2008-04-10 / Front Page

Town Council trudges through budget revisions

By Michaela Kennedy

Salaries and fuel costs continued to nip at the ongoing town budget discussion for the upcoming fiscal year. "We don't want people to work for less than what they're putting out," Town Administrator Bruce Keiser emphasized at the public hearing Monday, April 7.

The administrative team shaved some increases to municipal salaries, including cutting a requested $5,000 increase to $3,000 for the Emergency Medical Services director's stipend. Keiser addressed a jump in energy costs, due to higher heating costs and anticipated air conditioning expenses this summer related to the new building.

"We're looking at $20,000 for heating due to the additional space and a sharp rise in heating oil prices. It's our first experience with the new building. It will be trial and error," he said.

Councilwoman Barbara Szepatowski noted inequities in administrative salaries across departments and asked how amounts were determined.

Finance Director Tina Collins said that clerical salaries were contractual and negotiated through the union.

Keiser added, "The union collects requests from individual members to prepare proposals for the negotiations. What the specifics are and why they come forward is of no interest to us on our side of the table. The union is a private organization."

Council President Julio DiGiando voiced concern about rising personnel costs, but also urged salary equity among departments.

Needle-hunting in a haystack of expenditures brought the total proposed expenditure increase for town and schools over the current fiscal year's budget to 4.7 percent. The change in the tax levy is below the state-mandated 5-percent cap and would result in a projected 4.1-percent tax rate increase.

A reserve of $3.1 million, more than 15 percent of the total budget, would be maintained, according to Keiser.

Sav Rebecchi of Sail Street opined that with a 15-percent surplus in the town budget, he would like the town to consider returning some of the revenue to the people. "It's really from bad budgeting that we have an excess," he said.

Council president DiGiando responded that there were two sides to the argument saying, "It's important to be conservative in estimating revenues and expenses so that we don't leave ourselves short at the end of the year." DiGiando also cited one-time capital improvements needs that can be funded with the excess reserves. These projects only become more expensive if not taken care of in a timely fashion, he said.

Councilman Robert Sutton objected to the comment about bad budgeting. He suggested the town take a hard look at the capital budget, and consider taking on capital improvement projects that might not yet be high priority.

Fire and EMS run efficiently

Keiser presented the Town Council with a line item for a parttime fire inspector, and he expressed satisfaction with the bottom line of the fire department, despite a $1,200 increase to cover its fuel costs. In answer to a question about the fuel allowance, Fire Chief James Bryer said, "I'm hoping that if we run over a little, the town's not going to shut us down," sparking grins at the council table.

Susan Little of North Main Road questioned whether the alarm and radio line item could be eliminated with a centralized dispatch system. Chief Bryer said that the line item paid for internal communication channels not handled by a central dispatch.

DiGiando drew attention to the responsibility of the EMS director to "chase people with insurance to offset expenses." The EMS director noted the work was farmed out to a collection and billing service. Collections are not as high as originally anticipated, he added, saying, "We're lucky to collect 30 or 40 dollars for every $100."

The town administrator said the town expected to receive about $100,000, out of $160,000 currently billable. He volunteered to talk with other communities to find out how they are doing with their collections. "We are carrying a substantially high level of uncollected funds." The town established an agreement with Newport Hospital through ComStar, a service that contacts hospitals for insurance information, he added.

EMS volunteer Ralph Aresti noted that the EMS had a yearly operating

cost close to a quarter of a million dollars. "Right now, for the year, that's about $30 per person," he said. Nods at the impressively low figure floated through the room.

Recycling can offset expenses

The town administrator noted that the only increase for the waste removal budget was the operator's contractual raise. Keiser urged that recycling become more of a focus. "Every ton recycled is a direct benefit to the town. It's not only good for the environment, but we reduce our tipping costs by $56 per ton."

Sutton asked for costs associated with the transfer station, saying that the facility should be paying for itself. "Whatever fees people pay should take care of the operating expenses. People who have their trash picked up curbside should not be subsidizing it," he commented.

DiGiando agreed and suggested looking at the whole operation. "It's time we revisited it. It's not getting any cheaper," he added.

Among other expenses addressed were street lighting expenses, cleaning and maintenance fees for public buildings.

Tree management is

good insurance

Keiser praised Tree Warden Steve Saracino, who is also a certified state Department of Transportation arborist, for showing initiative with the tree committee in the tree planting program. "He's taken this all on with a passion," he said about Saracino, and supported the request of the Tree Committee for an increase in stipend for the arborist's work from $6,500 to $7,500. "This will allow for additional hours," Keiser said.

Keiser also endorsed the Tree Committee's request for a tree inventory in the village area, as well as in the Shores area. "If there was a major hurricane, it's like having jewelry listed with your insurer. You have to document the losses. Many communities that have inventories will be way ahead of the game if we want to be considered for federal emergency assistance," Keiser said. The inventory is also used to schedule pruning and tree removal for disease control and safety, he explained.

Parks and Recreation sees

increase in night hours

Referring to the increase in electricity expenses, Recreation Director William Piva expressed the hope to bring back night time sports activities to the island. He also said he hoped to fill the program supervisor's position before the summer. He added that the teen center has been crowded, and the department has to do a personnel study. "We have 50 to 60 kids there on a Friday night. We need a clearer picture of how many people we will need to run the program," Piva said.

Szepatowski pointed out that the teen program was strongly run by volunteers. "We need to look closely at it in case a drop in volunteers occurs," she said. Szepatowski asked for a comparison of recreation maintenance staff pay levels in the Department of Public Works. "I would hate to see you lose the guys you have, they do extra all the time," the councilwoman said.

Sutton voiced support for the direction Piva was taking with recreation, and getting people out of the house. "Kids have to have those things as options," he said.

Council members noted the budget should be finalized by the meeting scheduled for April 28.

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