2018-06-07 / Around Town

Middletown Ups Budget 1 Percent

By Christopher Allen

In the last of two public hearings on the town budget on May 30, the Middletown Town Council bumped school spending by only one percent as it unanimously approved a $71.3 million budget for fiscal year 2018-2019. The residential and commercial tax rates will be set at $13.62 and $18.06 per $1,000 of assessed value, respectively.

The public hearings featured hours of school district stakeholders pleading with council members to increase school funding to the maximum allowable by the state, which is 4 percent. However, after receiving requested information by the school committee on salaries, benefits, bonuses, enrollment and other categories, the council increased spending by only $282,000, far less than the $1 million the school administration had requested.

School committee chair Kellie Simeone said that a continued loss in revenue, specifically the decline in state and federal aid, will only be exacerbated by further cuts from the town.

“The school department does not have a spending problem; we have a revenue problem,” she said. “We’ve indicated this in the past. I think we have been very responsible with the funding we have received, but [a less than 4 percent increase] is not sustainable. We can’t continue to grow and improve and provide our students with the services they need without funding increases to cover the expenses.”

The allotted increase is less than the predicted rise in costs to run the school district, according to the school committee. With the current state funding formula in place for two more years and the annual climb in obligatory spending on salaries and benefits, the district has seen about a 2-percent annual increase in costs.

The increase will not impact the tax rate, according to town officials. The money will come from the withdrawal of two town vacancies from the help wanted ads, as well as delaying some capital improvements.

One difference between the May 30 and May 23 meetings was the attendance of dozens of senior citizens to press for no property tax increase, an issue that has been debated at length recently by citizen advocates and town officials. A tax-exploratory subcommittee is currently working on ways to freeze property tax rates for residents, according to certain stipulations. There has also been talk of a senior property tax exemption to allow residents on fixed incomes to stay in their homes, despite sharp fluctuations in property values.

Middletown resident Pamela Rooney spoke for the town’s senior community, saying that although she believes everyone supports Middletown schools, it should not be at the expense of the elderly population.

“What has made this town a great town are the people that have brought it along... the people that have gotten this town to where it is now are seniors,” she said. “We cannot just throw them aside and not think about their longevity [in Middletown]. They’ve made it what it is.”

Councilor Barbara VonVillas said that she supports Middletown schools, but the administration should have done more to curb the rising costs and the reliance on technology upgrades.

“If I were making the decision I would not be putting a lot of money in the technology, because a lot of it is there,” she said. “I’d be putting money in the programs that you are defending, because they are just as important.”

Council President Robert Sylvia presented a list of comparisons of costs per district for Portsmouth, Newport and Middletown. According to Niche.com, which collects data from the Rhode Island Department of Education, Middletown schools have a higher average teacher salary, cost per student and total budget.

“When I look at these numbers, I have to believe that we have supplied adequate funding,” he said.

Sylvia added that the responsibilities of the council extend to every resident of Middletown and must be taken into consideration when preparing a budget. “When we sit down with our department heads and our town administrator, we try to diligently look for ways to save money, to cuts costs... To maintain a high quality of life for this town at a low cost,” he said.

According to a document prepared by the superintendent's office, the 1 percent increase will likely result in the reduction in an administrator position at Gaudet Middle School and an elementary teacher. There could also be cuts in freshman football, track and field and wrestling, among other athletic programs.

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