2009-12-31 / Front Page

Decisions make for dynamic Town Council year

By Phil Zahodiakin

A recap of the most significant Town Council decisions and debates in 2009 indicates that the year that ends tonight was nothing if not dynamic.

The council tackled a remarkably wide range of issues – from coyote management to affordable housing – and its response to those issues was equally diverse: Breathing spells to gather more information, in some cases, and quick decisions in others.

The decisions that affected the greatest number of islanders were fiscal, and enabled the town to enter its 2009-10 fiscal year without a tax increase. The budget, which was proposed by Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, required the council to accept the use of surplus funds to pay down debt and thus reduce debtservice obligations. Keiser also proposed to hold the line against salary increases for non-union department heads.

The budget that the council put before the voters at the Financial Town Meeting totaled $20.9 million, which was $92,000 less than the budget for FY 2008-09. The voters approved the budget, as well as the council recommendation to draw $717,114 from surplus funds for debt reduction. The pay-down and the limited salary freeze allowed the town to keep the property tax rate at the existing $8.11 per thousand dollars of assessed value.

Considering the revenue losses in state aid, building permits and real estate transfer taxes – along with a $270,000 increase in the budget appropriation for the school department, raising its share of the budget to $12.53 million – the council and Keiser were justifiably pleased to have held the line against a tax increase.

Unfortunately, the town is now facing the loss of motor vehicle excise tax reimbursements from the state, which means that the newly seated council might have to consider a supplemental tax to bridge the gap in lieu of concessions from union and non-union employees.

Another 2010 issue will be the long-term future of Ft. Getty – along with near-term repairs. Last summer, the council heard a litany of complaints from the seasonal campers, who assailed the town for “unreliable grassmowing,” “tea-colored” tap water, electric shocks from an undetermined source and “deplorable” bathroom facilities.

The council took note of the complaints, but held in abeyance any response until the grievances were fully aired in a “town hall” meeting held on Sept. 24. The council also wanted to wait for the Ft. Getty Master Plan Committee to distribute an island-wide survey – which is reportedly almost ready to be distributed – on the long-term options for investments in Ft. Getty.

There was, however, one Ft. Getty proposal that was seriously debated by the council: A sailing school. In August, the FAST Sailing Foundation proposal to build and operate the school nearly reached a council vote, but the council members decided to table the vote after some councilors raised additional questions about the costs to the town, among other issues. In response, FAST withdrew its proposal – but the idea may yet re-emerge as part of a final plan for Ft. Getty.

The council was much more decisive in its response to the disposition of 88 town-owned lots, mainly on the North end, which were acquired in taxdefault proceedings. Although several residents argued that one or two of the lots could be sold without posing a threat to ground water as long as they were legally shielded from development, the council was unanimous in its opposition to their sale. Consequently, the town is now exploring options for a partnership with the Conservation Commission or Land Trust to steward the properties.

In an unrelated development that also raised some environmental issues, the council unanimously voted down a School Committee recommendation to use an Eldred Avenue site for school bus parking and selected the former town office site at 44 Southwest Ave. as a temporary alternative. During debate, Keiser pointed out that the Eldred Avenue site adjoined a wetlands area, which raised the possibility that motor vehicle fluids would run off the pavement and into the wetlands, threatening the underlying ground water.

The council was also unanimous in its vote to adopt a package of zoning amendments designed to, among other things, encourage affordable housing development in the Village – but that’s not to say its endorsement was unequivocal. Council member Bob Sutton raised a number of issues all the way up to the vote, and Council President Julio DiGiando said he didn’t necessarily understand “every nuance of the amendments.”

However, DiGiando ultimately supported the amendments because the town is falling behind in its efforts to make 10% of the island’s housing “affordable” as defined and mandated by the state. DiGiando also said he was persuaded that the Technical Review Committee established by the amendments would streamline the zoning review process.

Another issue with a downtown focus emerged when the council was persuaded that there should be an inquiry into complaints about the fire horn. Village residents claimed that the volume of the horn is “ear shat- tering” and a “health threat,” so the council scheduled a workshop to hear from the fire department. The department informed the council that it would cost $1 million just to replace the fire boxes that are now used in town buildings and businesses to set off the horn, and that steps were under way to reduce or eliminate its non-emergency uses, such as tests.

Although the council did not respond to the findings from its workshop with a formal position, it is clear that there will be many other financial issues demanding much more attention than fire alarm investments going forward.

By contrast, the council responded decisively to the findings of scientific research on coyote feeding behavior; namely, by voting “no” on a proposed ordinance to impose prohibitions and restrictions on wildlife feeding. Local biologist Numi Mitchell, who had gathered a wealth of tracking data on Conanicut and Aquidneck island coyote packs, argued that the ordinance was just a tool that the town could enforce in “extreme cases” of careless wildlife feeding.

The council was unequivocally opposed to the ordinance, with council member Barbara Szepatowski dismissing the idea of regulating this aspect of island life as “insane.”

But the most decisive vote involving the council came from island residents – not from council members themselves. On Nov. 3, Jamestown voters returned only one of the incumbent candidates, Michael White, to the council, while failing to re-elect Robert Sutton.

Although he based his candidacy on his many years of experience as a council member and town administrator, Sutton was also known to support the idea of asking all island residents to help pay the water and sewer debt service. Scuttlebutt and an off-island news report asserted that Sutton lost his bid because of an anonymous “poison pen” letter warning that his re-election would eventually force North End residents to pay a share of the water and sewer revenue earmarked for debt service – in addition to their expenses for well and septic system maintenance.

However, the letter also claimed that Michael Smith, who was defeated in his bid for a council seat, held the same view as Sutton – even though Smith had taken no such position during the candidate forums held before the election. Additionally, several North End residents told the Press that they had not seen the anonymous letter before the election.

Whether the letter was to blame for Sutton’s defeat will never be known, but its appearance in island mailboxes – and the aftermath – made the 2009 election one of the most talkedabout council elections in years.

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