An SK Budget Viewpoint

by Gary Chapman

The South Kingstown 2019-2020 preliminary Town Budget has been adopted by the Town Council.  They will make final budget decisions on April 29. There are wants and needs all around us shouting for more tax dollars.  What is the answer?

Let’s begin with the school budget.  Since the schools get 73 cents of every South Kingstown property tax dollar, it is the school budget that has the biggest impact on taxpayers.  Two important issues that are seriously impacting their budget is significantly declining enrollment and significantly declining state aid. Both have been going on for several years.

Today the total school enrollment is 2959 students.  Enrollment has declined by over 1400 students from its peak in the year 2000.  Just from 2009 to today, it has decreased by 640 students. There are simply not enough students to populate classrooms in some of our buildings and it appears from reasonable projections that the enrollment will continue to decline into the 2020’s.  To help with operational savings, closing underutilized buildings needs to be done as soon as possible and staff reviewed for reductions.

Along with declining enrollment, reductions in state aid have negatively impacted the school department’s operational budget.  State aid to SK schools has also been declining for several years. Covering this reduction with local property taxes is unsustainable.  The state has a 4% cap on the property tax levy which limits how much can be raised in local property taxes each year. The town has needs that will be difficult to meet if we attempt to cover yearly state aid losses by rerouting money that would otherwise be allocated for municipal services.

In the Town Manager’s budget message, he said the following in the third paragraph on page 2-6;

“The South Kingstown School District is not distressed and a limited increase in the property tax transfer will not create a lasting or irremediable crisis.  Total student enrollment in SK Public Schools for 2020 is projected to be 2,860. This proposed budget would result in total revenues to the School District in the amount of $61,077,180, or $21,355 per student.  This level of funding is well above the national ($11,762), regional ($15,592 in MA; $18,377 in CT) and Rhode Island state ($16,979) averages. Even with anticipated reductions in state aid and the proposed 1 % property tax transfer, South Kingstown’s per student expenditure will remain one of the highest in the nation.”

I encourage you to read his budget message (it’s on the town’s website).  The Town Manager’s statement illustrates that SK taxpayers have generously supported our schools with one of the highest per student expenditures in the nation ($21,355/student).  

Regardless, the Town Council still INCREASED the school property tax transfer above the Manager’s proposed 1%.  That decision effectively put the budget at the tax levy cap at 3.98%. Now increases proposed for other items or services cannot happen without subtracting somewhere else in the budget.

Now the municipal side of the budget.

South Kingstown demographics are changing.  With a population of around 30,000, residents aged 60+ are now about 25% of that total.   This 60+ age group has increased by 30% over 6 years from 2010 to 2016 (shown in Town Manager’s budget message).  Programs and services to accommodate the increasing population of older adults will likely rise in the years to come.

This year though, there is a particularly important health and safety service expansion that is not funded in the preliminary budget.  During the budget discussions, it became apparent that the town’s Emergency Medical Services has a critical need to run a rescue transport vehicle on a 24hr. shift from the old police station building on Route 1.  Right now, EMS operates a rescue transport from that location only during the day. At night, they run from their main location on Route 108 (Kingstown Road) and sometimes it can take 20 minutes or longer to get to areas in the south shore (Green Hill, Matunuck).  That’s unacceptable. Providing life support services to residents is one of government’s most important functions.

A petition has been filed to have the Town Council revisit and vote specifically on $200K for this expansion by reducing the school fund at the final budget adoption on April 29.  If passed, all residents will benefit with improved EMS coverage and the schools will still receive more than the 1% tax transfer proposed in the Town Manager’s budget.

Finally, the Transfer to Debt Service Fund:

This year’s budget included $500K for future debt service on the proposed school buildings facility plan.  Reserving the money this year will help to smooth out the taxpayer requirement a few years from now when bond repayments will begin.  It’s a plan I believe the Town Manager, Finance Director and Town Council all backed. Near the end of the budget discussion, it became apparent that a majority on Council was going to fund the schools at the highest possible level above the Manager’s proposed 1% tax transfer increase, while staying just under the state tax levy cap.  They did that at a 1.75% increase.

It has since come to light that motor vehicles were included in the levy calculation and were not supposed to be.  That resulted in less money available to be raised under the cap and therefore, $165K was reduced from the transfer to the Debt Service Fund to allow the budget to comply with state law.    However, the Town Council never voted on taking the $165K from the transfer to debt fund. This was done after the preliminary budget was already adopted. Did they really intend to take money from debt service to fund school operations?

Another petition has been filed to give the Town Council a vote on restoring the $165K to the Debt Service Fund by reducing the school fund.  Again, it’s important to note that even if BOTH petitions are passed, the schools will still receive more than the 1% PTT increase proposed in the Manager’s budget.

The Town Council’s April 29th budget adoption meeting is at Town Hall at 7:30 PM and open to the public.  Please plan to attend. Your voice will make a difference.

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