2013-05-02 / Front Page

Town finalizes budget, tax rate will decrease if approved

Council dodges increase in tax levy by dipping into undesignated fund
By Margo Sullivan

The budget is ready for a vote at the annual Financial Town Meeting scheduled for June 3, the Town Council decided last week. Voters will see a $21,717,582 combined spending package for the upcoming fiscal year that starts July 1.

According to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, the tax collector is projecting a 60-cent decrease in the tax rate – from $9.35 per $1,000 to $8.75 for next year. For property valued at $400,000, taxpayers would save $240 under the proposed spending plan.

The councilors wrapped up their budget work at their April 24 session.

Of the total $21.7 million, Council President Kristine Trocki said $11,988,502 will go to finance the School Department and $9,729,080 is for the municipal side. The councilors avoided any tax-levy increase by taking $212,697 from the rainy-day supply, also known as the undesignated fund.

“I think this is a good budget,” Councilor Blake Dickinson said. He cited “extraordinary weather” events that were expected to cost residents hundreds of thousands in repairs and said he approved using the undesignated fund to cushion the financial blow.

Councilor Mary Meagher said, “60 percent of Jamestown taxpayers will probably see a reduction in property taxes.”

Given the damage from Hurricane Sandy and the extra expenses the residents are facing, she said the use of money in the rainy-day fund seemed justified. “If we have to raise taxes next year, we’ll be able to justify it.”

Keiser said the Federal Emergency Management Agency might reimburse Jamestown for 75 percent of repairs to the Bayview Drive embankment. Earlier, FEMA had said the work, estimated to cost $250,000, did not qualify for assistance. However, Keiser said now there is “potential” some federal help may come.

Overall, Keiser said the budget will increase $131,517 over the current fiscal year. Looking at both the operating and capital budgets, he said the change in the “net aggregate” amounts to .6 of 1 percent.

Among the budget increases on the town side, he cited $65,000 for operating expenses, including insurance costs, which are up $20,000. He also anticipated salary increases due to labor negotiations, with $15,000 set aside to cover expenses.

The town’s capital budget increased $319,000. That total includes $16,500 towards a new police cruiser, which the council had discussed cutting. Because the car has high mileage, Keiser opted to keep the money in the Police Department’s budget, although the councilors had discussed putting off the car replacement for another year.

“The staff does not believe that is a position we can support,” he said.

Trocki said she would support the cruiser.

“I definitely think now that I understand it has 160,000 miles on it, I definitely want to support it,” she said.

“So do I,” Councilor Eugene Mihaly added.

Keiser also defended the Fire Department’s capital budget.

“Nothing changed as far as the Fire Department,” Trocki said. “They’re getting everything.”

In reply, Keiser said the requests were reasonable.

“If you look at the capital budget, the department head requested substantially more,” he said. “So we had whittled it down.”

According to Keiser, given the town’s budget capacity, there will be no trouble meeting the Fire Department’s remaining requests. Plus, he said, “These are needs we’d be faced with next year or the following year. [We’ll] bite the bullet now and go forward.”

Previously, Dickinson had challenged the Fire Department to look for savings and reduce its request. If that were the case, the town would not have to go into the undesignated fund to avoid a tax-levy increase.

However, Fire Chief Jim Bryer did not propose any reductions.

Trocki wanted to know why Keiser recommended withdrawing roughly $213,000 from the rainyday fund to achieve a zero tax-levy increase.

“Why are we trying to do that and how will it impact next year?” she asked.

Keiser said the reason was to ease the burden on the taxpayers, and he added the withdrawal should not have any negative impact. He said that next year’s capital improvement plan is “slightly lower,” meaning the council should have “some flexibility” with budgeting.

“You shouldn’t see any shocks [next year],” he said.

Keiser does anticipate increases in health care. “It’s an area we are concerned about and obviously not controllable,” he said.

However, the pension-plan costs will be under control as long as the court does not overturn the General Assembly’s pension reform, Keiser said.

Moreover, the town has typically seen $90,000 annual revenues due to growth in housing and that money should continue flowing into Jamestown’s revenues.

Mihaly asked if Keiser expects the rainy-day fund to grow or shrink.

Keiser said he anticipates “modest” growth in coming years.

In order to see the balance increase, Keiser said, “We need to have revenues exceed expenses by $150,000 every year. We’ve been able to do that in every year over the last decade or more.”

In addition to voting on the budget, the council also voted for a zero tax-levy increase. Both votes were unanimous.

In other business, the council awarded a contract for a management study on the Recreation Department to a consulting group from the University of Massachusetts for $14,000.

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