I think it is safe to say that everyone’s lives have been changed by COVID 19. We read about new ways of teaching, working, shopping. We hear about curbside pick up and reduced contact with the public. There are layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts and more. The news is constantly sharing the number of new cases and sadly the numbers of deaths. We are in place we have never been before.
Here in South Kingstown, it is no different. Town life has changed dramatically. Restaurants are closed. Schools are closed. Storefronts are shuttered and Main Street is eerily quiet.
However, what is strange to me is the approach our local government is taking.
At the budget hearing in March, as the shutdowns began and stay-at-home orders came, the town council discussed the proposed budget for next year. The town council considered the preliminary budget. At town manager Bob Zarnetske’s recommendation, the town council passed the preliminary budget with assurances by Mr. Zarnetske that changes could be made. It was just too early to make adjustments and there was not enough information, he said.
Fast forward six weeks, and the economic outlook from COVID 19 has not changed for the better. The adoption of the budget is before us. At last week’s budget meetings, we learned the schools have saved over $1.4 million and even more could be realized by June 30th. And yet no changes were made. Instead, the money saved will go into the School Committee reserves, not used as part their budget for next year.
On the municipal side, no changes were made. There are new personnel positions, raises for department heads, and increased spending. Not one spending reduction was discussed. Not even buying one less paper clip. We have been told repeatedly that changes could be made and none have been made to this budget.
Through the use of the municipal catastrophic fund, your taxes would remain the same for this year. This defers this year’s increase. Ask yourself where will the money come from next year?
Where is the compassion for those in our community who are out of work? Things remain very uncertain.
Has your life changed in the last six weeks? Are you doing things differently? Spending differently? None these decisions makes sense to me.
If you feel the same, please contact the town council and ask them to show some compassion for the people whose lives have been up-ended. email@example.com
July 14th is South Kingstown’s own “Bastille Day”, a time to act responsibly and as an informed citizenry vote for the reductions to the Town and Schools’ Budgets.
It’s broken yet how to fix it? I totally understand your point that passing a budget based on pre-Covid-19 environment seems dysfunctional, but the system demands it. I believe a totally different set of budget authors (department heads) and council members would be doing the same thing!
A couple of thoughts:
1. The budgets were written on a multi-month schedule that almost ended before Covid-19 was even named.
Here is description of the timeline from last year’s budget:
The annual budget and capital improvement plan development process begins in the fall when each
department, including the School Department, is required to evaluate their six-year capital needs and
submit a request to the Town Manager. The budget calendar is the first step in the development process.
The calendar establishes the timelines for the budget formulation process, including dates for submission
of focus area initiatives, departmental expenditure requests and revenue estimate submissions, budget
work sessions, and public hearings that will lead to final adoption of the budget.
The Town Manager completes an in-depth review of all requests, and a six-year Capital Improvement
Program (CIP) is prepared and presented to the Town Council by the Town Manager no later than
December 1st each year. The Town Council holds a public hearing…”
So, almost done, what triggers it being reset for a rewrite? Supposed it was. How would the many department heads know what they will need to spend next year given so many of life’s process is different, and still changing? Do we truly know what the “new normal” is already? New air sanitation systems in every building? UV sterilizers in bathrooms? All door knobs replaced with motion sensing doors? Added staff to manage future procedures or comply with future laws or CDC guidance yet written? But what if a drug therapy come along that nails Covid-19, making the disease much less fatal and scary and suddenly we get to return to our old life where the existing budget is fine? The range of possibility seems vast!
Yet, laws force towns to ratify a budget, or else they can’t spend anything. So, passing anything has to happen, even if everyone knows it is flawed.
2. Budgets and actual spending are two different things. Any budget is a forecast of spending. They are great for allocating buckets of money to functions and defining constraints, but they are terrible at the details.
What I think we all want is for SPENDING to be appropriate and responsible, and since we can’t predict the future needs in this very unusual and uncertain change in every person’s life, perhaps we need quarterly budget forecasts and citizen inputs. Would that make sense?