Two budgets battle it out at Tiverton hearing

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By William Rupp

Tiverton voters must choose between two budgets at the Financial Town Referendum on May 20: one with a 1.29 percent tax hike that includes a $600,000 line item added to a so-called “rainy day fund,” or one with no tax hike without the addition to the unreserved fund balance.

Both budgets were presented to about four dozen people at a Financial Town Hearing last Thursday, May 1, in the cafetorium of the Tiverton Middle School.

There appeared to be a preference for the budget with a tax hike, although many of the speakers favoring the proposed $47.94 million spending plan were Town Council or Budget Committee members who worked for about seven months on the budget.

Justin Katz, a Tiverton resident who drew up the petition for the no-tax hike budget of $47.3 million, was the target for most of the questions from the floor. He shared the stage with town officials seeking a budget with the modest tax hike.

Katz was not without his supporters, though. Former Budget Committee member Jeff Caron, for one, asked: “Whose bank account should the surplus money be in?”

Katz said he believes Tiverton has already met the mandate of its Town Charter for a rainy day fund.

“I don’t see a reason for exceeding the Charter requirement,” he said.

Katz’s petition also says that his proposed budget fully funds the schools, the town and all line items recommended by the Budget Committee and Town Council and still adds about $200,000 to the unreserved general fund.

He also said he see no merit in the claim that the surplus that exceeds the charter requirement “is crucial for ensuring a good credit rating for the town.”

“I’d rather have the dollars today in my pocket,” he said. “I think the best budget lets people keep their money.”

Town Council President Edward Roderick said Katz and his petition are the result of “misguided thoughts” that will “cause bigger problems in the future.”

Town Councilor Jay Lambert also rapped Katz for making claims that town officials already have uses in mind for the unreserved fund and challenged him to provide details. He also said the town benefits best from a healthier surplus.

Katz disagreed.

“I approached the budget differently,” he said. “I think there is more benefit to the town with a lower tax rate.”

Budget Committee member Joseph Sousa said: “I know a zero percent increase sounds great.”

But, he said, “we need to put money away each year to avoid big bumps” in spending for “unpredictable costs” and” to save millions in bond interest payments.”

Sousa said that the Budget Committee is trying “to smooth out” spending with small increases each year.

Katz responded by saying that he believes spending items, such as road and school repairs and pension costs, should be written into each budget -- not treated as separate items for rainy day funds or bonds.

“I don’t think people would be upset with a bump in one year if they have years of zero percent increases,” he said.

Town Councilor James Arruda said: “I hope people see how hard the Budget Committee and Town Council worked to put together this budget.”

“We’re just not putting away money in pockets for future spending,” said Town Councilor Brett Pelletier. “A serious conversation on spending is going on. We’re taking a hard look at this.”

Budget Committee Chairman David Perry, who presented the $47.9 million budget along with Budget Committee member Laura Epke, closed the hearing by stressing that “this was a seven-month process” that included input from the Town Council and all town department heads.

Waving Katz’s petition, Perry said: “This seems like something that was knocked out at his dining room table.”

Katz replied by reminding everyone that his alternative budget really only changes one line item: for the unreserved fund. Tiverton taxpayers can keep more money in their pocket during hard times, he said, during a year that town government does not need additional taxes.

The 1.29 percent tax hike will raise property taxes from $19.37 per thousand to $19.62. It would mean the owner of a property assessed at $300,000 would pay an additional $75 for the 2015 tax year.

The town-wide referendum will be held on May 20 from 7 am to 8 pm at three polling places: the VFW, Countrywide Estates and Amicalbe Congregational Church. You can vote early at the Town Hall on May 15, 16 and 17.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.