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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What price harmony?

By Linda Felaco

Of all the ugly charges that were leveled against the Homestead Tax Credit proposal at the December 12 Town Council meeting, there was one that I would have found comical in less-tense circumstances, namely, that the proposal would somehow destroy the “harmony” of the town. This town is harmonious, we were told by the nonresident property owners. Don’t ruin it by enacting this proposal.

Well, sure, I don’t suppose many people vacation in places that aren’t harmonious. Nobody vacations in a war zone. Wouldn’t be much of a vacation then, would it.

But it’s another matter entirely when you live in a town year-round.

It’s not harmonious when you’re trying to run a business and a member of the town council keeps sending zoning officials after you to harass you for having your own equipment on your own property. It’s not harmonious when you run a franchise and the building inspector fines you for using the very signage that you pay a franchise fee to use. It’s not harmonious when you give of your own money, time, and energy to make improvements to a town facility only to be accused of perpetrating some sort of fraud in the process.

But sure, I suppose if you’re just here for the summer and stay by the beach, there’s plenty of harmony.

Unless, say, you want to sip a glass of wine on the patio of a local restaurant after a day at the beach but find you can’t because the building inspector has ruled that the establishment can only seat a couple of dozen people at a time.

No, these things don’t destroy harmony.

But a modest proposal to rebalance the tax load that had been shifted toward the more moderately priced properties in the last revaluation? That would destroy the harmony.

I was prepared to hear criticism of the tax proposal at the council meeting. The proposal was not beneficial to everyone, so of course it was controversial. But what I heard in that room was not criticism of the proposal itself but criticism of town Democrats for having the audacity to even propose it. As if the very idea of petitioning the government for redress of grievances guaranteed in the Constitution somehow does not apply to Charlestown. After all, this is America, right?

No, this is Charlestown, where we bow and scrape to the rich folks who come to town a few weeks or months out of the year, drop some money, and expect us all to put on a good show of “harmony” so they can blissfully and serenely enjoy the fruits of their wealth without having to acknowledge that they’re in a real town with real people and not some Club Med resort where the locals exist only to provide services for the vacationers.
Lone Star Cottage in Shady Harbor. The $3000/wk rental rate
doesn't include the use of the third floor, though if you're
adventurous, you could conceivably hoist yourself up to the
balcony from the front railing.

This attitude is perhaps summed up best in the online advertising for Lone Star Cottage, Waterview Vacation Rental House in Shady Harbor, which smarmily describes how the house “will become your oasis amidst the tourist turmoil of typical beach communities.”

Because of course, rubbing elbows with the unwashed masses would be “turmoil”:
“While the white sands of the Misquamicut State Beach or the town of Charlestown's beaches are available, the private ocean beach at Weekapaug used by Shady Harbor residents is most appealing of all. … You can take long walks down the shoreline without encountering large crowds, even in the height of the summer season.”
Yup, that’s all we are to them: “available.”
The interior decor is not particularly harmonious to me, though.
And I don't think $150 is nearly enough to pay someone
to have to dust all those tsotchkes.
Yet even amid the exclusion, there’s exclusion: “The new top floor you see in the picture is not available for rent and locked up and not in use while being rented.” Imagine that. For $3000 per week (minimum 1-week rental during the summer high season) plus $150 cleaning fee plus a refundable damage deposit of $500, you don’t even get to use the whole house. Now that’s what I call exclusive! Not sure how they managed to put that third story on there with the town’s 35-foot height restriction on buildings, though.

Let’s not kid ourselves: We can suck up to rich people all we like, but they’re laughing at us behind our backs. Or even to our faces. An article in Bloomsburg Businessweek last week titled “Bankers Join Billionaires to Debunk ‘Imbecile’ Attack on Top 1%” quotes Home Depot Inc. co-founder Bernard Marcus saying this about the Occupy Wall Street movement: “Who gives a crap about some imbecile? Are you kidding me?”

