2009-06-04 / Front Page

Voters pass $20.9 million budget at annual meeting

Islanders talk about town school spending concerns
By Erin Tiernan

More than 100 voters approved the $20.9 million combined school and municipal budget at the annual Financial Town Meeting on Monday night, cementing a 0 percent tax increase for the upcoming fiscal year.

Opening the meeting with words of encouragement, Town Moderator Jim Donnelly welcomed

residents to share their opinions. Voters apparently took Donnelly's advice, taking almost an hour and a half to approve the budget even though it called for no increase in taxes, a sharp contrast to the 30 minutes it took voters to stamp an 'aye' on last year's budget, which called for a 30 cent jump in the tax rate.

"People have said they are intimidated to speak tonight in front of the audience and they shouldn't be," said Councilman Bill Kelly. "If you have some- thing to say you're invited to say it, and not only invited, but encouraged."

Town Council President Julio DiGiando outlined the municipal budget for the fiscal year that will begin on July 1. Despite major revenue losses from state aid, building permits and real estate taxes, totaling $262,000, he said the losses were balanced by savings in other areas.

The municipal budget is $8.37 million, $92,000 less than the current year's budget. The school's budget is $12.53 million, an increase over the current $12.26 million budget.

Utilizing built up town revenues, DiGiando said the town council recommended $716,114 from excess fund balances be used to pay off debts, which will save the town money on future debt payments and have a positive impact on upcoming budgets.

The town retained earnings from new real estate properties and saved by freezing salaries of nonunion department heads that make over $50,000 yearly, as well as by entering into a regional public health care consortium, Group Health Benefits of Rhode Island.

The final tax rate left a little wiggle room; it was approved to be no less than $8.11 per $1,000 of assessed value and not to exceed $8.15. This allows for a slight tax increase in order to balance funds if final property tax assessments prove less than present estimates.

The school budget was approved with a more uncertain future. School Committee Chair Cathy Keiser explained the budget is based on receiving level funding from the state. If state revenues are not matched, school committee members and town administrators will need to look for further savings elsewhere, and Keiser said "we accept that challenge."

"In past years we've looked at level funding as a worst case scenario," said Keiser. "This year we're looking at level funding as an improbable best case scenario."

Keiser defended the school budget against residents concerned about the trend of decreasing enrollment and increased spending over the past five years. Attributing budget increases to rising fuel costs, contractual obligations and health insurance, Keiser said 33 of the 36 Rhode Island school districts experienced dropping enrollment, and challenged voters to find any school budgets in the state that decreased or remained level.

Robert Salk, a Seaview Avenue resident, criticized the school committee's use of funds. "We're achieving results that are subpar to New England so our money's not being well-spent. I believe in quality of education, but contrary to the dollars we're spending, we're not getting results."

Salk said the School Committee needed to work to keep costs stable "dollar for dollar" and relative to the number of students. "I think you've been spending crazily over the last few years," he said.

While Rhode Island schools score the lowest in New England and are performing below the national average, Jamestown has performed well in the past. Keiser said that Jamestown schools were accepted as a member of the model schools community last fall, but warned that Jamestown cannot afford "to rest on its laurels." She said the school committee is dedicated to revision and enrichment of the curriculum to continually elevate Jamestown's youth to higher level thinking and said this is reflected in the budget.

Just as the town department heads are not receiving raises, school superintendent Marcia Lukon said none of the school administrators are receiving salary increases this coming school as well.

Many residents had words of praise for administrators, council and committee members and applauded their efforts to keep tax rates to a minimum.

"Being a state employee, I'm on a level budget myself and I really appreciate the work that you guys have done to keep this budget level and to keep my taxes down," said Richard Kingsley, a resident of Clinton Avenue.

Several other residents agreed the process of the FTM disallowed resident's input.

"In terms of process, it's a lot more useful to have our input at the (workshop) meetings." said Columbia Lane resident Maureen Ryall. "It was very frustrating to be at the town council workshops and to basically be handcuffed, because that is the time when some of these discussions could happen a little more efficiently."

Susan Little, resident and Harbor Management Commission member, said she also appreciated the efforts of administrators and said councilors did a great job keeping the budget down this year, but she warned the impending difficulty of keeping the budget down over the next few years. "There were no really hard decisions that were made this year (on the budget)," she said.

"Next year's budgeting process will be much more difficult, many towns have had to make very, very difficult decisions this year for their budgets and I hope the town council and school committee, along with the town administration will take every opportunity to continue to keep tax increases to a minimum going forward."

Voters also approved an additional $200,000 for renovations to the police station for a total of $600,000 for additions to the building, improvements to the HV/AC unit and repairs to the roof. At last year's FTM, $400,000 was approved for the project.

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