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Friday, April 13, 2012

Y-Gate: Sneaking in through the back door

Don’t put it on the town credit card, give them a bag full of unmarked bills
By Will Collette

At the April 9 Town Council meeting, there was a surprise built into Budget Commission Chair Richard Sartor’s presentation on the proposed Fiscal Year 2013 Budget.

Sartor said the Budget Commission is recommending that the town take $475,000 out of petty cash (actually from the undesignated fund balance) to pay the Charlestown Land Trust for an easement on the crappy YMCA property rather than “charge it” by issuing a bond.

On one level, it makes great sense to avoid the cost of processing the bond and paying interest. Paying cash instead of paying on credit makes a difference. But on the other, it could very well violate the Town Charter, UNLESS the YMCA campground deal goes on the ballot as a separate warrant question. The voters approved an Open Space/Recreation BOND, not digging into the town surplus to pay cash.

Last year, rather than pay for it out of undesignated surplus funds or from the Open Space/Recreation Bond, the Town Council decided to put last year’s proposal to build new toilet facilities at the town’s beaches before the voters as a separate item.

To adhere to the Town Charter, and to be consistent with past practice, the $475,000 acquisition should go before the voters as a separate warrant item.

For those of you who have just recently emerged from winter hibernation, this is the infamous “Y-Gate” caper, a heist of $475,000 of town money and $367,000 of state money to allow the Charlestown Land Trust to acquire a junked-out 27-acre campground.

The campground has been abandoned for four years. Rather than take the land by eminent domain, since it is, after all, abandoned, the town is prepared to give $475,000 to the Charlestown Land Trust. The Land Trust will then combine it with state funds and pay the Westerly YMCA $730,000 for the land.

No one has yet given an adequate explanation for what will happen to the extra $112,000 left over after you subtract the YMCA’s asking price (which, by the way, is based on an appraisal that knowingly used false assumptions) from the town’s and state’s combined payments of $842,000. There’s also supposed to be another $100,000 that the Land Trust had pledged to raise for the deal.

But hey, that’s only $212,000 in cash unaccounted for. According to the CCA, which via Planning Commissar Ruth Platner gave its enthusiastic endorsement of this farce, no price is too high to pay for open space.

Under the Town Charter, any town acquisition of $50,000 or more must go to the voters UNLESS it is drawn from funds, such as the Open Space/Recreation bond, previously approved by the voters.

That was the reason the Town Council majority overruled the many citizens who opposed the deal at the February Town Council meeting where the $475,000 commitment was made – the voters have already approved open space bond funding, and the Y-Gate payoff would be drawn from those funds.

But under the Budget Commission proposal, we would not be drawing on a bond previously approved by the voters but from general revenues.

If the Budget Commission or Town Council attempts to bury this cash transfer deep within the budget, rather than put it before the voters on its own merits as a warrant item, the odds of another lawsuit against the town for violating the Town Charter are pretty high.

Not to mention that this would hardly be the kind of “open and transparent” deal that the Council members promised the voters.

I would love to see the voters get a chance to say yes or no to the town’s plan to spend so much of their money to get virtually nothing.