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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day for the YMCA

Chariho School kids, Charlestown working families - DROP DEAD!
By Will Collette

As my colleague Tom Ferrio reported in the after-action account published last night, the fix WAS indeed in. The Council voted to take $475,000 of Charlestown taxpayers' money and give it to the Westerly YMCA and Charlestown Land Trust for the abandoned Y Camp on Watchaug Pond.

Though I clung to the hope that the measure might die on a 2-2 tie vote, the Town Council passed the measure by a 3-1 vote (Councilor Dan Slattery recused himself).

Sometime today, the Charlestown Land Trust will hand a check for $9,999 to the Westerly Y as the deal-sealer and will march on toward their planned April 16 closing.

Council President Gentz jumps on the
anti-Chariho school kids bandwagon
Before going into the details of the deal, last night's Town Council meeting was a study in contrasts. Early on in the meeting, the standing-room-only audience was treated to the spectacle of CCA-anointed Town Council President Tom Gentz hectoring Chariho School Superintendent Barry Ricci and two of Charlestown's elected members to the Chariho School Committee.

Gentz had summoned Ricci to this Council meeting so Gentz could grandstand over the increased cost Charlestown will pay to educate town school children. You really need to watch the Clerkbase video for yourself to see if I am exaggerating any of this.

Gentz badgered and brow-beat Ricci and the others, saying the cost of educating Chariho school children cost Charlestown too much. He demanded a reduction of at least a quarter-million dollars from the town's share of the costs – even though 90% of those costs are fixed. The increased cost to the town comes from the cost-sharing formula the three Chariho towns have agreed to.
Gentz on the attack against Chariho

Gentz hammered at this for an hour. But when he was asked by Chariho School Committee members Deb Carney and Andrew McQuade what kind of cuts and how much Gentz really had in mind, he couldn't do the math. In order to cut a quarter million dollars from Charlestown's tab, the School District would have to cut millions of dollars overall, since each town's share is a percentage of the total.

The Chariho reps explained that the School District had already made deep cuts in everything they could, except the needs of the children, and kept the increase in operating costs to 1.1%. They described how the investment in the school system has made it the third-highest-achieving district in Rhode Island, with some schools within Chariho ranked first in the state (e.g., Ashaway in Science).

But Gentz would not relent, even as members of the audience pitched in to explain the importance of good schools to the future of our community. Usually, Gentz maintains a persona of a jolly good guy, like he was President of the Elks Club, not the Charlestown Town Council. But his usual Uncle Fluffy mask was off for this discussion

In the end, as finally Gentz seemed to realize that he was the only person in the room interested in beating up on Chariho (not even his compadre, Chariho-bashing Deputy Dan Slattery, would join in), Gentz settled for a resolution asking Chariho to try to find some way to cut Charlestown's cost.

Fast-forward more than an hour to the debate over the $475,000 heist of Charlestown taxpayer money. Speaker after speaker came to the podium to challenge the wisdom of spending so much money to get so very little.

The taxpayers' money would go to the Charlestown Land Trust to buy a conservation easement. The easement gives the town two things: (1) the land will not be developed into something productive, like the 10-home conservation development that had been rejected by the Council last spring, and (2) the town will get some access to the property.

On the first point, the land wasn't going to be developed anyway. The land has been a campground for more than 60 years and would have stayed that way – zoned Open Space/Recreation – until the town changed the zoning. But for totally inexplicable reasons, the advocates of the deal – the Town Council majority, the YMCA, the Land Trust and the Planning Commission – felt this deal needed to be done in a rush.

There were NO BUYERS waiting in the wings to buy a much-abused campground with locked-in zoning. No evil for-profit developers. No casino developers. No wind farm developers. No nuclear waste dump developers. Nobody. And as I reported earlier, the YMCA is not hurting for money.

On the second point, Charlestown Land Trust Treasurer Russ Ricci said the town and its citizens would have unrestricted, 365-days-a-year, dawn-to-dusk access to the property in return for its $475,000.

Except, of course, that's NOT what the actual Conservation Easement says and that's NOT the way the Charlestown Land Trust administers its 52 properties around town.

Contrary to what Charlestown Land Trust Treasurer Russ Ricci testified,
this is what the town of Charlestown gets for its half million dollars.
Access by "pre-arranged appointment such manner as will not disturb the quiet enjoyment by
[the Charlestown Land Trust]" is not the same as unrestricted, dawn-to-dusk, 365-days-a-year access.
Lucky for Ricci, his testimony was not given under oath.
But for all the debate – including strong and well-reasoned testimony from three members of Charlestown's Conservation Commission against the deal – it was clear the fix was in.

