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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wheel of Misfortune coming to Charlestown soon

Town Council approves development of new game show
By Will Collette

First, the news. By a vote of 5-0 on April 9, the Charlestown Town Council directed Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero to develop an ordinance for a new program to help severely, but not too severely, disadvantaged Charlestown homeowners get tax relief.

See for yourself, here. The program is called RHOTAP (the actual name is meaningless, as you’ll see), and it is designed to set up a competition where some miserable Charlestown homeowners will compete for “prizes” (tax breaks offset by town tax liens against their property) in front of a volunteer panel of five judges. To become a contestant, you must be in danger of losing your home to foreclosure.

The judges will determine whether the contestants are (a) truly needy – i.e., not lying, (b) truly deserving – i.e., not spendthrift deadbeats, and (c) likely to keep their homes if they get help. I swear I am not making any of this up.

So, who do we help and who do we tell to scram?
Now, there are easier ways for Charlestown to help homeowners in distress. One way would have been to enact the $1000 Homestead Tax Credit proposed by town Democrats. However, the council majority – Gentz, Slattery and DiBello – objected to this plan because it would have also helped some people who were not "truly needy" by a standard that will be revealed to us by Deputy Dan Slattery when we have a need to know.

The other way would be to boost the amount of funding the town gives to RI-CAN. RI-CAN Director Deb Nigrelli is already paid a stipend by the town to act as Town Public Assistance Director, and RI-CAN also receives direct town funding to help our friends and neighbors.

RI-CAN knows how to help people without stealing their respect, dignity – and privacy.

Increasing RI-CAN’s funding would have made a lot more sense, but it would not have been nearly so much fun as a game show.

RHOTAP was conceived by the Town Budget Commission with the able assistance of CCA’s Town Council Vice-President Deputy Dan Slattery. Slattery has already made it plain that he is deeply suspicious of anyone in Charlestown claiming to be a homeowner in distress, so RHOTAP makes good sense in Deputy Dan’s Bizarro World.

Nothing for you, kid, unless you show us your
brokerage statements and 1099s
Solicitor Ruggiero has been given the specs from the Budget Commission and Deputy Dan that call for the appointment of a five-volunteer panel of judges, plus the Tax Assessor and Town Treasurer.

Contestants must submit an essay explaining why their lives are screwed through no fault of their own and how getting up to $5000 knocked off their tax bills each year for up to three years will keep them from losing their homes.

They will be required to produce extensive financial documentation, plus give the town the authority to check their confidential financial records. They may also be required to appear in person to “demonstrate” and “convince” the panel of judges of the merits of their plea.

There is no mention in the RHOTAP proposal of any considerations for privacy and confidentiality. Distressed homeowners would have to apply to people who may very well be their neighbors, probably in a public setting where the likelihood is high that their financial problems will become public information.

Writing an essay and performing before a panel of judges will certainly cut down on the number of applicants. The lack of privacy will knock the numbers down even more.

Then there’s the RHOTAP Catch-22: to win, you must be bad off, but if your troubles are so serious that the $5000 won’t help you save your home, you lose.

If, after all of this, you make it through the RHOTAP process and win a tax break, there’s yet another catch. Whatever the amount of tax relief you win, the town will place a tax lien against your property in that amount.

With all of these crazy facets to RHOTAP, why not turn RHOTAP into an honest-to-god game show?

After all, just about every televised game show, with the possible exception of Jeopardy, favors narcissistic losers – the most sympathetic characters are those who have some sort of hard-luck story that they’re not bashful about telling to the whole world.

The entire game show industry relies on a steady stream of people who are willing to look ridiculous on television – sort of like the Town Council – so RHOTAP is a natural.

The RHOTAP Show could be scheduled before each regular Town Council meeting begins. That’s one way to get cable TV to start covering Council meetings again. Set it up with the judges in the Council member seats and have each contestant come to the podium and tell their tale of woe.

The judges can ask questions. Contestants’ financial records can be flashed onto a screen. The contestants can sing or dance or bring out their hungry kids, emaciated puppies (but not cats), whatever it takes to “demonstrate” and “convince” people of their need.

I think in the interest of “open and transparent government,” the final decision should not be left to the judges but rather to the audience. Let’s pick up an old “Queen for a Day” Applause-O-Meter (or rig one up) and let the sound level of the applause determine the winner.

There are lots of other models Solicitor Ruggiero can use to craft a program that meets the Council’s directive.

He is sure to please Councilor Lisa DiBello if he models RHOTAP on “The Price Is Right.”

Or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

There’s the “Deer Hunter” model, which is already becoming pretty popular on its own among desperate homeowners.

Or “Rollerball,” or “The Running Man.”

And of course, there’s this season’s hot new movie, “The Hunger Games,” which could be adapted for use in town.

Or maybe Peter Ruggiero will come back to the Town Council and tell them RHOTAP is just not a very good idea, especially when there are far better ways to help distressed Charlestown homeowners.

RHOTAP is designed to fail. It will compromise people’s privacy in ways that, frankly, I have never seen before. It will open the town up to lawsuits that the town will lose and lose big.

It is cruel. It is condescending. It is demeaning. It is pointless. It is phony. And it’s oh so Deputy Dan.