NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — In a controversial move that drew immediate fire, the Town Council cut $441,000 that had been budgeted for the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library for 2019-20 at an April 25 work session.
The move also stoked the division between supporters of opening a new library in the building that formerly housed the Belmont Market and a majority on the council that voted in January to sell the building instead.
Project supporters now plan a protest march at 6:30 p.m. on Monday from the library to the Town Council budget hearing at Town Hall to demand that the funding be restored.
The cut to the library’s total $841,000 allocation, bringing it down to $400,000, came in the final 20 minutes of a three-hour work session on various budget items. According to library supporters, the cut reportedly threatens $181,000 in matching state library funds.
“This is a travesty,” Councilman Patrick Murray said. “How many people go there? Two-hundred or 300 a day, and we’re cutting funding?”
Councilors Richard Lema and Jill Lawler, along with President Matthew Mannix, supported the cut. The same three were also the majority that voted to sell the Belmont building in January.
The library maintains a fund balance that is currently at about $686,000, and has a budget of slightly more than $1 million.
Lema said the fund balance amount shows that the library is over-budgeted.
“They haven’t used it if they’ve got $686,443 in the budget right now,” Lema said. He said the fund was at about $321,000 in 2014 and 2015, and at $596,000 in 2016.
“They’re not using that money,” Lema said. “This is taxpayers giving money to the library. I don’t think anyone should be able to build up a piggy bank and do what they want with it.”
Pugh argued that the library built up the fund balance from other sources of revenue, not entirely from town dollars.
“You don’t know where other revenue is coming from,” he said. “It’s not all from that transfer.”
He also said the library is spending from its reserve, which was $709,000 last year and will decrease another $77,000 this coming year.
“It’s not going up,” he said. “It’s weird that, all of a sudden this year, let’s cut the budget.”
Then there was a back-and-forth argument between Pugh and Lema about whether either was a socialist before Mannix steered the discussion back on track.
Lawler said the surplus should be used to operate the library.
“They do have a surplus, we were just made aware of this. It’s a very high surplus,” she said.
She said the town should still cover a high increase in the library insurance payment, however. Lema agreed, and set the $400,000 number.
“Unbelievable,” Pugh said. “You’re going to cut half their budget. This is shameful.”
Lema and Pugh then both charged that the other man should resign. Pugh called Lema a liar.
“Were you using the f-word,” Lema asked.
Pugh and Murray then appeared to leave the work session, about 10 minutes before it wrapped up with other business, including allocating the $441,000 library cut to other parts of the budget. Of that amount $40,000 went toward a pickle ball court at the Parks and Recreation center on Clarke Road, $80,000 to the community center and $50,000 to add a Public Works employee on Jan. 1.
The remaining unallocated $188,000 was split 50-50 between reducing taxes and adding to the town’s fund balance.
The moves reduced the estimated tax increase by two cents, to bring next year’s rate to $10.28 per $1,000 of assessed real property. The current rate is $9.95.
The workshops last week trimmed the town’s overall budget proposal from $61.6 million to $61.1 million, before the library cut.