220106ind budget

South Kingstown Town Hall is just one of the locations where budget discussions will take place in Southern Rhode Island towns this winter as a new calendar year means a renewed focus on the next fiscal year. Adding a new wrinkle to this year’s budget discussions are federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, which allocated a combined $21.2 million dollars to South Kingstown, North Kingstown and Narragansett.

As the New Year begins, so, too, does the budget planning that involves everything from schools and community services to fees and taxes affecting residents in the tri-town area.

In two words, it’s not only winter season, it’s also budget season for these municipalities.

“It is the blueprint for sure for town wide government and school policies that residents and businesses depend on for crucial services,” said North Kingstown Town Manager Ralph Mollis.

At this point in the process, local leaders are assembling costs and were non-committal on total budget numbers to be expected, tax rate changes and major projects townspeople might expect to see unveiled.

“We’re really at the serious stage of review and it would be premature to discuss any projects, expenses or costs until we finish this review,” said Mollis, whose sentiments reflected those of leaders in Narragansett and South Kingstown, too.

A budget is the primary document on which the taxes are based – a crucial spending plan if not carefully crafted can be the turning point in elections for town council and school committee members.

It is a season, too, of many winds that come in the form of townspeople, interest groups, even town government department heads, who want a cut of the budget pie.

They lobby for funding for their favorite big-ticket expense – capital expenses – such as those proposed in Narragansett last year that included network infrastructure and computer replacement, tax utility software, town hall renovations, along with vehicle and equipment replacement, road repairs and storm drain upgrades for the department of public works.

Then there’s the day-to-day operations, which ultimately focus on the top money-siphoning items in a town budget: schools funding, salaries and benefits for town employees and any new employee positions.

No matter the town, school funding in each budget often consumes the largest share of the overall budget.

For example, in North Kingstown, the current total General Fund budget that relies on tax dollars this year was $106.9 million, with the School Department taking $66.1 million of that total.

General government operations, say town leaders, most always take the much smaller share regardless of the town.

The Planning

James Tierney, Narragansett town manager, agreed with Mollis and Terry Murphy, South Kingstown town manager, that researching and estimating expenses for a budget begins almost immediately after a new budget starts.

“We do zero-based budgeting. Each line item and funding source examined,” said Murphy, echoing a process that both Mollis and Tierney said is followed in their towns.

Essentially, it involves department heads estimating costs for ongoing programs or services as well as suggesting the big-ticket items for the capital funding. A similar process is followed with establishing a school budget.

There are meetings after meetings.

School principals, their department heads and eventually the school superintendent talk money and expenses. On the general government side, town managers and their department leaders do the same.

They mostly talk about priorities, officials said, and eventually come down to a list of expenses that become a proposed budget for review with town councils and school committees.

When that proposal travels to elected officials, the leaders and department heads might meet with them in a series of workshops.

Later there will be public hearing for residents and business owners to comment on the costs of running government on which they will pay taxes to fund it.

Once the public has had its opportunities for comments, elected officials know that show time is approaching for them.

On a school committee, it proposes a funding figure to the town council, but the line item expenses are out of reach to the council. It can only decide on a total school budget number.

The council, however, can slice and dice individual expenses in the general government operating funds.

The main show occurs at the town council. An overall picture looms in the larger shadow of setting a tax rate, getting a majority vote of the council and then imposing that rate on each home and business owner.

Murphy described that responsibility as “what number can we manage that is realistic and that the public can withstand.”

Abel Collins, president of the South Kingstown Town Council, also offered that comparative tax rates town-by-town don’t tell a full story because each has a tailored philosophy to the kinds of services communities need and want.

“In my own deliberations, I look at the quality of life for our townspeople and the sustainability of that standard of living, and I compare those goods to the per capita tax burden, which is the most accurate measure of what we are paying to keep the town moving along,” he said.

“My goal at the end is to be able to truthfully say that we are giving current and future residents of the town the best deal possible,” he added.

Jesse Pugh, president of the Narragansett Town Council, echoed Collins and others who talked about the direction-setting costs of capital projects, salary expenses, software, general expenses.

“We’re also provided information on anticipated property tax revenue and other various revenues. The goal each year is to settle on a tax rate that results in a minimal overall tax increase for residents while providing excellent town services and maintenance of town property,” he said.

Federal Rescue Plan Funding

Each town this year is also charting plans for use of millions of dollars from the federal American Rescue Plan. North Kingstown’s total will be $7.8 million, Narragansett $4.5 million and South Kingstown $8.9 million.

The American Rescue Plan contains $350 billion in emergency funding for eligible state, local, territorial, and tribal governments.

It aims to provide aid to small businesses and industries negatively impacted by COVID-19 and these ripple effects on the local economy.

Included are the tourism/ravel Industry, non-profit organizations that serve the needs of vulnerable populations within the community, particularly those heavily impacted by the pandemic.

It aims to provide funds for towns to improve capabilities of staff to respond to public needs and support employees most susceptible to COVID.

In addition to COVID relief, it also attempts to focus on some broader issues outside of the pandemic.

It aims to assist with utility Infrastructure, such as making necessary improvements to water and sewer infrastructures, including projects that address the impacts of climate change.

Lastly, it has provisions to spur investment in broadband efforts to improve reliability, accessibility and affordability of internet.

Narragansett and North Kingstown officials said that they are still in the process of determining projects and investments that qualify. They intend to have a public presentation of plans in the coming weeks.

South Kingstown, however, already charted plans for its spending. They include:

Technology – Office 365 – The town is seeking a professional services firm to complete the migration of Office365 inclusive of all files, SharePoint and Teams to the cloud. The Town will greatly benefit from having Office 365 to allow for multiple contributors on projects with shared documents and files.

Office 365 will include additional cloud storage and Teams virtual meetings technology, which would replace Zoom.

Combined Natural Resources Officer and Harbormaster ­— The Town Council approved the establishment of a full time position of a combined natural resources officer and harbormaster. The combination of higher level harbormaster activity and the need for dedicated attention to the town’s natural resources supports the need for it, officials said.

Mental Health in Policing – Specified police roles of community officers will be non – enforcement positions that focus on the overall social service needs of the community and also focus on community engagement which will ultimately bring the police department closer to the citizens it serves. SKPD plans to reassign two seasoned officers to the community policing division for this program enhancement.

Community Para-Medicine and Mental Health Program – To reverse the spike in mental health care needs due to the effects of Covid-19, the South Kingstown EMS Community Paramedic Program would work to implement integrated behavioral and mental health care to the citizens of South Kingstown.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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