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Top Council Decisions of 2013 - Part Two of Three

As promised, here is the next installment of 2013 in review. 

As with the previous article, let me know what you’re thinking.  This feedback will help us all do a better job in 2014.

Continuing in a somewhat chronological order, I respectfully offer the following items from May to July of 2013 (with my own commentary):

9.      3% Property Tax Hike

Sponsor: City Manager            Vote: Passed 4-3

In Favor:              Winthrop, Neville, Napolitano, McLaughlin

Opposed:             Farley, Camacho, Leonard

The City Manager originally submitted a budget proposal which increased taxes by 3.87%.  After discussing it in a workshop, it became apparent that there were four councilors opposed to a 3.87% hike.

Marco and Kate pushed back hard against any tax increase, and I was pleased to support them, as was Councilor Napolitano.  Working together, we were able to force some spending reductions, and the City Manager brought it back to the council at a 3% tax hike. 

Some opposition remained even at 3%, based upon the facts that 1) the residents have recently been hit with sewer and water rate increases, 2) that the consumer price index and cost of living were closer to 2%, and 3) that the council would soon be voting on another sewer rate increase.

Ultimately however, Kate, Marco and I were outvoted; and the 3% tax increase was passed 4-3.

One minor, but interesting point was that the budget was originally submitted with an illegal split rate hike on the split rates, that is, the commercial rate was increased at a higher rate than the residential rate.  In other words, the tax increase was going to be laid more heavily on local businesses. 

But when I pointed out that RI law and the Newport Charter do not allow the Council to increase taxes differently on commercial and residential properties, the error was eventually, and grudgingly, corrected. 

This was my first budget process, and I learned a great deal about the value of cooperation.  But I also learned the value of persistence.  I explained the illegality of the split-split rate hikes to anyone who would listen, but never got an answer or explanation from the City Manager.  To this day, I don’t know whether this error was intentional or sloppy – but I’m glad I was able to get it corrected. 

10.   Supplemental Tax Levy of $250,000 to cover NPS’ anticipated (but unrealized) budget shortfall

Sponsor: Neville                        Vote: Failed 2-5

In Favor:              Winthrop, Neville

Opposed:             Farley, Camacho, Leonard, Napolitano, McLaughlin

After the draft budget had been submitted, the Newport Public Schools reported that they expected a major budget shortfall.  In response, Councilors Neville and Winthrop proposed an additional tax on residents of $250,000, to be given to Newport Public Schools to cover their vaguely projected shortfall. 

The resolution was defeated 5-2, and the schools remained level-funded.  But fortunately, the Superintendent's projected school budget shortfall miraculously disappeared.  The projected shortfall disappeared at approximately the same time it became clear that no more money was available.  This was probably not a coincidence, or a miracle.

Instead it was the typical Newport school budget process.  The school committee does not provide copies of its monthly budget summaries for eight or nine months, and then (around March or April), it projects a “major budget shortfall” and demands more revenue.  Then, when they are level-funded, money is found in their old budget, and they report that, actually, they didn’t need the money anyway.  That is why I couldn’t support the Neville/Winthrop NPS Supplemental Tax Levy. 

At the same time, I agree with Naomi and Harry’s desire to be supportive of our public schools.  Funding public education is one of the most important things we do as a council.  But I can’t support any funding increase, until there is greater transparency in the school budget process.  

We need to see where the school committee has achieved savings in each and every line item.  This is particularly important in a year where we achieved savings by moving from three ancient elementary school buildings to a single modern structure.  And it is also important that we identify cost increases, such as in out-of-district placements, so that we can identify additional revenue and petition for waivers.

I will continue to push for NPS’ compliance with the state-mandated monthly line item budget summaries.  They are supposed to be available within 30 days of the close of a month.  To date, they have not been provided.  I’ve made it clear that I want to be able to increase our allocation to Newport Public Schools, but I’ve made it equally clear that I can’t support an increase without seeing the monthly budget numbers. So far, I haven’t been given those figures for any of the first six months of 13-14.  But I’m looking forward to a fresh start with our new superintendent.

11.   Approving Sewer Rate Hikes

Sponsor: City Manager            Vote: Passed 4-3

In Favor:              Winthrop, Neville, Napolitano, McLaughlin

Opposed:             Farley, Camacho, Leonard

The City Manager asked for Council support to petition the PUC for another sewer rate hike.  

Now these rate increases appear necessary to pay for upgrades to our sewer system.  But when taken together with recent tax increases and water rate increases, the burden is too heavy.  I would prefer to delay implementation for at least another year. 

Again, Marco and Kate led the charge on this fiscal restraint, and I was pleased to support them.

