2006-06-08 / Front Page

Islanders okay $3 million for new Town Hall

$18.9 million budget approved without fanfare
By Dotti Farrington

Only 160 voters, less than half of one percent of the 4,516 eligible, attended Monday's annual financial town meeting, which lasted one hour. With a hand vote of about 3-1, they approved bonding of up to $3 million for a new town hall complex, described as potentially both historic and award-winning for this small island community.

After a brief skirmish over high legal costs, those at the meeting also approved with an overwhelming voice vote the proposed $18.9 million budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Voters adopted all other resolutions.

Moderator James Donnelly said the voice vote on the new town hall seemed as loud or louder for defeat than the higher number he believed called for its approval. Saying that he did not want to err in favor of a minority with louder voices, he called for the hand vote to better determine the voters' decree. He glanced quickly at the raised hands, then the hands of those opposed, not calling for actual hand counts. Without announcing specific tallies, he ruled for the town hall supporters. The 3-1 estimate was made by some seated among the voters in the gymnasium of the Lawn Avenue School.

New town hall plan Planning for the new town hall, to replace the current structure on Narragansett Avenue built in 1883, has been an on-again, off-again effort for more than a decade, usually taking a backseat to the still to be resolved need for a new highway barn and the usual postponement of upgrades for other public facilities.

The new annual town budget provides for a new approach to funding by bonding for major equipment needs and the repair and maintainance of public facilities.

The new town hall will be a 12,000-square foot complex, including renovation or replacement of the 1883 structure. It has been designed by architect William Burgin, a Jamestown resident, with expectation by some that his frequent award-winning work will result in an award-winning building.

The notion that the town hall design would be award winning was decried by a few residents Monday as an unnecessary expense. Town officials emphasized that they asked for an efficient and cost-effective design, and by no means specified or paid extra so that it had to be award winning.

The bond that will pay for the project is expected to add about $238,000 a year to the town budget for 20 years. The owner of a house assessed at the town median of $380,000 would pay an additional $53.20 in taxes each year to pay for the construction, according to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser.

Sav Rebecchi of Sail Street called for postponement of the town hall vote to enable the town to get bids on the project first as a way to deter contractors from submitting high bids reflecting already approved spending. He also wanted to schedule the vote on the $3 million bond for a general election referendum, so that more voters could participate in the decision.

Town officials said that the delay could result in construction not starting until next spring, and that would most likely add to costs rather than result in any savings. They did not speak to the issue of more voters participating.

Town Councilman William Kelly talked about the existing town offices on West Street and on Southwest Avenue. He called them " a disgrace. They are not representative of this community." He said, "Every time I go in (either one), I think of a Clint Eastwood movie, that it's a set or something. I keep looking for a hitching post. (The buildings are) so outdated."

Fire Marshal Arthur Christman said, "We've been postponing it 20 years. Do it now."

Frances Shocket, town administrator in the 1990s, noted, "We've been waiting more than 20 years. We are hard pressed to wait anymore. The prices will not go down."

Christopher Powell, chairman of the Conservation Commission, spoke about the work improvements he has been experiencing as a state employee in the new state fisheries lab at Fort

Wetherill. He referred to town offices as "pits... that demoralize workers." He said with a new town hall, the staff can do a better job for taxpayers.

Annual budget

The combined school and town government budget for the upcoming fiscal year raises spending by 7.6 percent and the tax rate by 4.4 percent, from $9.09 to $9.49 per $1,000 of assessed property value. It will cost the owner of a home with a median assessment an additional $152 in taxes for the year.

The budget provides $11.2 million for the school department and nearly $7.8 million for town services. Keiser said the spending is needed to pay for contractual raises and rising health-care costs, additional hours for three town workers, an environmental sewer-system engineer, a planning clerk, and a recreational department employee to help especially with town field maintenance.

Amendments

No proposals were received by the mid-May deadline for budget changes of $10,000 or more, meaning little change was possible at the meeting. Norma Willis, a former town councilor, called for a $9,000 reduction in the budget for the town solicitor, because it has gone over allocations this year and last year. She said she was not criticizing the town's legal team, led by J. William W. Harsch. She was challenging the work assigned by the existing council, Willis said.

Keiser said much of the extra legal costs reflected special needs while the town conducted two searches for a new town administrator after Maryanne Crawford left in 2004 and after her successor, Mark Haddad, left the following year.

Keiser, who was appointed town solicitor in December 2005, said he and the council reviewed current and future legal needs and have established a projected budget of $4,800 a month, or about half of the actual monthly budget.

New resolutions

In addition to the town hall bonding resolution, voters approved new tax exemptions for volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services volunteers. They also approved a new formula for tax relief for people who are totally disabled.

Gemma Guinguing of Jamestown, immediate past Miss Deaf Rhode Island, campaigned for tax relief for hearing impaired people equal to that provided for blind people. The Town Council responded with a measure to provide for all disabled people and

created the exemption that bases eligibility on Social Security Disability status.

Routine resolutions

Four resolutions were annual "housekeeping" items, authorizing the sewer-line frontage tax rate, which continues to be 68 cents a linear foot; borrowing up to $1 million in anticipation of taxes; assigning back-tax collections to the general fund for current costs; and setting the new tax rate.

The tax rate resolution provides up to 11 cents more than needed, or reaching the maximum allowed by state law. This is to provide for the possibility of any changes in budget amounts made by voters at the annual meeting or for last minute findings of math errors, according to town Finance Director Christina Collins. The tax rate will be $9.49, as budgeted, she said after the financial town meeting.

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