2011-06-09 / Front Page

Voters approve recommended school, town budgets

Bid for zero budget increase defeated
By Phil Zahodiakin

Turning down a motion to reduce spending, Jamestown voters this week adopted the fiscal year 2011-12 town and school budgets recommended by the Town Council. The Financial Town Meeting, which was held on June 6 at the Lawn Avenue School, went more smoothly than last year’s meeting.

That’s not to say that this year’s meeting was lacking in drama. The voters expressed some strong differences of opinion on a budget-trimming motion, which led to the town’s first-ever paper-ballot vote on a spending amendment.

There were 389 registered voters at this year’s meeting, which was significantly less than the 700 registered and unregistered voters who packed the gymnasium to the rafters at the last year’s meeting. This year, the unregistered voters – who numbered only five – observed the proceedings on a cafeteria video feed

The registered voters in the gym passed the recommended town budget of $9,064,965 by a resounding voice vote. The recommended school budget of $12,411,830 was passed by a similarly strong chorus of “yes” votes.

The total budget passed by the voters is $21,476,795, which represents a 2.8 percent increase over last year’s total budget. To support the increase, the voters passed a property-tax increase expressed as a range: not less than the existing $9.11 per $1,000 of assessed value and not more $9.25 per $1,000.

It’s all but certain that the final rate will be $9.21 per $1,000 – or 10 cents more than the existing rate – but the tax assessor will first have to confirm that the $9.21 rate will produce enough in revenue to fund the budget increase.

In other decisions, the voters re-authorized the sewer-line tax, which is assessed at the rate of 68 cents per linear foot. They also granted the town the authority to deposit its collections of back taxes in the general fund, and to borrow up to $1 million in anticipation of its fiscal year 2011-12 tax receipts.

The meeting, which was scheduled to start at 7 p.m., didn’t get under way until 8:45 p.m. because of the time it took for all the voters to check in. The voting didn’t start until 9:30 p.m. because of the time required for the Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown to offer, and the public to debate, the motion to reduce the budget.

It also took quite some time to sort out the taxpayers’ association motion requesting a paper ballot for the vote on its motion.

During the run-up to the meeting, the association’s warrant proposing a $601,000 reduction in the recommended combined budgets stirred up debate for two reasons. First, it raised the prospect of reducing or eliminating capital expenditures that the Town Council considered necessary for the maintenance of town assets. Second, it raised the prospect of a difficult debate about the share of the hit that the town and school budgets would absorb.

The motion for a paper ballot passed easily, garnering 185 votes and sparking speculation that the budget amendment would pass as well. That’s because a motion for a paper ballot must be supported by at least 20 percent of the voters and the tally was over twice the required 78. But the budget amendment was defeated, with 243 residents voting against the motion to amend the budget and 144 residents voting for it.

During his opening remarks, Town Council President Mike Schnack addressed the taxpayers’ association advocacy for a reduction in the recommended budget by pointing out that the council has taken many steps over the last two years to keep the town’s budget as lean as possible, with the result that the increase in property taxes would be only 1.05 percent. That increase, he pointed out, would translate into an average additional tax payment of $10.20 per quarter.

The increase was kept small in the face of greater capital spending plans because of previous budget reductions. As just one example of its cautious approach, the council “has requested a $270,000 appropriation for road repairs during the next fiscal year when the total amount of work that’s needed exceeds $2 million.”

Schnack also pointed out that North End residents, in particular, have been very appreciative of the upper North Road re-paving and that the reduction sought by the association would probably halt road re-paving during the upcoming fiscal year.

In her somewhat more pointed remarks, School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser said, among many other things, that a Viewpoint that appeared in last week’s Press authored by association President Blake Dickinson “chides state and local leaders for continuing to let costs ‘spiral out of control.’ I’m not here to defend the state’s record, but, on the local level, costs are far from spiraling out of control.”

Pointing out that the state has imposeda5percentcaponschool spending increases, Kaiser noted that the School Committee directed school administrators to strive for budget increases as close to zero as possible, adding that “our recommended budget increase is less than 1 percent, with a 1.99 percent increase in the town’s contribution.”

“With all respect to the [Taxpayers’ Association of Jamestown],” Kaiser continued, “I just don’t see those numbers as an indication that our costs are spiraling out of control. What I see is unions partnering with the school district to rein in costs. What I see is teachers accepting a pay freeze this year and a one percent increase next year. These are major concessions and I applaud our teachers for their willingness to work with us.”

Referring to the looming pension crisis throughout Rhode Island municipalities, Kaiser said, “There is no question, as Blake points out, that pension costs will increase. The tempest is brewing. But we’ve been battening down the hatches. And, we didn’t keep the town’s contribution at 1.99 percent by inflating our budget with new personnel, programs and services.”

In his comments to the council and the voters, Dickinson said the motion would “not make real cuts to the budget, but rather suggests that the town and school department fiscal year 2011-12 budget remain at the spending level voters approved last year.”

Public comments on the motion were divided. Rob Gallagher asked, “How can we increase the budget when a financial crisis is looming?”

Gallagher’s wife, Amy Gallagher, added that it was time to start restraining all additional spending because, “Even though we’re not in a fiscal crisis now, we don’t have enough of a business base to [bridge the gap] without asking property owners to shoulder the burden.”

Anthony Mastrostefano warned that the interest rates on debt instruments had plunged to the point where elderly people who rely on fixed incomes to survive will be hurt by any increase in their taxes, no matter how small.

But other residents argued that it was irresponsible to defer capital expenditures that will have to be budgeted eventually, one way or the other. One resident pointed out that it was imperative to maintain school programs at a level that will keep educational quality excellent and “relevant.”

In the aftermath of the meeting, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said, “We are pleased that the voters approved the Town Council’s recommended budget because it will allow us to proceed with some very important capital improvement projects.”

Keiser added that the tax increase necessary for those projects is very modest. “Remember, too, that we are using a portion of the undesignated fund balance to help support those projects. The enactment of the recommended budget keeps the community moving in the right direction in maintaining our buildings and facilities.”

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