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Sunday, February 20, 2022

It’s official: Charlestown will now deliberately overtax residents thanks to the CCA Council majority

CCA makes its ad hoc policy of overtaxing to build up huge surpluses official town policy

By Will Collette

For weeks, weve been warning you this was coming. The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) used its 3-2 town council majority to ram a new town policy on taxing and spending that will cost YOU more in taxes than is required or reasonable to run the town.

The February 14 Town Council meeting was a showcase of CCA obstinacy and nuttery. The outcome was pre-ordained by the secret leadership committee of the CCA.

Their three obedient Council minions also voted to BLOCK an independent outside investigation of why $3 million was misplaced within the town budget for more than a year.  

You would think, given the CCA’s claims they are financial geniuses (without evidence of their actual credentials), that they would want the best possible insights into why they ended up spending $3 million that wasn’t really available to spend. But the myth of the CCA’s infallibility is more important.

They also voted to BLOCK consideration of Council President Deb Carneys alternative budget surplus proposal that would save taxpayers money through a more reasonable-sized emergency reserve and returning excess funds to the taxpayers.

The differences between Carneys proposal and the CCA/Budget Commissions plan are spelled out in detail HERE.

And most importantly, they voted to ADOPT the terrible surplus funds policy proposed by Budget Commission chair Dick Sartor. He claims he’s just doing what the town’s consultants recommended but that’s not true – read HERE to see why.

And now they are bragging about how this is such a good thing for the taxpayers of Charlestown when the opposite is true.

In a nutshell: overtax, then overspend

Heres the situation in a nutshell. For years, the Budget Commission recommends a budget that taxes property owners an average of $1 million a year more than needed to run the town. When the size of the budget surplus gets to be embarrassingly large, they find some illogical way to spend it down.

To them, not over-taxing in the first place is not an option. Neither is refunding overly large surpluses back to taxpayers.

This has been an ad hoc policy of the CCA and the Budget Commission since the CCA took control of town government.

Now, based on the Feb. 14 party-line vote by the CCA council members, it is Charlestowns official policy.

The case of the missing $3 million

The Budget Commission began the process to prepare next years budget believing the surplus was around $9 million. Thats almost one-third of our total budget of $30 million.

However, in early January, the towns auditors informed the budget commission and Town staff that the unassigned surplus wasnt the $9 million they thought they had because somehow $3 million has been spent in FY 2022 that wasn’t actually available to be spent.

The error of the misplaced money has been a problem since at least Fiscal Year 2020. I guess it was one of those things that Dick Sartor calls “unknown unknowns,” although it is his job, as well as our Treasurer and Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz to be watch the money.

To help you place this in the timeline, we are currently in FY 2022 and this $3 million oopsie has thrown a monkey wrench into the Budget Commissions FY 2023 planning. The initial mistake happened in FY 2020. The Commission was pissed at the auditors taking so long to them the bad news.

The search was on for someone to blame. Remember now that in Charlestown, it is impossible for the CCA to ever be wrong. By extension, that means the town government they control can do no wrong.

Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz is above suspicion even though its his job to oversee town finances under the Town Charter and this oopsie happened under his nose. He scapegoated one of the several Town Treasurers weve had in the last few years rather than accept any responsibility himself.

For this, we pay him $150,000 a year plus a travel allowance so he can commute to Charlestown from Stoughton, MA.

Now, according to Stankiewicz everything is going great and all of its financial controls are perfect.

Stankiewicz says his staff doesn't have "the bandwidth" to handle large sums of money

But let’s remember that Stankiewicz told the Providence Journal on November 28 that Charlestown is stalling on plans to use $2.3 million in pandemic relief federal funding because, according to Stankiewicz, town staff lack the bandwidth” to know how to use federal money lawfully.

If he was honest, Stankiewicz would include himself in that description. Please note that town staff handle federal money all the time and, so far, have not drawn any federal heat. 

If they “lack the bandwidth,” that’s on Stankiewicz, who either failed to recruit, train and oversee staff properly – as the $3 million oopsie makes clear. Or he's just trashing the staff to cover for his own inadequacies.

On his own hook, Stankiewicz told the Journal, he plans to hire an outside consultant. But forget about bringing in someone from outside to help us figure out how to make sure the $3 million oopsie doesnt reoccur.

Never admit, never apologize

Roy Cohn and his protege in 1983 (Vanity Fair)
Many villains of history have used the principle never admit, never apologize.Roy Cohn, the guy who pretty much created Sen. Joe McCarthy and later mentored Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, is credited with making the line famous.

The CCA has, since its inception, never admitted fault or weakness, Why would they since they’ve never made a mistake? Whenever they have come close to getting nailed, as during the February 14 Council meeting, they fall back on distraction.

As they were being pummeled for the $3 million oopsie, several CCA diehards took the floor to argue, irrelevantly, but Charlestown has the lowest tax rate!”

Ah, so because we have a low tax rate, its OK to misplace a tenth of the budget for nearly two years.

While it is true that our RATE is low, thats only half the story. Our actual tax is the tax rate multiplied by our relatively high assessments. Our tax rate and assessments are made higher by a number of privileged exceptions that boost our taxes such as fake fire districts, wealthy people with conservation easements and others whose property is incorrectly zoned.

Our rate is also low because the town provides virtually none of the services that other municipalities take for granted. And finally, due to Planning Commissar Ruth Platners deliberate efforts to block any and all new affordable housing for families, our enrollment in the Chariho School system has dropped sharply and the costs associated with it as well.

Nothing justifies the CCA’s push to deliberately overtax every year to create a bloated surplus beyond what we need to cope with an emergency.

But never admit, never apologize” when you can distract and, in the end, can count on the loyal votes of your minions on the Town Council not to mention the public’s short attention span especially when it comes to complex and detailed issues..

Budget Commission chair Dick Sartor is intent on rebuilding the Unassigned Fund Balance to unprecedented heights no matter what it takes. He scorns anyone who fails to be awed by his wisdom at applying his own unique vision of municipal economics.

During the February 14 meeting, he droned on and on expressing his Alice through the Looking Glass view of Charlestown finance and sparring with Deb Carney, his long-time nemesis. My favorite moment in the whole on-line meeting came at two hours and twenty-two minutes when Council President Carney directed the town IT staffer to Please remove Mr. Sartor from the screen.”