Town’s finances strong, for now

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 9:45am
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With Gov. Gina Raimondo extending shelter-in-place guidelines until May 8, the annual Financial Town Meeting will be delayed until a date closer to the end of the fiscal year, which closes out on June 30, 2020, if it can be held at all, according to town Financial Manager Amy Land.

The town’s finances through the end of the fiscal year, however, remain strong, said Land. It’s next year’s revenues that remain the big unknown.

“So between now and June 30, we’re in pretty good shape,” Land said, “assuming things don’t change too dramatically.” Land noted that “the budget authorization” that was approved at last year’s Financial Town Meeting “doesn’t expire on May 4. It expires on June 30.” May 4 was the scheduled date of the annual FTM.

The town had just completed the first phase of the budget process when the coronavirus pandemic shut things down. Department heads had submitted their budget requests for 2021, which totaled a little more than $15 million, and the public discussion was just beginning.

If the town is able to hold a Financial Town Meeting prior to the end of the fiscal year, that will provide the financial blueprint for next year, as it traditionally does. If not, Land said, the Town Council will have to draft a series of continuing resolutions so that the town will be able to continue at least some of its regular operations. Land said she plans on asking the Town Council to start preparing for that possibility next month so there is no interruption to town business.

The reason the town is in good shape now, said Land, is that a “large number of town residents pay their property taxes in full” when the first wave of bills go out each August. The other reason is that the town receives tax revenue from meals and beverages and hotels about two months after they are collected. The revenue for the busy months of July, August and September arrive September through November, as a general rule. The town also receives its revenue in a more immediate way through beach and harbors fees, which go into the coffers the day they are collected.

Land says she has her eye on August 2020, the month when that large group of homeowners pays the year’s taxes in full, to see if that tradition holds this year.

Block Island is one of a dwindling number of towns that continue to hold a traditional town meeting, with budgets approved by hand, voice or ballot votes. Given that, there are few places to turn to for examples on how to hold a meeting if town residents can’t gather, said Land, although she is looking into it.

The other important component to the budget process is public input, said Land. But there is no proven mechanism for making that happen when people can’t meet.

“It would be important to me to allow some public input. We hold public hearings and those are important parts of the process, as well. We need to maintain some level of that engagement. People need to express themselves leading up to the vote,” she said.

Perhaps the most difficult question to ask, and answer, is what happens to New Shoreham if there is no summer season in 2020.

“I’m thinking about it and preparing for it. It’s not like we’re pretending it couldn’t happen,” said Land. “We’re evaluating that possibility and considering what those maneuvers we may need to do in order to respond to that.”

High-speed internet project

A group of town volunteers had spent the past several years learning about, preparing for, and creating a high-speed internet for the entire island. The Broadband Committee was about to finalize the request for proposals to vendors that could design and install the system when that project, too, went into an abrupt hiatus.

Land, along with town IT expert Michele Spero, had been heading up the project.

“I would say at the moment that is on hold. It’s not moving forward or backwards. That was going to be a huge commitment financially and in terms of workload,” said Land. She said “in the worst case scenario that would be too much to bite off, but it certainly is not being left aside yet.”

Land said the current health and fiscal crisis has highlighted the need for high-speed internet on the island and has also presented some unexpected funding opportunities.

“This situation has brought to light the need for connectivity, and that has opened some paths of conversation that had not existed before: outside funding from people who are paying attention to our particular needs,” said Land. “These are mostly agencies at the state and federal level who are more willing to talk to us than they were a month ago. The situation has highlighted that digital divide.”