Smithfield FTM says no to playfield; OKs tax plan

Smithfield FTM says no to playfield; OKs tax plan

SMITHFIELD – Rejecting plans for a multipurpose playfield at Deerfield Park, taxpayers on Thursday, June 13, otherwise approved a new municipal budget as recommended by the Town Council, including money for an additional police detective who will focus on drug trafficking.

At a Financial Town Meeting that lasted less than 90 minutes and drew only 128 of the 15,587 people eligible attend, voters authorized a $63.2-million municipal budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that is expected to raise the property tax rate just under 2 percent, from $16.02 to $17.52 a thousand.

The appropriation includes a $450,000 increase in the school budget, but in a move that is sure to provoke intense discussion – and possibly even a challenge from the school board – the council has earmarked the increase for a separate escrow fund and will retain control over how, or if, it is ever spent.

The council has authorized a performance audit of the School Department to determine if it spends its money wisely, and has said it will evaluate the study’s results – not expected until fall – before making any decisions on the school increase.

After the session, School Committee Chairman Richard Iannitelli termed the council’s plan for deciding whether to eventually release the money, and under what circumstances, vague and a violation of the town charter and state law that puts educational spending under authority of the school board.

He did not rule out the possibility of a challenge, either before the State Department of Education or in court.

Town Solicitor Edmund L. Alves Jr. said it’s his opinion that the council is on solid legal ground in encumbering the money.

The situation leaves the School Committee with a town appropriation that’s the same as the current year’s, $26.27 million.

The board has said the uncertainty over the encumbered budget increase has complicated its decisions on how many of 17 laid-off teachers to call back for next year, and has also made it difficult to schedule classes for the fall.

Peter Pare, a member of the Planning Board, successfully sought to cut the playing field, which had drawn criticism from nearby residents who expressed concerns over traffic and noise.

The field was to be financed with a matching state grant and $75,000 in town funds, plus another $62,500 in in-kind services from the local Public Works Department.

Its rejection did not affect the budget total, or the projected new tax rate, because the local money was to come from a capital reserve account that had already been appropriated in previous years.

A call from taxpayer Thomas Robitaille to cut some $75,000 from the police budget – the approximate yearly cost of a sixth detective – was soundly defeated after Chief Richard P. St. Sauveur Jr. said Smithfield has an active drug trade and that dealers are attracted by communities where law enforcement is known to have no specific manpower focus on drugs.

Robitaille had argued the expansion is unnecessary because Smithfield’s population is not growing and the cost of another employee would be considerable over the life of a career and then pension payments.

Under the new budget, the business-related tangibles tax on equipment is expected to rise from $58.55 to $61.06 a thousand. Vehicle taxes will remain at $39 a thousand, with the first $1,000 of value tax-exempt.