2017-06-01 / Front Page

Taxpayers to See No Increase

MIDDLETOWN
By Olga Enger

A decision by Middletown Town Council to level-fund the schools has left the district scrambling to make ends meet, but the result has provided residents a year reprieve from tax hikes.

Middletown Town Council approved the $72.7 million budget after the second public hearing, held May 24. The approved budget did not include the school’s $1.05 million, or 2.2 percent increase over last year.

The school department requested the maximum 4 percent budget increase last year, which was approved by the council when they ratified the labor contract. The district’s operational expenses have increased by 2.26 percent, largely due to contractual obligations after more than a year of tense negotiations with the School Committee.

Although the school department prepares a separate budget from the town, Town Council approves the total amount allocated to the district. This year, school officials requested taxpayers fund $27.3 million of the district’s $43 million budget. The remaining revenue was to come from state funding ($8.3 million), federal funding ($1.1 million), the fund balance ($228,378) and local revenue ($71,960).

Rejecting the increase saved residents a $131 annual tax hike on a home that is assessed at $375,000. The town budget was also level-funded this year.

The cumulative loss of state aid is a recurring challenge for the school district. In 2010, state legislators passed a new education funding formula to distribute state funds across Rhode Island districts, depending on household income. To date, the loss of revenue in Middletown is $1.3 million.

During a brief discussion before the vote, councilors referenced a declining population and falling school enrollment numbers as a reason behind their decision.

“I want to make this perfectly clear. We aren’t trying to cut funding to our schools. This proposal would level-fund our schools even though enrollment continues to go down,” said Council President Robert Sylvia.

There are 2,182 students enrolled in Middletown public schools, which is 65 fewer than last year, according to December data. The school department anticipates similar enrollment numbers for next year. However, the decreased numbers do not translate into savings because students are spread across grade levels, according to the department.

Council Vice President Paul Rodrigues said elected officials have to make “tough decisions” to provide a balance between affordability and services for Middletown residents.

“In this particular budget, I think it’s great that the town-side came in at zero. I think it’s an opportunity to give the taxpayers a break,” said Rodrigues. “...Middletown has become more of a second home community. It’s spreading throughout the neighborhoods, and I see that continuing.”

First-term Councilor Dennis Turano commented that one of his campaign platforms was reducing the budget and taxes.

“It’s time for the taxpayers to get a break,” said Turano.

Councilor M. Theresa Santos counted five residents in the audience who were not town employees.

“Hopefully, for the next budget, people will continue to come out, voice their opinion, ask questions,” said Santos.

When the budget was first presented in April, councilors warned that their constituents were not in favor of absorbing more tax increases.

“I'm all for education. I think my track record has proven that. But when does it end?” asked Rodrigues at an April 10 workshop. “Middletown is one of the most expensive communities in the state to live. How do we solve this problem? Anyone can raise taxes.”

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