Johnston property-owners will face a small tax increase this fiscal year.
It’s the first property tax increase in Johnston in four years.
Johnston’s Town Council unanimously approved a pair of ordinances, setting the tax rate and approving the town budget, at a Budget Hearing Special Meeting on Tuesday night.
Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena had requested a 2.74 percent property tax increase, mostly to cover rising education costs.
He said it’s the town’s first property tax increase since 2017.
Polisena said inflation of “unavoidable” costs in the school budget are mostly responsible for the needed tax increase.
Polisena presented the fiscal budget for July 1, 2021-June 30, 2022 at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Now I’m not trying to be cavalier that it’s going up, but we need to go up for several reasons, and important reasons by the way,” Polisena said. “We know that our children are the foundation of our town, our state and our country and it’s important we make sure that our schools have enough money to operate.”
The school district’s budget increased due to two primary factors, according to Polisena and Johnston Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr.
“Unfortunately for the school department, there were increasing costs that were beyond their control. For instance, nobody can control healthcare,” Polisena said at the hearing. “We know that … they had about an 18.5 percent increase in healthcare (costs).”
Polisena also took aim at state’s out-of-district education tuition requirements.
“The Rhode Island Department of Education, they mandate so many crazy things,” Polisena said. “Our town is spending a lot of money, greater than $3 million on out-of-district tuition.”
DiLullo also addressed Town Council on Tuesday evening.
“Just to kind of go back a little bit,” DiLullo said at the hearing. “This is my 11th year as superintendent in Johnston … as the mayor pointed out, we have areas that are kind of out of control at this point.”
DiLullo provided some statistics from his first year on the job, and compared them to the new budget requests.
“In 2010, the school department benefits were $12,145,816,” he said. “In 2021-22, we’re projecting our costs will be $14,296,673. Again, that’s an increase for benefits of $2,150,857.”
The district has seen a massive increase in payouts to other districts, for students who choose to travel outside Johnston for schooling.
“Tuition to other districts, in Johnston, in 2010, that line item was $749,759,” DiLullo said. “In 2021-22, the cost will be approximately $3,179,000. That’s a difference of $2,429,241.”
DiLullo provided data detailing the number of students who live in Johnston, but travel outside the district for schooling.
He said that 166 Johnston students attend schools in other districts (49 freshmen, 68 sophomores, 49 juniors and 35 seniors).
If not for cooperation between the Town Council, School Committee and affected unions, the budgeting process could have been much more difficult, according to DiLullo.
“I want to thank our two unions; our non-certified union and our teachers union,” he said. “They’ve been very patient with us. They haven’t seen increases in over three years at this point. They’ve all done a nice job. They’ve been cooperative with us.”
And if not for cooperation across the school department and town government, the deficit could have been a much more difficult wrinkle to iron out, DiLullo said.
“Working together, we’ve really made this work out well,” DiLullo told the Town Council, town department heads and members of the Johnston School Committee, who also attended Tuesday’s budget hearing. “Unfortunately we do have to come today and ask for a little more support from the town. So thank you for that consideration.”
The now-approved overall budget includes an approximate 2 percent increase in total expenditures.
The increase in educational funding expenditures, $1,611,927, represents a 3 percent increase.
A property tax rate of $23.58 for residential real estate, $28.67 for commercial real estate and $64.65 for tangible personal property will help cover the shortfall, according to Polisena’s budget proposal.
Other sectors of the town, besides the school department, have also requested budget increases.
The Johnston Fire Department requested 6 percent more funding for next year (an additional $1,190,974).
Polisena said that the pandemic is partially to blame for increasing costs in the fire department.
The department is also down seven firefighters, Polisena said, and additional funds are needed to cover overtime to fill those shifts.
“It’s cheaper to pay overtime than it is to hire people,” Polisena said recently.
Debt Service will cost the town 28 percent more next year than it did this year (an increase of $831,908).
The police department has requested a 3 percent increase ($529,281).
The Parks & Recreation Department has also requested 3 percent more funding ($35,213).
“This is a very lean budget,” Polisena has said repeatedly.
Several departments will also be facing budget cuts.
Polisena has requested a decrease in the public services budget by about 12 percent, or $719,356.
The library budget faces the biggest cut, 17 percent, and will have to operate with $130,361 less funding next year.
Polisena said several open positions in the library department will go unfilled.
The preliminary FY 2021-2022 motor vehicle levy includes taxes on motor vehicles at the rate of $30 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, in accordance with Rhode Island general law, which includes the exemption amount provided by the state’s motor vehicle excise tax phase-out legislation up to $5,000.
The town should actually see a 43 percent increase in state aid next year, or about $2,311,065 more revenue from the state.
“I can look the taxpayers in the face with this budget,” Polisena said two weeks ago. “If the school department didn’t have these shortfalls, then there would not be a tax increase for the fifth year in a row.”
Polisena said he is a “strong proponent of public education” and not a supporter of “charter schools or mayoral academies.”
He said the town needs “to have (its) children stay in Johnston.”
Town Councilman Robert J. Civetti said the tax increase, at one hundred percent collection, should generate about $1 million.
“That 35 cents isn’t generating millions and millions of dollars,” Civetti said.
The budget also reflects Polisena’s goal of keeping Johnston’s credit-standing solid.
“We want to make sure we maintain our excellent bond rating,” he said.
Polisena broke down how the tax increase will hit the average homeowner in town.
“With the average house at $250,000, the tax bill will go up 70 dollars for the year, or $17.50 per quarter,” he said recently. “This is a minimal tax increase.”
The 2021-2022 budget request proposed an increase in the town’s total property tax levy to $72,539,514, up from $70,602,969 this year.
Previously, property tax rates were set at $22.89 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for residential real estate, $27.99 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for commercial real estate and $63.99 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for tangible personal property.
The proposal asked for an increase to $23.24 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for residential real estate, $28.34 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for commercial real estate and $64.34 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for tangible personal property.
Polisena said the town is not using any temporary fixes on this year’s budget.
“There’s no COVID money in this budget,” Polisena said. “We’re not plugging any holes with COVID money. I’ve heard some of the malcontents, and I hope they’re listening … that’s shortsighted. We’re not using any COVID money to fill any holes.”
If the town receives any additional COVID-relief funds from the federal government, Polisena said town officials will hold future discussions on what to do with the money.
He said other municipalities that are using relief funds to plug holes in next year’s budgets will likely face issues down the road.
“My own opinion, is that a lot of communities are going to have some issues next year when the COVID money runs out,” Polisena told the crowd gathered in the Johnston Municipal Court chambers. “And I think they’re going to say, like Ricky said to Lucy, ‘What happened?’”
Town Council passed the budget and tax increase with a unanimous vote.
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