Contentious Relationship

A failure to communicate could be one reason behind the contentious relationship between the Jamestown City Council and the Board of Public Utilities.

Despite having two City Council members on the nine-member BPU board, some members feel there has been a lack of communication between the two groups. Last month, three BPU citizen board members – Carl Pillittieri, Wayne Rishell and John Zabrodsky – were the only ones to vote against a resolution to change the formula on how workers’ compensation is paid to the city. Last year, the same three members were the only people to vote against the BPU revenue sharing payment toward the city’s general fund.

The BPU board is comprised of the Mayor Sam Teresi, by virtue of his position; two City Council representatives: Greg Rabb, City Council president and At-Large member, and Maria Jones, City Councilwoman representing Ward 5; Jeff Lehman, who is the city Public Works Department director; and five community members, each appointed by the mayor, who include Fred Larson, Pillittieri, Rishell, Zabrodsky and Martha Zenns.

Pillittieri, Rishell and Zabrodsky said they feel, in the past, there has been a lack of communication and collaboration with members of the Jamestown City Council. They said there was a lack of collaboration a couple years ago when they were asked to assist City Council with ways to reduce the city’s budget.

“We were encouraged by the mayor to help in the whole property tax situation in the budget. Many, if not all recommendations, were rejected … with no dialogue going forward,” said Zabrodsky, who is also the BPU chairman. “Wayne (Rishell) tried many times to have a dialogue with the City Council president (Rabb), and was unsuccessful.”

Pillittieri said when the BPU citizen members were asked to look at the city’s budget it was in November with City Council facing a Dec. 1 deadline to pass a spending plan.

“I would say it was the 11th hour. We painstakingly spent a significant amount of time working on the suggestions, but it was very late in the game,” Pillittieri said.

Rishell said he understands it takes government entities time to implement and evaluate possible cost-saving suggestions.

“Maybe we were overzealous to start the process, it takes time to gain traction. It was frustrating that there was a lack of collaboration with City Council,” Rishell said. “Recently the mayor did reach out and there is interest to evaluate some of these items. Maria Jones has expressed interest to be a connection between the BPU board and City Council. I’m encouraged by this. I look forward to the opportunity for collaboration in 2014.”

Rabb said, as council president and a BPU board member, he will accept responsibility if there was a communication problem between the two groups.

“Well I think there may have been one (a communication problem), which I have trouble understanding,” he said. “I’ll take responsibility if there was one. If there are things we (City Council) need to do, if they (BPU members) want to tell me how to improve, I’m open to ideas.”

Rabb said he has already met this year with Rishell and Teresi to discuss BPU issues.

“We took an afternoon and talked about how to improve things,” he said. ”I think their concern is around budget time. I think they want to hear more information about the city budget earlier than in the past.”

BPU’S BEST INTEREST

Pillittieri, Rishell and Zabrodsky said when members of city government are sitting around the BPU board, they should have the best interest of the utility in mind. They said with the increase in the amount the BPU pays in workers’ compensation and profit sharing going toward the city’s general fund, they question whether that is the case.

“When we’re sitting around the BPU board table, we’re there representing the Jamestown Board of Public Utilities, first and foremost,” Pillittieri said. “When we sit at that board table down on Steele Street we need to remember why we’re there (to do what is best for the BPU, and its customers).”

Zabrodsky said the mix of citizen members and city officials was different in the past. He said once there were six citizen members and three city officials – mayor, public works director and one city council member.

“An additional member of City Council was put on the board by a charter change,” Zabrodsky said.

Rishell said he doesn’t believe the structure of the board needs to be change. However, he said the founders of the BPU may have been correct in how the board was formed.

“I don’t think the structure is at any point a hindrance to the work that has to be done,” he said. “I think, however, the way the city forefathers established it with those wearing both hats being in the minority was a prudent way to structure it.”

Rabb said when he sits on the board at the BPU, he has the responsibility to act as City Council president as well as a member of the utilities’ board.

“Well what is best for the BPU is best for the city. What is best for city is best for the BPU. I don’t see a distinction,” Rabb said. “The BPU is very important part of the city, but no more important than the police department, the fire department or the (Department of Public Works).”

Rabb said the BPU has its own board not because it is a separate entity from the city, but to ease the burden on City Council members who already have many government responsibilities.

“There is one governing body – City Council,” he said. “The BPU board makes decisions because it was decided long before I was involved that it would be a more efficient way to handle business.”

BPU PAYMENTS TO CITY’S GENERAL FUND

Since 2012, money being appropriated from the BPU toward the city’s general fund in tax equivalence payment, profit sharing and workers’ compensation has increased $861,830, which is a 22 percent hike. In 2012, the BPU paid $3,584,225 in tax equivalence payment, $261,682 for workers’ compensation and nothing in profit sharing, for a total of more than $3,845,907. In 2013, the utility paid $3,673,349 in a tax equivalence payment, $443,229 in workers’ compensation and $420,000 in profit sharing, for a total of $4,571,578. In 2014, the BPU will pay the city $3,704,219 in tax equivalence payment, $528,518 for workers’ compensation and $475,000 for revenue sharing, for a total of $4,707,737.

“The actions the City Council is taking is putting pressure on rates now and into the future, and that is combined, if you want to look at the big picture, with 14 straight years of property tax increases,” Zabrodsky said. “The competitive advantage the BPU has is under pressure by the actions of City Council.”

Pillittieri echoed Zabrodsky’s sentiments by saying shifting money from the BPU to lessen a tax increase will only lead to higher BPU rates.

“The last thing anyone wants to see is any type of tax increase,” Pillittieri said. “The question down the road is pay me now or pay me later. We are going to create a different problem.”