NORTH SMITHFIELD – Despite significant uncertainty surrounding spending and the future as the town works to curb the COVID 19 pandemic, North Smithfield officials have continued to work on the town’s 2021 budget, drafting a fiscal plan that would see around $46.8 million in expenditures, up nearly $2 million from the previous year.
“I’ve gone through this with an attitude where I have to do it with the best information I have available,” said Town Administrator Gary Ezovski during a virtual meeting this week with members of the Budget Committee.
Finance Director Cynthia DeJesus noted that the town has had many unexpected expenditures in response to the pandemic, and that refunds from FEMA aren’t expected until at least next year.
“I don’t expect a surplus,” DeJesus said.
Proposed budgets drafted by both Ezovski and the committee include roughly $787,000 in new spending for schools, down significantly from the $1.15 million the department requested from the town. DeJesus noted that it is still unclear how much the school department can expect in state aid.
“Nobody knows anything right now about the schools,” she said.
The draft fiscal plans also include spending of $190,000 this year for four new police cruisers. Ezovski noted that he had initially hoped the number could be cut down to three, but he changed his mind after viewing the department’s fleet.
“All four are needed,” the administrator said. “They’re used every day.”
Another $175,000 in capital funds would be used to purchase a six-wheeler truck for the Department of Public Works.
Town roadways would also see some much needed repairs under the plan, with $600,000 dedicated toward road and sidewalk repair and resurfacing, up $150,000 from the previous year.
“It’s committed,” said Ezovski of the expense, noting the funds will be used to repair Parkview Drive, Edward Avenue, Mechanic Street and Old Great Road.
Ezovski has proposed spending $40,000 for a study on what can be done at the property that once held Halliwell Elementary School.
Committee member Phil Godfrin said he would rather see the funds used to start demolition on the former school property.
“I just think we can get more for $40,000 than a 40 or 50 page report telling us what we already know,” said Godfrin.
“This is looking at the entire 30 acres and saying, ‘what’s the highest and best use?'” Ezovski responded. “There’s a lot that can be done with that land.”
Godfrin also questioned need for spending $100,000 to restore the town’s fund balance.
“It kinda automatically grows on its own because of the budgeting process,” he said.
Ezovski argued for the need to keep money in the contingency account.
“Certainly the last few years we’ve been fortunate that we have managed the budget,” Ezovski said, noting that the account has grown as result. “We can roll the dice and hope that we do the same in the current year.”
“A one percent contingency on any budget is not a big number,” he added.
The committee has been meeting twice a week since February to analyze the budget numbers and arrive at the current proposal. Overall, Godfrin said he’s happy with the progress, noting that the administrator made significant cuts from his original plan that would have seen more than $1 million more in spending.
“The budget looks pretty good this year,” Godfrin said, noting that he still wants to see how the plan would affect taxes. “I think it all comes back to the levy.”
Budgeter John Cormier proposed increasing the town’s contribution to the food pantry by $5,000, up from the typical $200.
“I could justify giving $7,000 to the food bank given what’s upon us,” Cormier said. “I think there’s a major need here.”
Budgeters asked the administrator if the $2,000 dedicated to Clean & Green Day last year would still be spent. The event, an annual town-wide in celebration of Earth Day, was cancelled this month over fears of the virus.
“I still think there is potential to have one this year,” said Ezovski. “There’s interest in a town-wide cleanup. I keep getting calls.”
Ezovski pointed out that the town is still operating with significant unknowns since the pandemic halted everything from government processes to the businesses allowed to operate, questioning if deadlines for municipal budget processes will be changed.
“We have to jump off a cliff, and we have to know where we’re going to land,” Ezovski said. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”
The process is still set to include a public hearing with final fiscal decisions to be made by the Town Council.
Budgeters will hold their next virtual meeting on Thursday, April 30. Residents can join the meeting from computers, tablets or smartphones at https://zoom.us/j/97075941073 or dial in by phone at 1 301-715-8592 using meeting ID: 970 7594 1073.
To view the complete proposed list of revenues and expenditures visit https://www.nsmithfieldri.org/budget-committee/pages/fy2021-additional-budgets
Editor’s note: An original version of this story credited John Wilbur with comments made by John Cormier. We apologize for the error.