for debt service for the West Beach revetment project. While the cost of these items is $497,834, Roberge said the total will be offset by some savings in expenditures and increases in fee revenue and state aid.
“New Shoreham is a vibrant and inclusive community,” said Roberge, as he reviewed the budget. “The town is safe, our fiscal position is strong, and we continue to focus on maintaining critical infrastructure assets through an expanded capital improvement program.”
Roberge made a point of emphasizing that the town’s 2020 budget includes costs for maintenance and capital projects as part of the town’s long-term 10-year capital improvements plan.
“In the past we would defer those costs,” he said. “Now we’re including them as part of the town’s daily business. It’s a responsible approach for the work we need to do.”
Roberge said the budget was developed according to the Town Council’s past efforts in identifying strategic themes and goals, with five priorities in mind: providing for a safe and livable community; maintain responsible community planning for the future; focusing on smart and sustainable growth; relying on fiscal responsibility and promoting community service excellence; and strengthening our community resiliency.
Island Free Library
Library Director Kristin Baumann made a plea for a greater increase in union wages for her staff. The library has requested $630,000 for its 2020 budget. The town is recommending a $513,853 budget, a one percent increase over this year’s allocation. Finance Director Amy Land noted that the increase of $117,000 would primarily be reflected in the wage line.
Baumann read a prepared speech, and said she was “advocating for her staff,” as “they are not fairly, nor adequately compensated for their work.” With her voice cracking, and unable to continue reading, she handed the document to Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cindy Lasser, who continued to read the text.
Councilors Sven Risom and Chris Willi noted that Baumann, a contract employee, contacted them prior to Tuesday’s hearing with concerns about staff wages. Willi said he wasn’t aware of the library’s request, and that Roberge, Land and Baumann need to meet to discuss the issue.
“What’s being presented is a huge step forward,” said Willi. “Your opinion needs to be heard before any decisions are made” on the budget.
Roberge echoed Baumann’s comments about the value of staff, and said he will continue a dialogue with her concerning the wage increase request.
The proposed budget for community support, including the Block Island School, represents a four percent increase, for a total of $5,683,311. Over the past four years, the average budget for community support has been $5,315,034.
The Block Island Health Services board, level-funded at $260,000 the past three years, requested $300,000 for its 2020 budget, which the board said was attributable to growth at the Medical Center. The request would help fund the addition of seasonal staff, a physician’s assistant and a part-time M.D. during the summer months.
Cindy Baute, BIHS President, said, “Yes, we’re asking for money, but we are seeing more patients — and a complexity of cases,” while also “meeting the needs” of the community. Baute said she hopes the Town Council would take that, and the staff’s education and training, into consideration when deciding on the Medical Center’s budget.
The Block Island Volunteer Fire Department is requesting a 2020 budget of $180,400 to support payroll, training, and vehicle, equipment, and radio costs. The town, after its review of the request, recommended $150,000, which would be an 11 percent, or $15,000, increase over the previous year’s budget. The department has averaged a $109,262 budget the past four years.
During his appeal for the requested funding, Chief Mike Ernst made an impassioned speech on how much the town’s support is needed. “Fundraising hasn’t been great” in recent years,” he said. Treasurer Mike Lofaro said that a recent generous $78,000 gift doesn’t’ happen very often, and that the department was in need of donations.
The Block Island Early Learning Center is being level-funded at $147,785 in the 2020 budget.
“Our expenses are pretty fixed,” said ELC Director Julie Conant. “This year we’re projecting $293,000 in expenses. Of that, payroll, including Blue Cross, is about $230,000; utilities are about $14,500; and rent is about $25,200. Of the $293,000 of our operating expense, $270,000 is pretty fixed. So, we’re really operating the center on that other $23,000.”
Resident Molly O’Neill asked if funding the Early Learning Center was the best use of the town’s money, when there are needs elsewhere. She said it costs “$7,000 to $10,000” per student, and attendance was “going downhill. So, how relevant is it?” O’Neill noted that she “probably sounded horrible” providing her thoughts on the subject.
In response, Conant said she compares the number of students at the center to those at the Block Island School.
“We have about 25 or 26 students per year, and a $293,000 budget, and you juxtapose that with the Block Island School which has about 120 students and a $4 million budget. So you get a better idea of how many kids we’re servicing, and the value you’re getting.”
“Going forward, we know the numbers are going to go down tremendously,” said Conant. “They aren’t dropping this year, or next year. But we have to have a plan in place” for addressing that issue.
The Senior Advisory Committee is requesting a budget of $23,100, but the town is recommending a budget of $20,100, which is an 18 percent, or $3,000 increase, over the previous year.
SAC Senior Coordinator, Gloria Redlich, said she felt that the town was undervaluing its senior population, and was “disappointed” in the town’s recommended budget. Redlich noted that SAC had requested a $6,000 increase over its 2019 budget.
SAC board member Sandra Kelly said $3,000 would be used to fund its new Senior Ride Service, which utilizes the island’s taxicabs, but at a much lower rate than the town-approved taxi fares. The SAC has underwritten the cost of the trips, which Kelly said cost $465 to provide for the month of March.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness-Block Island is requesting a $3,000 increase for its recommended 2020 budget of $10,000. The group has had an annual budget of $7,000 the past two years, and a $6,000 budget in its first year in 2017. The $3,000 is targeted for NAMI’s telemedicine service.
