The Block Island Times

Town Council tackles budget requests

School, ELC, Med Center and Senior Committee make their case
By Joel Taylor | Mar 24, 2014
Photo by: Kari Curtis

The New Shoreham Town Council met with representatives from The Block Island School, The Early Learning Center, The Medical Center and the Senior Advisory Committee to discuss appropriations for the 2015 municipal budget.

School Superintendent Robert Hicks and Elizabeth Connor of the School Committee were the first to take the floor to report their position and express the school’s budget needs. Hicks first handed out a report comparing town revenue to school support over the last six fiscal years.

According to the report, the town’s support of the school has steadily declined over the last six years — from roughly 57 percent to 51 percent of the town’s total tax revenue. The report highlighted a funding gap between what the school has requested and what the town has offered for 2015. The school department initially requested a $4.665 million town appropriation for next year. The town then adjusted that figure to $4.579 million — which resulted in a roughly $86,000 gap.

Hicks expressed to the Town Council the school’s commitment to find savings, and said they’ve worked toward minimizing the funding gap. “We shouldn’t get any more than we need,” Hicks said, “But if it’s okay to get less but not more, that’s a ceiling that’s going to continually push us down. That’s not equity.”

Referring to a line graph on the report that Hicks handed out that depicted the steady decline in the percentage of school funding, Nancy Dodge said to Hicks and Connor that town funding is essentially returning to earlier levels.

“The town appreciates the needs of the Block Island School, and we know you appreciate the town’s needs. To be fair,” she pointed out, “There was a spike in the town’s support of the school in 2009. In 2006, the percentage of town revenue given to the school was at around 51 percent.”

The councilors made an effort during the meeting to work with the school committee on more possible savings in the budget. Councilor Chris Warfel was concerned about the energy efficiency of the school.

“I’ve taken a look at the building, and there are some major improvements that could be made. I think we need to invest in the energy efficiency of the building,” Warfel said.

Hicks admitted that they could be making some more improvements, and that they’ve been working on finding ways to do that. He also pointed out that their overall energy usage has consistently gone down over the past few years, but energy expenses have gone up because of costs. Hicks said they’ve been exploring the possibility of a solar installation as well.

“This is going to be a common thread for me,” Warfel said, “That we really need to take advantage of the state’s movement towards energy conservation and start saving money.”

Connor said in conclusion, “We’ve done a good job at keeping our expenses at a reasonable level, and we’re in a really good place right now.” About the funding gap, Connor said she wasn’t looking forward to contemplating what might be cut. “We don’t want to have the conversation about what has to come out,” she said.

First Warden Kim Gaffett moved the meeting forward and said, “We’ll see what we can do.”

The Medical Center

The Block Island Medical Center was next to discuss their budget and needs. Executive Director Barbara Baldwin was present with David Kane, who coordinates the maintenance of the Medical Center’s properties. Like the Block Island School, the Medical Center has requested more assistance from the town than was recommended in the town’s budget plan.

The center requested $135,800 from the town for 2015. The town’s recommended budget was $123,800.

When asked about their biggest challenges, Baldwin said, “The biggest challenge we face, and one that might never change, is our commitment to 24-hour emergency service.” The majority of the Medical Center’s expenses are difficult to change, and Baldwin said the center’s “greatest fear is if we keep reaching into our endowment, its intended purpose will no longer be there.”

If the Medical Center does not get increased support from the town, they’ll have to keep using money from the endowment, Baldwin said to the council.

Councilor Warfel again addressed the needs of the Medical Center building itself. He said it needs a lot of work, and was disappointed that the town hadn’t invested more into the building. “It’s hemorrhaging costs because we’re not investing in their infrastructure to save money,” Warfel said.

Kane said he “couldn’t agree more” and that the center’s Board of Directors was working on installing solar panels. “The building is perfect for solar power, and we could really improve [the building] if we had the money,” Kane said.

Since expenditures of the Medical Center are fixed, Second Warden Ken Lacoste changed the focus to revenue. “Another big part of the bottom line is the actual revenue,” he said. Lacoste thought it was important to “take the time to commend the Medical Center for their work” and to continue to “urge people to use the Medical Center as their primary care center.”

In addition to managing the Medical Center property, Kane also manages the doctor’s residence. Included in the Medical Center’s budget needs was $3,000 for immediate repairs to the residence, which included fixing a leaky basement, and repairs to a bathroom and kitchen that are in poor condition. After Kane described the problems at the residence, Councilor Norris Pike said, “It doesn’t look like $3,000 would even cut it.”

