LINCOLN — Town Council member John Flynn, who represents Lonsdale, forecast a rather tame Financial Town Meeting as he sat in the Lincoln High School auditorium on Monday night.
Turned out, he was right.
Taxpayers unanimously passed the Fiscal Year 2011-12 combined operating budget of approximately $70.1 million to allow for the continuation of programs and services already provided. As for the breakdown supplied by the Budget Board, about $17.4 million will be allotted to the municipal side, and $47.8 million to education.
“This is my fifth budget overall, and it's the first time I can recall that not one red cent has been altered from the proposed budget,” Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond stated Tuesday afternoon. “Only four people got up to object a line item or to raise a question.
“It was a very orderly, efficient Financial Town Meeting, and I'd like to believe the budget, as it was presented, is the reason for it,” he added. “It's a very good budget under very difficult economic times. I think, I hope, the atmosphere of the FTM reflected the satisfaction of the great majority of people who were present.
“In this budget, we've got over $2 million in capital improvements that were approved, and we're going to continue to make much needed improvements to our schools, roads, sidewalks and — this year — our library.
“What I'm especially proud of is, not only were we able to hold the line on taxes, but this budget — while investing over $2 million in capital improvements without borrowing any money — still represents a total operating budget less than that of FY 2008-09.”
On the municipal side, taxpayers passed $850,000 for capital projects such as the lease/purchase of two trucks, a sweeper and sander, sidewalk/curbing repair and road reparations. In addition, $200,000 was earmarked to initiate engineering work for the Barney's Pond Dam rehabilitation.
The audience, about 180 strong, also passed unanimously 11 resolutions. Resolution IX will appropriate $400,000, that money to come from the Town Capital Project Fund, to construct a new addition to the public library; and Resolution XI authorizes the School Department to transfer $200,000 from the accumulated school operating surplus to supplement the Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) trust fund.
Actually, the OPEB fund was the only subject to draw much attention. The town has decided to create it for the health care of retired police officers and teachers, and the amount will be just over $1 million.
Almond explained that Gov. Lincoln Chafee's Municipal Accountability, Stability and Transparency (MAST) fund is a new one proposed for FY 2011-12 to help enhance fiscally prudent budgeting practices for cities and towns.
Should municipalities adopt such a fund, and comply with certain requirements, they will receive additional state aid.
“It's a benefit that every city and town simply pays as a point of its annual budget,” Almond noted. “This is putting OPEB benefits into the same category as a pension fund. We decided to establish such a trust because we believe it's a responsible practice; we're not leaving taxpayers in the future with a hefty price tag.
“Our start-up, or first-year, fund represents about 70 percent of what a fully-funded first year would represent, and that's $580,000,” he continued. “We're going to take $350,000 out of the health care line and transfer it into the OPEB fund. We added an additional $400,000 from the town levy.
“If it passes, then Lincoln will put that $284,000 into the OPEB fund; the $1 million and 1,000 represents the money we currently pay the retired town population … If the state aid comes through, that leaves the town the $1.01 million. In addition, the school department will place $200,000 of its surplus fund, as their annual health costs are about $700,000. That will bring the total to approximately $1.9 million.”
Simply put, the actuaries recommended an additional $1.2 million to fully fund the trust, and Lincoln elected to place about $884,000 in it.
“That brings us well within the 70-percent funded range, which is more than acceptable by all actuarial standards,” he said.
Former Town Council member and resident Dean Lees repeatedly questioned Almond about OPEB.
“Concerning the OPEB trust, we're $25 million in the hole, and we've been underfunded the last two years,” Lees stated post-meeting. “This is why we have artificial surpluses. The only reason this is being made public now is because it's mandated by the federal government. That's why it's surfacing now.
“The town administrator is pretending to be responsible by initiating a trust that the Rhode Island Audit General and town auditors have been requesting for years; it's just wrong. The only reason they're addressing it is because they have to.”
Almond maintained that “nobody is making us set up this OPEB fund; it requires cities and towns to report their future costs to continue to provide this benefit. There's no requirement to fund the trust, only a requirement to make public any future liabilities.
“Lincoln has elected to move ahead and establish such whether or not we receive state funding,” he added. “If we do receive that $284,000, we'll dedicate it to the OPEB trust. We're pleased that we have an opportunity to establish this trust fund without having to raise taxes.
“This budget is also balanced (as it) accounts for a potential settlement with Twin River. The budget preserves the town's eight-percent of budget remains and surplus; preserves our double-A bond rating; and also provides over $400,000 in additional funds to go to the capital reserve accounts. We anticipate ending the current (fiscal) year with another $700,000 in gaming revenue going into our capital reserves.
“Likewise, we've accounted for and reserved a potential tax settlement with Twin River, and all of those things happened on Monday night, all with no tax increase.”
As for the educational portion of the budget, taxpayers passed Resolution VII, which would appropriate $508,401 from the Town Capital Project Fund to the School Department's Capital Reserve Fund for completion of projects.
Among them at the high school: Provide cable connections to all remaining classrooms; replace the damaged irrigation line to the football field; replace bleachers in and refinish the floors of the south gymnasium; and replace auditorium stage curtains.
Improvements at other schools include installation of a new playground with fencing for students Pre-K through Grade 1 at Lonsdale Elementary; installation of a new boiler, and abate and install carpeting in seven classrooms at Saylesville Elementary; replacement of thermostat controls and door entry hardware in all classrooms at Central; and installation of lighting at the rear parking lot and resurfacing of four lavatory floors at Northern.
The middle school will receive a new irrigation abatement meter.
“I'm very pleased with the outcome of this FTM,” said Schools Superintendent Georgia Fortunato. “Once again. Once again, the Lincoln Public School System will offer all of its students a quality education.”
Offered Almond: “We're very fortunate here in Lincoln, but as I've stressed we've also had the good fortune to enjoy good fiscal health when this economic crisis occurred. I've had a good relationship with the Budget Board, Town Council and School Committee, and despite healthy differences of opinion we all got together and put in place a plan to maintain and preserve our fiscal health.
“We went in strong, did the right things, made the right decisions and came out of it strong,” he continued. “This budget didn't happen in two years, and, hopefully, what happened at the FTM will result in good fiscal health for taxpayers for the next five years.”