128 voters approve $63.2 million budget at Financial Town Meeting

128 voters approve $63.2 million budget at Financial Town Meeting

Includes money to boost law enforcement in fighting Smithfield drug trafficking

SMITHFIELD - Rejecting plans for a multipurpose play field at Deerfield Park, taxpayers on 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 to 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 has provoked intense discussion - and a legal 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 used.

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 controlling the extra money vague, and a violation of both the municipal charter and state law that puts educational spending under authority of the school board.

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 committee had originally sought a $1.1-million budget hike for next year, noting that it has operated with level-funded budgets for three years during a period of rising costs.

The school board has said uncertainty over the escrowed budget increase has complicated its decisions on preparing for the coming school year.

Miroslaw Kula, vice chairman of the town's Financial Review Commission, asked what the council's criteria will be for releasing the extra money. Town Manager Dennis Finlay replied that the decision will depend on what the performance audit reveals.

Performance audits examine such matters as policy management, decision-making, and whether resources are used in a way that achieves desired results.

During the session, Iannitelli pressed the council for exact details of the escrow language, which according to a motion adopted at a May 14 hearing on the budget reads, "The said funds will not be expended until the performance audit has been completed and evaluated by the Smithfield Town Council and the funds may be expended under the direction of the Smithfield Town Council."

Iannitelli said at the financial meeting, "We're trying to figure out what the rules are. This has never been done before in the Town of Smithfield."

Asserting that the escrow language leaves his committee uncertain about how much money it will get over the next year, he declared, "We still have to run a School Department."

The motion to approve the entire municipal budget, including the escrow fund, was made by businessman Alfred Costantino, who has said over the past few years that many of the School Committee's decisions have resulted in wasteful spending.

Peter Pare, a member of the Planning Board, successfully sought to cut the Deerfield Park 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 municipal Public Works Department.

Its rejection did not affect 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 by 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.

St. Sauveur termed the proposed cut "borderline irresponsible," saying his department currently has no single person whose sole responsibility is investigating what he termed a serious drug trafficking problem.

According to the chief, drug-related arrests in town rose from 58 in 2010 to 69 in 2012, more than in neighboring and larger Johnston, which is also closer to urban centers.

"That is very hard to swallow," he said, adding, "Drug dealers believe that Smithfield is open for business."

Fire Chief Robert Seltzer supported St. Sauveur, saying that his medic units had responded to two cases of drug overdoses in the previous two weeks alone.

The budget adopted by voters also authorizes the hiring of two new emergency medical technicians so the Fire Department can create a third medical response team.

In seeking the additional personnel, Seltzer had said that increased demands on his department have caused it to depend on other communities for help with medical runs, significantly increasing response times in those instances.

The hires are not expected to affect the tax rate because the bulk of their salaries will come from a special fund accrued through payments to the Fire Department by medical insurers that cover the cost of medical runs.

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.