STATE HOUSE — The General Assembly Thursday approved legislation to allow communities and fire districts to continue their operations and conduct public hearings virtually during a state of emergency.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the state this spring, many local cities and towns were left in a quandary because their annual budget-setting process requires a public meeting that they could not hold.

The bill, which is sponsored by House Majority Whip John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth) and Sen. William J. Conley Jr. (D-Dist. 18, East Providence, Pawtucket), would be applicable in all future states of emergency and makes the change retroactive to March 9, the date of the Rhode Island’s emergency declaration.

“This unprecedented shutdown left cities and towns at a loss for a legal way to move forward with their obligations. They need a route they can take in an emergency to keep paying their bills and their employees,” said Representative Edwards. “This legislation gives local leaders the flexibility they need, within limits, to keep their towns operational during an extended emergency like the one we’ve experienced this year.”

The bill (2020-H 8015, 2020-S 2864), which now moves to the governor’s office, is enabling legislation that would, during a state of emergency that prevents a municipality or a fire district from passing its annual appropriation measure and tax levy, allow its governing body to pass a resolution or an ordinance to continue its prior budget past the end of its fiscal year, or to adopt a new one. In either case, the town would need to hold a public hearing with public input, which could be held virtually. The legislation would also allow the chief executive officer of municipalities and fire districts to order, move or continue budget adoption procedures as necessary until an emergency declaration expires.

“It’s imperative that cities and towns around the state be able to conduct their business during an emergency in whatever way works best for them,” said Senator Conley, who chairs the Senate Committee on Finance. “Our communities have reached out to us asking what they can do, and this will enable them to keep operating in a way that they determine suits their needs.”

According the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, there are 17 municipalities in the state whose budget adoption relies on approval through a financial town meeting or a financial town referendum, including Representative Edwards’ hometown of Tiverton. Without the ability to have an open public meeting, they are without a way to send out the next quarter’s tax bills.