Voters approve 2021 budget, bond issues

Thu, 07/30/2020 - 5:00pm

Cheers and applause echoed through the Block Island School as the island wide broadband project was overwhelmingly approved this past week at the annual Financial Town Meeting. That was about the only noise made at the meeting, which took place on Monday, July 27, as voters had almost no questions or concerns about the budgets and bond issues presented.

The vote on the broadband issue allows the town to borrow “up to $8 million” for the project. After the broadband vote, more than half the attendees left the meeting. Town Moderator Doug Michel had to remind the vacating voters to social distance on their way out.

Two other bond issues were approved, one for the High Street/Payne Road water main replacement project at $1.3 million, and a roads upgrade project for $1 million. The 2021 municipal budget of $15,241,210 was also approved by voters.

The annual Financial Town Meeting, normally held in May, was postponed to July due to health and safety guidelines included in the town’s emergency ordinance that was passed back in March.

Inside and outside the Block Island School, where the meeting was held to accommodate physical distancing requirements, chairs had been strategically placed in the gym, the cafeteria and the outside lawn. It was a touchless sign-in process, and voters were asked not to leave their chairs once they had chosen a seat. Outside, as the sun set after a hot and dry day, there was a gentle breeze that provided some relief.

Inside, Town Moderator Doug Michel called for each motion on the floor, with the registered voters in the audience raising their hands in favor or in opposition to the motion. 

Island-wide broadband project

“We are here tonight to authorize $8 million” for an island-wide fiber network, which would connect all island homes and businesses, said Town Finance Director Amy Land.

Land, representing the Broadband Committee, stated the island-wide fiber project was “both the most viable and the most cost effective solution for connecting Block Island.”

“This is an up to $8 million number, and includes costs that will be recovered through subscriber fees and it leaves room for every property on Block Island to subscribe. The initial calculations are based on 1,700 properties being connected… we know some people may not elect to [subscribe], the actual number could be lower if not everyone chose to take service from the network. These numbers are hard numbers; we have bids on hand based on a Request for Proposal process the town went through last fall. This was a technology neutral process. We invited fiber builders to bid, but we also invited fixed wireless and hybrid solutions and other alternative broadband solutions to respond to our RFPs,” said Land. Sertex is the builder of the broadband network, and Crocker Communications will design the project.

Land addressed “why we have to decide this now.”

“The town has an opportunity now to participate in the Federal Communications Commission [funding], called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The town can secure subsidies up to $2 to 3 million for this project. To participate, we needed authorization in hand to bring to the FCC in October [2020],” said Land.

High Street/Payne Road water main

The New Shoreham Water District is planning to replace a section of water main on High Street and Payne Road. The overall cost of the project is $2.4 million, but voters were asked to approve a $1.343 million bond authorization because the district is seeking federal funds to cover about 45 percent of the cost of the project.

According to a narrative for the High Street/ Payne Road Main Replacement Project provided to voters:

“The New Shoreham Water District is planning to replace a critical section of asbestos-concrete water main on High Street and Payne Road that is approaching the end of its useful life. The water main that is being replaced is the main supply line that connects the water treatment facility with the rest of the water distribution system. This section of water main is critical in the supply of drinking water and fire protection to both harbors, including many public facilities. The impending failure of this section of water main would result in the shutdown of the entire water system.

“The total cost of the project is estimated to be approximately $2.402 million and is scheduled to begin in Spring of 2021. The Water District has secured $1,059,788 in grant funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Water and Wastewater program for the main replacement. The USDA grant is funding 45% of the total cost of the project. The balance of the project of $1,343,000 will be funded through a USDA loan.”

Land said the “town has secured through the USDA a grant loan combination” for the water main replacement.

“A grant would be funding 45 percent of the project. The balance of $1.343 million will be funded through a USDA loan. [The first question is] The proposal is for the tax payers of the town because of the critical nature of the infrastructure surveying the downtown area to fund 25 percent of that, or $335,750. The second question will deal with the funding of the balance of that loan, or 75 percent to be paid by the water rate payers. This first question relates to the taxpayers’ portion proposed to be $335,750,” said Land.

Road improvements

Highways Superintendent Mike Shea is requesting $1 million in bond authorization for repairing and upgrading town roads, including three segments of roadways: Pilot Hill Road, Old Town Road, and Connecticut Avenue and Old Town Road.

Land stated the need to “push forward now” with the roadways project.

“One of the reasons for pushing this forward now rather than holding off is because we will likely have an opportunity with some of the other roads projects that are underway on the island, particularly the water main, to realize some savings in the road work and paving components… we have that opportunity for potential savings and again we didn’t want to pass that up,” said Land.

According to a memo from Town Engineer Jim Geremia, “At this time, the Superintendent of Roads has identified three segments of town roads that are in need of repair. The proposed work for these segments of roadway focuses on rebuilding the road, improving the structural integrity of the road, reducing the stormwater run-off from the road, improving stormwater treatment, and widening of the roadways where necessary.”

The three segments of roadway improvements are on Pilot Hill Road, Old Town Road, and Connecticut Avenue.

Municipal budget

The Town of New Shoreham’s 2021 budget of $15,241,210 was approved with no dissenting comments, although a few voters voted nay on some of the individual department allocations.

