2010-05-06 / Front Page

State finances delay budget OK

Town Council to vote Friday
By Phil Zahodiakin

Responding to major legislative uncertainties in the General Assembly, the Jamestown Town Council delayed until tomorrow, Friday, May 7, a vote on the budget proposed for fiscal year 2010-11.

The decision was made at the outset of the May 3 council meeting. The councilors also discussed, but dismissed, the idea of postponing the financial town meeting – which, under the town charter, must be held on the first Monday in June.

In theory, a delay would allow Jamestown to wait until legislators decide if they will rescind 100% of the state motor vehicle excise tax reimbursements to R.I. towns – among other fiscal decisions, such as cuts in state school aid, which will affect municipal balance sheets.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser expected to lose all of the $440,750 annually reimbursed to Jamestown. But the General Assembly is considering the possibility of rescinding less than the $136 million in vehicular excise taxes annually returned to municipalities.

However, by doing so, the legislators would prolong the job of bridging the state’s budget deficit – projected to be $225 million during the next fiscal year – well beyond the June 7 date of the financial town meeting.

Keiser noted that newly enacted legislation would allow municipalities to delay their financial town meetings by up to 90 days. Asked by Council President Mike Schnack if the assembly has the power to “override or dissolve” town charters, Keiser replied that the legal grounds are “very soft.”

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero added, “This is a very dangerous area that is ripe for litigation.”

The other problem with a delay was pointed out by council member Bill Murphy, who noted that “our fiscal year ends on July 1, and we wouldn’t have any money to continue running the town if we haven’t adopted a budget.”

Ruggiero added, moreover, that the Jamestown charter “doesn’t allow the town to continue operating under the previous year’s budget.”

The council does not have any expectation that the assembly will wrap up its legislative “horse trading” in time for the budget meeting tomorrow – which will start at 5 p.m.

However, by holding a special meeting for their vote, the councilors will have more time to decide on their fiscal assumptions for, and contingency language that may be added to, the budget that they will adopt for presentation to the town voters on June 7.

One of the line items that won’t be discussed at tomorrow’s special meeting is the elimination of half the funding for an animal control officer – a position that will be eliminated if town voters adopt the budget.

However, the issue flared up during the council’s public forum, which included the submission of a petition with 405 signatories in support of the ACO position.

Joan Dupee, who submitted the petition, also questioned the accuracy of statements in Schnack’s recent “Viewpoint” article in the Press. Among other assertions, Dupee disputed the number of hours that Schnack, quoting an analysis by Keiser, said ACO Cathy Gregory worked in February (five) and March (two).

Schnack told Dupee that the work totals stated in his article reflected “the actual amount of time the ACO spent responding to calls.”

Gregory also addressed the council to denounce the “Viewpoint” article.

She said that Schnack “has never spoken to me personally or professionally,” and that the “distortions” of her workload are “offensive.”

Schnack replied that his editorial was an “objective” assessment of town needs, adding, “It’s too bad if you took [the article] personally, but that’s your issue.”

In other business, Keiser advised the councilors that:

• Town Planner Lisa Bryer is in a “wrestling match” with the state Transportation Department over bid specifications for the $1.1 million Narragansett Avenue improvement project. Because the specs will also have to be reviewed by the federal Highway Department before the town issues a request for proposals, the council agreed that Keiser should write a “forceful, but respectful” letter asking the R.I. DOT to expedite its approval of the specs.

• The town has not received many replies to its RFP to refurbish the restrooms at Ft. Getty. Keiser said that, given the imminent reopening of the park, the north restroom would be renovated first, followed by the southern facility – which is nearest the area set aside for tents.

• Public Works Director Steve Goslee and Town Engineer Mike Gray led Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives on a tour of Conanicut Island stormwater damage from the April 1 deluge. Keiser said that the town will apply for hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of FEMA grants for repairs at more than 20 sites.

• A Jamestown application for a $750,000 grant to help the town build a wind turbine should be reached within two weeks. Because the town will have to issue a bond to finance the bulk of turbine construction, and because the grant decision won’t leave much time before the financial town meeting, the bond proposal would have to be offered to the voters as a referendum in the November election.

• The Water Resource Protection Committee “remains dormant,” although several of its members – including a soil scientist – continue to “review conditions on the island.” Because the panel is supposed to identify properties that the town could buy to protect its water resources, and because it doesn’t look like there are any such properties remaining, Schnack said the panel should probably be dissolved – and then possibly reconstituted with a revised mission.

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