The Town of Middletown doesn’t have a new $79.7 million budget for Fiscal 2023 — yet.
Following one of the most unique budget cycles in decades in town, the Town Council said they weren’t quite ready to adopt the budget after a second public hearing Thursday night in Town Hall.
That’s because council members said they were reluctant to approve a school budget for 2022-2023 without having town staff — led by Town Administrator Shawn J. Brown and Finance Director Marc Tanguay — continuing to review and sign off on all the expenditures for education.
Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger said the School Committee could have a response to that proposal for the town oversight in two weeks — or less. A date for the school board to meet again was not set Thursday, nor was the continuation of the public hearing.
“Believe me, we know funding is needed and that $500,000 is set aside until (the school budget) is right,” council President Paul M. Rodrigues said, referring to a $500,000 pool of money being held in the budget for potential hiring needs by the schools. “I think Shawn and his team have done a great job working with you to come up with resolution to this deficit. I’m confident we will get out of it.”
Early in the budget process, town officials learned the schools were deep in their red Fiscal 2021 and 2022 budgets. To cover most of the $1 million plus deficit in Fiscal 2021, the schools used fund balance and implemented a mix of cuts. However, with essentially no fund balance remaining, school officials said they were going to need more help a short time later.
In addition to overseeing the school’s spending, town officials came up with an aggressive five-year plan to build a mix of tax and American Rescue Plan Act funding into the budget to smooth out the impact of the close to $5 million structural deficit. In Year 1 (Fiscal 2023), $800,000 in ARPA money would be used along with $100,000 in tax dollars. By Year 5 (Fiscal 2027), all the deficit reduction money would be built into the tax rate.
Typically, the council approves a budget following the second public hearing. However, going into this hearing, council members agreed they wouldn’t take any action unless they were completely comfortable.
After a review by the council of several civic appropriations requests, much of the discussion focused on the choral program at Middletown High — and the school budget overall.
With the retirement of longtime Choral teacher Jen Vaillancourt, former students Katrina High and Gwen Prather told the council they were disappointed to hear her position wasn’t going to be filled.
“Ensemble is one of those classes that bring out the best in every single person,” said High, asking the council to find funding for a new choral teacher.
“Hiring somebody new would be helpful…” Prather said. “We only have four people in our music department.”
In response, Kraeger said the choral program would remain, but the ensemble class was on the chopping block. But she said school officials were looking at options to potentially restore funding to the honors choir.
That conversation moved onto an overall discussion about the school finances, something a number of council members said they had concerns about. Without oversight from the town finance staff, they said they would not approve the 4 percent increase for education budgeted in the Fiscal 2023 totals.
“It’s not a game,” Rodrigues said. “It’s what we think is the best thing to do for the town going forward.”
Kraeger said given everything that’s happened over the past few months, she understood. At the same time, such a decision was not up to her to make, but the school board.
“I’m concerned about it too,” Kraeger said. “That’s why we will continue to work with Mr. Tanguay and Mr. Brown on all spending. There’s no choice here.”
Although the numbers aren’t officially certified, the residential-owner occupied tax rate for Fiscal 2023 is expected to be $12.02 per $1,000 of assessed value, which is the same as today. That means a home assessed at $400,000 should see the same tax bill in Fiscal 2023 as today.
For those who aren’t eligible for the TRTP, the residential tax rate is $12.92 per $1,000, a 90-cent hike. On the commercial side, the proposed tax rate is $17.85 per $1,000, a 62-cent increase. On the plus side, the motor vehicle tax bill is expected to be phased out completely as part of this Fiscal 2023 budget.
In terms of utilities and recreation, the fees and yellow bags to participate in the town’s “Pay-As-You-Throw” program and park at Second and Third beaches were staying the same. The sewer rate billed by Newport is expected to go up about $40 for a single family home. The new rate is $17.21 per 1,000 gallons of use, a 2 percent hike from $16.78 per 1,000.
According to town staff, tax bills are expected to be mailed in early August provided no issues come up.
No major personnel cuts are in store with the town’s portion of the budget and residents, businesspeople and visitors can expect the same services they receive from the town.
Looking for more information about the proposed budget? Copies of the document are available at the Town Clerk’s office in Town Hall, the Middletown Public Library and the Middletown Senior Center.
Details are also posted at https://mdl.town/Shares online. That includes a complete copy of the budget and a Question and Answer sheet about the Fiscal 2023 numbers.