NAMI-BI President Jim Hinthorn referenced a newspaper article regarding the issues associated with mental health, including substance abuse, and suicide, in making his appeal for the $3,000 increase. He said the group has formed a liaison with Brown University and Butler, and that the funds pay for Tracy Fredericks’ facilitation of the telemedicine service.
“We anticipate that that expense will go up,” he said.
The Block Island Chamber of Commerce is requesting $27,700 to maintain staffing at the Visitor’s Center at Old Harbor, which has not received funding since 1993. The funds would be used to staff three positions throughout the peak season, with extended hours.
Outside of this request, the Chamber of Commerce is not funded through town support, as it is a non-profit organization supported by dues-paying members.
Lasser, the Chamber’s new Executive Director, said the Chamber of Commerce is running the center, but doesn’t have enough funds to pay “payroll to run a visitor’s center.” She noted that the visitor’s center is the island’s “bread and butter” facility.
Chamber staff member Molly O’Neill said at one time the Tourism Council funded the visitor center. She said, now, “The visitor’s center is bleeding money, so that’s the issue.”
Risom said that while he thought the Visitor’s Center was “a critical need for the island,” that the request creates a “conundrum” that the town will have to “wrestle with over the next year.” It’s noted in the budget narrative that “a more detailed study regarding the facility’s needs and staffing levels should be considered.”
The Block Island School is requesting appropriations of $5,070,965 for its 2020 budget, which would be a 3.7 percent, or $181,338 increase over the current budget. The school has had an average budget of $4,758,159 over the past four years.
Superintendent Michael Convery said the reason for the increase is due in part to a 22.7 percent, or about $37,000 decrease in state aid; $40,000 for two employees enrolling in health benefits; $12,000 for two workman’s compensation claims; shared funding of a part-time school psychologist with the Medical Center; and funding for a part-time math teacher.
The town’s administration budget is proposed at $1,426,917, a two percent increase, or $24,205 in expenses over the current fiscal year. The town’s contingency amount will remain at $50,000.
Roberge noted that his salary of $119,652 would remain the same as 2019, and his housing assistance would be reduced from $24,000 to $12,000 in 2020.
The Coordinator of Human Services/Director of Public Welfare position will see an increase of $5,000 to $15,000 in 2020.
The Finance Department’s budget will be decreased by seven percent, or $31,576, for a total budget expense of $395,226.
The Highways Department proposed a budget of $964,117 for 2020.
One item Roberge said would be explored is creating a new hybrid position that would float between the Highways Department and the Facilities Manager’s office.
“This was already budgeted into the 2019 budget, but wasn’t filled,” he said.
“I would like to have that as a flex/hybrid position that not only serves a highways function, but a facilities function,” said Roberge, who noted that he consulted with Sam Bird, the town’s Facilities Manager and Mike Shea, Highways Superintendent. “We’re finding that the number of projects that we have regarding facilities” calls for the position. This would be aimed at “an all hands on deck approach to solving problems.” Roberge said the flex position may result in a two percent reduction to the Highways proposed budget.
Roberge said a Highways Department employee “has been working more on the facilities side. So we’re finding that that model seems to work.”
Fire and Rescue’s 2020 budget will increase by 14 percent, or $39,687, for a total budget of $321,944. Roberge said the increase was driven due in part by recent hires and the employees’ health benefits package, which jumped 42 percent from $58,924 in 2019 to $83,425 in 2020.
The Police Department budget would increase by 11 percent in 2020, or $97,943, for a total budget of $1,020,545. Driving the increase is seasonal wages, up by 26 percent, and vehicle replacement at a cost of $33,157, and an equipment expense of $13,200.
The Harbors Department will see a three percent, or $19,626 increase in its budget, for a total recommended budget of $644,373.
The Building Department has a recommended budget of $250,044, which is a 14 percent increase, or $30,241 over its previous budget.
The Recreation Department has a recommended budget of $417,815, which is a two percent increase, or $8,335 over its previous budget.
GIS/Technology will have a recommended budget of $301,337, which is a 15 percent, or $39,845 increase over its previous budget.
Boards and Commissions
The town’s boards and commissions will have a recommended budget of $197,367, which represents a six percent, or $11,881 decrease over its previous budget.
The town’s budget for capital expenditures has a recommended budget of $427,000, a $136,110 decrease over its prior budget.
Taxes and Revenues
The recommended budget for taxes is $10,693,961, which represents a three percent, or $360,065 increase.
The budget for licenses, permits and fees is $459,318, which is a 5 percent, or $20,318 increase over the prior budget.
The recommended budget for state aid is $1,449,675, which is a one percent, or $12,974 increase over the previous budget.
The budget for reserves is $434,381, which represents a $1,702 increase.
The recommended debt service budget is $2,374,842, which represents an eight percent, or $177,476 increase. The debt service includes an interest only payment of $52,962 for the $1.8 million loan for acquisition of two-thirds of Block Island Power Company stock. According to the budget narrative, the note is expected to be repaid in full prior to March 2020, as BIPCo transitions to the Block Island Utility District.
Other projects that impact the debt service include: the $1,995,000 West Beach revetment project; the $550,000 Community Anchor Institution broadband network; and the $1,500,000 Thomas Property housing initiative.
The next town budget meeting will be held on Monday, March 25 at 7 p.m. when grant expense, the capital improvement program and the debt service will be discussed.
The municipal budget still has to be approved by the Town Council and will then go up before registered voters at the annual Financial Town Meeting on Monday, May 6.
Fiscal year 2020 budget documents can be found on the town’s website at: http://www.new-shoreham.com/index.cfm.