NORTH SMITHFIELD – The North Smithfield Town Council approved a $51,255,709 budget Monday night, managing to spend more than what was previously proposed by the Budget Committee while keeping the tax levy increase slightly below the anticipated amount.
The savings came, primarily, through utilization of reserves, and with the help of some unanticipated grant funding.
By the end of a roughly five hour meeting on Monday, June 26, the board had dedicated $800,000 to road repair, around $30,000 for a website upgrade, added a human resource manager and increased the school department budget by half a percent.
On Tuesday, they returned to set the rates, passing a 2.29 percent increase across the board with real estate rates up from 13.914 to 14.246 per thousand; commercial from 18.9 to 19.399; and tangible 42.62 to 43.632. Councilors said the plan will amount to an added tax of $133 for the year on a home valued at $400,000.
Councilors did make some cuts to items such as proposed raises for stipend positions, including the judges and lawyers serving the town. Both budgeters and Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski had recommended 3.25 percent raises, but the majority of councilors agreed the stipends should only be adjusted on a two year cycle.
“They apply for the position and that’s what the position goes for, for two years,” said Councilor Douglas Osier. “It’s not like they’re a town employee. The department itself wasn’t expecting an increase.”
Councilor John Beauregard was among those to make the case for funding the proposed raises, but was ultimately outvoted.
“You don’t make your cuts by taking nickels and dimes from people,” Beauregard said, pointing, in part, to Town Solicitor David Igliozzi. “There’s a lot of times when we call on his services and that meter is not running. David does a lot for this town.”
“If you call Solicitor Igliozzi, he’s there,” agreed Zwolenski. “Please consider that.”
Councilor Paulette Hamilton pointed to the need for consistency, noting the increases were an all or nothing scenario.
“I think the reason we’re doing this is to try to keep the taxes down,” Hamilton said. “Small things add up.”
Town officials were also split on the subject of hiring a human resource manager at a cost of $35,000, a position that was not part of the recommended spending plan.
Zwolenski noted that Benefits and Payroll Coordinator Karen Bernadino has been performing the duties and is certified for the role.
“She’s up to date,” the administrator told councilors.
“Karen’s taking on this role because we’re a small town and we don’t need to spend this kind of money,” added Beauregard.
But Town Council President Kimberly Alves, voting in the majority with Hamilton and Osier, responded, “We think we need this position with what’s been happening,” a likely reference to some recent legal issues involving Town Hall staff.
Zwolenski said he felt the proposal should have been brought up prior to the meeting.
“We should have had a discussion,” he said. “We didn’t.”
An upgrade to the town website was another high priority item for Osier, who noted the town hasn’t updated it’s online presence in around 6 years.
“I think the website needs work and I think now’s the time to do it,” Osier said.
That roughly $30,000 expense was funded through a reserve account that previously held $63,000 under councilors direction on Monday.
Police Chief Tim Lafferty noted that many of the items originally requested as part of his department’s capital budget were funded through a recently-approved COPS grant from the Department of Justice, including new cruisers, cameras and a sign board.
For schools, the board passed a small increase of around $108,000, up half a percent from last year’s appropriation, following news of an $1 million increase in expected state aid. School officials had decreased their initial request for a 3.5 percent increase to one percent or $215,335 following the news, saying they still needed some funding due to unanticipated expenses including increased enrollment and the need to hire both a math interventionist and an athletic director, following the recent resignation of Matthew Tek.
Other items for schools included funding for a school resource officer and to refurbish tennis courts.
Beauregard noted that 200 people signed a recent petition in favor of the athletic hiring.
Asked if the town’s funding increase will go toward hiring Tek’s replacement, School Committee Chairman James Lombardi responded, “I think that’s a committee decision. I think a math interventionist is much more important.”
After the meeting Hamiton described the fiscal plan as a “quality of life budget.”
“We worked to improve many things in the town including adding $800,000 to road repairs, resurfacing and refurbishing the tennis courts, providing safety features for the playgrounds, additional funding for the seniors and the school department, in addition to providing a drone and police cruisers, as well as new firefighter positions,” she said. “It was a collaborative effort that addresses many important issues for our residents.”