2010-05-27 / Front Page

Taxpayer group sets town meeting strategy

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Jamestown Taxpayers Association this week decided to pursue its budget-reduction mission at the Financial Town Meeting on June 7 with a two-prong strategy.

The first is a pair of warrants which, if passed by town voters, will reduce the town and school budgets by $320,676 and $115,288, respectively.

The second is a suite of 18 warrants registered by JTA member Jerry Scott.

The total dollar amount of the 18 warrants equals the $435,964 total of the lump-sum warrants, which were registered by JTA president John Pagano.

During the outset of the meeting, JTA members – who met May 17 at the Philomenian Library – weighed the merits of rescinding the 18 warrants and offering only the lump-sum warrants at the Financial Town Meeting.

One reason for that approach, Pagano said, would be preserving “a personal relationship with the council and the town administrator by saying, ‘Here’s the amount we want you to trim from the budget, but we won’t tell you how to do it.’”

The second reason, Pagano said, was that voting on 18 warrants individually would drag out the voting to the point where potential supporters – worn out from the proceedings – might leave the meeting before all 18 warrants are put to a vote.

Sam Patterson expressed the view, however, that a victory for a warrant to restore full funding for the animal control officer position would inspire ACO supporters “to stick around because they’ll smell blood in the water and they’ll want to be around to support your group.”

There is some uncertainty, however, about the order in which the warrants will be offered for votes because the Town Charter does not address that aspect of voting procedures at financial town meetings.

If they are offered in order of registration, the first warrant brought to a vote will be the lumpsum warrants from the JTA, followed by Patterson’s warrant to reduce by $17,000 the salary and benefits for the chief of police; the ACO warrant; the 18 lineitem warrants; and, finally, Don Wineberg’s warrant to fund a second wind turbine. (An earlier ACO warrant had been registered first, but it was rescinded and later replaced by the amended warrant now in the queue).

Ultimately, the voting order will rest in the hands of Town Moderator Jim Donnelly. But because the lump-sum warrants will probably be offered first, the JTA members decided to keep the 18 warrants in their “quiver” as a back-up.

“Let’s assume the worst,” Pagano said. “Let’s say both [lumpsum warrants] are defeated. If that happens, we’ll have a second chance with the line-item warrants. And, we’re only asking for a two percent reduction. It’s not as if we’re proposing a massive cut.”

The 2.09 percent budget reduction sought by the JTA is based on a line-item analysis of the town and school budgets, Pagano said, adding that the reduction is about the same as the expected loss of motor vehicle excise tax reimbursements from the state.

Under the budget proposed by Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, and adopted by the council, Jamestown would recoup the $440,570 loss by adding 17 cents to the $8.11-per-thousand property tax rate.

Keiser had assumed that the R.I. General Assembly would enact legislation to kill the state exemption for the first $6,000 in motor vehicle value – thereby opening the door to an excise tax on the exempted value – but the exemption remains in place.

Consequently, Keiser and the council decided to recoup the reimbursement with the 17-cent property tax increase – and provide a refund, or subsequent property tax reduction, in the event that the General Assembly decided to keep some, or all, of the excise tax reimbursements flowing to the municipalities.

Pagano faulted this approach because “it’s unfair to recoup the money by raising taxes. They should do it by trimming the fat in the budget. They’re saying that they will put [a reimbursement windfall] into a rainy day fund if the state ends up returning the money to us – and then decide if they’ll refund the money to the taxpayers. But I’m not buying it: I feel that the money would stay in the rainy-day fund, period.”

Pagano said that there is an easy way to achieve more than a third of the budget reduction sought by the JTA; namely, by allowing two pending vacancies to remain unfi lled.

“Two police officers have announced their retirement,” Pagano said, “and I’ve asked Bruce Keiser not to replace them, which would save the town $150,000 right there.”

Pagano also stressed that “the town needs to do a better job of negotiating their union contracts, and they need to start soliciting competitive bids [for health insurance coverage].”

JTA recording secretary Amy Gallagher argued that a competition for the town’s health insurance business has become particularly important because, she said, “Many people are unaware that health care reform will add 6 to 8 percent to health premiums – and that’s in addition to the expected 14 percent increase in premiums.”

A second concern, Gallagher added, “is that Blue Cross Blue Shield is in serious financial trouble at a time when the [R.I. Health Insurance Commissioner] is proposing a ceiling on the rates charged by our three carriers – and this artificial ceiling could leave one of them insolvent.”

Patterson weighed in to say, “That’s why we shouldn’t negotiate three-year contracts with the unions.”

Earlier in the meeting, Patterson warned that a defeat of the warrant to provide full funding for the ACO position would “end up costing the town money because the [National Association of Government Employees] union will sue if the position is eliminated.”

Patterson, who is a member of NAGE Local 69, was asked by the Press if the union would still file suit if the ACO position was reduced to a part-time job instead of being totally eliminated.

Patterson replied, “I don’t know. It would have to be voted on. But I do know that the union would definitely support a lawsuit if the position is eliminated.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Gallagher announced that she and her husband, Rob, have agreed to co-chair a “newly revitalized Jamestown Republican Committee.” Gallagher added that she and her husband will host a kick-off meeting of the committee at their home on June 2 – when the group will formally launch its search for a candidate to run for the District 74 seat this fall.

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