Budget passes at Financial Town Meeting with little fanfare

Fri, 05/06/2022 - 10:15am

The Town of New Shoreham called the citizenry together on Monday night for the annual Financial Town Meeting. The Board of Canvassers had elected to forego streaming of the event, as it felt that offering a video alternative would entice people to stay home and watch, rather than attending in person. Judging by the sparse attendance in the Block Island School gymnasium, people must have stayed home to watch something else anyway.
A primary focus of the FTM, as stated in the warrant for the meeting, is to allow the community to determine what town services, operations, and capital improvements will be funded for the upcoming year. The annual operating and capital budget, which is prepared by the Town Manager and staff and
approved by the Town Council, is presented for the public for a vote.

Moderator Margaret O’Neill and Assistant Moderator Doug Michel presented each item listed on the warrant as well as each section of the budget, broken down by department.

The first item was the Block Island School’s request for $10.4 million in new bonding for renovations. As rain began to fall and loud, leaky-sounding splashes began to reverberate around the gymnasium, Superintendent Bob Girardi explained a major problem at the school is water leaking into the building. He said that the blue recycling bins that were sitting in the corner were often used to catch the drips when the rain was heavy. Girardi told the voters that when the
sun is right, one can see it shining through the crack in the gymnasium wall where the cinderblock lower half meets the metal-sided upper half. With a backdrop of water-damaged walls behind him, and rain pelting the metal box building, Girardi said the gymnasium was a “community building” and “emergency shelter” in need of repair.
He also explained that besides repairing the leaky gym, the renovation would repair leaks in the main school building as well as replace and upgrade the HVAC system. The Rhode Island Department of Education offers a reimbursement plan for school renovations of between 35 and 45 percent.
Town Manager Maryanne Crawford said that the town would receive a guaranteed 35 percent reimbursement of the renovation cost, with the possibility of getting up to 45 percent back. She said that the reimbursement amount will not be finalized until the project is completed and RIDE verifies that the project complied with all its regulations.
Resident Nancy Greenaway spoke about the importance of maintaining the building once it was renovated. She also said there had been money allocated at least three different times to stop the leaking in the main school building, and yet the leaking persisted. She said she did not want to “spend $10 million and have to come back for more.”
Striking a different tone, Greenaway then told the crowd that what was “more important than the building, is what you teach and who teaches it.”
The $10 million school renovation bond item passed with an instantaneous counting of raised hands.
The moderator moved through the next few items on the warrant rather quickly, with the townsfolk voting to approve borrowing for the Sewer District to perform inspections and repairs to the system, and voting to accept the reports of the town’s Finance Department, School Superintendent, Medical Center, Housing Board, and Land Trust.
Crawford then gave introductory remarks on the operating and capital budget for fiscal year 2023, saying the budget “continues to implement positive changes” citing infrastructure, technology upgrades, improvements to the library, and road paving. She said that the budget could not include all increases requested by all departments, but that she believed the budget would provide for the “level of service the town requires.”
The budget calls for an increased tax levy of 6.2 percent, which requires approval from the state. Crawford reported that the state had signed off on the increase.
Resident Jim Hinthorn spoke first from the citizenry, and asked about the raises projected for various department heads. He said the raises seemed to “vary from 13 percent down to two percent,” and he asked for an explanation of any raise over four percent.
The question went unanswered at the time, and was brought up again by Library Director Kristin Baumann, whose annual raise was not at the top end of the spectrum. Baumann had asked similar questions all the way back at the budget workshop meetings, where she was told on April 13 that non-union employees’ salaries and raises are at the discretion of the town manager.
Hinthorn asked his question again, and this time received an answer. Crawford clarified at the FTM on Monday that the discrepancies in raises for department heads were a reflection of a number of factors. Some departments had leadership changes, and new people coming in may not have been hired at the rate of the previous person, Crawford told the group. Additionally, she said some raises reflected the need to play “catch-up” with a person’s salary, as they had been
underpaid before. She also mentioned that some of the department heads were in the town employee union, and they are not technically supposed to be. She said some of the raises were to give the town the ability to negotiate removing those employees from the union.
Hinthorn said it still did not add up for him.

The annual budget was passed department by department, with very little discussion beyond these salary questions.

The meeting finished quickly, with the remaining items on bonds and taxing passing in quick succession with nary a question raised by the voters, some of whom began to trickle out after the annual budget was passed.