According to Bloomsburg, 

[H]edge-fund manager Leon Cooperman, the Omega Advisors Inc. chairman and former CEO of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s money-management unit, … said in an interview that he can’t walk through the dining room of St. Andrews Country Club in Boca Raton, Florida, without being thanked for speaking up. At least four people expressed their gratitude on Dec. 5 while he was eating an egg-white omelet, he said.

“You’ll get more out of me,” the billionaire said, “if you treat me with respect.”

Because, of course, it’s not that the rest of us in the 99% perform actual work that the 1% extract wealth from. No, the plutocrats pay us out of the goodness of their hearts for doing absolutely nothing, and we need to be nice to them or they’ll cut off our allowances.
Harmony, Pennsylvania, site of the first settlement
established by the Harmony Society.
(Photo by Lee Paxton)

The very rich on today’s Wall Street are now so rich that they buy their own social infrastructure. They hire private security, they live on gated mansions on islands and other tax havens, and most notably, they buy their own justice and their own government.
[C]itizens of the stateless archipelago where people like [Blackstone Group LP CEO Stephen] Schwarzman live spend millions a year lobbying and donating to political campaigns so that they can jump the line. They don’t need to make sure the government is fulfilling its customer-service obligations, because they buy special access to the government, and get the special service and the metaphorical comped bottle of VIP-room Cristal afforded to select customers.

Want to lower the capital reserve requirements for investment banks? Then-Goldman CEO Hank Paulson takes a meeting with SEC chief Bill Donaldson, and gets it done. Want to kill an attempt to erase the carried interest tax break? Guys like Schwarzman, and Apollo’s Leon Black, and Carlyle’s David Rubenstein, they just show up in Washington at Max Baucus’s doorstep, and they get it killed.

Hm. Why does this sound familiar? Oh yeah, because on December 12 we were treated to a rare off-season visit from our summer residents, who drove 100 miles to rail against the homestead tax credit proposal and demand that it be killed. And part of their argument was that they were already overpaying the town seeing as how they didn’t avail themselves of town services, having contracted privately for their own services. (By their own choice, I might add.)
The fictional New England town of Harmony,
setting for the NBC/DirecTV soap opera Passions.

Which got me thinking. If our summer neighbors really want “harmony” and feel no obligation toward the rest of us, perhaps we need a “Carcieri fix” for rich people. Like the scions of Wall Street, Charlestown’s rich have in essence formed a tribe unto themselves and use their wealth to insulate themselves from ordinary people, so why not grant them tribal status as part of the “Carcieri fix” and give them their own tribal lands, namely Shady Harbor, Quonochontaug, and West Beach?

Yes, it would mean a loss of tax revenue from all those million-dollar waterfront properties. But think of what we’d gain. No more smug rich people showing up at town council meetings to vent their spleen over anything they found distasteful or to demand the vote. There’d even be some cost savings once town police no longer had to answer all those burglar alarm calls all the months out of the year that their houses are vacant. Plus, we could make up some of the lost revenue by setting up toll booths at the entry points to their enclave.

And we might even be able to get some sensible business and property development going that would diversify our tax base and generate income here in town rather than relying on rich people to bring their money to us. As commenter Lee Johnson wrote recently: “We have the perfect set-up for small business districts, especially near the beaches, where, in the summer, there would be plenty of customers.“

Once the burden of taxation was lifted from the tribe, think what a windfall it’d be for Forrester Safford, having all that money freed up for the West Beachers to spend on their home renovations! And once unburdened by the town’s 35-foot height restriction, they could embark on an endless arms race of building additional stories to give themselves a better view! And so a good chunk of that lost tax revenue would trickle back to the town via Safford’s taxes and those of his employees.

Call me crazy, but I think it could work. They’ve made it abundantly clear that they don’t share our interests. They don’t care about our schools, our police and firefighters, or even decent public bathrooms. So why should we have to share our town with them?