2010-06-03 / Front Page

Town braces for financial meeting

By Phil Zahodiakin

The forecast for Monday’s Financial Town Meeting – when Jamestowners will be asked to vote on a budget for fiscal year 2010-11 – is “cloudy with a chance of thunderstorms.”

The June 7 meeting will start at 7 p.m. at the Lawn Avenue School, where the 300-person capacity may or may not suffice to accommodate everyone who wants to attend.

A FTM is typically an uneventful proceeding drawing little interest from most islanders. But there is nothing typical about this year’s FTM, which will include an unusually high number of proposals – also known as warrants – to amend the budget.

Although the proposed $20.8 million budget is slightly less than the $20.9 million budgeted for the current fiscal year, the revenue stream supporting the town and its schools is in decline.

The main reason for the decline is an overall drop in Jamestown property assessments, which have fallen from the $2.13 billion total assessed in 2008 to the $1.94 billion assessed this year.

In response, the Town Council has proposed to increase the property tax rate by 74 cents per $1,000 – just to maintain the existing level of town services.

The final amount of the increase presented at the FTM may be slightly different than 74 cents – the difference, if any, will reflect the most recent changes in town property values, which continue to fluctuate as property owners lodge appeals against their reassessments.

The second reason to expect declining revenue is a state proposal to kill $447,750 in motor vehicle excise tax reimbursements to the cities and towns – without any plan to lift the exemption shielding from municipal taxation the first $6,000 in motor vehicle value.

The uncertainty of the reimbursements led the council to propose an additional 17-cent increase in the property tax rate, on top of a 10-cent increase to fund a 1.18 percent increase in overall spending during the next fiscal year.

Once the FTM is underway, moderator Jim Donnelly will probably tee up the proposed FY ‘10- ’11 budget before anything else happens.

If the budget passes, one of two things will happen: Either the town will offer its warrants – at which point the amount of the property tax increases will be formally quantified – or the public will offer theirs.

If the public has the first opportunity, it would mean that a pair of warrants to reduce town and school spending by 2.09 percent would be offered before the town has an opportunity to increase the property tax rate.

However, if both budget-reduction warrants are passed, it’s unclear if the property tax warrants would be adjusted downward to reflect the 2.09 percent budget decrease.

One of the budget-reduction warrants would decrease the town budget by $320,676, while the other would reduce the school budget by $115,288; both will be offered by Jamestown Taxpayer’s Association president John Pagano – and both are intended to offset the 17-cent tax increase to recapture the loss in excise tax reimbursements.

As of press time, it was assumed – but not confirmed by Donnelly – that the two budget-reduction warrants would be the first public warrants offered for a vote.

But that is hardly the only uncertainty in the wings.

Besides the voting order for the public warrants, it is also uncertain what, if any, impacts their adoption would have on each other.

For example, one of the public warrants would substantially increase the capital budget for the purpose of building two wind turbines instead of one. Although the council has not reached the point of considering a bond to finance a single turbine, it remains to be seen if a “yes” vote on the budget-reduction warrants will affect voter response to the twin-turbine warrant.

Currently, it looks like the budget reduction warrants will be the first of the public warrants brought before the voters.

If they are passed, it will be up to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser to select – and propose for council approval – $435,964 in cuts, which raises a question about the most controversial warrant in the slate: A proposal to provide funding for a full-time animal control officer (ACO).

If this warrant – which was registered by Joan Dupee – passes, the ACO line item will be amended to specify the amount of money – $75,069 – necessary to retain the position as a full-time job.

However, the public warrants proposed at FTMs are only intended to make fiscal adjustments to the budget. They are not intended to specify staffing decisions. So it’s far from certain that the council will agree to a full-time ACO if the voters pass the warrants requiring the town to reduce the budget by $435,964.

Keiser originally proposed to eliminate the position because of a workload analysis indicating that town demand for ACO services is less than frequent. Councilor Bob Bowen subsequently proposed, and the council agreed, to include the position in the budget as a parttime job.

It is almost a certainty that the ACO vote – unlike the voice or hand votes for most, if not all, of the other warrants – will be a paper ballot. That’s because a paper ballot will allow the voters to hide their votes, thereby shielding themselves from recriminations if the ACO warrant is defeated.

Offering the ACO warrant as a paper ballot will slow down the FTM proceedings, but not by much. A much more significant delay will occur if the two budget-reduction warrants are defeated, which would lead JTA member Jerry Scott to offer a suite of warrants to reduce town and school spending on a line-item basis.

The total dollar amount of the 18 warrants registered by Scott equals the $435,964 total of the two lumpsum warrants to reduce the budget. Each of the 18 warrants would be voted on separately, which would obviously prolong the FTM.

Is it possible that there won’t be enough time to complete the meeting on the evening of June 7 – and that the FTM will wrap on the evening of June 8?

The answer to that question, like the speculation about many other aspects of the Financial Town Meeting, is – what else? – uncertain.

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