Voters pass $21 million combined spending plan
Blame it on the Bruins, Town Moderator John Murphy suggested Monday night.
Jamestown’s Financial Town Meeting took just 21 minutes to pass a $21 million combined spending package for the upcoming fiscal year that starts July 1.
In all, 113 registered voters attended the session. They unanimously approved $9,729,080 for municipal operations and $11,638,648 to run the schools. Voters also approved four housekeeping items. Among the resolutions, the town now has the authority to set the tax rate for sewer lines at 68 cents per linear foot. Other approved housekeeping items allows the town borrow up to $1 million in anticipation of taxes, deposit collected back taxes in the general fund, and to set the new tax rate.
Council President Kristine Trocki said the new tax rate will be $8.75 per $1,000 of assessed property. The proposed figure is 60 cents less than the rate of $9.35 in the current fiscal year. As a result, she said, about half of Jamestown property owners will see lower property-tax bills, while others will see no increase.
Trocki briefly explained the highlights of the new spending package and the process the councilors followed when she introduced the town’s side of the budget. In January, the department heads submitted their requests to the town administrator. Bruce Keiser then reviewed the information and set spending priorities. In March, the Town Council began reviewing the budget proposals and speaking to the department heads about their needs.
The bulk of the spending increases came in capital improvements. The council opted to increase the capital budget $319,376 from $932,840 to $1,252,216. The extra spending will help catch up on repairs and infrastructure the town postponed during the economic downturn. Among the projects, Trocki said, are road improvements and a new roof for the recreation center. The town will also replace generators at the rec center and buy new equipment for the Fire Department, she said.
The town’s operating budget increased from $9.2 million to $9.7 million. Trocki said the additional money reflects cost increases in fuel, salaries and insurance premiums.
The School Department helped avoid any tax-levy increase by reducing its budget, Trocki said. In addition, the council used money from the undesignated fund to avoid raising taxes. According to Trocki, the money was available thanks to prudent financial management. She credited Keiser, the outgoing town administrator, for his efforts to maintain the town’s economic stability.
“This has been a difficult year,” she said, referring to events such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. She said the tragedy resonated in Jamestown because they are both small New England communities. Locally, she said, Hurricane Sandy and the blizzard nicknamed Nemo caused some hardships for residents. Overall, she said, Jamestown is in “good financial shape” despite the loss of more than $700,000 in state aid.
“This budget reflects the community’s priorities,” she said.
After Trocki spoke, Murphy introduced School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser to go over education spending. Kaiser said over the past few months voters have asked her the same question everywhere she goes in town: “What’s up with the schools?”
“Not the budget,” she replied.
Kaiser said the School Department reduced its budget by 2.78 percent from $12.3 million in the current fiscal year to $11.9 million for 2013-14.
According to Kaiser, most of the savings resulted from reduced tuition payments since fewer Jamestown kids will attend North Kingstown High in the upcoming school year. But, she said, some could be attributed to the department’s zero- based budgeting. Kaiser described budget talks as a labor-intensive process that starts every line item at zero rather than raising amounts incrementally from the previous year. The process requires all expenditures to be justified annually. The result, she said, is a spending plan “responsive to the needs of our students and our taxpayers.”
Despite the emphasis on controlling costs, Kaiser said taxpayers are also seeing a good return on their investment in the schools. Improved test scores, she said, represent one measure of the return. However, Kaiser added, the success of the schools is also reflected in the creativity, resilience, self- discipline and civic mindedness of the students. She said Jamestown students “embody these values.”
Kaiser also acknowledged some public criticism of the schools, citing the teachers union’s no-confidence vote in the schools superintendent and calling for Dr. Marcia Lukon’s resignation.
“In January, our teachers union voiced serious concerns,” she said. The School Committee investigated the union’s charges and concluded most of the problems reflected a misunderstanding about the part-time superintendent’s role. According to Kaiser, the school board and administration were working to improve communications.
With the “added clarity,” she said, “Our school community will move forward.”
After Kaiser presented the school budget, Murphy called for discussion on both the town and school expenditures. No one asked to speak.
Murphy jokingly attributed the meeting’s brevity to an unspoken wish on everyone’s part to dispatch civic duty in time to catch the NHL playoff game between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. But when the budget passed at 7:18 p.m., he said the decision actually reflected the “good common sense of Jamestown.”
One person said “no” when Murphy called for a vote on the combined $21 million budget, but the voter immediately clapped her hands over her mouth. She apologized and seemed to indicate the negative vote was made in error.
“I am quite certain that the one ‘no’ vote we heard was uttered inadvertently and immediately withdrawn,” Murphy said after the meeting.
The entire proceeding was over well before the 8 p.m. faceoff between Boston and Pittsburgh, and almost before the late arrivals had a chance to find a seat.