The Town Council meets on Saturday to go through the proposed $75.9 million budget for Fiscal 2022, doing a deep dive into many areas.
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CONTACT: Matt Sheley at (401) 712-2221 or email@example.com
ALL THINGS MIDDLETOWN BUDGET SUBJECT OF WEEKEND DISCUSSION
MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (MAY 8, 2021) – Earlier today, the Town Council gathered with various department heads at Town Hall to discuss the proposed $75.9 million budget for the town in fiscal 2022.
During the wide-ranging conversation, the council addressed everything from fire services to refuse disposal, the beaches, police protection, public works, the schools and more.
If the proposed budget is approved, the new proposed residential tax rate is expected to be $12.48 per $1,000 of assessed property value. On the commercial side, the proposed tax rate is expected to be $16.81 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Below are some of the highlights of the day:
8 a.m. sharp: Council President Paul M. Rodrigues said “We’re live. Morning everybody!” to kick off the budget meeting. Several town staffers were on hand for about an hour earlier to make sure everything behind the scenes went smoothly. Coffee and morning treats were provided by Ma’s Donuts on West Main Road.
8:01 a.m.: The council and all in attendance stood and performed the Pledge of Allegiance.
8:02 a.m.: Rodrigues said the council would break from 9:30-11:30 a.m. for the funeral at St. Lucy’s Church of Christopher Brown, brother of Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown.
8:06 a.m.: Public hearings for residents and businesspeople to offer input on the numbers were announced for May 19 and 26 online before digging into the budget.
8:07 a.m.: Interim Fire Chief Robert McCall was first up, with Finance Director Marc Tanguay providing an overview of the $6.5 million figure, which is about $1.2 million more than the current budget. Most of the increase was attributed to the proposed purchase of two new pumper trucks.
8:14 a.m.: Council Vice President Thomas P. Welch III said typically, the useful life for a front-line pumper truck was 10 years. The department’s two front-line pumper trucks were from 2009 and 2012, so they’re getting up there in years, Welch said. And even if the town was to order a new pumper truck, Welch said it takes at least 18 months for one truck to be built. “We’re going to need at least one pumper,” Welch said.
8:16 a.m.: Councilman Christopher Logan asked for the town to investigate ways to stagger the purchase of such large capital items like the pumper trucks so two big purchases weren’t hitting the books at once.
8:20 a.m.: Councilman Dennis Turano quizzed McCall about whether the Fire Department would need to have a pumper truck continue to respond to rescue calls with additional staffing coming on board. McCall responded affirmatively, saying it was required for fire safety standards and to provide the best service for the community.
8:24 a.m.: As the briefing from the Fire Department wrapped up, Rodrigues thanked McCall for his time joked “Boy if they all go like that, we might not need a recess,” drawing laughs. Rodrigues went onto thank each department head, staff member and elected official as they finished their presentations as the meeting went on.
8:24 a.m.: Police Capt. Jason Ryan and Administrative Assistant Lisa Sisson were next up, representing the Middletown Police Department.
8:26 a.m.: Tanguay introduced the Police Department budget, which was proposed at about $6.9 million, a $546,000 increase. Ryan followed up, explaining most of the preliminary increase was due to the suggested purchase of four new vehicles at $155,000. Ryan said last year, the Police Department did not make one patrol vehicle purchase and three of the department’s frontline cars have more than 100,000 miles.
8:27 a.m.: Welch said there seemed to be a “pattern” around the need to purchase department vehicles, something the town should look to address in coming budgets.
8:28 a.m.: Council members asked questions about a proposed $23,000 ATV to patrol Sachuest and Third beaches. A handful said it was tough sell for such a vehicle, particularly on a busy weekend when the beaches were crowded.