12.   3.8% Pay Raise for the City Manager; Lesser Pay Raises for Senior Staff

Sponsor: Winthrop                   Vote: Passed 5-2

In Favor:              Winthrop, Neville, Camacho, Leonard, McLaughlin

Opposed:             Farley, Napolitano

Shortly after the City Manager proposed a 3.87% property tax hike, Mayor Winthrop proposed a 3.87% pay raise for the City Manager. 

I opposed the raise, because Jane Howington is in the middle year of a three-year negotiated contract, and no raise is required.  I also noted that the City Manager is one of the highest employed municipal executives in the state, and I felt that she was more than adequately compensated for her performance.

Now some pointed out that our CM has more responsibilities than in other communities, but the facts say otherwise.  Our CM has similar resources and responsibilities

Note that I feel a little differently about the pay raises for senior staff members.  I feel that they were earned, and necessary.  Those positions are not contracted, and their performance over the last year warranted a modest increase. 

13.   Creation of Finance Review Commission

Sponsor: Jeanne Napolitano                 Vote 7-0 (unanimous)

In June, a new board was created.  The board was created to advise the council on how to increase revenue and cut spending.  It was to be staffed with people skilled in accounting and finance.

Although I voted for the proposal, it seemed silly at first.  It seemed as though the paid city council was admitting that it wasn’t smart enough to make finance decisions, and so it asked a group of volunteers to make decisions for it.  I felt that instead of recruiting these type of people for an advisory board, we should be recruiting them to run for city council.  (And now that I have seen the caliber of the members, I am hoping that they do run for council.  The city would be very fortunate indeed.)

I also questioned the wisdom of abdicating the council’s fiduciary responsibilities to a board which is not subject to the same ethical obligations as the council.  Unlike the Council, FRC members would not be obligated to disclose affiliations with businesses and entities which could be subject to their recommendations.  (But now that the members have been selected and appointed, I have the highest regard for their individual integrity.  So this is no longer a serious concern of mine.)

My only remaining concern is whether the council will heed the advice from the Finance Review Commission.  The city Council has a long history of ignoring advice from boards and consultants and commissions and experts.  We have asked for their report by May 2014, and hopefully we will be in a position to incorporate their recommendations in our revisions of the FY2015 Budget, as the City Manager’s initial proposed budget is due in April 2014.

To summarize my feelings on this board: The FRC is the most important organization in the City right now.  I have proposed dozens of revenue increases and spending reductions, and can’t seem to get support for public discussion of these items.  I am hoping that will change in 2014.  I am looking forward to receiving and acting on every single recommendation of the FRC.

14.   Creation of a Charter Review Commission

Sponsor: Harry Winthrop                       Vote 7-0 (unanimous)

Every 10 years, the city is obligated to review our charter.  The last changes were made in 2008, and incorporated some very important requirements for budget planning, transparency and reporting (though actual compliance with the changes has been spotty).

Though we are a few years early in calling a charter, I am looking forward to hearing their recommendations and putting them on the ballot.  

15.   Creating a Parking Lot Landscape Ordinance

Sponsor: Naomi Neville                          Vote 7-0 (unanimous)

In June, the council took up the very important issue of parking lot . . . landscaping.  Although Newport has had a chronic (and politically ignored) parking shortage, the council seems to lack the will to address the parking shortage.  

However, Councilor Neville demonstrated vision by recognizing that someday parking spaces will come to Newport.  And when it does, our parking lot landscape ordinance will ensure that it will be in aesthetic harmony with our colonial heritage. 

Now, if only we can find councilors who are willing to find a way to add parking spaces now to support economic development . . .

16.   Public Nuisance Ordinance

Sponsor: Mike Farley                              Vote 7-0 (unanimous)

In June, I kicked around the idea of creating a public nuisance ordinance.  This was an idea which had been pushed by nearly all neighborhood groups, but which had been ignored by past councils. 

Our existing ordinance seemed inadequate.  It dealt very well with junk automobiles and weedy lawns; but the only mechanism for enforcement was for the city to mow the lawn and remove the car and send the property owner a bill.  I felt that our city has evolved to a point where there are worse nuisances than a weedy lawn.  I felt that it was time for the city to provide a mechanism to address modern-day nuisances.

In my initial, informal discussions with council members, it seemed there was inadequate support to tackle this thorny issue.  And so, I began talking to constituents about the topic.  One of them, an enterprising city observer, created an online poll on the topic and promoted it via social media.  It asked for citizen input, and the input was overwhelmingly in favor of creating a public nuisance ordinance.  This citizen response caused council members’ opposition to melt away.

And so I proposed some ordinance changes, with the actual ordinance to be drafted by the City Solicitor.  This resolution was passed unanimously; and more importantly, the new Public Nuisance Ordinance would later be adopted unanimously in September 2013.

The new ordinance defines “nuisance property” as a property where the police have documented a pattern of negative conduct, e.g., illegal drug activity, excessive traffic, public intoxication, fighting, disturbing the peace, providing alcohol to minors, etc.  

