Smithfield council passes 2018 budget with ease

Smithfield council passes 2018 budget with ease

SMITHFIELD – Town residents last week passed a $72 million budget, with the highest tax levy increase in years, on a 59-8 vote.

Town Councilors Michael Lawton and Suzy Alba voted in the minority against passage of the budget, citing the 3.52 percent tax levy increase as a main point of concern.

The 2018 budget, approved June 8 at Smithfield High School, also shows a $3.2 million spending increase over the current year.

Town Council President Paul Santucci said that while it is statistically accurate that this year’s tax hike is the highest, “it’s somewhat of a moral lie.” The budget is impacted by the town’s first full payment on its police and school department bonds, as well as big contractual increases, Santucci noted.

A total of 89 people filled a room that has the capacity to seat 540 people. A quarter of the meeting was spent discussing a line item that accounts for less than one percent of the budget: $12,500 set aside for “Dog Park Plan Development and Construction.”

Resident John Serapiglia Jr. made a motion to remove the $12,500 allocated for the project. His rationale, also stated at the May 9 public hearing, is that public funds should only be used for health, safety, and welfare.

As the liaison for the Smithfield Dog Park Committee, Councilor Alba has defended funding for the dog park at various council meetings.

“Going back to 2007 there have been residents of this community trying to implement the dog park,” Alba said.

Several residents worried about the dog park becoming a recurring cost, increasing responsibility for Public Works and Parks and Recreation, and exposing the town to possible lawsuits.

Beth Cerroni, chairwoman of the Dog Park Committee, assured voters the cost would not be recurring and that the burden on the town would be minimal.

“All we’re asking for is a little bit of money. We’ve already, not written in stone, have got some volunteers to do a lot of our site work,” Cerroni said. “So this is not costing us $90,000.”

After a verbal vote shot down the motion, some voters asked for a vote by hand. The motion did not pass the second time either.

Other Rhode Island communities with dog parks include Warwick, West Warwick, Newport, Pawtucket, Barrington, Providence, and Wakefield.

Greenville resident Ralph Robitaille presented a motion to increase stipends for council and school board members by an additional $500.

Robitaille first presented the stipend increase at a May 9 public hearing on the budget but was told by Solicitor Edmund Alves that council members could not vote on their own pay increase.

He was directed to present the motion at the June 8 Financial Town Meeting instead, where residents could support the motion and vote it through.

But last Thursday, Robitaille was told that his motion was out of order and that the School Committee could not alter its budget to account for the pay increase.

“I think that was extremely rude and disrespectful,” Robitaille said.

Before the meeting adjourned, Alba offered a prepared statement.

“While I continue to be supportive of sufficiently funding our schools and the many employees and programs that serve the residents of this town, I cannot vote to approve the overall budget tonight,” she said.

The councilor cited the tax levy increase and rising costs of running the town, mentioning legal counsel costs specifically, as areas of concern in the budget.

“We really need to come together as a community and think about how we’re going to bring in new economic development,” Alba said before joining councilor Lawton in voting against passage of the 2018 budget.

Santucci said he was not thrilled with the vote.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said in a phone call.

The Financial Town Meeting also raised the issues of Smithfield’s tax exemptions and senior tax freeze. Currently $9 million of tax revenue is held up in tax exemptions and roughly 73 percent of the town shoulders all of the tax burden.

In an interview with The Valley Breeze and Observer, Santucci and Finance Director Randy Rossi confirmed that the council had met with the Financial Review Commission earlier this month to assess the senior tax freeze.

“We discussed it ad nauseam,” Santucci said.

Going forward, the Financial Review Commission will analyze the senior tax freeze and tax exemptions and discuss possible alterations.