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Friday, June 3, 2016

Charlestown budget vote this Monday

What you get for your tax dollars
By Will Collette

The tax rate will jump to $10.22 in July if the budget is approved
On Monday, Charlestown voters will have the opportunity to vote for a citizens’ initiative to save the iconic General Stanton Inn, saving it from decay, arson or the wrecking ball and instead preserving it as an asset for the town. I urge you all to vote YES for this important measure.

But in addition to this important issue, Charlestown voters are also being asked to decide whether or not to approve the proposed town budget for the upcoming fiscal year that starts on July 1.

This budget calls for the eighth consecutive hike in Charlestown’ property tax rate even though the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) which has controlled town government for that period, keeps claiming that it is saving taxpayers money.

Yet taxes keep going up even though the CCA Party claims it saves money by (A) paying cash for major capital improvement projects that normally are financed by bonds and (B) uses bonds to add to Charlestown’s already loaded inventory of town-owned open space. This chart from the town tells the tale:

Chariho costs are down, town operating costs up less than 1%. Tax hike is being driven by the choice to pay cash for capital projects.
The CCA Party seems to also be running an unofficial, sub rosa campaign against the Save the General Stanton Inn citizen initiative. Just check out the CCA Party’s official website to see how they are doing it.

Ironically, nearly all the arguments raised by opponents to the General Stanton Inn (GSI) initiative could actually be levelled at the CCA Party’s town budget.

The GSI critics say the town should not be in the real estate business. Really? Tell that to Planning Commissar Ruth Platner and Town Council Boss Tom Gentz who gleefully take more and more land off the tax rolls and onto the town’s property inventory for open space.

The GSI critics say the town should not spend tax-payer money to take title to unsaleable property. Again, really? That’s exactly what Charlestown did in its most recent openspace acquisition.

The GSI critics say the town is taking on liability by purchasing a building like the General Stanton Inn. Well, duh. Every piece of property the town owns, from Town Hall to Ninigret Park to the Moraine Preserve represents a liability. 

Charlestown has its fair share of slip-and-fall lawsuits as well as its share of costs for upkeep to town buildings. CLICK HERE for an example for how the property could be managed.

It is a normal part of municipal business. And we are insured for the contingencies of accidents or major property damage.

I want to know where all the new critics of the General Stanton Inn initiative were when the town bought property in the past. All those "serious concerns" they are raising now could have been applied to these past decisions.

Charlestown has long operated on the principle that public ownership of critical areas and infrastructure is good for the people of the town. There are often disagreements about the specifics and the merits of individual properties, but the general principle is sound.

I was surprised to see so many of the irate postings on the CCA Party website take the broad position that Charlestown should not own any property. To me, that makes no sense.

George Tremblay hints at Council stall on the General Stanton Inn
The CCA Party has not taken an official position. 

One of their key leaders, Faith LaBossiere, is an enthusiastic supporter. Others, not so much. 

The CCA Town Council members refused to comment to the Westerly Sun except for George Tremblay who hinted that the Town Council may decide to simply impound – i.e. not spend – the money even if the voters overwhelmingly approve it.

The June 6 vote on the General Stanton Inn initiative is, in my opinion, of a piece with past decisions by voters to support Charlestown open space and recreation. 

We make a decision, as a community, about what is important to us and take the necessary steps to support its preservation. Preserving town history is, to me, just as important as recreation and open space as parts of the essential fabric of life in Charlestown

If you want something to complain about, I have some suggestions.

Our war with the Narragansetts

This budget continues to carry the annual cost of keeping anti-Narragansett lawyer Joseph Larisa. Larisa, the controversial former mayor of East Providence, performs one sole duty for Charlestown – to fight the Narragansett Indian Tribe on any endeavor the tribe undertakes.

These include things like tribal housing, buildings, the transfer by the state of Rhode Island to the Tribe of the old Camp Davis property off South County Trail, legislation stuck in Congress that might affect the Tribe, jurisdiction over police matters on tribal lands, etc.

Tribal leaders have called Larisa a “racist” and consider him to be an on-going source of racial tensions between the tribe and the rest of the residents of Charlestown.

Charlestown taxpayers pay Larisa $2,050 a month for an average of a couple hours of work each month plus extras if necessary. The tab for Charlestown to maintain a constant state of war with our Native American neighbors is around $25,000 a year. CLICK HERE for a six-month sample of Larisa’s bills.

