2010-04-08 / Front Page

An austere budget met with critique

By Phil Zahodiakin

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser explained his proposal to restrain Jamestown’s spending during the next fiscal year during the April 4 budget workshop.

Many of those in attendance wore the red t-shirts and jackets emblematic of support for animal control officer (ACO) Cathy Gregory, whose job has been proposed for elimination.

Keiser has proposed to increase capital and operational spending by 2.5%. Despite the modesty of the proposed increase, which was first unveiled on March 22, one of the ACO supporters displayed a sign saying, “Cut the pork.”

Moreover, in public comments at the end of the meeting, islander David Martin said, “Notwithstanding Mr. Keiser’s rosy outlook, this budget does not reflect the signifi- cant economic downturn that most citizens in the Unites States and especially here in Rhode Island are experiencing.”

Martin, who noted that he supports the ACO position, argued that “the theme of the proposed budget should be austerity. We should be looking at every department, every position…every line item …to determine the minimum by which we can adequately run this little town.”

Specifically, the council should “reject this proposed budget, return it to [Keiser] and direct him to return it with a 10% reduction,” Martin said.

Conversely, former Town Council President Julio DiGiando assailed the budget for its failure to provide salary increases for municipal employees.

“The budget is being kept low on the backs of department heads and the rank-and-file workers,” he said, pointing out that municipal employees have won significant awards for their work. “I don’t think that that’s right.”

The non-school union employees are also being asked to accept re-structured health benefit plans. Currently, the budget assumes a 13.2% jump in the Blue Cross Blue Shield premium, but Keiser hopes to extract concessions that will trim the effective increase to 5% – for a savings of $60,000.

Other areas where Keiser is proposing to trim, restrain or defer spending include:

• Fire truck replacement: Deferring the $460,000 purchase of a fire truck to replace a 26-year-old, sub-standard engine. Meanwhile, the council may start reviewing the arguments for building a $500,000 North End fire station, which would reduce the cost of a replacement engine by 40% because the engines garaged at the Narragansett Avenue firehouse must be custom-built in order to fit inside the 19th century building.

• Legal: The retainer for the town solicitor and the salary for the town prosecutor would remain flat at a combined $75,000 – which, Keiser said, compares favorably to the $140,000 that “the town was spending for those services when I arrived.”

• ACO: Reducing to $36,000 the $75,000 previously allocated for the salary and operations associated with the ACO position, thereby providing unemployment and health benefits during the transition period for Gregory if her position is eliminated.

The areas where spending would increase include:

• Road paving: An additional $100,000 from the town, along with $319,000 in federal stimulus money – which, when added to the $150,000 annually budgeted for road resurfacing, would be enough to repair or overlay three miles of road.

• Comprehensive Plan: Spending $25,000, along with monies held in capital reserve from previous setasides, for the development of the Comprehensive Town Plan mandated by state law.

• Ft. Getty: Spending a soon-tobe determined amount of money to repair the restroom and shower facilities at the campground – or spending $150,000 to $200,000 to build entirely new facilities.

• Vehicles: Spending $26,000 to replace a police car, and $45,000 to replace the van used by the senior center and recreation department.

• Library: Contributing $38,000 towards the $88,000 cost of replacing all the windows at the Jamestown Philomenian Library.

The areas where the town would seek to increase its revenue include:

• Fire hydrants: The total rent paid to the town for fire hydrant rentals would increase from $75,000 to $100,000.

• Ft. Getty fees: Increasing the parking fees at Ft. Getty would increase gross revenue from its current $470,000 to $490,000.

Although Council President Michael Schnack asked the public to refrain from raising the ACO controversy, which consumed twothirds of the first budget workshop, several islanders brought the subject up anyway.

Remarks included pleas for a “second look” at the issue, along with “creative efforts” to keep the position alive – even on a part-time basis.

Although he wasn’t obligated to respond, Keiser offered a detailed response to the ACO advocates – pointing out that he had, in fact, taken a second look at the issue.

“After [the first budget] meeting, I wondered if there was something I wasn’t seeing,” Keiser said, “so I looked at the [dispatch records] for last month, and I found that, in February, the ACO worked a total of five hours – and that included two hours looking for a lost dog. Five hours amounts to one percent productivity for the month, which is not an effi- cient use [of the salary budgeted for that position]. The ACO position is over-staffed for its core functions.”

Keiser also said that the elimination of a town position isn’t something he enjoys, adding, “And I know that the person whose job is being cut enjoys it a whole lot less. But [town governments] everywhere have been directed to curtail expenses wherever we can, and I was directed to look at the efficiencies of the ACO position by the previous council.”

Despite his explanation, Keiser was asked to take another “second look” at his proposal to eliminate the position.

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