NORTH SMITHFIELD – Rising fuel costs and the need for more staffing for North Smithfield Fire & Rescue Services led councilors to increase the town’s spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, with passage of a $48,414,700 budget this week with roughly $1 million more in allocations than the prior year’s fiscal plan.
Taxpayers won’t find out exactly how that plan will affect their bills until next week, when the Town Council plans to set rates among residential, commercial and tangible property owners.
At a four hour meeting on Monday, June 27, councilors did use austerity measures to eliminate some items recommended for funding by Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski and members of the Budget Committee. Council Vice President Kim Alves led the charge in utilizing surplus and reserves – funding not spent in previous budget cycles – to lessen allocations to several departments, while still ultimately approving the requests.
Those efforts led to the removal of $75,000 for widening of the entry of Pacheco Park, with Alves noting that the work that can be completed during the coming year is already funded in a separate line item.
It was Councilor Paul Vadenais who noted that all of the line items for fueling would need to be increased significantly to avoid deficit spending. That cost increased several allocations, to the tune of $14,000 for Department of Public Works alone, and also included additional funds for heating.
“That’s gone up even more,” Vadenais noted this week.
Vadenais encouraged councilors to eliminate $75,000 of a $100,000 request from the Redevelopment Agency slated to draw in business, according to members of the board.
“There was no plan in place,” Vadenais said of the line item. “There was a lot of discussion, but no actual plan.”
Town Council President John Beauregard started discussion of the council initiative to add two new firefighters into the budget plan at a cost of $220,000.
“It’s a public safety issue,” Beauregard said, pointing to slow response times. “As a community, we’re going to have to decide if it’s worth spending a little more money to potentially save lives.”
Fire Chief David Chartier noted that the town has needed mutual aid from neighboring towns 172 times so far this year and is projected to utilize the service 353 times by year’s end – up 33 from last year.
“It’s a continuing problem,” Chartier said, noting that two new firefighters will allow him to staff the station Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
As a result, third party revenue for the department is expected to increase.
Vadenais persuaded councilors to eliminate $100,000 in spending for land acquisition and preservation.
“I just don’t see it right now,” Vadenais said of the request. “We added to a lot of departments There are other ways we may be able to go about financing that.”
Alves agreed, stating, “It’s not the year for that.”
Beauregard lobbied to keep the line item in the budget, but ultimately relented after seeing the total increase.
“Open space is very important,” he said.
Also zeroed out was a recommendation to place $100,000 in a contingency account.
Councilors spending positions reversed in discussion of the line item for road repair, with Vadenais lobbying to increase the allocation by $50,000.
“It doesn’t take long to eat that up,” Vadenais said of the $600,000 recommended by budgeters – and ultimately passed.
“I’d like to pave all the roads but I don’t know if right now is the time to increase it,” Beauregard said.
Once projected fuel costs were added in, schools received an increase of 2.1 percent over last year, for a total budget of $28,465,933.
Councilors had scheduled a second meeting for Wednesday, June 29 to continue budget deliberations if needed, but ultimately wrapped up the fiscal plan Tuesday night.
“It’s a good budget,” Vadenais said of the board’s work. “It’s a fair budget.”
But it remains unclear how that plan will affect ratepayers. Councilors have scheduled a special meeting on Tuesday, July 5, where they’ll take a first vote on an initiative to increase exemptions for veterans, an effort started earlier this year by Zwolenski. The ordinance change requires a second vote, which is scheduled to take place on Thursday, July 7, and with the complete fiscal plan in place, that’s when the board expects to set the rates among various categories of taxpayers.
An advertisement for the budget hearings earlier this month showed rates decreasing equally among three categories of taxpayers, a division resident Michael Clifford has called unfair, pointing out that home values increased 22 percent on average following the recent revaluation, while commercial property increased only 7 percent, and tangible property remained the same.
On Friday, Beauregard told NRI NOW of next week’s rate-setting meeting, “I don’t see the breakdown – percentage-wise being a whole lot different than it is now, but we’ll go over it at that time. We have to come up with something that’s fair for everyone – the businesses and the residents.”
Asked if he’s in favor of decreasing tangible rates he added, “Nothing is off the table.”
“I just want to examine everything as a whole,” Beauregard said. “I think there’s a recession in the future, and I think we have to keep that in mind for residents and for businesses.”