The Block Island Times

Town Council focuses on school, medical center budgets

$12 million overall budget for 2014
By Stephanie Turaj | Mar 29, 2013
Photo by: Kari Curtis

The Town Council focused its 2014 budget discussions this week on the school department, the Block Island Medical Center and other community departments.

Next year’s preliminary budget request is a little more than $12 million, while last year’s budget was $11.5 million. About $8.5 million is expected to come directly from island taxpayers.

About 30 community members attended a Town Council work session to discuss the preliminary town budget, and most were representing various organizations and departments to explain their budget requests.

The Block Island School, represented by Superintendent Bob Hicks and members of the School Committee, explained its $4.5 million request to the town.

Hicks said there are three main reasons for the 2 percent increase (just under $100,000) over last year’s budgeted amount. One, the school is accommodating the special needs of an incoming student. Second, step increases (pay increases) for teachers have grown. Third, there has been an increase in retirement expenses.

In response to a question from Town Councilor Chris Warfel, Hicks explained that “step increases” are a process to increase a new teacher’s salary in relation to years of service.

“It’s not a raise,” said School Committee member Elizabeth Connor. “It is a long-term commitment towards the way teachers are paid.”

Island resident Linda Powers said that although teachers’ salaries have been frozen for the past two years, the step increases still seem like teachers are receiving a pay raise. Powers, who works as a tax collector, said that she wanted to be certain the school budget has all of its “nooks and crannies” looked at.

“I field everyday calls from taxpayers who are just distraught about trying to meet their obligations to pay taxes to the town,” said Powers. “The school sucks up more than fifty cents for every dollar we collect in taxes.”

The school is 39 percent of the total town budget, according to Town Finance Director Amy Land. Island resident Molly O’Neill said that this percentage is lower than many other towns in the state.

The $4,501,733 has been allocated in the preliminary town budget.

The medical center did not receive all of its funding request — it is slated to receive $123,800 from the town, but had asked for $183,800.

“The logic behind what you’re receiving right now is that it [the request] was a very large increase over last year,” said Town Manager Nancy Dodge. “We’re hoping in the area of donations and fundraising that there will be some increases from the community.”

Medical Center Executive Director Barbara Baldwin said that for this year, the Block Island Health Services (BIHS) board may be able to make the funding work. However, it may mean the board has to take money from its endowment fund to cover a budget shortfall. Baldwin said that the BIHS board would be back next year with a similar request.

Last year, the BIHS board had a budget shortfall of around $77,000, according to previous reports given by the board.

“There’s nothing I’d like better than to come back in nine months from now and say our revenues far exceed what we anticipated,” said BIHS Treasurer Pete Tweedy, “but I don’t think we’re going to turn things around in nine months.”

Tweedy continued by saying, “We can’t have an island without a medical center any more than can we do without a police department or the fire department. There is an obligation here on both our parts [the town and the BIHS board] to make sure it’s there and functioning.”

Other requests

The Early Learning Center and the Senior Advisory Committee were two groups requesting slightly more funding than what was put forth in the town budget.

The Early Learning Center (ELC) received the majority of its budget request — it requested $98,600, but is slated to receive $90,000. Members of the ELC explained that the request comes from budgetary needs to bring the center to national and state accreditation, and to build a new playground for toddlers and to increase building security.

“We’re still moving forward and working hard,” said Roberta Closter, a member of the ELC Board. “We’re still looking to make huge improvements to the school. We still need that support to make these things happen.”

If the ELC earns accreditation, it could qualify for more grants and money in the future, said ELC Treasurer Greta Heinz.

According to Heinz, it costs $6.25 per hour to enroll an island resident in the ELC.

“If you have one kid, that’s $1,000 a month,” said island resident Elizabeth Connor. “So when you talk about rate increases, for the young families out there, $1,000 is a lot for childcare.”

The Senior Advisory Committee also requested $16,775 in funding — but the town has budgeted $5,000, the same as this year. The increase would pay for group programs and a increased salary for the senior coordinator.

The senior coordinator, Kathleen Mitchell, has been responsible for planning and publicizing activities.

“It seems like it’s successful at $5,000,” said First Warden Gaffett, referring to the activities of the Senior Advisory Committee.

“There’s a lot more we’d like to do,” said senior committee member Gail Peirce.

Island resident Connor said that the committee should consider charging a fee for activities or membership. Many of the senior advisory committee community activities are free.

Recreation Department

Robbie Closter, town recreation director, requested $375,465 but the town has budgeted $353,041.

Closter said that the department is expected to increase its revenues by about $25,000 by adding events with fees, such as a spring triathlon.

Closter is proposing to eliminate one part-time position — a beach manager and hours for seasonal aides— but also add a full-time year-round employee that would manage maintenance of the Heinz recreation field and related paperwork. This new position would help reduce Heinz field maintenance costs.

Town Manager Nancy Dodge said that she was concerned about the broad skill set the new full-time employee would need.

“To do the maintenance, the mowing, and do all the rec. aide positions in the winter, some of which require Saturday and Sunday work, and paperwork,” said Dodge. “It just seems like a stretch.”

The next budget session is scheduled for April 3 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

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