WESTERLY — Taxpayers and other interested individuals will have an opportunity to comment Monday on the Town Council’s 2022-23 spending plan for the town and school district. At $97.53 million, the proposed budget is a 2.59% increase from current spending.
The council will conduct the public hearing on the budget Monday at 6 p.m. in Council Chambers at Town Hall. The hearing is the first of at least two public hearings that the council must conduct. The second hearing is scheduled for April 25.
If approved, the proposed budget would keep the appropriation of local tax dollars for education at the same amount called for in the current budget: $49,059,463. The proposed budget also includes $996,300 for municipal capital projects, $1.48 million for school capital projects, $4.96 million for municipal debt, and $6.04 million for school debt.
The budget plan calls for less overall spending than the $98.07 million one put forward by the Board of Finance and less than the $98.48 million plan submitted by Town Manager Shawn Lacey.
As is often the case, the proposed budget reveals changes in how municipal services might be delivered. For instance, Lacey’s budget request includes funds for a new position — assistant town manager. Officials are promoting creation of the position, saying it is needed and will not lead to increased spending since it is based on an assumption that requirements for the town to employ a public works director as well as a director of development services will be eliminated in November when ballot questions will ask voters to approve removing the requirements from the Town Charter.
During a budget review session conducted April 9, the council questioned a couple of items in the proposed capital spending plans, one on the municipal side and one of the education side. Councilors expressed surprise that the Department of Public Works is seeking $421,000 to build a new storage shed at the department’s facility on Larry Hirsch Lane. Lacey said the request reflects officials’ plan to build the new shed for equipment storage after a town-owned building on Beach Street that was used for the same purpose was sold in 2020. Members of the council said they did not recall having been informed that a new storage shed would be needed.
Similarly, councilors questioned a request by the school department for $400,000 to rebuild the athletic locker rooms at Westerly High School. School officials say the decades-old locker rooms are an embarrassment to the school and some of the utilities do not work. The Town Council reduced funding for the locker rooms to $235,000 in addition to $100,000 that had previously been assigned for the project.
Representatives of social service, business and sports organizations that are supported through “subsidies” in the annual budget typically appear before the Town Council during the first budget public hearing to explain their requests, ask for funds to be restored and to express thanks for the town’s support.
The proposed subsidies includes $100,000 for the Westerly Ambulance Corps, a big jump from the $40,000 in the current budget. Lacey said the town would be forced to develop its own emergency medical services agency or contract with one if it were not for the service provided by the private, nonprofit ambulance corps. Running the operation would be a multimillion operation, Lacey said.
The council reduced funding for the Jonnycake Center of Westerly to $32,000 from $35,000. Officials said the increase in the current budget reflected an effort to help the agency during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The council agreed to add $100,000 for annual road work and $50,000 for annual sidewalk work to double the amounts proposed by Lacey. Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr., who initiated the road and sidewalks discussion, said the extra funds were necessary to help move back to $500,000 the annual budget expenditure that had been earmarked in past years. The road funding was previously reduced because officials said it was unnecessary when the town was using bond funds approved by voters for road projects.
The proposed budget also calls for increasing the annual stipend received by council members from $3,861 per year to $5,000 per year for at-large members and $6,000 for the council president.
The budget assumes significant increases in the town’s share of the state’s hotel and meal tax. The increases are based on expected return to pre-pandemic summer vacation activity.