NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The North Kingstown Town Council approved the town budget for Fiscal Year 2022 during their meeting Monday night by a 3-2 vote along party lines, with the most contentious measure being the town appropriation for the North Kingstown School Department fund.
The budget totals $121,722,837, up from the FY21 budget of $117,051,204, with eyes on moving into the post-pandemic world and planning for expenditures in the coming years. The items were voted on individually before a final vote to approve the total budget, which went along party lines with Democrats Katie Anderson, Kim Page and Town Council President Greg Mancini voting in favor of the measure while Republicans Mary Brimer and Kerry McKay voted against it over concerns regarding the town appropriation to the schools. All other parts of the budget were approved unanimously.
The Town Council approved the town’s allocation to the district of $67,662,787, $55,876,000 of which was appropriated by the town while the additional $11,286,187 comes via state aid, down from their initial request of $71,932,787 back in February.
Both Brimer and McKay expressed concerns with the price tag and potential tax increases while saying the district had done a great job on lesser budgets in the past and that past threats of cuts by the district hadn’t come to fruition, and that they would be able to pull money from their surplus.
The district, represented by North Kingstown Superintendent Phil Auger, NKSD Chief Operating Officer Mary King and School Committee Chairman Gregory Blasbalg, countered, arguing that the majority of the listed $4.2 million surplus mentioned is already committed to other reserves as a way for the district to ensure its long term fiscal solvency and try and prevent a need for future bond initiatives to pay for expensive projects, and that the real number was closer to $1.5 million, or about two percent of their current budget according to King.
After a recommendation from the League of Cities and Towns regarding cutting school budget by five percent was mentioned, King said such a move would result in the district needing to make $2.7 million in cuts and would severely hinder their ability to roll out more social and emotional support for students and summer sessions to combat the learning losses of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as help students to process and move on in a post-pandemic world.
Pointing to arguments that the district was losing students and therefore wouldn’t need as much revenue, King said that while enrollment was down by 613 students from FY99 to FY21, that number was only 13 from FY13 to FY21, while she noted the highest demand for classes were coming at the elementary school level.
McKay pointed to state and federal funding that the district will be receiving, but King, Auger and Blasbalg all argued that those numbers are unknown and that they did not want to commit a one time fund to a potentially persistent problem.
“The bottom line is we’re just concerned about creating a structural deficit,” Auger said.
Blasbalg said it was impossible for them to continue budgeting with uncertainties regarding the numbers.
“We can’t budget for money we don’t have or money we won’t know we’ll have,” Blasbalg said.
King added that the district is steadfast in not using one time funds to pay for general costs and reinforced that position.
“We use fund balances only for one time funds,” King said.
She also stressed the importance of funding the district for capital reserve, saying they needed to prepare for future costs before they grew too large and required bond initiatives.
McKay said that while he found the district to be well run and well funded, he believed that they were asking too much of the taxpayer and asked to cut the request by two percent.
“Sooner or later, the taxman cometh and we need to pay,” McKay said.
Brimer had similar concerns, saying rising property values leading to an inevitable tax increase already.
The vote on the appropriation went 3-2 with the Democrats in favor and the Republicans in opposition, with the result the same for the total budget. The votes for the other budget items were unanimous, including a $36,984,475 general fund, $4,867,538 for the debt service fund, an unfunded town Capital Reserve Fund, $439,882 for the Allen Harbor Fund, $1,772,190 for the Municipal Golf Course Fund, $4,582,414 for the Water Fund, $2,344,955 for the Sewer Fund, $225,000 for the Municipal Court Fund, $1,195,161 for the Transfer Fund, $1,647,626 for the Library Fund, $500,000 for the NKSD Capital Reserve Fund, $1,079,880 for School Enterprise Funds and $12,908,3087 for the School Restricted Fund.
Also along party lines was the vote to extend the declared state of emergency in North Kingstown by an additional two months to June 28, with Town Manager Ralph Mollis asking for the extension as to stay in unison with the state and following along with its reopening, with May 7 and May 28 being two of the biggest reopening dates for changes in Rhode Island, giving the town over a month to re-evaluate the situation. Additionally, Mollis said he didn’t want to pull out prematurely in case it jeopardized any potential COVID-related grants or jeopardized outdoor dining by removing language that allowed for restaurants to greatly expand their outdoor capabilities.
“We’ve utilized (this declaration) strictly to help businesses and approve funding,” Mollis said, adding he understands COVID frustrations and warriness, but that he believes this is the most prudent way forward for the town.
The extension got the endorsement of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce for its outdoor dining component, with Executive Director Kristin Urbach talking up different ways the organization has been supporting local restaurants with giving them access to and assisting with applying for grants from the Small Business Association’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
Brimer said she would support the extension for only a month as a way of assisting restaurants with outdoor dining, something which she asked if it could be separated at the next meeting from the state of emergency declaration, and expressed concerns that social distancing measures were doing more harm than good and that the state has shown they were not capable of leading during the pandemic.
McKay said that out of principle, he would have to vote against the extension as he believes the pandemic should be declared over and the town should fully reopen for the sake of people’s mental health and the financial survival of businesses.
For the Democrats, Mancini said he did not want to see the state of emergency become a permanent fixture in town and backed Mollis’s view that the course of action he called for was the most prudent to the town and that they would do what they could within state and CDC guidelines.
Page said she feels she should listen to the experts, and that all experts presented, including Urbach as a representative of local businesses, endorsed the measure, while Anderson said she understood concerns with depression and mental health, but as a mental health professional believed that was for far more than just social distancing and that there is still a pandemic to get under control even if an end is in sight.
The vote to extend the deadline went the same way as the budget, with Anderson, Page and Mancini in favor and Brimer and McKay opposed.
The town also took its first steps to returning to in person Town Council meetings, with Mancini expressing a goal to have the May 24 meeting being held in person at the Beechwood Senior Center with 100% capacity while adhering to CDC guidelines regarding masks and distancing pending research by the town and that Mollis will be giving a presentation on their findings and the feasibility of doing so at their next meeting on May 10.