SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The proposed $101 million budget for South Kingstown will head to the public for a pair of hearings on April 14 and 15.
The Town Council on March 22 voted 3-2 to approve a preliminary budget that would not raise the property tax rate from its current level.
It also keeps the property tax transfer to the schools the same as the current year, at $55.99 million. Schools would have the option once per quarter to ask the council for supplemental funding through the PTT.
Councilor Rory McEntee said the town should not enact a property tax increase this year, and said South Kingstown should ready itself to pay approximately $2 million per year for the proposed $85 million school facilities project, which is set to go before voters here on May 4.
The town stands to receive $9 million in federal COVID-related aid over the next two years, McEntee noted.
“The money’s expected to be very flexible as to its use,” McEntee said. “The only restriction on us is that we can’t spend it on retirement or pensions.”
McEntee also said the schools could receive up to $3.5 million in federal aid over the next two years, with some restrictions, and urged the schools to broadly interpret the conditions placed on the funds.
Abel Collins, council president, voted against the proposal. He said the schools’ proposal of a 1.89% increase in the property tax transfer is justified by the budgeting process, and said the budget is a responsible one.
Collins said he had concerns about using federal funds as a stopgap measure.
“I would hate to see that grow in future years,” he said. “I would also say we are no longer looking into the teeth of a pandemic. We’ve caught up with it, the federal government has made available considerable money.”
Councilor Deb Kelso agreed with McEntee that the town should “hold the line” on tax increases.
“I think we need to offer the School Committee the opportunity to come before us and prove that they have the need for an increase in the property tax transfer,” she said.
The school budget has funds to address 10 COVID-related positions.
“We do not know that those are going to continue through the school year,” Kelso said. “They may very well be needed into 2022, but we don’t know that now. There are so many unknowns, and I don’t want to rely on the Recovery Act money for the school department, we don’t know the restrictions on that. I’m relying on the budget that the School Committee passed that shows me there are 10 COVID-related positions that may or may not be needed.”
Once per quarter, the schools can ask the town for a supplemental appropriation, to be added to the property tax transfer as deemed necessary by the Town Council, Town Manager Rob Zarnetske said.
That option would be available in October, then again in January 2022 and April of 2022.
Sensitive to the changes businesses have had to make and the impact on seniors, Councilor Deborah Bergner agreed with McEntee and Kelso.
“We also have a safety net if the schools want to come back for a supplemental appropriation,” she said. “Level funding for the community and the schools makes sense, because there is a way to address supplemental needs.”
Councilor Jess Rose voted no, echoing Collins’ statements, and cautioned that the federal money for the schools will be very restricted.
“It’s money that is going to have to be applied for, for very specific things like PPE,” she said. “I support the 1.89 percent.”
The council also added $2,000 to Neighbors Helping Neighbors and increased stipends for members of the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Assessment Board of Review, from $20 to $40 per meeting.