8:29 a.m.: Discussion about the new “Public Safety Intern” program came up. Under the new proposal from Middletown Police, six trained interns would be hired to assist Middletown Police from Memorial Day to the end of the beach season with quality of life and nuisance calls ranging from litter and zoning complaints to issues at the beaches and with short-term rentals. Ryan said two of the interns would be assigned to zoning enforcement, with the other four assisting Middletown Police directly. That line item was expected to cost about $43,000.
8:45 a.m.: Councilwoman Terri Flynn said if residents and businesspeople wanted to hear directly from Police Chief William Kewer about the summer intern program, to visit “Middletown Shares” on the town’s website where there’s a video. That site can be accessed directly at https://mdl.town/Shares online.
8:48 a.m.: Following a briefing by Tanguay on the proposed $3.1 million budget for the Department of Public Works, Interim Director Robert Hanley spoke about the range of needs for his department. The big item was two additional laborers.
8:50 a.m.: Rodrigues said he liked hearing the town was planning on spending more in Fiscal 2022 on road repairs and upgrades.
8:51 a.m.: Hanley said having two more laborers on staff would help the department immensely, whether it was for snow plowing, litter patrol, road repair or other efforts.
8:52 a.m.: Welch said based on everything he’d seen, there was a definite need for two more laborers and the town was doing a better job with its litter patrol and cleaning of catch basins.
8:53 a.m.: Flynn questioned why it looked like the overtime line item for snow removal was increasing by about $50,000. In response, Tanguay said there weren’t many storms last winter, but the $86,000 figure was more in line with what the department has historically needed for snow removal overtime.
8:57 a.m.: “I really do appreciate the litter patrol,” Turano said. “It’s been one of my pet peeves.”
9:02 a.m.: Rodrigues said if the department was to add two new laborers, he’d like to see the hiring of outside vendors reduced. “We contract a lot of stuff out,” Rodrigues said. “If we’re going to add people, I’d like to see more inhouse projects done.”
9:03 a.m.: Rodrigues said he liked to hold new spending and taxes down, but having no increase in taxes might not be sustainable this year.
9:09 a.m.: The condition of the fence surrounding Green End Pond off Green End Avenue was broached. Rodrigues said Newport water was responsible for maintaining the fence and it needed work.
9:15 a.m.: Talk about the town’s sewer fees started. The projected sewer fee is expected to increase 11 cents to $16.89 per 1,000 gallons of use.
9:17 a.m.: Turano and Rodrigues spoke about the need to work with Newport water to get more of a grasp on infrastructure the city’s responsible for underground but located in Middletown.
9:30 a.m.: The council hits pause on the meeting.
11:30 a.m. sharp: The town’s Parks & Recreation budget was up next at $5.9 million. Most of the $4.2 million increase was for the new Shoreline Park off Greene Lane on the west side of town. A Department of Environmental Management project, the state was picking up the tab for that effort. When it moved forward, the park and fishing pier would provide the town the first public access to Narragansett Bay since the World War II era.
11:39 a.m.: Council members questioned why compensation in the Parks & Recreation budget was slated to rise $152,000. Tanguay said the driver was to extend the hours that beach staff was on hand from 4 to 6 p.m. Human Resources Manager Casandra Bennett said the increase in minimum wage was also a factor.
11:45 a.m.: The town’s proposed $1.1 million Refuse & Recycling budget followed.
11:50 a.m.: Rodrigues spoke about the need to find ways to make the program more sustainable, particularly since Middletown is becoming more of a “second home community.” In response, town Operations & Facility Manager Will Cronin said several new neighborhoods were coming online and the town was considering other initiatives to help grow the program.
11:51 a.m.: Flynn said another way to attract new customers was letting people know that “Pay-As-You-Throw” users could get rid of bulk waste, paint and hazardous waste for free on designated days if they took part in the program.
11:59 a.m.: Turano said lowering the cost of the required yellow bags could help attract more people to the curbside program too.
12:01 p.m.: “We need to find out who in town is abusing this program…” Councilwoman M. Theresa Santos said. “People are abusing it and they’re not using the yellow bags.”
