2010-06-10 / Front Page

Budget emerges from raucous town meeting

Voters approve spending plan amid terse debate
By Phil Zahodiakin

Stand and be counted Stand and be counted During a Financial Town Meeting that met every expectation of tension and uncertainty – not to mention chaos – Jamestown voters passed the $8.6 million municipal budget and the $12.3 million school budget recommended by the Town Council.

The voters also passed a property tax increase, which is likely to end up as $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value, thereby raising the $8.11 property tax to $9.11 per $1,000 – although the increase was recorded as a range: No less than $8.85 per $1,000, and no more than $9.16 per $1,000.

But the big surprise of the June 7 meeting was that every expected budget amendment either failed to win enough votes from the nearly 700 islanders who packed the Lawn Avenue School gymnasium – or failed to reach a vote at all.

Actually, if any more residents had shown up for the meeting, it would have been adjourned for fire safety reasons and rescheduled as a “tent meeting” later this month.

But the turnout fell just short of that threshold.

Presumably, every islander who supported a restoration of the funding necessary for a full-time animal control officer attended the meeting. But the ACO contingent narrowly missed the simple majority required for the motion to pass, and the hotly debated proposal to increase the ACO line item by $48,088 went down to defeat by just a 35-vote margin: 246 to 211.

The result wasn’t necessarily a surprise.

During the run-up to the FTM, advocates for a full-time ACO were outspoken in their opinions. But very few islanders who agreed that the position should be eliminated or reduced to a part-time job – as the council had proposed – had publicly expressed their positions, so the strength of their numbers wasn’t evident until the vote.

A far greater surprise was the decision of Town Moderator Jim Donnelly to block a motion to fi- nance two wind turbines instead of the single turbine that the council endorsed for potential financing – assuming that the council eventually decides to place a wind-turbine bond before the voters in November.

The principal reason that Donnelly blocked the motion – a duly registered warrant that was advertised by the town of Jamestown in the May 27 edition of the Press – was that the line item identified for adjustment didn’t appear in the recommended budget that was published as an insert in that same edition of the Press.

The line item was a mundane entry in the public works piece of the recommended budget. Resident Don Wineberg sought to insert $9.6 million into that “truck repair” line item, thereby directing the town to seek financing for a pair of turbines.

But Donnelly told Wineberg that his motion for a vote on the warrant was “out of order” because the line item identified by the warrant didn’t appear anywhere in the published budget.

“I don’t see [the line item],” Donnelly said, looking perplexed as he searched the pages of the budget.

The reason Donnelly didn’t see the line item was that it had been deleted from the published budget – and the reason it had been deleted was that the council had not recommended a dollar amount for the line item.

Former Wind Energy Committee member William “Bucky” Brennan reminded Donnelly that, under the Town Charter, the public is required to register warrants 20 days in advance of the FTM – and that the only available budget document at the time the warrant was registered was the electronic version posted on the Jamestown website.

“I’m not saying I support the motion,” Brennan said. But if a warrant is based on an existing line item that isn’t there when the budget is published as a paper document, there “is a serious flaw in the system,” he said.

Sav Rebecchi, who chaired the Town Charter Review Committee, told Donnelly that “the purpose of requiring warrant registrations 20 days before a Financial Town Meeting is avoiding a situation where people arrive with last-minute warrants seeking budget changes greater than $10,000. The town is required to advertise the warrants to ensure that the voters are aware of them, and, if that’s the process that was followed [for the twin-turbine warrant], then the warrant is in order.”

Donnelly was decisive, however, in responding that the warrant was “out of order” – and that it was “inappropriate” because it failed – in his opinion – to explain how the town would pay for the second turbine.

Donnelly had also been decisive when, at the outset of the meeting, he corrected the Press for referring to budget motions as “warrants” because “they are not warrants. They are motions. The town submits warrants. The public submits motions.”

But Donnelly didn’t offer a defi- nition of a warrant, or acknowledge that the town of Jamestown advertises budget amendments from the public as warrants, or explain why the issue – if it is an issue – was important enough to raise when he opened the meeting.

Donnelly was less decisive when it came time to vote on the ACO warrant.

Despite a Press article in which canvassing clerk Karen Montoya stated her expectation and intention to hold the ACO vote as a paper ballot – thereby allowing islanders to hide their votes – Donnelly requested a “standing vote” after a voice vote failed to indicate a clear . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . preference one way or the other.

Under the procedure for a standing vote, people are asked to stand up, section by section, if they support a motion – and the voters who stand are tallied. But Donnelly gave up on that approach because, as he said, it was proving too difficult to count the shifting tides of people.

In fact, all that shifting seemed nefarious to Montoya, who told the Press that she would have stepped in to disallow the results of the standing vote if it had been allowed to run its course.

“It was crucial that we went to a paper ballot to keep that vote ‘clean,’” Montoya said. “I observed non-registered voters trying to vote, and I observed people moving from section to section to vote again. I couldn’t have allowed that vote to stand.”

Besides the ACO warrant, the most controversial proposal awaiting the voters was a pair of motions from the Jamestown Taxpayers’ Association, which sought to reduce the town and school budgets.

Former town clerk Arlene Petit addressed the audience to express her opposition to the proposed reductions, saying, “I did not vote for all the current council members, but they are all working for the best interests of the town, and I do not support any changes to the [town] budget.”

Conversely, David Martin – who opened his remarks by jumping the ACO “gun” and asserting that it was “imperative for us to have a fulltime ACO” – assailed the proposed town budget as “unacceptable” He added that the JTA proposal to reduce the town budget by $320,676 was “smaller than it should be, but it’s a good step towards a more frugal government.”

JTA president John Pagano made the motion for a vote on the warrant to reduce the town budget, which was defeated by a voice vote. Later in the proceedings, JTA member Jerry Scott offered motions for votes on the first two of his 18 lineitem warrants – whose total dollar amounts equaled the total dollar amounts of the lump-sum warrants to reduce the town and school budgets.

The two line-item warrants failed by voice votes, and Scott later announced that he would not offer motions for votes on the other 16.

Late in the evening, when the school budget was finally brought before the voters, Pagano – sensing that most of the voters were solidly behind the town and school budgets proposed by the council – announced that he would not offer a motion for a vote on his warrant to reduce the school budget by $115,288.

“Based on the demeanor of the meeting,” Pagano said, “I withdraw the school warrant.”

The last of the controversial warrants was registered by Sam Paterson, who sought to reduce to $80,000 the $103,000 in salary and longevity payments to the chief of police.

Referring to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, Paterson said, “Bruce will say it’s not possible because he’s under contract. But we’re here to save money, and any contract can be renegotiated. The ACO is under contract!”

In response, Keiser said, among other things, “If this motion is approved, we would be in violation of a contract which was okayed by the Town Council of 1992, and [whose terms] parallel the terms of the collective bargaining agreement with the police union.

“If we made unilateral changes [to the terms of the contract], we would be subject to litigation,” Keiser continued, adding, “We are talking to every union and every employee about everything from salaries to vacation buy-backs.”

The vote to reduce the compensation package for the chief was defeated by a voice vote.

Lost in the tumult of the raucous FTM was the enormous amount of work that went into its preparations.

Montoya said that custodial supervisor Lew Kitts and his staff “had to bring over 400 chairs from the Melrose School. They had to break down the bleachers. They had to buy additional microphones. They had to roll out the floor covering. They had to install the special access elevator at the edge of the stage – and they had to provide access to the stage by dismantling the music classroom, which is where the stage actually is. Lew and his staff deserve a lot of appreciation for their work – as does everyone on the Board of Canvassers. The preparation that went into this meeting was an enormous project.”

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