Islanders approve town’s spending package of $21.6 million
Voters approved the budget for the upcoming fiscal year Monday, but the meeting wasn’t without controversy as a motion was passed to force a paper ballot. Still, taxpayers approved the 1.9 percent increase by a 36-vote margin, 97-61.
The combined approved budget is $21,586,065 – $9,201,687 on the municipal side, and $12,384,378 for the School Department. The municipal budget increased by $471,722 from the current fiscal year, while the School Department’s budget was reduced by nearly $30,000.
A week before the Financial Town Meeting, Town Administrator Bruce Keiser predicted it would be a straightforward gathering. He projected the “short meeting” because leading up to the FTM, the Town Council held multiple public workshops and there was a lack of resident input. “It does not appear that there will be many concerns,” he said.
But while relatively short – the meeting Monday night lasted a little over an hour – there was some trepidation, most notably from Blake Dickinson, the president of the Taxpayers Association of Jamestown and vice chairman of the Republican Town Committee.
“I would say that when you use the word ‘democracy,’ I would remind everyone that we have the right as voters to come into the Financial Town Meeting and accept or reject what is being presented to us, whether or not anyone in this room has participated in the pro- cess,” Dickinson said. “It’s been said in the past that this is a done deal and we’re just basically giving it a rubber-stamp. I would suggest that there are people in the room who don’t feel the same way that I do, but I do not accept the budget tonight.”
Dickinson’s comments came on the heels of remarks from Town Council President Michael Schnack and School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser.
“The council held four public workshops to review the town administrator’s plan and the school budget,” said Schnack. “Through open dialogue and debate – and public comment – agreements were reached to modify the administrator’s plan with some additions and deletions. If the budget process was off track, or people had concerns about the budget, why didn’t the taxpayers association present any of the concerns that they have been espousing in the Press, email blasts and robocalls during the budget process?”
Schnack was referring to a Viewpoint that Dickinson wrote in the May 31 Jamestown Press, along with an email he sent out the day before the FTM urging voters to attend the meeting, reject the budget, and “demand more for your tax dollars.”
Schnack went on to say that it was “irresponsible to propose major budget cuts at the 11th hour without full disclosure and public discussion.”
Kaiser followed Schnack, and she began by reminding those in attendance that the School Department’s spending in the upcoming fiscal year would not increase at all. “Just to be clear from the start, the proposed school budget requires no increase in the town contribution. There will be no additional pennies for the school. None. And I’m not fooling.”
Like Schnack, Kaiser used a portion of her time to single out Dickinson. “I can’t close tonight without confessing that I am disheartened by the ‘us-against-them’ stance taken in this week’s Jamestown Press Viewpoint, and the recent robocall, and the flurry of emails accusing town government of attempting to, once again, fool the voters. When viewed through a lens of respect and trust, differences can be healthy and a crucial part of the democratic process. A budget is a partnership.”
Following Schnack and Kaiser, Dickinson reiterated some of the points he made in his Viewpoint. “Jamestown’s government needs to improve its efficiency,” he said. “I say this because we pay the second highest rate per person, 50 percent higher than the state median. So the school and the town will tell you that it’s a few more pennies, but it’s a lot of pennies when you go over 10 years.”
Schnack, although speaking first, had already addressed some of Dickinson’s concerns, which were echoed from his prior email. “Since 2001, the town budget has not doubled. The overall budget has increased by 48 percent, because of debt service for the replacement of outdated infrastructure and open-space preservation, nominal wage increased mirroring the rate of inflation, and increases in energy costs and other services.”
He continued: “Government in Jamestown is efficient, despite what you may have read in the paper. Our property-tax rate is the fifth lowest in the state. Our motor vehicle-tax rate is the fourth lowest – we are one of 11 communities that exempt the first $6,000 in motor-vehicle value. If we pay a rate per person, which is 50 percent higher than the state median, it is because 25 percent of our housing is not occupied by fulltime residents. We have the third highest property-tax wealth in the state.”
But Dickinson wasn’t the only Jamestown resident to solicit islanders to reject the budget. “‘The tax rate will go up only pennies per assessed thousand’ is what the town, schools and Jamestown Press want us to accept,” said Amy Gallagher, chairwoman of the Republican Town Committee. “And, at face value, this looks to be the case. One thing is for certain, the town is great at [public relations], and they’ve got the Press right alongside supporting this message all the way.”
In the end, voters ultimately accepted the Town Council’s recommended budget, although it took longer than expected. After Town Moderator Barbara Szepatowski – the former town councilor who was thrust into the position just three weeks ago after the elected town moderator resigned due to health problems – couldn’t discern the results from the voice vote, Dickinson’s motion to hold a paper ballot was heard. For the motion to pass, one-fifth of the registered voters in attendance had to second it. Of the 158 in attendance at Lawn Avenue School for the FTM, 49 seconded Dickinson’s motion, more than enough to force a paper ballot. The budget passed with 62 percent of the vote. (Only one registered voter in attendance failed to cast a ballot.)
According to Schnack, most of the municipal increase is due to debt-service costs stemming from the highway barn, farmland development rights and renovations to the police station. Until now taxpayers have been paying towards the interest. Starting this fiscal year, they will begin paying towards the principal. Schnack said that 30 percent of the increase comes from these debt-service payments.
Other reasons for the increase are additional spending in the capital budget to maintain the island’s roads and infrastructure, and investments to support the town’s volunteer fire and EMS services.
The property-tax rate will increase by 1.5 percent in the upcoming fiscal year, meaning a $56 annual increase for the average household in Jamestown.