2010-12-30 / News

Budget debates and a full agenda keep Town Council busy in 2010

YEAR IN REVIEW
By Phil Zahodiakin

Jamestown’s Town Council had an eventful 2010, with much of the year punctuated by a protracted dispute, which didn’t end until the most rancorous Financial Town Meeting in recent memory.

The issue erupted on March 22, when Town Administrator Bruce Keiser advised the Council to eliminate the position of animal control officer. Keiser explained that the salary paid to ACO Cathy Gregory wasn’t justified by the statistics on Jamestown requests for ACO services.

Islanders who wanted the town to keep a full-time ACO had turned out in force to express their outrage at the proposal, and continued to attend each subsequent Council meeting for the next two months. Nevertheless, it looked like the Council would back the proposal up until the panel met for a budget meeting on May 7, when Councilor Bob Bowen offered a budget amendment to provide funding for a part-time ACO.

The amendment, along with a proposed $20.9-million budget, passed unanimously. The budget represented a modest 1.18-percent increase over the municipal and school spending during fiscal year 2009-10. It included an approximately $1 increase in the propertytax rate.

Without the increase, the proposed budget wouldn’t have been balanced because the town was expecting a $440,750 loss of motorvehicle excise-tax reimbursements from the state. In addition, the value of Jamestown real estate had dropped to $1.94 billion from its $2.13 billion level in 2008, thereby eroding some of the town’s tax base.

The proposed tax increase didn’t sit well with many of the ACO supporters, who argued that Jamestown could easily find the money to fund the position on a full-time basis. They said that Gregory was the target of a “witch hunt” by Keiser. But Council President Mike Schnack defended the town administrator: “Bruce has been looking at all the [town] positions, and he has recommended a cut in clerical hours [as well]. These decisions are not taken on as personal decisions.”

Opponents of the tax hike and advocates for a full-time ACO were an outspoken block of voters at the June 7 Financial Town Meeting. Over 700 residents packed the Lawn Avenue School gym, where the ACO supporters fell just short of the votes necessary to restore full-time funding for the job.

The budget proposed by the Council was passed at the chaotic town meeting, which meant that there would be funding for a parttime ACO. Nevertheless, Keiser – using his discretion as town administrator – eliminated the ACO position at the end of June.

Another controversy arose when four of the five council members took issue with the efforts of Councilor Ellen Winsor to muster support for a resolution opposing the LNG facility proposed for Mount Hope Bay. On July 19, the Council adopted a “press release and advisory” stating that Winsor had inappropriately represented the town – rather than her advocacy group – during her presentations to gather signatures for the resolution from other town councils.

The advisory was posted initially on the Town of Jamestown’s home page, then re-located to the home page established for the LNG Threat Committee, an offi cial town committee, which had held its inaugural meeting on June 10.

Following the advisory adoption, Winsor – who had founded the LNG Working Group in September 2009 – pointed out that video footage of her presentations attest to her self-identification as “a Jamestown councilor who is speaking as a private citizen on behalf of the LNG Working Group.”

On Sept. 7, the Council unanimously adopted an LNG resolution whose language is practically the same as that of the Working Group resolution, which has been adopted by 13 other Rhode Island towns.

Nevertheless, on Oct. 18, the Council voted down a Winsor motion to take down the advisory by a 3-2 vote, with Councilor Mike White offering carefully qualified support for the motion before joining Winsor in voting for it. Consequently, the advisory remains in place.

The Council established the LNG Threat Committee as one piece of its three-part plan to track LNG developments. The other two pieces were a “congress of councils” – the first of which was hosted by Jamestown on Sept. 9 – and an invitation to the LNG Working Group to provide background information to the fledgling committee.

During 2010, the official town committee whose findings and recommendations sparked the most Council deliberation was the Wind Energy Committee. The panel had strongly urged the councilors to adopt its recommendation for the town to build two wind turbines – one at Taylor Point and another at Fort Getty. On Feb. 16, the Council voted to endorse only a Taylor Point turbine, launching an onagain, off-again turbine initiative that remains unsettled today.

On July 19, the Council adopted the verbiage for a ballot question asking voters to approve up to $6.5 million in municipal debt to finance the single turbine; and then, on Oct. 4, having learned that the Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t allow the 410-foot turbine to be built at Taylor Point, the Council reversed itself and launched a campaign against the ballot question.

But the effort failed, and the turbine referendum was passed by just nine votes. In response, the Council has placed the turbine issue on the “back burner,” remaining open to the possibility of launching a cost estimate for electrical grid upgrades, but also remaining wary of projected turbine benefits before they are weighed against the potentially enormous cost of the upgrades.

A second major project which has been on the “back burner” for many years – a potential reconfi guration of Fort Getty – will gain “front burner” status because of the Council’s Nov. 15 decision to hold a Fort Getty charrette during the first quarter of 2011.

The process to select a professional facilitator for the charrette is under way. The request for proposals specifies planning experience among the requested qualifi- cations, which means the charrette will broach a wide range of potentially sweeping proposals for the park. However, the town has solicited ideas, and appointed panels to formulate recommendations since the mid-1990s, so it remains to be seen if 2011 will be the year that a Fort Getty master plan is actually launched.

In 2010, however, the Council managed to settle a far less controversial Fort Getty issue: a long-delayed, and much-requested, upgrade to the bathrooms. The Council remains opposed to rebuilding the two bathrooms until it’s known if they will need re-location to accommodate a reconfiguration of the campground. But on April 19, the councilors addressed a litany of complaints from the seasonal campers and agreed to refurbish the two bathrooms at a cost of $10,000 apiece.

The Council also held a pair of workshops on the future of Fort Wetherill. The first of the workshops was intended to explore the possibility of selling one or both of the town parcels to the state Department of Environmental Management. The second, to discuss appraisal results indicating that the market value of the two parcels was $590,000 to $1.14 million for the waterfront parcel and $1.1 million for the inland parcel. Although the DEM is said to remain interested in acquiring either or both of the parcels, Council discussions during the Oct. 25 workshop sug- gested that the councilors have tilted against a sale of the waterfront land, with Councilor Bill Murphy opposing a sale of the inland property, as well.

The Council also OK’d an agreement with the state Department of Transportation to park Jamestown’s school buses at the North Kingstown park and ride. The fleet of eight buses had previously been parked at the former Town Hall at 44 Southwest Ave. Since that property is up for sale, the location was only a temporary fix for a long-standing problem, which now appears to have been solved after a year of Council indecision about alternative locations.

In another matter of business this year, the Council agreed on Oct. 18 to provide the Church Community Housing Corporation a 12-month, interest-free, $84,000 bridge loan that will enable CCH to buy a Swinburne Street property where the group hopes to build three affordable houses.

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