2011-12-29 / News

Town Council spends year setting table for major decisions in 2012

YEAR IN REVIEW
BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

The Town Council spent most of 2011 – the second year of its threeyear term – “setting the table” for projects that will, or may, break ground during the new year. But the councilors also dodged a highcaliber bullet during the evening of June 6, when Jamestown held its annual Financial Town Meeting.

The $21,476,795 town and school budget offered for approval at the meeting was 2.8 percent higher than the previous year’s budget. It included a 1.05 percent property tax increase to fund $601,000 in additional spending.

But the Taxpayers Association of Jamestown had registered a warrant proposing to cut the budget by exactly that amount because, as TAJ President Blake Dickinson argued in a Viewpoint article published by the Press, state and local leaders were allowing costs to “spiral out of control.”

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser argued strongly against the association’s warrant, denying Dickinson’s assertion by pointing to, among other things, the then minimal pay increases negotiated with the teachers’ union. Kaiser acknowledged that “pension costs will rise,” but added that the schools have been trimming expenses – as opposed to “inflating our budget with new personnel, programs and services.”

Although the reduction proposed by the association wasn’t huge, its passage would have required the council to consider reducing or eliminating capital expenditures for the maintenance of roads and other town assets. It also would have required the Town Council and the School Committee to decide the percentage of the budget reduction that each side would absorb.

But the council avoided that discussion, along with the prospect of selecting maintenance cuts, because the warrant went down to defeat. A motion for a paper ballot had passed handily, garnering 185 “yes” votes from the 389 residents participating in the FTM. But 243 residents voted against the motion to amend the budget, and the proposed budget passed by a voice vote.

Jamestown residents were asked to answer another budget question on Election Day, when a council request for permission to issue a landfill bond was on the ballot. The $1 million bond, which would finance the closure of the North Road landfill, was approved by a margin of 515-368 – and the massive project will presumably launch in 2012.

The bond referendum was enacted one year after the council urged residents to vote against its own ballot request for a $6.5 million wind turbine bond. The voters passed the referendum by a slim margin, and now – nearly two years after selecting Taylor Point as the turbine site – the councilors are finally on a path that will lead them to a decision.

To reach that decision, the council will first have to hear from a local consultant hired to, among other things, estimate the interconnection costs for a Taylor Point turbine. The consultant, Harley Lee, is expected to submit his estimate to the council in February. If the results of a subsequent grid study align with Lee’s numbers, then the council can focus on the projected net revenues from turbines with various outputs.

If the numbers demonstrate that a turbine would be profitable for the town, it’s possible that the council could entertain a motion to buy and install a turbine during the first half of 2012 – with an outside possibility that construction could start before the end of the year.

Construction on a replacement for the John C. Rembijas pavilion is likely to start during the first quarter of 2012 – assuming that the town and its insurance carrier, the Interlocal Trust, reach an agreement on the reimbursement that the town is requesting to replace the demolished structure.

The pavilion, whose final design was selected by the council at its Sept. 19 meeting, will cost about $366,000. But Interlocal Trust has balked at paying more than $198,000 – which would be the cost to rebuild the structure to its original specifications.

But those specs are far short of current code – particularly for structures in a flood plain – and the town wants Interlocal Trust to pay for a building which, while basically the same, would have a “scour proof” foundation, among other features that weren’t required during the pavilion’s 1978 construction. The council is anxious to break the impasse because there are only five months remaining until the Fort Getty pavilion is traditionally opened for rentals.

But it’s the Fort Getty campground that’s increasingly consuming most of the council’s discussions on the park.

Up until the May 19 charrette on Fort Getty options, it seemed like the only campground issues the council planned to consider were infrastructure repairs – whose costs, depending on the scope of the work, have been projected to run as high as $1 million. However, since the charrette, there has been a groundswell of support for delaying the repair decisions because the potential enormity of the investment would effectively set the current campground layout in stone.

Two of the council members are strongly supportive of the status quo, but the charrette results – and a recent petition requesting much more public participation in the council’s Fort Getty decisions – indicate that many Jamestown residents are hoping for unencumbered access to the park during the summer months.

To be sure, some residents are adamantly opposed to any further town or council reviews, arguing – as one resident said at the council’s Dec. 12 meeting – that “all these surveys are killing us.” But there has only been one survey devoted to Fort Getty – in 2004 – while all of the other town queries about the park were just a subset of the survey questions posed in support of the Jamestown Comprehensive Community Plan.

During its Dec. 12 meeting, the council voted to send the list of councilor preferences for Fort Getty uses to the Landworks Collaborative, the contractor that facilitated the charrette. Landworks will crunch the numbers associated with those uses – and possibly some that elicited strong support at the charrette – and then meet with the council to discuss them.

That meeting will probably occur in February, just as the budget deliberations are swinging into high gear and the first of the wind turbine numbers are coming in. So, it remains to be seen if the decision-making process for Fort Getty will, or will not, be a top priority for the council during the first quarter of 2012.

One of the council’s top priorities for 2011 – amending the town’s Harbor Management Ordinance – was achieved on Nov. 7. The vote to revise the ordinance, which governs the finances and management of town-owned waterfront facilities, brought to an end more than three years of debate by both the council and the Harbor Management Commission. The revisions were drafted by Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, and they will grant the town much more latitude in the use of revenue from mooring, and other, fees.

Eight months earlier, the council adopted increases to the town’s mooring fees, which jumped 24 percent, along with an increase in the fees for municipal services performed for harbor operations. The proposed increases were assailed by marina operators and one councilor, but a majority of the council concluded that they were “reasonable.”

In some of its other votes and business during 2011, the council:

• Voted on Dec. 12 to grant a permit for an event to replace the Penguin Plunge, which will be held off island for the first time in decades. The new event has been dubbed the Jamestown 1st Day Plunge.

• Agreed during a Feb. 15 workshop to consider offering the former Town Hall to the Narragansett Indians, who could use the structure as a museum – as long as the town is compensated for the building (possibly with state and federal grants). The councilors also agreed to explore jurisdictional issues arising from tribal worries about the disposition of buried artifacts. (There hasn’t been any word on the initiatives since the February workshop.)

• Voted down on Oct. 17 a longdebated proposal to hire a contractor for the purpose of video recording its meetings, opting instead for in-house audio recordings – which may now be accessed on the town’s website.

• Voted on May 16 to reconstitute the Charter Review Committee. The decision was taken in response to a resident’s inquiries about recall procedures and a Taxpayers Association of Jamestown petition requesting paper ballots for all Financial Town Meeting votes. On Aug. 1, the council voted to heed the recommendations from the committee, which advised the council against adding recall procedures to the charter or changing the voting rules.

• Adopted a landmark labor contract with the harbormaster and 17 employees of the highway, water and wastewater departments during its Jan. 3 meeting. Keiser touted the pact, which is projected to save the town $81,070 over its three-year term, as “a model for other Rhode Island communities” facing difficult contract negotiations.

• Passed, as water and sewer commissioners during its Sept. 8 meeting, the expected 10 to 11 percent increase in water and sewer rates, with ongoing debt service being the primary justification for the hikes. (The council deferred for later discussions the possibility of easing the flat, quarterly charge for water usage falling below the minimum level beyond which the town charges “excess” fees.)

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