I am particularly hopeful that the nuisance ordinance will be applied to those few properties which serve as heroin and cocaine pipelines into our community.   We may not be able to keep drugs completely out of the city, but it might be helpful if certain property owners were less hospitable to convicted drug dealers.  Perhaps the prospect of a $1000 nuisance fine will encourage landlords to evict persons causing a negative impact to our community.  

17.   Monthly Budget Summaries

Sponsor: Mike Farley                              Vote 7-0 (unanimous)

State law and our local charter require that monthly budget summaries of the city AND school budgets be sent to council members.   This makes perfect sense.  If we must exercise budget oversight, we should have some idea of how the money is spent on a month to month basis.  By better tracking the spending on a monthly basis, we can avoid any year-end surprises.

The problem here is the School Department.  On the city-side, the budgets are produced every month, and we can see where the money goes.  We know whether we are on-, over- or under-budget.

However, the same cannot be said for the School Department.  I asked for months to see copies of the “actual” budget compared to the “adopted” budget.  I have not seen a single one.  This makes it difficult to assess their needs. 

Mayor Winthrop grudgingly supported my call for monthly budget summaries.  He said it was unnecessary; and he disparagingly likened it to “a resolution in favor of motherhood.”  Perhaps this dismissive attitude is the reason that the school committee continues to ignore this requirement. 

Let me offer one illustration on the importance of “actual” budgets: this year, we moved from three ancient elementary school buildings down to one modern facility.  Yet the adopted budget for FY14 year used the same line item figures for fuel and electricity as for FY13, when we had three inefficient buildings. 

After six months, it would be useful to see a budget which shows how much fuel and electricity has cost when compared to the first six months of FY13.  Yet this document still doesn’t exist, and apparently these documents have never been shared with the city council. 

Before the council is asked for more money to support the public schools, it would be nice to know what kind of savings has been achieved with the money already provided.

18.   Newport Yacht Club Lease Renegotiation

Sponsor: Farley                         Vote: Passed 5-0

In Favor:              Farley, Napolitano, Camacho, Leonard, McLaughlin

Opposed:             None.

                                                     Recused:              Winthrop, Neville (Newport Yacht Club Affiliations)

A strong candidate for one of the most controversial issues of the year.

The Newport Yacht Club is an important part of our vibrant waterfront.  In recognition of their importance, they were given city land on which to move their clubhouse. The landlease was on very favorable terms.  It was most recently renewed in 1993 for a period of forty years.  Each year, the rental payment increases in keeping with the CPI, and the yacht club has been diligent about following the CPI increases. 

However, because the CPI does not necessarily keep track with property value, the contract also included a clause which said that every ten years, the parties should meet and make sure that the rent is equal to 5% of the assessed value of the land. 

2013 was one of those “5% review” years.  In 2013, the annual rent was approximately $50,100 per year, while the 5% benchmark cited in the lease would have moved the payment to $102,505. 

I fought very hard to make the city conduct that review, but made little headway.  I drafted and submitted many proposals on this topic, but Mayor Winthrop lobbied against them very effectively.

Many were opposed to scrutiny of this issue, especially the Newport Yacht Club.  In April 2013, the Newport Yacht Club designated Past Commodore Jack Ellis as their designated negotiator on the review.  I was unaware at the time that Commodore Ellis is Mayor Winthrop’s brother-in-law.  (In retrospect, had I known this fact, I probably would have handled things differently.)  In any event, I understand that when it became known, Commodore Ellis withdrew as the yacht club’s designated negotiator by the end of July.

After I had offered several resolutions on the topic, things came to a head on July 24th, when Mayor Winthrop and Councilor Neville recused themselves from the discussions of resolutions submitted by myself and Councilor Leonard, based upon their marital affiliations with the yacht club.

I tabled my own resolution in favor of Councilor Leonard’s.  Councilor McLaughlin moved to amend Kate’s resolution to include the following language: “the City Manager is directed to renegotiate the lease and submit to the Council a revised agreement no later than October 15, 2013.”  I seconded the motion and it passed 5-0.

However, . . . by the time October 15th rolled around, Mayor Winthrop and Councilor Neville had been cleared by the Ethics Commission to participate in Newport Yacht Club votes.  And more importantly, the City Manager by that time had elected to ignore the amended resolution which directed her to present a new agreement.  She also totally ignored the 5% benchmark and recommended that they continue to pay 2.5%.  The council voted to accept her incomplete analysis on 10/23, and I lost that vote 5-1. 

This would serve as the basis for my ill-fated resolution of admonition. (See next week’s review.)

In any event, the next opportunity to increase the rental payment to the 5% benchmark will be in 2023.  Let's hope we don't miss that opportunity like we missed the ones in 2003 and 2013.

On this, and all the issues, let us know what you think!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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