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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Slyke of Hand, Part 5: Richard Sartor’s piggy bank

And while we’re at it, where’s our THREE MILLION DOLLARS?

By Will Collette

Bonnie Van Slyke is the senior Town Council member representing the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA). I could make a second career out of following up on the banal and inaccurate things she says and “writes” (i.e. that are written for her).

Bonnie is currently campaigning to win public support for a really terrible approach to managing the town’s budget. She would have the Town Council, which the CCA controls by 3-2, carve into stone the un-written status quo policy of the CCA-controlled Budget Commission.

You can sum up that policy as: tax as much as you can, run up huge surpluses and then spend the surplus down on stupid stuff.

For the second time, Van Slyke has put her name to letters to the editor written for her extolling this approach. The CCA calls it A Robust Plan For Stability And The Capacity To Recover From Major Adverse Events Is Essential.” Van Slyke assumes the CCA’s 3-2 majority will approve it at the February 14 Council meeting.

She says “The discussion has been continued [from January] so that all residents will have ample time to review and digest the issues involved.” That’s actually a lie. The CCA couldn’t get this thing rammed through the Council in January because somebody forgot to include a copy of the Budget Commission’s plan in the agenda packet.

It’s now available HERE.

Despite that SNAFU, all three CCA Council members wanted to approve the Plan at the January meeting anyway. However, they got so much flak from people who logged in for the on-line meeting that they had to back down.

This issue directly affects everyone who pays taxes to the town of Charlestown.

For many years, the town has collected a million+ dollars a year more than they needed to run the town. Rather than adjust the tax rate, the CCA-run Budget Commission and Town Council have come up with faulty, if not down-right stupid, ways to spend down the surplus without ever truly considering giving it back to the taxpayers.

To get into the nitty gritty, I suggest you read Stephen Hoff’s two-part series, “The Charlestown Shell Game (Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE).

In fact, the CCA’s enthusiasm for spending other people’s money got so out of hand that town auditors discovered on January 14 that the town actually has $3 million LESS in its surplus than it thought it did. The Budget Commission was outraged and determined to find someone to blame, other than themselves.

How did Charlestown “misplace” $3 million? That’s 10% of the total town budget and cuts the surplus we thought we had by almost half. Again, Stephen Hoff has the breakdown for you HERE.

Van Slyke and Budget Commissioner Richard Sartor want Charlestown to officially adopt the policy of tax-too-much and spend-foolishly even in light of this little $3 million oopsy.

Sartor wants to get the surplus up to around $10 million, a huge amount for a town our size, because he is concerned about impending disaster caused by what he calls “unknown unknowns.” Van Slyke talks about “hurricanes or other disaster.”

We’ve been slammed before and we will be slammed again and again, especially given the effects of the climate crisis. We face an inevitable loss of land over time due to sea level rise.

These things happen, but most municipalities don’t rely on over-taxing their residents just to build up huge surpluses. They buy insurance to cover most exigent circumstances. They make plans coordinated with state and federal officials so they can reasonably predict how much and how quickly aid will arrive after a disaster.

Van Slyke tells a story in her letters that helps us understand her reasoning:

“When I consider what is prudent, I think of the time I rented an apartment on the third floor of a 100-year-old building. The building had no external fire escape and one staircase. The building had survived 100 years; however, I purchased a foldable metal fire escape that could be lowered out a window, hoping that I had planned well enough.”

Well, I’m sure many of us can relate to living in substandard housing, especially when we were young and poor. But I wonder if Bonnie perhaps picked the wrong place to live. Or whether she thought to complain to the landlord or to local housing officials over a likely housing code violation. Then there are smoke detectors and fire alarms.

Finally, there’s insurance. When Cathy and I were first starting out in the early 70s, maybe around the same time as Bonnie, we rented and protected ourselves with rental insurance.

Instead, Bonnie bought a "foldable metal fire escape." I can’t imagine what it cost back then to buy and haul such a thing up three flights of stairs much less how she could have “lowered [it] out a window, hoping that I had planned well enough.”

I looked on Amazon for today’s equivalent of Bonnie’s 3-story folding metal ladder. I found several. The modern version is at least 26 feet long for three stories, weighs more than 50 pounds and is seven feet long and three feet wide when folded. It would have probably filled half a room in a 1970s apartment. It costs $700.

It would be a wonder to behold to watch her get it out the window, unfold it and get it planted on the ground during a fire. Frankly, she'd be burnt to a crisp before she got halfway done.

Whatever, but I think we can all agree this is not a useful analogy for Charlestown’s current financial management issues, although it does describe the CCA’s current and proposed approach to the town's surplus funds - buy a ladder you couldn't possibly use in an emergency.

There are smart ways to manage Charlestown’s money and the taxes levied to accumulate that money. Van Slyke is banging the drum for a plan that involves putting more money than we need in a giant piggy bank and burying it in Richard Sartor’s backyard.

And along the way, maybe another one, two or three million dollars might fall along the wayside.

I'm making up the piggy bank, but all the rest is true. Whether Bonnie's story is true, I don't know, but I directly quoted it the way she wrote it.

Frankly, with their track record, would you let these guys hold your wallet?