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A Unique View of Charlestown’s Budget

From January to March this year I was in the unique position of being the only non-partisan, non-recipient citizen to have observed the entire development of the budget from beginning to end by the Budget Commission. I also have the unique career experience of working with budgets so I am very familiar with budget preparation and cost reporting. One of the main criteria we used to develop a budget was to only include costs that were needed, not costs that were wanted or would be nice to have. This was done by using unit costs (cost rates per unit of measurement, i.e. $/hour) as the building blocks for the budget. Cost prorations, percentages, and un-supported lump sums were to be avoided.

In observing the Budget Commission I thought they did an excellent job of building up the budget with unit costs by talking to the department heads, the result is what I call their basic budget. Unfortunately, the Budget Commission added ‘nice to have’ lump sums to their basic budget. In the last 45 minutes of the last budget working meeting, the Budget Commission added 8 new ‘nice to have’ lump sums for a total of $1.9m of our tax money with virtually no support or discussion! The $1.9m did not include lump sums that had already been added by the Budget Commission. The biggest single item was the $1.0m for the police pension. I can remember last year several citizens advocated paying pensions in advance. We were told by the ‘financial experts’; it was not a good idea, it was pointless, it was equivalent to paying a mortgage in advance. This year Bonnie Van Slyke tells us the town has an obligation to pay the pension in advance. But, in the letter attached to the budget the Budget Commission tells the town council don’t spend the money on the police pension in case it is needed for something else due to the pandemic. Therefore, it appears to me the money is not ‘needed’ for the police pension. I have no doubts any future pension premiums the town will be pay when required.

As I listened during those 3 months I kept a running list of what I considered excessive lump sums which overtaxed the taxpayer; in my opinion the current budget we are about to vote on contains approximately $1.9m to $2.7m in ‘nice to have’, but not ‘need to have’ lump sums. Through Town Council meetings and multiple LTE’s individual line items in question have been covered many times so I will not go through my thoughts on each excess at this time. I am in favor of the Fund Balance (the town’s Emergency Reserve) being maintained at 25% of the approved annual budget, but any unneeded money in excess of the fund balance upper range of 25% should be removed. Vote NO on the current budget. Once this budget is defeated, the town council will be forced to remove these excesses. We need to get back to the basic budget without the ‘I want/nice to have’ add-ons.

Steven J. Williams

Charlestown, RI

The article appeared in The Westerly Sun as a Letter To the Editor on Saturday, May 30, 2020.

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