2007-03-15 / Front Page

4.14% hike proposed for next town budget

By Dotti Farrington

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser last Wednesday presented his annual budget to the Town Council, proposing that the town spend $8,086,885 in the fiscal year that starts July 1. An amount that is an increase of $321,686 or 4.14 percent over the current budget.

Keiser delivered the budget packet March 7, which is the town charter deadline for the annual spending plan to be delivered from the administrator to the council.

The packet also includes the adopted budget of the School Committee, which is $11,729,563. The two budget plans total $19,816,418, which is an increase of $829,393 or 4.37 percent over the current combined town and school spending packages.

The total budget represents 40.8 percent for town expenses and 59.2 percent for education, just about the same proportions as the current combined total.

The town's budget is composed of three main categories: operating, $6,632,314, an increase of $267,203; capital expenditures, $627,348, a decrease of $288,112; and debt service, $827,193 up $342,595. The school plan consists of: operating, $11,131,947, an increase of $454,589; capital spending, $176,500, up $56,500; and debt service, $421,616, down $3,384.

Impact on taxes

The town and school spending plans, as proposed, would mean a tax rate of $9.81 per each $1,000 of assessment, based on existing assessments. The current tax rate is $9.49. The increase represents $32 more for every $100,000 of assessment; $160 more for a $500,000 property; $320 added for each $1 million of assessed property value.

Town assessments are currently being reviewed for statistical updating, required every three years. The updating may produce an overall change of about 20 percent, officials projected, on which actual taxes will be calculated this summer. Estimates were provided for comparison, not as projection of the actual tax rate expected, Keiser emphasized. When the revalued tax roll is completed, Tax Assessor Kenneth Gray will provide a projected adjusted tax rate for the new fiscal year, the town administrator noted.

Budget meetings

The council had three meetings scheduled to discuss and act on the budget:

This past Tuesday; tonight at 7 p.m. after 50 minutes set aside to interview candidates for the new wind energy committee; and next Tuesday, March 20 at 6 p.m. to focus on the school budget, plus completion as needed on town accounts.

Budget message

In his 12-page message accompanying the seven-page budget document, Keiser wrote, "This budget is based on a comprehensive review of the funding requirements to continue the existing level of services offered by each of the municipal departments. In addition, the proposal includes expanded programs or projects deemed necessary to more efficiently address current service demands, to continue to upgrade infrastructure and equipment, and to maintain or improve quality of life.

"It is important to note that the town budget reflects the community's statement of service priorities and needs balanced against available non-tax revenues and the taxpayers' ability and willingness to fund these proposed services. Development of the budget plan, therefore, examines both the spending requirements as well as the limits on total revenue."

Farm funds

The biggest announcement was the plan for the town to provide $3 million toward purchase of development rights for 160 acres for farmland preservation. The spending is subject to voter decision at a referendum to be scheduled. The farmland talks have been underway in executive sessions for about a year. In addition to town money, the preservation costs are being shared through private fund-raising conducted by the Conanicut Island Land Trust plus major grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, RI Agricultural Land Preservation Commission, and The Nature Conservancy.

Property tax

Keiser pointed out that the state General Assembly last year enacted legislation that this year imposes new limits on local government authority to increase property taxation. This replaces the old state limits on the tax rate. The maximum that a town can increase the tax levy this year is by 5.25 percent, and the maximum will decrease by a quarter of a one percent in each of the coming years.

"This impacts the town's revenue capacity by gradually lowering the ceiling on the amount of property tax that can be raised," Keiser explained. "It also changes the current formula which caps increases at 5.5 percent of the prior year tax rate," he added.

"By limiting future increases tied to the levy and not the tax rate, local government cannot increase expenditures to account for expansion of the tax base through new development," the town administrator stated. Leaders of several communities have questioned, and some have criticized the way the change will impact local budgets.

Keiser's budget meets both the old tax rate cap and the new tax levy cap, according to his summary. His budget proposals require a tax levy of $16,012,751, which is $705,719 or 4.61 percent more than the current year. He pointed out that the new levy limit would allow an increase of $803,619, or $97,900 more than he is asking. The new tax rate would represent an increase of about 3.4 percent, according to his budget message.

Other money

Keiser said the tax on island properties valued at $1.6 billion provides 95.6 percent of the total budget. He said that all other income, which he listed as departmental revenues and fees, and state general and targeted aid, provides 4.4 percent of local spending.

The town administrator reported the town is due to receive $813,973 in state revenue, an increase of $16,616 over current receipts for general revenue sharing, library aid, motor vehicle reimbursement, public service corporation tax, and the meals and beverage tax; and $547,764, or $15,857 more in state aid to education.

Debt service

The town's total outstanding debt financed through general obligation bonds was $4,778,500 last June 30, and payments in the next fiscal year will reduce those items by $250,000, including the final payment on the golf course bought 20 years ago.

In the coming year, the town will add $3 million for the new town hall under construction, and expects to add the $3 million as the town share for farm acreage, plus a five year lease purchase of a fire tanker at an annual cost of $190,000 to replace a 1982 truck.

Debt service also includes continued payments on water bonds, the police station, library, and highway equipment.

Worker costs

Keiser said pay for town workers has not been itemized because union talks were not completed. He said his budget includes 3 percent as estimated costs of all staff increases, pending the outcome of negotiations. He expects to meet with councilors in executive session before the budget adoption to discuss contractual adjustments.

Keiser said salary survey data from the Rhode Island Office of Municipal Affairs shows that compensation of Jamestown department heads is somewhat lower than their professional counterparts in other towns. He said he is working with the Personnel Board to complete a salary review and he will present findings to the council.

Capital costs

Proposed capital projects total $627,348, down $288,112.

Keiser proposes not adding any money next year to the open space reserve account of $419,000 intended for purchase of Jamestown Shores lots because of environmental concerns, and redirecting an annual appropriation for that account toward the new farmland fund to be paid at the rate of $195,000 a year for 20 years.

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