2011-06-02 / Editorial

Support the council’s recommended budget

By Mike Schnack

This year the Financial Town Meeting will consider the Town Council and School Committee recommended budgets and a warrant by the Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown to cut $601,350 from those budgets. The warrant amounts to all but $10,000 of the recommended new spending for the next fiscal year and would result in a zero increase over the current year. While the association’s cut may on its face seem appealing as a means to constrain local spending, I do not think it represents sound fiscal planning for our community. Let me explain why.

The council and School Committee adopted budgets that were approved by majorities of 4-1 and 5-0. These elected representatives spent many hours in open public workshops discussing the details of town and/or school spending needs. They did not simply “rubber stamp” the budget proposals presented by the town administrator or the school superintendent. Specific budget adjustments were suggested, debated, and votes taken to create a consensus budget. This is the desired end result of a deliberative, systematic review process.

It is important to point out that the workshops were lightly attended. In fact, the taxpayers’ association was not actively engaged during the process and at no time offered alternative spending ideas. At a final public hearing, the association did propose to eliminate funding for Fort Getty improvements ($100,000) and for the bike path engineering study ($21,000). The group also wanted to cut $250,000 for a North End Fire Station although no funding for this purpose was included in either the administrator’s proposed budget or the council recommended budget.

It was not until the last day for submission of eligible budget warrants that the taxpayers’ association released a proposal to zero out any increase in spending. If the town were facing a severe fiscal crisis, this radical approach might make some fiscal sense. However, while not minimizing economic distress facing our residents, the facts do not support the view that Jamestown is in difficult financial straits.

So what does the budget recommended by the council contain?

For the second consecutive year, reductions in operating accounts are proposed to limit overall spending. Last year, $110,000 was eliminated through staffing reductions in animal control, building and zoning clerical support, and reducing clerical hours in the town clerk’s office. For the coming year, we have: cut funding by not filling one vacant police officer position; consolidated the job of Department of Public Works director, deputy DPW director, and town engineer; and introduced new employee medical care coverage with health savings accounts. Due to these operating changes, Police Department spending is lower in fiscal year 2011-12 than in fiscal year 2009- 10, DPW and utilities management will cost $102,587 less next year, and health insurance expenditures are down $25,000 despite medical inflation and claims growth.

Cumulative reductions over two fiscal years amount to $325,000, or 4.5 percent of the town’s operating budget.

Since payroll is a significant driver of municipal and school budgets, we have been attentive to salary increases during the recession. Department heads received no cost of living increases for the last two years. Labor contracts for police, DPW, and clerks and dispatchers settled for nothing this year and 2.0 percent and 2.5 percent next year with the significant concessions on health care.

So where is new spending planned?

The town’s operating budget is up $93,174, or 1.3 percent. Of this total, $50,000 is a set-aside to meet reorganization and transition costs for improvement of emergency medical services. The remaining $43,174, or 0.6 percent of new spending, accounts for the total of all other Town net operating cost increases.

The council budget includes a $376,755 hike in expenditures for maintenance and replacement of equipment and facilities, road paving and special projects. Most of this spending ($285,000) would be drawn from the town’s $3.8 million undesignated reserve fund and not from new property taxes. I believe that addressing our capital needs and priorities with a modest 1 percent tax rate increase combined with responsible use of the reserve fund is sound fiscal man- agement.

What choices will be made if the taxpayers’ association spending cut is approved?

Due to contractual requirements, the council and the School Committee are limited in areas of the budget that can be further cut. Capital spending will bear the biggest brunt. Essential projects deferred to a future year include: road paving, vehicle and truck scheduled replacement, fire station roof repair, recreation center heating system, landfill remediation, and Fort Getty water/electric services. Discretionary projects affected: Affordable Housing Fund, wireless technology and bike path engineering.

I urge all residents to come to the Financial Town Meeting and support the recommended town and school budgets that promote the efficient delivery of quality public services and facilities in Jamestown in a responsible manner.

The author is the president of the Jamestown Town Council.

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