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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The budget, taxes and money issues

As noted, Monday’s Town Council meeting covered a lot of ground (much of it barren, though open), but the issues that affect all Charlestown residents are those in the 2012 budget. The Council formally adopted the $25 million budget which is now going to be put before all registered town voters on June 6th.

By and large, it’s a good, lean budget and I believe it’s in all of our interests for you to vote for it.

You will also get to vote on the proposed beach improvements. Click here for Progressive Charlestown's coverage of that issue. The beach proposal is another lean approach to the pressing need. We need to deal with sanitary conditions at the town beaches, not just for tourists but for town residents who use the beaches, except of course for the CCA members who live within walking distance of the beaches and thus don’t feel that anyone else need sanitary facilities.

This is also worthy of your “yes” vote.

Now, for some blow-by-blow of the Council actions on the Budget and key details Charlestown residents have the right to know.

Clean audit. Prior to the budget vote, the independent auditors gave their review of the town’s books and financial practices. They report the town is in very good shape, better than nearly any town in the state, and running in the black with an unrestricted surplus of $5.5 million. That translates into 20% - and that’s 2% more than the “best practices” recommended by the Government Financial Officers Association . The town pension program has $299,000 more than is needed.

Town workers. The meeting started with the announcement that the town and the Fraternal Order of Police have agreed to a new contract, ending more than two years of rancor and arbitration. Later, it was noted that the new town budget also contains a 2% pay hike for most town workers. A couple of residents came to the microphone to spew out some mild tea about how workers deserve nothing (maybe less than nothing) because times are tough. Council member Marge Frank noted that she’s on Social Security and isn’t getting a benefit bump. To me, that’s all the more reason why our town needs to share the wealth with the people who make the town run smoothly.

The budget. It took a long time to get to the budget because of so many controversial issues that came before it.

Taxes weren’t discussed, though they are always the elephant in the room. Tom and I have covered the tax issue extensively in Progressive Charlestown – more extensively than any other source so click here if you want to refresh your memory. The most important fact for all of us is that the tax rate is going up from the present $7.48 per $1000 of valuation to $9.04, and the brunt of the hikes will fall on middle-class residents, while absentee millionaires will see far less of a hike, and some will see their taxes reduced. That is an issue that will have to be addressed, but not as part of this important budget vote.

Added costs tacked on to the budget. At an earlier Council meeting, $100,000 was added to the budget to cover new legal actions, such as Lisa DiBello’s EEOC complaint against the Town and ten present and former town officials. At this Council meeting, another $1000 was added - $500 for the Economic Improvement Commission, because they asked for it and another $500 for the Memorial Day Parade. Council member Dan Slattery noted he supported the donation to the Parade despite Jim Mageau’s decision last year to un-invite Council members from marching.

The budget passed on a 4-0 vote. Council member Lisa DiBello wisely recused herself. The $100,000 add-on for litigation could have presented a conflict for her.

Ms. DiBello also announced her intent to recuse herself on the final item of the night. Again, that was a good call on her part, but it turned out to be unnecessary.

Town Payment for Private Lawyers in the DiBello case. I reported the request by present and former Town Administrators Bill DiLibero and Richard Sartor that the town indemnify them and provide them with private lawyers to defend against Ms. DiBello’s EEOC complaint. Several other town employees joined in that request, including Police Chief Shippee, and Council members Marge Frank and Gregg Avedisian.

But Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero intervened, noting that it was possible that Frank and Avedisian might also have a conflict of interest. If they recused themselves, as DiBello did, then there would only be two Council members unencumbered and able to vote. But under the Town Charter, there have to be three yes votes to agree to the request. Ruggiero recommended that the Council members seek an advisory opinion from the RI Ethics Commission before taking any further action.

That ended consideration of that issue and, after almost four hours, the meeting was adjourned.

It’s up to the voters now, and I urge every eligible voter to come out on June 6th and vote yes to the budget and the beach improvements.

Author: Will Collette