2009-12-17 / Front Page

Town administrator looks back – and ahead

By Phil Zahodiakin

Bruce Keiser Bruce Keiser Jamestown has a new Town Council, and a new year is rapidly approaching, but many of the issues tackled by the town this year will be on the table again in 2010.

The Jamestown Press recently asked Town Administrator Bruce Keiser to reflect on the achievements of 2009 and the front-burner issues he foresees for the town in 2010.

Q: From your perspective as town administrator, what would you single out as the most important accomplishments of 2009?

A: There are four different issues that rise to the top of that list. One would be achieving a zero tax-rate increase for the current fiscal year, despite losing significant outside revenue. We lost all of our general revenue sharing aid from the state, we’ve seen a significant drop in building-permit revenue and real estate transfer taxes and — despite all that — we were one of the very few communities in the state to hold the line against tax increases. It’s a tribute to the town staff, the council and the school department, which did a great job in reducing its expenditures.

The second would be our completion of the highway barn, which was a landmark occasion for the community. It provides a sensational working environment and will serve our community for many years to come.

The third was our completion of the many-year planning process with respect to upgrading our water treatment plant, which is not only providing us with state-of-the-art technology, but increasing our water processing capability up to 20%.

The fourth was our completion of the police station renovations, which expanded office space and provided very muchneeded additions to the locker rooms. Like the highway barn and the treatment plant, the renovations will serve the community for 20 or 30 years into the future.

Q: Do you view the interim solution for school bus parking at 44 Southwest Ave. as a glass half-full or half-empty?

A: Forty-four Southwest Ave. is not in any way a long-term solution to that problem. I have said, and the council has said, that the proposal to use the Eldred Avenue location is not viable because it’s in a conservation area and, aesthetically speaking, is diametrically opposed to the intent of highway beautification and farmland preservation.

Q: You’re also on record as saying that you are looking very seriously at all potential budget savings, even though town operations are already “lean.” Will there be a work product from that review?

A: Yes. I’m required by charter to present the budget to the council at the beginning of March, and that will be part of the budget report I give to the council.

Q: Do you expect to see union negotiations drawing more public scrutiny than there has been in previous years?

A: Absolutely. Sixty of our employees, or 75%, are in a union and obviously, collective bargaining is all about wages and benefits for unionized personnel.

Q: Do you anticipate greater transparency in those negotiations or are there secrecy rules that have to be followed?

A: I don’t see any greater public involvement in the negotiation process; however, I do foresee that the council will likely take input from the public – including the Taxpayers Association presentation on Jan. 4, comparing public and private sector benefits. We don’t know what information they have, but a lot has happened in the private sector during the downturn — and the course of the last decade — that has changed compensation levels. I think the public would like to know how those benefits stack up against what the total compensation packages are on the public side, and I think it’s a fair inquiry. That said, the private sector workforce is not monolithic, so we would hope to see a fair and balanced analysis comparing apples to apples.

Q: Do you expect an additional rate increase for town water and sewer in 2010?

A: We’re not anticipating an increase in utility rates for 2010-2011 based on the rate analysis and five-year projection performed by our rate consultant. The caveat to that is that the 2010-11 budget assumes the sale of the 44 Southwest Ave. property as a contribution towards lowering the water debt. Obviously, given the current real estate market, it’s very uncertain as to whether the property will sell in that period of time or not. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to take a second look at whether or not a 2010-11 rate adjustment will be necessary.

Q: What do you foresee as the most significant issues facing the schools in 2010?

A: What I’m concerned about, and I know the school committee and superintendent share this concern as well, is that the $200 million state deficit will result in cutbacks in state aid to the schools. The state has always attempted to at least level-fund school districts in the face of their budgetary problems, but I don’t know that they have the luxury of doing that now. If cutbacks occur, we will have to engage in a very difficult conversation about how we fund schools without raising taxes significantly. We’re faced with a 4.5% cap on property tax increases, based on existing state tax limits, and I don’t see any interest in the community in raising taxes. But if we’re losing revenue and substantial state aid and we don’t raise taxes, we’ll have to talk about cutting back spending, and that would be either in wages and/or benefits, and then it’s a question of are you talking about fewer personnel, or the same number of personnel whose total compensation is less next year than it is in the current year?

Q: Turning to Ft. Getty, are you hopeful that the council will reach a decision on Master Plan implementation in 2010, or do you feel the debate should proceed for as long as it’s necessary to weigh all the different options and opinions?

A: I think it’s such a significant piece of property and wonderful town asset that we should not move too quickly to reach a decision as to what types of additional investments to make.

Q: Would you be inclined to proceed with infrastructure repairs at the campground before the council reaches its Master Plan decision, or do you feel it would be more prudent to wait?

A: I think it’s more prudent to wait. We need to make whatever minimum investments are needed to ensure the campers’ health and safety. But I don’t think we should provide enhancements to the campground until the community is satisfied that we have a consensus on a long-term Master Plan. During the recent tour of town facilities for council members and town staff, it was pretty much the common perspective that the concerns about the condition of the restrooms and shower rooms are not as grave as have been depicted during some of the discussions last summer. There’s some additional sprucing up that can be performed, but those facilities meet all health standards.

Q: Some recent letters to the editor have raised questions about the benefits and visual impacts of a wind turbine. Do you think the issues of concern are potentially significant enough to sway the council, or the town, against a turbine?

A: I think there needs to be an additional workshop held by the council, inviting the public to express their views regarding the aesthetics issue. Until we get the general views of the community, I don’t think we will know what we should do for wind energy on the island. The Wind Energy Committee did a great job in identifying the environmental and economic issues related to each potential location, and we know, as a result of that work, that a turbine would be economically viable and return a decent amount of revenue, but the aesthetics issue needs community input.

Q: What is the future of affordable housing starts in 2010?

A: Affordable housing continues to be a vexing issue for the town because each of the sites we identified as a potentially viable location has run into problems. At 44 Southwest Ave., we ran into the artifacts issue, and at 79 North Main Rd., we ran into potential problems with title, drainage and maybe artifacts. With the limited amount of vacant and reasonably priced property in the Village, it’s a major challenge for the town. It calls into question the ability of communities like Jamestown to meet the 10% affordable housing goal without substantial state and federal subsidies to discount the cost of that development.

Q: Can you share any of your other expectations for 2010?

A: On a very positive note, the 10-year wait for our downtown improvement project is going to end. That $1.1 million, federally funded project will be a two-season project. It will start this spring, with a pause during summer to avoid disrupting summertime activity, and finish in the fall.

The other big issue for us in 2010 will be the future of Ft. Wetherill – and the council will have an opportunity to weigh in on all the options on the table in the latter part of January.

A major budget decision we will have to contend with is the landfill closure at the transfer station. That was postponed, this year, due to budget reasons. What I hear from DEM is that they are short-staffed and only have a limited ability to oversee landfill closure projects. It will cost the community $800,000, based on our initial estimates, so it will have a budgetary impact that we will have to look at.

The other issue on the table is the Weaver’s Cove LNG proposal that’s moving through the federal permitting process, and that’s an issue we will stay very closely focused on. We will be reaching out to our fellow bay communities to work in partnership in opposition to that facility.

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