2011-10-20 / Front Page

Town will not pay to record council meetings

BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

Ending 20 months of debate, the Town Council this week defeated a motion to purchase cameras for a video-recording system, which means the town won’t be posting any videos of council meetings on its website.

Nevertheless, the vendors who had offered to provide the software piece of the proposal might still be asked to submit quotes on a related service: time-stamping and uploading audio recordings to Jamestown’s homepage.

The council met on Oct. 17. The video-recording motion from Councilor Bob Bowen was limited to the basic hardware bid submitted by ATR Treehouse, which had proposed to install a two-camera system at a cost of $24,378 – a “bare bones” bid that doesn’t include software costs or any other expenses.

Bowen said that he had first discussed an increase in “public access to open government” during a 2009 discussion with Press publisher Jeff McDonough. Although the discussion didn’t bear fruit, Bowen has maintained a steady advocacy for his video-recording idea since his subsequent election to the council.

The Jamestown Daily Record is already making video recordings of council meetings and posting them online. The town is making digital-audio recordings of the meetings, but those recordings are neither indexed nor available online.

Record publisher Sav Rebecchi has offered to provide the town with copies of his video recordings free of charge, but his offer was not discussed before the vote. In fact, besides Bowen, the only councilor to offer an opinion of any substance was council President Mike Schnack, who said, “I’d rather see the money going for time-stamping and indexing audio recordings.”

The absence of any significant debate on the motion is notable because Town Administrator Bruce Keiser had – at the council’s request – provided the council with the latest in his series of cost breakouts. But the detailed matrix wasn’t discussed, and the motion to purchase ATR hardware went down to a 4-1 vote.

Nevertheless, Bowen said that the public should still have access to time-stamped audio recordings on the town’s website, so he directed Keiser to request from the software vendors information about the options and costs for time-stamping and uploading audio recordings (indexed by agenda topics).

Prior to the vote, Bowen pointed out that the video-recording costs would be funded by the town’s dedicated technology account, which currently holds $85,000 – and which is completely funded by state grants. The topic of state grants was also discussed in connection to a different agenda item: the proposed Taylor Point wind turbine.

The town is still waiting to find out if the state will fund a number of expenditures that will help determine if the turbine is worth building. Specifically, there’s a $25,000 request, which asks the state Renewable Energy Fund to pay for six more months of wind energy measurements at Taylor Point. The town has also asked the state Economic Development Corporation to provide $111,755 in grants for a wide range of turbine studies (including the windenergy measurements).

Keiser said that the EDC has asked the town to provide more information in support of its request, adding that there is strong competition for the corporation’s energyrelated grant money. “They have $8 million worth of requests for $2.5 million in available funding,” Keiser said. “We are hoping to get at least the core of our request, and we will know [the amount of the EDC grant] within two to three weeks.”

Meanwhile, the state is weighing the possibility of asking drivers to pay more money to travel across the Newport Pell Bridge. The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority has proposed to increase the toll to offset rising maintenance costs at the Mount Hope Bridge, but the council opposes any such hike – and passed a resolution to that effect.

The resolution warns that personal and municipal budgets throughout Newport County are under increasing stress, and points out that RITBA had raised the Pell Bridge toll in September 2009. Not only does the toll help RITBA maintain a Bristol bridge that Jamestown residents “seldom use,” raising the toll yet again would unduly burden Newport

County residents, in general, while placing “an unnecessary burden on the local tourism industry, as well,” says the resolution. The resolution will be forwarded to the governor and state lawmakers representing every Newport County community.

In another financial discussion, the councilors – this time sitting as the water and sewer commissioners – heard from a resident who questions the rate structure for the town’s water service. The commission has previously discussed the possibility of adjusting the minimum volume of water – 5,000 gallons – that residents may use before paying excess charges. Currently, water consumption by 37 percent of the town’s ratepayers falls below the threshold.

Resident Steve Mecca, who identified himself as a water-efficiency consultant, said he has never before seen a threshold as high as 5,000 gallons “except once.”

Pointing out that the fixed fee for water use ($63.37 per quarter) is “awfully high,” Mecca asked why the town doesn’t simply charge for each gallon consumed, or reduce the 5,000-gallon threshold to a lower one, such as 3,000. Keiser said that Mecca had raised a “valid point by asking, ‘What is the appropriate rate structure for the town?’ Our structure is not the norm.”

Bowen, who has brought forward this issue in previous commission meetings, said, “We will continue to evaluate [the rate structure],” adding, “I’d like to see what the alternatives could be, but we don’t know what they are. We haven’t come up with any.”

One problem with reducing the threshold is that ratepayers whose usage lies just north of a lower threshold would probably try to conserve more water in an effort to avoid excess charges, thereby reducing the revenue that the town needs to maintain the underground pipes and operate the treatment plant. But no one knows how much additional water Jamestown residents could conserve.

The commissioners are concerned that a jump in conservation would force a major increase in water rates. However, it’s far from certain that lowering the threshold would increase conservation by any significant volume because Jamestown already has one of the lowest per capita water-use rates of any Rhode Island municipality.

That reality has, in turn, sparked some discussion about the possibility of expanding the water system to bring in more money. But, as Commissioner Bill Murphy has argued, the town shouldn’t look at any expansion before ensuring that there would be enough town water to meet the level of demand that would arise if all of the undeveloped lots within the system were developed.

In an effort to move along the rate structure debate, the commissioners directed Keiser to find the answers to three questions: When was the current rate established? When was the last rate study performed? And, what would a new rate study cost?

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