Council approves harbor budget
The Harbor Management Commission met in a special session on Feb. 29 to finalize a draft budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. The commissioners unanimously voted to forward the completed budget to the Town Council. The council passed the budget as presented at its Monday meeting.
The spending package has two parts, according to Kim Devlin, the harbor clerk. It includes $210,800 for the operating budget, plus $78,700 for the infrastructure budget, which pays for projects on the long-range plan. Town Engineer Mike Gray helped develop the list of long-range projects. The commission also reiterated its earlier decision not to raise mooring rates this year.
However, questions did come up at the meeting about how the budget is created. Bill Munger, owner of Conanicut Marine Services, wanted to know “what’s driving costs upward” and pointed to several line items, such as $11,180 for unemployment benefits.
“My understanding is that the harbormaster was not collecting unemployment,” Munger said. Sam Paterson, the harbormaster, is a seasonal employee of the town.
Munger also questioned the amount of money earmarked for training and dues. That figure has jumped from $95 in actual expenses for fiscal year 2010-11 to $1,000 in this year’s budget.
Harbor Commissioner Chris Brown responded that Town Administrator Bruce Keiser and Police Chief Ed Mello had prepared that section of the budget. Mello also serves as the Harbor Commission’s executive director.
Munger said the budget “raises a lot of questions.” For another example, he said, the contingency fund had soared from $1,438 in 2010-11 to $5,756 for 2012-13. Also an issue, in 2011-12, the harbor commissioners had approved $10,992 for the contingency fund and hadn’t spent anything.
Munger said any budget surplus from prior years should be public information.
Harbor Chairman Michael de Angeli acknowledged room for improvements to make the budget more “transparent,” as Munger suggested.
“Frankly, I wish I knew, too,” de Angeli said. “The staff prepared the budget.”
But Mello, Paterson and Keiser did not attend the Feb. 29 meeting and were not available to answer questions from the public. Devlin also missed the meeting due to weather, as a snowstorm swirled down on the island.
Their absence sparked some comment during the open forum when Munger asked who bore responsibility for the Harbor Commission’s budget.
“I’d like to have a little more information too,” de Angeli later said. “But the people aren’t here. It’s a fair point.”
Ultimately, Keiser was responsible for the harbor budget, de Angeli said.
Munger wrapped up his questions about the operating budget and moved on to deal with the Harbor Commission’s infrastructure budget. That package also should be more “transparent,” he said. For example, Munger said that he knew the Harbor Commission was running a surplus from the prior year.
“The assumption is pretty strong we’re not spending every penny of that infrastructure budget,” Munger said. “If we didn’t spend that $107,000, it’s still hanging out there. The public should be aware.” He was referring to revenues figure from 2010-11. de Angeli wanted to know what Munger would suggest as a remedy. “Take an ad out in the paper?” de Angeli asked.
“Maybe we have $200,000 in the bank,” Munger replied. “We don’t know.”
“We don’t have $200,000 in the bank,” de Angeli responded.
However, the harbor commissioners do not receive information about any surplus until after the annual audit, Brown said. Until then, the commissioners don’t have “numbers from the carryover.”
Commissioner Ed McGuirl suggested adding a column to the spreadsheet to clarify the budget surplus.
Under some criticism for budgeting money for various projects but then not starting the work, the panel at earlier meetings had agreed to move up several infrastructure projects. The commissioners revised some numbers on the current budget to reflect the fact some long-range planning projects are going to be started before the end of this fiscal year and completed.
The Dumpling Drive seawall repair, for example, projected to cost $30,000, “is getting done this year,” Brown said. That figure should be deleted from the 2012- 13 budget, he pointed out.
Then the commissioners had to rebalance the infrastructure budget for 2012-13. It includes allocating $5,000 for the Fort Getty boat launch, plus $30,000 for the West Ferry wharf repairs. He also proposed $5,000 to fix the old ferry landing at East Ferry and $38,700 to replace the crumbling East Ferry seawall.
The commissioners postponed two $5,000 projects for work at East and West ferries.