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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Somehow we’ve always got enough money for open space


What could have been: Ted Veazey's proposed conservation
development, which would have gained us $5 million in
tax revenues instead of costing us half a million.
Strangely, the same people who were so violently opposed to the homestead tax proposal—which would have been revenue-neutral to the town—at Monday night's town council meeting had absolutely nothing to say about the town spending half a million dollars or more to acquire the YMCA camp. Even though they themselves suggested that rather than offer a new tax credit, the town should cut back on expenses.

By Linda Felaco

Last spring, the big controversy around town was the beach pavilions. We don’t need them! We can’t afford them! I don’t want my taxes to go up to build them! If we’re going to build them, we should spend much less than what’s being proposed! But in the end, we voted to spend $1.2 million of our hard-earned tax dollars to give ourselves and our summer visitors a decent place to answer the call of nature.

So you’d think after all that sturm und drang over the beach pavilions, people would not be eager to drop another half a mill anytime soon.

And yet here we are charging ahead to acquire the YMCA camp.

Oh sure, Russ Ricci of the Land Trust says it’s a “unique parcel” and blah blah blah, and Mal Makin of the YMCA, who of course wants to unload the property, and pronto, says it’s an opportunity that will never come back.

But.

Grace Klinger of the Conservation Commission said that if we deplete our open-space bond to make a new purchase, we’ll have no money left to develop the open spaces we already have. Forty-two percent of the town is already untaxable, according to Tax Assessor Ken Swain. And when you add in “farm, forest, and open space” property, which is taxed at about a quarter of the market rate, he says it’s over 50% of the town.

And as Ken Simoneau, a member of the town’s YMCA Land Advisory Panel, pointed out, the land isn’t even “open space” seeing as how there are currently 14 buildings on it. He’d prefer our open space money to be spent on actual open space.

Because RIDEM has already awarded the Land Trust $367,000, we can get the land for “50 cents on the dollar,” Ricci kept saying. Um, not quite. The $475,000 in estimated costs to the town is already more than $367,000, and who knows how realistic that $475,000 number is till someone gets in there and figures out the condition of the buildings, which have been unused for 4 years, and all those decades-old leaking cesspools.

And as Michael Souza pointed out in his recent (free access!) Westerly Sun story on the deal, that DEM grant was actually obtained under false pretenses, given that Ruth Platner originally sold the town on the idea of acquiring the land for active recreation but “under the terms of the grant application, which was co-authored by Platner, only passive recreational opportunities would be allowed.”
Open space for sale.

And yet the council voted 3-1, with Lisa DiBello voting no and Dan Slattery recusing himself because he’s an abutter to the property, to proceed with the sale and authorized the town to spend $3500 for an appraisal and $10,000 for a survey of the property. $13,500 that we’ll never get back, even if the sale doesn’t end up going through.

Because somehow or other, we’ve always got money for open space.

Not for people, mind you, but for space.

Not for those pesky Chariho kids, each one of whom, the anti-homestead crowd reminded everyone, soak us for $13,000 a year for their schooling (which, as the astute gentleman sitting next to me Monday night pointed out, is a bargain compared to the $80,000 a year they cost us down the line when they wind up in the ACI because they never got a decent education and have no job skills).

Not only that, but after venting his spleen against the proposed homestead tax credit, Leo Mainelli, zealous guardian of our tax dollars, once again took to the podium during Parks and Recreation Director Jay Primiano’s presentation about the grant he’s submitting to RIDEM for a lighted practice field for the Chariho football teams at Ninigret Park to ask about the durability of the lighting and the maintenance costs. (More on the lighting issue in my next meeting report.)

Yet Mainelli had nothing whatsoever to say about the town spending half a million dollars to acquire a derelict summer camp.

Because there’s always plenty of money for open space.

Apparently, the goal is for the town to eventually consist of just the South of One properties and lots and lots of open space. I suppose the RISC/CCA crowd will let Ruth and Cliff keep their farm in exchange for all their hard work on their behalf, and they’ll let Forrester Safford keep his place so he can carry out their endless arms race of home renovations. But the rest of us will be driven out of our homes as the tax base dwindles and tax rates go up and up.

And that will be the Charlestown of the future, if we let it.