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Thursday, January 6, 2022

Slyke of Hand, Part 4

“Meet the new surplus money policy, same as the old surplus policy”

By Will Collette

You can always count on Charlestown Town Councilor Bonnie Van Slyke to front for the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) policies even when she has no clue what they mean or they make no sense.

The latest example is a letter to the editor that appears above her name when it is crystal clear she didn’t write it and – as we’ll see at Monday’s Council meeting which will be live on WebEx – won’t be able to explain it.

Her subject is what Charlestown should do with the millions of dollars in taxes that the town collects over and above what the town needs.

The town has been accumulating these surpluses at least since the CCA took over complete control of town government. 

On occasion, the amounts get so high that the CCA feels compelled to spend it on something stupid, such as their 2019 plan to spend $3 million on a Community Center that wasn’t needed and for which there were no plans or budget. The voters rejected this plan by a huge margin.

It never seems to occur to the CCA that instead of accumulating such high surpluses that they might either (a) lower the tax rate or (b) give some reasonable amount of the surplus back to the taxpayers.

So here comes Bonnie Van Slyke to announce the CCA plan to ramrod the status quo, in the form of a Unassigned Fund Balance (UCB) Policy written by the Budget Commission, through the Town Council Monday's meeting.

This “new” policy is just like the CCA’s past and current practices: collect excess tax money, salt it away in a variety of slush funds that generate virtually no income for the town and then spend it on pet projects on an ad hoc basis – like the imaginary community center, an unfinished road or over-budget construction project.

Or they can pay cash for another unnecessary and over-priced land acquisition from Planning Commissar Ruth Platner’s wish list.

Maybe it's just my strange sense of humor, but it's funny to me that the
CCA chose THIS illustration for Van Slyke's new tome. A bunch of pocket 
change topped by a corroded penny as stand-ins for $10 million? Really?
Bonnie’s newest Slyke-of-Hand is very short on detail. I blame her ghost-writer, not Bonnie, for being unwilling to show his hand.

Now if you want the truth about Charlestown’s sloppy handling of the budget surplus and how it affects how much YOU pay in taxes, read Part 1 and Part 2 of The Charlestown Shell Game by CPA Stephen Hoff.

Steve does not skimp on details in showing how the various plans for managing surplus funds would work. 

By contrast, the Van Slyke letter only gives you the bare-bones version of the Budget Commission’s proposal. It ignores the proposal prepared in 2019 and since refined by Council President Deb Carney.

The Budget Commission, dominated as it is by the CCA, also ignored Carney’s proposal which would give the money back to the taxpayers rather than unjustifiably store it in various squirrel holes as it is now.

One of the most dishonest things about the ghost-written Van Slyke letter is the lack of dollar details. The only number given is the theoretical minimum amount of surplus to be stored away at $4.3 million.

But as Hoff shows in Charlestown Shell Game, Part 2, the actual amount the CCA plans to squirrel away is around $10 million. For a taxpayer with a home assessed at $300,000, that costs you $818 at the current tax rate.

As Hoff explains, towns do need to carry some surplus funds to cover the town in case of emergencies. Even though we can usually expect state and federal help after severe events like hurricanes, it can take time for that help to arrive.

Hoff also critiques the town’s recent use of surplus funds to pay for capital projects that are normally financed through bonds. Budget Commissioner Dick Sartor and former CCA Town Councilor Dan Slattery preached against the evils of debt as if it was a sin to use low-interest bonds to fund construction that will be in use for 20 years or more.

They might as well be preaching against mortgages or education loans.

The debate in towns like ours is how much surplus we need to sock away, for what purposes and with what restrictions and rules. 

The Budget Commission proposal signed onto by Van Slyke is really no policy at all. 

You can sum it up as collect all you can and spend it on whatever the 3-2 CCA majority on the Town Council wants to buy.

It is a fact that Charlestown does have a very low tax rate per $100,000 in property assessment. Three major factors cause that: almost no municipal services, declining Chariho enrollment and a lot of high-value property especially along the water.

Foreseeable and unforeseen events could change our current comfortable situation. Yes, it is wise to have enough in reserve to cover immediate needs for the likelihood of a hurricane strike, but there is no rational reason to over-budget and over-tax just because we can.

For earlier installments of Slyke of Hand:

Slyke of Hand, Part 1…The Big Lie, Charlestown-style...The Charlestown Choo-choo hoax and the Stankiewicz cover-up.

Slyke of Hand, Part 2: Spit in my face and call it rainVan Slyke touts land scam as grand achievement

Slyke of hand, Part 3: The Plan from Hell... Critique of the Charlestown "Comprehensive Plan"