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Thursday, February 10, 2022

UPDATED: Charlestown about to institutionalize financial mismanagement

CCA expects its new policy on surplus funds to be enacted by their Council majority

By Will Collette 

For several weeks, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) has been touting its new Unassigned Fund Balance policy crafted at their behest by the Budget Commission. 

They expect it to pass at the February 14 Town Council meeting because they hold a 3-2 majority and all their members vote the party line. 

The “Unassigned Fund Balance” is basically our surplus money – tax dollars that remain after we meet our obligations. That surplus has been growing by roughly $1 million a year meaning the CCA-controlled town government has been over-taxing residents to run up large amounts of cash. 

When the surplus grows to an embarrassing size, they look for some way to spend it down. In 2019, they came up with a plan to spend $3 million for a “community center” we didn’t need, and for which we had no plans, site or budget. Charlestown voters rejected the entire town budget because of this outrageous proposal. 

They have also diverted surplus funds for such dubious uses as paying cash for long lived construction projects with benefits extending for several decades that normally would be financed through low-interest loans. 

The “Policy” the CCA expects the Town Council to pass would make this ad hoc budget practice of over-taxing, accumulating large surpluses and then spending it stupidly the town’s official policy. 

No consideration at all was given to a surplus funds policy first crafted by Council President Deb Carney in 2019 – in fact, the CCA is trying to pretend it never existed. Deb's plan would limit the size of the surplus and give amounts in excess of our emergency needs back to the taxpayers.

CLICK HERE to read about the differences between Deb Carney’s proposal and the version being pushed by the CCA. 

Senior CCA Town Councilor Bonnie Van Slyke has been taking the point to push their plan (and stifle Deb's). Rookie CCA councilors Cody Clarkin, an ex-Eagle Scout, and Susan Cooper are expected to do what they are told as they have been since taking office. 

Susan Cooper (401) 603-9651, and Cody Clarkin (401) 603-9740, could be swing votes, if they listen to reason and follow their consciences instead of the CCA party line. If you have an opinion, you should contact them. 

Just within the past month, the Budget Commission was notified by town auditors that there is $3 million less in the town’s budget than the Commission was expecting. The Commission was initially shocked, but under Richard Sartor’s leadership, they quickly shifted into damage control claiming the money wasn’t “lost” but only misallocated. 

The likely suspects for this little oopsie will have to undergo investigation by themselves. The CCA doesn’t even want any discussion about getting an independent investigator. Maybe they'd prefer to wait for a grand jury. 

According to Leo Mainelli, the CCA retains complete and total confidence in the whole bunch of them, even though their incompetence has now been revealed. As usual, the CCA wants to stifle any discussion, or even mention, of this budget screw-up. 

A paranoid conspiracy theory 

I have a paranoid conspiracy theory I’d like to offer as the reason why the CCA is undertaking a high-risk maneuver as an official over-taxing policy that will certainly not be a taxpayer favorite. 

Charlestown, like most coastal communities around the globe, faces an existential threat from the climate crisis.

 We are already experiencing sea level rise as well as more frequent and more intense storms. As the temperature continues to rise due to our failure to control greenhouse gases, it’s going to get worse. 

Much of Charlestown south of Route 1 faces severe damage, if not inundation, from rising seas and storm surges. The storms will wreak havoc on the rest of town – high winds, flooding, extreme shifts in temperature will damage homes, farms and property, 

We have a new Coastal Resilience group that is looking for volunteers. I am not sure what its actual purpose will be, other than a public relations stunt. Numerous state, federal, academic, non-profit and commercial agencies and institutions are already doing the science in detail. I’ve already run numerous articles on this subject, like this most recent example. 

We already know what will happen to the Charlestown coast line so it would seem a waste of time for this new Charlestown group to duplicate the efforts of those who are far more qualified to do the science. 

UPDATE: Senator Jack Reed just announced that URI is receiving $250,000 in new federal funding to support several shoreline protection projects. Unless Charlestown invokes the old CCA Slattery Rule (no outside government agency can set foot in Charlestown without the town/CCA approval), this is another reason to wonder why Charlestown needs a coastal resilience commission.  -Will Collette 

We also know we can’t stop it. Seawalls are not the answer since they only shift the flooding tides and the CRMC is unlikely to approve them. Storm-proofing and retro-fitting houses can be good stopgap measures but putting your house on stilts won’t be very helpful if the land and roads around your house are submerged. 

My paranoid conspiracy theory is that the real purpose of this coastal resilience group will be to try to figure out how to bail out shore-line residents who not coincidentally happen to be the CCA’s political and campaign financing base. 

They are also a huge part of Charlestown’s tax base. 

I believe Dick Sartor wants to build up a surplus well beyond the recommended levels needed to cope with emergencies so the town can fund a bail-out. He calls such a thing “an unknown unknown,” but I think he really means that it is something he doesn’t want “known”. 

Further, I think the coastal resilience group may well be charged with the task of figuring out how to carry out the bail-out. If we buy out those properties, we’re going need a bigger surplus fund. If we pay to have them moved back, same problem, plus how far can they be moved back before the idea becomes ridiculous? 

It’s a grim prospect to think about Charlestown losing so much of its tax base. At age 72, I have the one solace that I will probably not be alive to see it, but it may be a close thing. 

Politically, any kind of bail-out should be put up for a vote. It will likely be a highly charged issue with the interests of residents North of One being so radically different than those who are South of One. 

To learn more about Charlestown’s fiscal mismanagement, read:

Charlestown, we have a problem 

$3 Million Missing - the Unknown Unknown 

The Charlestown Shell Game 

The Charlestown Shell Game, Part 2