It’s in the budget. You pay for it and it costs not only money but worse, it's just wrong to treat the Narragansetts as our perpetual enemies.

Our new wars with everyone else

Cliff Vanover, one of the ZBR's guiding lights
After the 2014 election when the CCA Party took control of the Zoning Board of Review, I predicted that we were going to need to put a lot more money away to deal with the inevitable lawsuits that would arise from having CCA Party ideologues running the ZBR.

The Zoning Board is supposed to be a quasi-judicial body that makes decisions strictly based on the law, and not the CCA’s anti-everything ideology.

But that’s not how it’s worked out and the uptick in lawsuits shows how much this can hit us in the pocketbook.

Let’s start with the most potentially costly, the suit by the Dollar Tree Stores chain versus Charlestown (Lisciotti Development Corp v. Charlestown Zoning Board of Review et al.). According to Dollar Tree's corporate information, the company is worth $21.5 billion and had sales of over $5 billion in the last quarter - just so that we all understand who we are fighting.

The company wanted to set up a new Dollar Tree store in an existing commercial property on Old Post Road in Cross’ Mills. A “general store” is a permitted land use in the Cross’ Mills village district; a “Department Store” is not.

Since Charlestown doesn’t want a new Dollar Store, even though it would be a service to the low-income elderly who will occupy the expected Churchwoods senior citizens affording housing development, the town labelled the 9,100 square foot Dollar Store as a “Department Store.”

By the town’s reasoning, virtually any retail establishment in Charlestown that groups merchandise by type would have to be called a “Department Store” too.

Think of all the Charlestown businesses that organize their merchandise into sections. This could include CVS, Pat’s Power, Galapagos, Rippy’s, etc. Since the Charlestown Gallery has a distinct jewelry section, I guess they’re department stores, too. And the guns shops, unless the jumble the rifles in with the revolvers and with the ammunition.

Charlestown taxpayers – you’re paying for this litigation now and you will pay when the case is finally resolved. What do you think our chances of winning are?

At least four other new lawsuits have been filed against the new CCA-controlled Zoning Board:
In a matter that also challenges the actions of the Charlestown Planning Commission, there’s also the $281,189.63 claim against the town by the Edna McKenzie Living Trust. 

This claim argues that in 1998, the town miszoned the property as open space/recreational and that the town has failed to act on Ms. McKenzie’s request that zoning be corrected to Residential, as it should be.

Platner was fine with change for Heavers but not for
all the others
This issue is widespread and has come up before. There are lots of properties around Charlestown that are mislabeled, where some residential property is labeled open space/residential and some open space/residential property is labelled residential.

Former Town Planner Ashley Hahn inventoried all of these properties and presented it to the Planning Commission. Ashley also cited the sections of applicable law showing that Charlestown needed to take action to ensure that properties were properly zoned.

The town did do that, in one case, changing the zoning labelling for Barbara Heavers who is now a Charlestown Citizens Alliance-sponsored member of the Planning Commission. 

But as for all the other miszoned properties on the list? Once Ashley left, Charlestown Planning Commissar Ruth Platner lost interest.

The McKenzie claim sharply points these facts out – that the Heavers zoning change was done along with a handful of “selected” other cases. Then Charlestown failed to keep its own promise to fix all of the incorrectly zoned properties to the detriment of the town and the property owners.

I can’t predict how all these cases will turn out but Charlestown taxpayers are paying for this uptick in legal controversy. 

If the plaintiffs and petitioners win their cases, Charlestown’s costs will mount and we may find that our insurance costs climb, especially if we lose cases because the ZBR’s new ideology-driven approach is rebuked by the courts.

No Line-Item Veto

Taxpayers don’t have a line-item veto so when you go to Town Hall on Monday to vote in the Town’s Financial Referendum, your choices on the Town Budget is “yes” or “no.” You don't get to vote a la carte.

You don’t get to say you don’t want to fund Charlestown’s on-going war with the Narragansetts or to curb the ideological zeal of the CCA-controlled Zoning Board of Review. 

You don’t get to tell the CCA that if they want to run the ZBR as an extension of their organization, that they should pay for it.

You don’t get to reject the payment of cash for major capital projects.

If you do decide to vote NO on the proposed budget, it won’t be the end of the world since Charlestown would then operate on the current year’s budget.