2010-03-25 / Front Page

Cuts would offset tax increase

By Phil Zahodiakin

Despite the relentless shrinkage of Jamestown revenue, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser presented the Town Council with a budget proposal last Monday that would restrain property tax increases while allocating more money for imminent – and pressing – needs.

However, one of Keiser’s proposals to reduce expenditures – eliminating the animal control offi cer position – sparked passionate outcries during the second half of the March 22 meeting.

In fact, of the roughly 80 people who jammed the council chambers, well over half – including several police officers – were there to express support for ACO Cathy Gregory, in particular, and the necessity for an ACO, in general.

Because Council President Mike Schnack allowed everyone who wanted to speak an opportunity to address the council, the meeting expired without an opportunity for the councilors to start burrowing into the “weeds” of the budget plan.

Nevertheless, during the first half of the meeting, Keiser presented a detailed overview of his proposal – which comes just a week before Jamestown property owners start receiving their revaluation notices.

Because the total value of Jamestown’s tax base will drop, a budget increase would impose a greater tax burden on property owners whose properties go up in value.

Although it’s impossible to pre- dict where the FY 2010-11 property tax rate will be set, the budget proposal would increase operating expenses and capital expenditures by a combined $200,818.

School expenditures would decline by $272,232. But the proposed increases in town spending, along with revenue declines, would require the town to collect 1.18% more in property taxes – which is still far below the state’s 4.5% cap on annual tax increases at the municipal level.

The additional spending would fund a 26% increase in capital expenditures “to address some important needs that have been neglected,” Keiser said.

Those expenditures include $100,000 for Ft. Getty repairs and an additional $100,000 for road resurfacing.

Keiser has also proposed a $49,293 increase in the operations budget to pay for, among other things, elevating the salaries of rookie police officers to the $39,000- a-year level. Keiser is also proposing $5,000 for public works truck maintenance and $14,190 for police station radio maintenance.

Keiser added, however, that Jamestown will lose $440,570 in state motor vehicle excise tax reimbursements – or 5% of the town’s operating budget. The state reimbursements are based on the first $6,000 of vehicle value, which state legislation has exempted from municipal excise taxes.

Keiser is proposing to eliminate the exemption and tax the full value of every vehicle registered in Jamestown. The tax, Keiser said, would bring in an additional $86.52 for every such vehicle that’s worth at least $6,000.

But there are other losses besides the reimbursements that the town will have to offset.

For example, town income from investments in short-term securities has fallen from $175,000 in fiscal year 2009-10 to $75,000 this fiscal year because the interest rates paid by those securities have fallen below 1%.

In addition, the income from land transfer, licensing and probate fees has fallen $50,000 since FY 2009- 10, while the income from building inspection fees has declined by $25,000.

To compensate for those losses, Keiser has proposed, among other things, to increase Ft. Getty fees, along with the fees for non-stickered daily parking, daily boat parking and overnight boat parking. He has also proposed to reduce clerical hours in several town offices.

In addition, the budget proposal precludes any salary increases for union or non-union town employees, including department heads – who would go a second year without an increase. It also includes a proposal to increase health insurance copayments to 25% for all employees – two-thirds of whom are currently paying 20% co-pays.

Most controversially, the budget also proposes to eliminate the ACO position, which costs the town $75,523 in salary and operational expenses. If the position is eliminated, the town would still budget about $34,000 for FY 2010-11 to fund health and unemployment benefi ts for Gregory.

Eliminating the position was first discussed during last year’s budget deliberations. The step wasn’t taken, Keiser said, because “it was suggested [by former council member Bill Kelly] after I had already presented my budget proposal, and it wasn’t something that I had studied.”

Since then, having “monitored the workload activity of the ACO,” Keiser said, “I’ve determined that we could provide those services with existing police personnel and response from the North Kingstown ACO on a per-call basis.”

Keiser noted that the North Kingstown town manager has already agreed to provide ACO response if Jamestown decides to request it, and that the responses would be provided for a “nominal fee.”

Referencing his workload analysis of dispatch records over the past 12 months, Keiser said, “There were 59 core service responses” for leash law violations, dog bites and nuisance barking by the ACO and 46 by the police.

Other responses, which include phone conversations or personal response to road kill, lost pets and wild animal complaints, totaled 305 by the ACO, and 295 by the police, he said.

“This is not a performance review or a criticism,” Keiser said. “But these services aren’t provided by many other communities. ACO services are currently the most consolidated services in Rhode Island communities which have, or had, an ACO.”

Asked why the town hasn’t offered to negotiate some sort of adjustment in ACO hours instead of eliminating the position, Schnack said, “It’s not outside the realm of possibility.”

Most residents, however, said they wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than a full-time ACO – and that the ACO should be Cathy Gregory.

A few of the other comments, many of which were directed at Keiser, included the following:

• “It is imperative to maintain this service, and Cathy Gregory’s performance is best described as exemplary. She is compassionate and courteous. If animals voted, she would be elected by a landslide.”

• “Why was this position ‘tree picked’? Have you run the same kind of analysis for other positions?”

• “How many Parks and Recreation guys are full-time all year when we only need them full-time during the summer?”

• “Why are you giving the police a 5% raise when no one else is getting a raise?”

• “North Kingstown will tell us ‘you’ll have to wait,’ like DEM.”

• “The police department does handle many issues but we’ve had incidents when [the Jamestown Humane Society was] called because the police said [it] ‘wasn’t their job’ or they were ‘too busy.’”

Gregory herself was the last of the speakers to address the ACO issue.

“We’ve always had an ACO and that’s what makes Jamestown Jamestown,” she said.

She recalled an incident in which her mother drove over the family dog, and that the then-ACO came out to console her distraught mother and siblings. The moral support of that ACO, Gregory said, has stayed with her during her entire life.

“This is not about people and performance,” Keiser replied. “It’s about the budget, and the taxes people are willing to pay for the services that everyone on the island wants to have.”

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