Budget board proposes level funding for N.S. schools

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Noting that the North Smithfield School Department has or will receive $2.46 million in COVID-19-related assistance from the federal government this year, members of the budget board have proposed a fiscal plan that would see no increase in the town appropriation in 2022, and total expenditures of roughly $400,000 less than proposed by Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski.

“We believe the School Department currently has adequate resources to meet any increase in its financial responsibilities,” said Budget Committee Chairman James Rowe at a budget hearing before the Town Council on Monday, June 7.

The board has also proposed funding of $61,000 less than recommended by Zwolenski for the town’s, “fund balance,” account, and $15,000 less for capital projects.

Zwolenski’s plan would see a total town budget of $47,365,078 while budgeters support $46,966,912. Increases in 2022 include $94,000 for a contractual pay increase for the police department, $85,000 for a fire department service contract increase; a $27,000 waste disposal contract increase and a $33,000 increase for employee benefits.

“If adopted, the proposed budget would result in a modest decrease in the tax rate,” Rowe said, noting that budget plan takes into account incoming funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Council President John Beauregard made a motion to continue the public hearing on the fiscal plan to Monday, June 14 to allow residents time to look at the numbers. The complete budget proposals and departmental requests can be viewed here.

Unlike past years, the budget documents do not show a comparison to the previous three fiscal years, a change Finance Director Cynthia DeJesus said it the result of using a new system to track figures this year.
“It’s not going to be apples to apples anymore,” DeJesus said.

Former Town Administrator Gary Ezovski called the plan to decrease the amount dedicated to the fund balance, a reserve account built up during the course of his administration, “a mistake.”

“I’m proud of what we did as a team to get there,” Ezovski said of past decisions to increase the contingency account, looked at by credit rating agencies such as Moody’s Investors Service, at a rate of $100,000 per year. “We are a well-financed well-established fiscal entity.”

Zwolenski has recommended funding of $61,000 for the fund balance account in the 2022 budget, an appropriation the budget board members left out completely.

Ezovski also spoke in favor of more funding for both the town’s OPEB obligation for retirees, and road reconstruction account.

“There is no need to fix it in one year, but what we were working towards was a plan to fix it in 20 years,” Ezovski said of the OPEB obligation, for which both the administrator and the budget board have recommended $100,000 less in spending than previous years. “Taking money from the contribution is not following a plan. We shouldn’t be going backwards.”

Both the board and Zwolenski have recommended $550,000 in spending for road repair, an account Ezovski said should be funded at a rate of $800,000 annually.

Two North Smithfield teachers, who also identified themselves as taxpayers and parents of students in the district, spoke against the proposed decrease in the school allotment. This year, School Department has requested a town appropriation of $21,309,109, while Zwolenski recommended $21,012,041, and budgeters $20,701,519. The board has also recommended decreasing the appropriation for the district’s capital expenses by $25,000.

“I feel like that is to enhance and grow our students, since things have been so difficult,” Natalie O’Brien said of the COVID-related increase from the federal government. “It’s great that we can provide extra opportunities.”
Beauregard thanked budgeters for their efforts.

“The Budget Committee is probably one of the most time-consuming committees to serve on,” he said. “You guys did a great job.”

The gathering was the first allowing in-person attendance for residents since council meetings went virtual in reaction to the pandemic last spring, and was also run via Zoom to allow at home participation. Residents will have another chance to weigh in on the proposals at the council’s next budget meeting scheduled for Monday, June 14, which is also expected to offer both options

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