Kane and the council agreed that it was time to plan for some major renovations to the doctor’s residence because the problems were just too immense to attack one at a time. “It’s really a terrible situation for the doctor,” Baldwin said. The Town Council decided it was necessary to address the situation by first hiring an engineer to review the building, in addition to allocating the necessary money to fix immediate problems.

Early Learning Center

Next on the docket was the Block Island Early Learning Center (BIELC).

The BIELC requested $108,800 for 2015 and the town recommended $98,800.

Gaffett said of the BIELC, “for a number of years, they’ve been one of the most successful fundraising groups on the island.”

“We are making some adjustments, we’ve had to reach into savings when the director’s position became full time, and we’ve made some tuition increases, but we’re still falling short,” Executive Director Christine Grele told the council.

BIELC Board of Director Chair Lisa Robb was also present, and said, “If we increase tuition too much, people will find other places to go.” When asked about enrollment, Robb said it is currently low, but that it could increase from 31 to 47 children by next year.

Senior Advisory Committee

One member of the Senior Advisory Committee (SAC), Sandy Kelly, was at the meeting to present the group’s current budget situation. The SAC requested $10,000 and the town has recommended $10,000 for 2015.

After reporting a surplus remaining for the current fiscal year (The Town Clerk’s office later told The Block Island Times that the surplus is currently $8,800), the Council asked her about their progress in hiring a senior program director. She said they haven’t received much interest, and they haven’t found anyone suitable, but they are continuing to look.

Elizabeth Connor said, regarding the SAC, “This is a very difficult question to ask, but is it right that they are running a surplus while there are other worthy organizations in need of money?” Gaffett explained that the SAC is still “getting off the ground”, and they will continue to need help doing so. Furthermore, any surplus will be returned to the town’s general fund at the end of the fiscal year, according to Amy Land.

Warfel also added, “They’re doing a good job of not just spending the money if they don’t need to. We appreciate that.”

Fire and Rescue

The Town Council was prepared to discuss the Fire and Rescue budget, but no members of the Fire Department or Rescue Squad were present at the meeting.

The Fire and Rescue Departments had requested $101,000 and the town has recommended $85,000.

Councilor Gary Ryan, who has been a member of the Fire and Rescue Squad for 25 years, had to speak on the group’s behalf. He told Dodge and the council that the condition of the Fire and Rescue is “just fine.” However, Warfel was “surprised” they hadn’t requested any money for fortifying or replacing the fire barn’s overhead doors. Warfel asked, “Why haven’t they requested any money for that?” Warfel said he’s concerned that the Fire Department could “totally lose the building in a hurricane” if the doors are not addressed. There was nothing in the Fire and Rescue’s budget that specifically requested aid from the town for that purpose.

Capital Budget

With that, the council ended discussion about the Community Support portion of the budget. After which, the council began talks on the capital budget.

Margie Comings, who is on the Old Harbor Task force and is the Chair of the Planning Board, brought up the issue of a fulltime Parks and Recreation employee. Comings has been pushing the town to hire a full time employee to take care of New Shoreham’s parks and recreational facilities, but recognizes it may only be a seasonal job.

Comings also asked the council to increase the capital budget by $10,000 in order to assist the Old Harbor Task Force in the upgrades at the Mary D. Park in front of the dinghy landing area. Comings said the Task Force may or may not be receiving grant money from the Department of Environmental Management to cover a portion of the costs, but she suggested the town add to the capital budget in case the group doesn’t receive the grant. The council agreed to consider the request, and as Gaffett said, if it turns out they don’t need the money, the town “could direct it towards the doctor’s residence.”

Nancy Dodge then highlighted the part of the capital budget that was designated for the Coast Guard Station. She had included $25,000 for investment, possibly in consulting firms, for determining what to do with the building in the long term.

“Hopefully, that will be some incentive to get things moving,” Dodge said. There was also $25,000 included in the capital budget for research and engineering for the bridge on Old Town Road. Town Council has been talking about fixing the bridge for a few months now, or possibly even removing it.

Lacoste asked Dodge to make that a “harder number, in case it turns out to be only half of $25,000? That way we can direct that money toward the Medical Center or the school, or other worthy organizations.”

At the end of the meeting, there were three residents who raised complaints about the condition of their roads, which has been an ongoing issue. Resident Martha Ball said she believed the oil that’s used to control dust actually creates more potholes. She described parts of Mansion Road as “absolutely horrible.” There were differing opinions on how to fix the problem. Lacoste said the town should prioritize certain roads, or sections of roads, and pave them.

While some councilors disagreed on an approach to fix the roads, including about what material to use, all agreed, that there isn’t currently enough money to properly address the problem.

Further budget discussions will be continued on March 24 and will be open to the public.

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