A memo from Town Manager Jim Kern stated:

“The budget put forward for FY21 before the onset of the global pandemic and the corresponding economic downturn was already very constrained. It represented a level service budget with few new initiatives and a very limited capital plan funded largely from the Infrastructure Fund. It was based on a revenue structure that included essentially level fee income and with more than half of the budget growth funded through a 4.0 percent increase in the tax levy. The largest expense drivers included continued implementation of a program to bring Town employee salaries closer to state and regional averages and a 3.2 percent increase in the school appropriation. A number of requests for community support organizations like BIVFR had not been funded. Effects of coronavirus and the economic aftermath require a significant revision of the Town’s revenue estimates. Initial review of the FY21 budget as originally presented resulted in a revenue shortfall of over $1 million dollars. A number of strategies were employed to present a revised FY21 budget that is first based in fiscal responsibility and second provides the highest level of flexibility in a year that has the potential for a wide range of financial outcomes,” addressed Kern in his letter.

Kern said at the meeting that the town “positioned the community for reasonable flexibility and viability into the next year.”

‘The work of people who simply just care’

The Block Island Times reached out to members of the Town Council after the Financial Town Meeting, to hear their thoughts and reactions on the outcome of the meeting. Town Manager Jim Kern said:

“I believe the vote to authorize the pursuit of the island-wide broadband will prove to be a transformational vote in this town’s history. And the level of support for the proposal reflected that. I am pleased that the voters demonstrated a level of faith in town leadership to see fit to approve the Town Capital and Operating Budgets virtually unanimously. The next 18 to 24 months will be challenging, but by working together the town can use its present position to deal with the difficulty and continue to function effectively.”

First Warden Ken Lacoste also shared his thoughts for all the work done by our staff to set up for this important event.”

“They all did a great job, from the seating arrangements, to the packets, to the sound system. The vote on the Broadband buildout of course stands out as a milestone for the island. This spring of Covid demonstrated the need for and benefits of improved communication channels for government activities, education, medicine, business and so much more. The Broadband Committee, especially [Town Finance Director] Amy Land, [Facilities Manager] Sam Bird and [IT Specialist] Michelle Spero worked so hard for so many hours to provide us with the path and help bring it to fruition. Overall the budget reflects a challenge but also a resiliency to the system. The difficulty lying ahead is to plan for uncertain revenues, shore up our infrastructure and return to our commitments to our great employees. We are looking forward to starting on these issues soon with our new Town Manager,” said Lacoste.

Second Warden André Boudreau shared that “the night reaffirmed how our government should work, public participation and the work of people who simply just care.”

“Our budget defines our priorities for the next year and in this case long into the future. I was thrilled that we had a very high turnout no matter how anyone voted. My takeaway: It was weird, we were so far apart,” said Boudreau.

Boudreau expressed gratitude to Robbie Gilpin, Chair of the North Light Commission, who asked that seasonal salaries be moved into the maintenance budget due to the fact that the North Light is not open.

“He reminded us how it’s done, kicking it old school 80s, by making a successful motion to be sure his salary budget was put into his maintenance budget. He also announced his retirement...again. Better luck next year Robbie! Meg Vitacco showed what courage was. Only a handful of young people came. Thank you Reilly [Hobe] and Fiona [Crawford]. Jacques [Boudreau] too but he didn’t have a choice. It was that or pay his own college tuition. Doug Michel yet again retains the title of the adult in the room. His decades of service and stepping in when needed and giving his all is rare in any community and immensely appreciated. We simply could not function without [Town Finance Director] Amy Land. She and her office have been the constant through five town managers and interims. Soon to be six. All while leading the Broadband Committee and being a mom. It was no small feat to pull this off. I commend all of our staff and volunteers who helped set it up. Our clerks, our canvassers, our police, our IT staff... Thank you!”

Councilor Sven Risom said how “impressed” he was with the setup and organization of the Financial Town Meeting.

“I was very impressed with the organization of the Financial Town Meeting at the school — the room was well planned and set-up and everyone followed the requests for distance, masks, etc. It was great to see many folks from the community even though the masks sometimes made it difficult to recognize everyone! Amy Land has done a fantastic job in building up financial reserves over the past years that make the 2021 budget very difficult but manageable and I thank the Finance Department for leading the 2021 budget process. This is a very tough year with everyone sacrificing and working hard in this jittery COVID environment so only warrants were forwarded with critical timing benefits given rural loans and project efficiencies. I am very pleased with the outcome of the meeting and the community’s support of the proposed projects — now the real work starts!”

Councilor Martha Ball shared how “gratified” she was on how many people came out for the meeting.

“I was gratified that so many people came out. I don’t think we would have had that turn out without the Broadband [project]. Everyone has to be in this together and we are very much appreciative. It’s a long road, and it’s not over. Most important thing to understand: it still takes a while to recover from something like this. It was a tough budget year, and we were very fortunate to be where we were going into this year.”

Councilor Chris Willi also stated “I’m extremely pleased the broadband warrant passed and thankful for all the hard work that the Broadband team did. Considering the format and circumstances under which this FTM meeting had to take place I was very happy to see the turn out, the cooperation, and that it went smoothly.”