They pointed out the many reasons why the YMCA camp proposal was a terrible deal – the land is covered in crap (derelict buildings, old septics, cracked asphalt, old fencing), the price is too high, the economy is terrible, there is no pressing need to buy this land at this time since there aren't exactly any other buyers waiting in the wings – and that the matter should be put before Charlestown voters for their approval, as the Council did with the beach facilities that are now under construction.

Council President Tom Gentz, the same guy who hectored the Chariho School representatives over the half-million-dollar increase needed to maintain our school system, gave his rationale for giving half a million dollars to the Charlestown Land Trust. The rationale: "open space - good, children - bad."

Gentz actually raised the issue of the defeated conservation development and noted that if that development had been built, some of the people who bought those homes might have kids. If those kids went to Chariho, then OMG!, we would have to pay $15,000 a year for each kid. So instead, we need to give the Land Trust and the YMCA half a million dollars in taxpayer money to save us from school children.

Council Vice-President Dan Slattery lives next to the Y Camp and had the good sense to recuse himself.

Council member Marge Frank talked about how beautiful Watchaug Pond is and referred to the photo array the Land Trust had set up to show various scenes from the land – very nice pictures once you make sure you choose your camera angle to avoid the derelict buildings and the two neighborhoods hemming in the site. She was so taken with the romantic beauty of the site that she too thought we should fork over $475,000.

Council member Gregg Avedisian tried to wiggle and waffle around the decision that he had clearly made before the meeting – to approve the $475,000 deal. Avedisian talked about how he would have liked to have seen something different – such as Ted Veazey's defeated conservation development – but in the end felt there was no choice but to fork over the money.

Councilor Avedisian listened to the echoes of testimony
from months ago, ignored current testimony
He made one of the most outrageous statements of the night: "The people have spoken," he said. Avedisian said the people spoke when they approved the Open Space/Recreation Bond eight years ago. He said the people had spoken when the CCA and the non-resident Sonquipaug Association turned out in opposition to Ted Veazey's conservation development last spring.

Avedisian did not acknowledge the overwhelming opposition testimony he obviously did not hear that evening that actually spoke to the issue he and the other majority members voted to approve.

Former Councilor Forrester Safford was among those speaking against the $475,000 caper earlier in the evening. He looked right at Avedisian when he testified that when he and Avedisian were on the Council and pushed the Open Space/Recreation Bond, "it was a different time." Forrester noted that back then, the economy was good, unemployment was low and prospects were positive. Unlike today, Forrester continued, when the economy is terrible and the prospects are too gloomy to take on half a million dollars in debt for so little benefit to the town.

Avedisian ignored the Conservation Commission's thorough testimony debunking the claims of the Land Trust. He ignored calls for the matter to be put before the voters. He declared his intention to vote YES for the deal, and the majority was sealed.

Only Council member Lisa DiBello voted NO. Now, regular Progressive Charlestown readers know that I have researched DiBello thoroughly have have presented lots of evidence why DiBello should not be on the Town Council. Her lawsuit, Lisa A. DiBello v. Town of Charlestown, alone should disqualify her from sitting on the Council. But alone among the Council members last night, DiBello spoke clearly and cleanly about how wrong the YMCA deal is for the taxpayers for Charlestown, and for that, I salute her.

In the sixteen months since this Town Council took their oaths of office, they have steadily made it clear they do not serve all of the people of Charlestown. This Town Council serves the interests of Charlestown's elite – its wealthy landowners, including especially those who live elsewhere.

Last night, this Town Council made its contempt for working families, middle-class homeowners and for some reason, school children clear for all to see.

If you are a wealthy landowner, if you are a radical conservationist who would like to depopulate the town (starting with the kids), if you are a non-resident with a vacation home, this Town Council represents you.

At the end of the four-hour meeting, there was a revealing statement by Council Vice-President Deputy Dan Slattery. He commented that he had been asked whether the town had any assistance available for people facing foreclosure. He said the town had no money to help them, so they should go to Washington Trust or the state or somewhere, anywhere, but Charlestown for help.

Slattery and the Council majority made it clear in December there is no money for tax relief for middle-class home-owners. Slattery made it clear at the January meeting that he wanted to investigate whether only the "truly deserving" were getting assistance from the town in the form of other types of tax credits.

But there's always money for open space. There's always money to give a half-million-dollar "donation" to the YMCA. There's always money to give to the Charlestown Land Trust.