12:03 p.m.: Councilwoman Barbara A. VonVillas said if the six public safety interns the Police Department was proposing were approved, that’s an area they could focus on over the summer.
12:05 p.m.: Town Solicitor Peter B. Regan said in coming weeks, proposed rules making it easier to penalize those not using “Pay-As-You-Throw” properly would come before the council.
12:08 p.m.: As lunch arrived from Pickles A Deli & Catering, the council halted the budget talk to grab a bite to eat. Yummy sandwiches, wraps, cookies and chips were on the council’s lunchtime menu from the popular Aquidneck Avenue eatery.
12:25 p.m.: After eating, the council delved into the biggest proposed budget in town – the $41.5 million requested by the School Department.
12:28 p.m.: School Committee Chairwoman Theresa Spengler thanked the council for inviting the schools to speak and welcomed the opportunity to answer questions. Moments later, Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger followed, saying the 4 percent increase requested by the schools was a “necessity” and would help the schools maintain the current level of service, add a guidance counselor at Middletown High and keep all sports and afterschool activities. An extensive discussion followed.
12:47 p.m.: In response to questions from Santos about the condition of the historic building, Kraeger floated the idea of turning the old Oliphant School next door to the Oliphant Administration Building into a youth community center. It’s the first time the item has appeared before the council in recent memory. Currently, the structure is used by the School Department maintenance staff. No decisions were made, but there was interest in the town and schools teaming up to make the idea a reality. “Right now, these kids need something to do,” Spengler said. “They need something safe, supervised, structured and fun.”
12:50 p.m.: Following another concern from Santos about the parking of school buses on the Turner Road side of Gaudet Middle School, Kraeger said the School Department was open to any reasonable alternative. She said the buses were moved there to save the district $65,000 in fees for parking outside Oliphant. However, she said she was aware of concerns from neighbors about the noise and other issues created by the move.
12:52 p.m.: “I like the tone…” Rodrigues said. “We need to work together as you’ve said. We are one.”
1:03 p.m.: The audience heard information about the homeless population in the community, something Kraeger acknowledged was a reality most didn’t know was happening in Middletown.
1:14 p.m.: Turano spoke about the need for the town and schools to do more to consolidate maintenance and financial services. Kraeger pledged to work with the town on the item as it unfolded.
1:27 p.m.: Kraeger said three labor contracts were up this summer for the schools: the teachers, teacher assistants and custodians. Thus far, she said there have been no agreements, but informal talks with teachers and the custodians.
1:49 p.m.: Rodrigues asked what would happen to the schools if they didn’t get the full 4 percent increase they were seeking. That sparked a lengthy, but amicable conversation between town and education leaders.
Kraeger said based on a review by educators, there was a direct correlation between how level-funding or slight budget increases to the schools was impacting their performance.
Referring to a recent U.S. News & World Report study that ranked Middletown High the 23rd high school in the state, Kraeger said the data showed how funding had a lot to do with dip from 13th in Rhode Island.
Kraeger said without proper funding, Advanced Placement courses for high achieving students were cut. But also supports for students who struggle were cut as well, meaning the student base was getting it from both sides.
Rodrigues said he understood, but just because money was spent doesn’t mean it was spent well. At the same time, he applauded the teachers, administrators and everyone else involved with the Middletown Schools for their outstanding efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Out of the conversation, Kraeger said the schools would supply detailed information about what a 3, 2 and 1 percent budget increase would look like, should schools be forced to make cuts.
“This is how we suffer over time with a level budget or a zero,” Kraeger said. “It catches up. And I have to be very honest with you that it has caught up with us. We’ve done a big data dig…and when we dug into that data…there is a definite strong line you can see. When we’ve gotten a little bit of funding, we’ve been able to keep those classes and electives. When we get no funding or very little funding, those classes will go.”
2:08 p.m.: The school budget discussion continued for another 20 minutes, with town and educational officials agreeing before the meeting concluded to work together.