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Sunday, May 1, 2022

Budget Hearing Day is a CCA Holy Day

Tonight, watch the spectacle

By Will Collette

It’s like how Good Friday is to Easter. At the Charlestown Town Council meeting tonight, there will be a “hearing” on the CCA’s proposed $15 million budget for town operations before it's sent on for a town vote on June 6.

The other half of Charlestown’s budget is the budget for the Chariho School system. That comes up for a separate vote in all three Chariho towns on Thursday, May 5. This is Chariho’s second try – their first budget was rejected by the voters.

But in tonight’s ritual, the town budget will be rolled out on golden scrolls and great fanfare. The CCA faithful will line up for their turn to give Budget Commission chair Dick Sartor a big smooch on the butt. Then they will go to the microphone to sing his praises for his virtue and wisdom in producing yet another budget that will be touted as the finest piece of work since Hammurabi’s Code.

With a 3-2 CCA majority on the Council, this is all for show. No matter what is in this budget, the three CCA Council members – Bonnie Van Slyke, Susan Cooper and super-scout Cody Clarkin – will follow the orders issued to them by the CCA’s secret Council of Elders.

The budget could call for taxpayer-funded fruit baskets for every resident of Arnolda and Quonnie and Van Slyke, Cooper and Clarkin would vote for it.

No CCA person will dare mention the $3 million “oopsie” revealed last January where, for over a year, the Budget Commission had $3 million less in the town’s unassigned fund balance – that’s about 20% of the town’s operating budget – and went ahead and spent money they didn’t have.

There won’t be any talk about how the “oopsie” and the $2,981,945 expenditure means we have much less in our surplus reserve than the $10 million Dick Sartor used to claim was an existential necessity.

But don’t worry – we have lots of other hidden pots of cash that create the illusion that our finances are under control, mainly because the tax rate remains flat. But that’s an illusion because of three “"Transfers In" to the General Fund for $880,000.

Though they are given as “revenue sources,” they are not recurring sources and not associated with the town's unassigned fund balance. Two are from construction projects and one is a one-time federal grant: Burdickville Road $438,000 and Communications Tower $31,000 plus the budget’s use of $410,617 in American Rescue Plan (ARPA) when we just hired two consultants – including Congressional candidate Allan Fung – to help the town draw up a plan to spend the $2.3 million ARPA grant.

Yeah, that's right - $250 an hour
You won't hear anyone question why we are spending big bucks on consultants – almost $60,000 to one contractor and an open-ended contract to Fung who will bill at $250 an hour – when obviously Dick Sartor will spend the money however he pleases. He only listens to consultants when they tell him what he wants to hear (or thinks he hears).

You will hear a lot of hosannas to Sartor for maintaining our tax rate at $8.18 per $1000 in assessed value, continuing the long streak of having one of the lowest tax rates in the state while conveniently failing to mention that we pay separately for services normally provided in other municipalities.

That is, unless you live in one of Charlestown’s fake fire districts where the amenities abound.

Those "Transfers In" discussed earlier allow the sleight of hand in keeping the tax rate the same. Next year, having pulled this election year manuever, we won't have that $880,000 to prop up town revenues and will surely need to raise taxes again. But I guarantee you the CCA won't want to talk about that.

Most of all, no one will mention that, in fact, this budget calls for an additional $859,791 in tax collections.

That’s an actual tax hike of 3.73%. Since this budget calls for no change in the tax rate, the only way to get that amount of additional tax money is through higher assessments. Bear in mind that increased tax collections is another way of saying more taxes.

And by the way, our actual tax rate will not be finalized until Tax Assessor Ken Swain has worked out all the numbers and tax bills get printed and sent in early July. The rate you see in the Sartor budget is often not what you get in your actual tax bill.

The myth of brilliant financial management has been sustained by Sartor and the CCA over the years by pulling in cash from outside the General Fund to cover town operating expenses. In 2019, it was $845,000. This year, it’s $880,000.

Town Council President Deb Carney has pointed out that these caches of cash really belong in the General Fund and not held over to create budget illusions. She even proposed a detailed plan to do just that, but Sartor and the CCA Council majority would not even consider it.

Why? Because it serves the CCA’s political ends to have these slush funds available to use, especially during an election year, to throw up some blue smoke and mirrors.

At the end of the magic show, the Council will vote to approve this vintage CCA Budget, all dressed up in its Sartorial splendor, and send it on to Charlestown payers for a vote on June 6.

The CCA doesn’t control this part of the process and taxpayers could, not for the first time, get it into their heads that they’re not buying what Sartor and the CCA are selling.