The budget process got off to a rocky start Monday night, as several residents – members of the local Republican committee and the Tea Party – all spoke out against an initial proposal to increase property taxes by the maximum of 4.25 percent.
In light of a proposed Narragansett municipal budget with the maximum 4.25 percent property tax rate increase, town republicans heatedly voiced their opposition, with one claiming that town residents are “permanent captives and slaves” to unions.
The remarks came at the first public hearing for the budget, held Monday night during the council’s regularly scheduled meeting. Town Manager Grady Miller spent about 30 minutes presenting the budget to the full house of residents in attendance. About 10 people spoke out against the first budget proposal, with no supporters for the proposal.
In his presentation, Miller highlighted the main shortfall in the budget – a loss of about $1.8 million in state aid for the town, with additional cuts in state aid to the school district. The proposed property tax would increase taxes on a $400,000 home by about $136, as the rate goes up from $8.86 per $1,000 to $9.20.
“In trying to solve the state budget issues, there has been a lot of shifting to the town,” Miller said. “These are some major, major factors that are going to be facing the town and we’re going to have to make some tough decisions.”
The municipal budget would provide a $500,000 increase to the Narragansett School Department. However, at the presentation of the school budget on April 25, Superintendent Kathy Sipala said the drastic loss of state aid would require steep steps to correct. Among the options on the table were eliminating up to 10 teaching positions, and offering early retirement en masse to replace experienced, top-step teachers with entry-level hires.
Also included in Miller’s proposed budget is a 40 percent increase in water fees, because according to budget proposal, “the current rate structure has not been fully recovering the cost of operations and capital costs over the past several years, plus United Water, a major provider of water to the town, has requested a substantial water rate increase totaling nearly 40 percent.”
The idea of raising taxes to the maximum levy and user fees in general to cover budget gaps drew the ire of several members of the Republican Town Committee in attendance, who spoke against the proposed budget.
Richard Vangermeersch, a member of the committee, said he was speaking as a Republican when he called for the town to take a harsher stance with unions.
“Woe is to the taxpayers of Narragansett,” he said. “We are permanent captives and slaves to the public employee unions and to their henchmen, Governor [Lincoln] Chafee, who was elected by these people.”
Vangermeersch read from a prepared statement, and repeated this portion twice, after being asked to identify himself for purposes of the record. Vangermeersch is a retired University of Rhode Island professor.
He added that it was “really quite sick” that raising taxes seemed to be the only solution for solving the state and town’s economic woes.
“Wake up taxpayers of Narragansett,” he said. “Privatization of services is part of the solution.”
Resident Stanley Wojciechowski said he wanted the town to explore raising more revenue through its planning department, and to stop spending money on open space and preservation projects unless they could fund themselves in the future with increased revenue to the town.
“Our planning department needs to look at raising money,” he said. “Double the charges for weddings … Can we rent out our school buildings for second shift [education, such as URI night classes]?”
Robert Palmer, a resident living on Exeter Boulevard, said he didn’t buy into Miller’s statistics and projections for the budget.
“Those are a lot of fancy numbers and a lot of fancy talking,” he said. “It takes a lot of intelligence to do that. All it takes is common sense to know that the residents of this town can’t accept even a one percent tax increase … The people cannot afford it.”
Phil Duquette said that with the current trend of forcing taxpayers to bear the brunt of budget shortfalls, in the future Narragansett could instead resemble the crumbling Detroit.
“We know we’re not going to get any relief from Governor Chafee,” he said. “We cannot tax our way out of our problems.”
Meg Rogers, a Narragansett resident and member of the Patriots of South County, asked Miller what the town’s unfounded pension liability currently is.
“As far as the pension fund, I believe we have roughly a $23 million unfunded liability,” he said.
Town Council President Glenna Hagopian, at the urging of several of the speakers, reiterated that they had petitioned the town’s state senator and representative to pursue some budget relief options – dropping unfunded mandates from the General Assembly, and opposing binding arbitration for teacher union salary disputes.
However, councilor Christopher Wilkens expressed pessimism in Narragansett’s state leadership.
“They are working quite opposite to the town’s best interests,” he said.
Carol Stuart, who runs the preschool at St. Peter’s and is a frequent critic of URI student behavior, said the town needed the support of legislators, especially as it dealt with handling the tenant population and zoning.
“I do have confidence in the council and the town manager, I don’t have confidence in the general assembly or our representatives,” she said. “We have landlords who are irresponsible and who are contributing to [high police overtime costs].”
Hagopian said that after reviewing the budget, she and other councilors would look to trim in certain places.
“The council’s first look at the budget was last week,” she said. “I spent some time with [budget officials] before this meeting, and I would like to see a lot more economies made.”
In response, Miller said, “We will sharpen our pencils and come back with something.”