| Daily News correspondent
TIVERTON — Revenue from the Twin River Tiverton Casino Hotel will be restricted in a capital account for another year and a committee will be formed to decide how it should be spent.
The proposal, discussed and approved at the Town Council meeting Monday, was contentious.
A council majority voted to remove the June 30, 2021 sunset clause on the current ordinance that was put in place last August 5 to both restrict casino revenue to a capital account and use it to shore up the general fund reserve if it falls below 3% of the annual budget. The sunset will now be June 30, 2022, although the council can dip into the fund in an emergency. The current balance is $575,000.
There was opposition to the move from some council members, a School Committee member and some residents.
Town Council President Denise deMedeiros, who initiated the amendment, said a plan needs to be formulated detailing “the most responsible way to spend this money.” A committee, to be led by Council Vice President Michael Burk, will be made up of a School Committee member, Budget Committee member and four members of the public. Three more members, who will be non-voting members, will be the town administrator, town treasurer and town solicitor.
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The public — not the Town Council — should decide at a financial town referendum how the money should be spent, said former councilwoman Nancy Driggs, noting that townspeople in 2018 voted against a proposed town charter amendment that would restrict the casino gaming revenue to debt service, infrastructure and capital, and prohibit it from being used for operating expenses.
“It seems the Town Council wants to have it both ways,” said Driggs.
The vote in 2018 was 3,133 against with 3,119 in favor, a difference of 14 votes. The percentage was 50.1%t against to 49.9% in favor, according to election records.
“You’re overruling what the people wanted in 2018,” said Cook who at one point raised her voice to a yell.
“It was a very slim vote,” deMedeiros said, adding that things have changed since then. “COVID has changed things,” and the council is “not doing anything wrong,” if they feel it is their fiscal responsibility to restrict the money and come up with a plan for it, she said.
Councilman Jay P. Edwards said of the reasoning: “In other words don’t spend it until you’ve got it.”
The town got itself into trouble when all of the expected $3.1 million in casino gaming revenue — including $100,000 from sports betting, was included in the fiscal 2020 operating budget that was approved at the FTR in May 2019. The town realized only $1.2 million in gaming revenue because the COVID pandemic shuttered the casino for a few months, beginning in mid-March 2020, negating a state guarantee of $3 million annually in gaming profits.
The council is within its rights to restrict the money, said Town Solicitor Michael Marcello, who on Feb. 22 wrote a three-page opinion on the council having the authority to restrict money. That was in response to a Budget Committee request for an opinion on the matter. Marcello noted that Rhode Island General Law 45-11-1 allows towns to “establish a fund to be designated as a reserve fund, this fund to be available to the city or town as necessary for temporary borrowing in anticipation of taxes, but otherwise available only for capital expenditures.”
Resident Justin Katz, a former councilman who was removed from office in a recall election in October 2019, said he disagreed with “this method of handling gambling revenue” and “it’s all wrong” the way the council is going about it. He called the move “dictatorship-type stuff.”
“Holding those funds is contrary to the spirit of the FTR,” said School Committee Vice Chairwoman Diane Farnworth. “Voters of Tiverton deserve a say in this matter,” she said, adding that as much as $1 million could be available to spend the next fiscal year that begins July 1.
After the council voted 4-3 to change the end date of the ordinance to fiscal year 2023 — Cook, Joseph Perry and William Vieira voted against — Cook said the move was “outrageous” and “an abuse of power.”
“In no way is anyone abusing any power,” said Burk. Disagreeing on something, he said, is not an abuse of power.
A second vote, to change the sunset date to June 30, 2022, was 5-2, with Cook and Perry voting against. Perry said he voted no because he would not go against a vote of the people in 2018.