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Monday, November 5, 2012

Are you better off in Charlestown now than you were four years ago?

If you're a rich nonresident, then sure. If you're the average Charlestown resident, nope.
Connie Baker, CCA candidate for Planning Commission, says that the 
solution to affordable housing is for people to save up enough money 
to buy a market-rate house. Otherwise, get out and stay out.
By Will Collette

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA), which has controlled Charlestown’s town government for the past four years, is a political action committee (PAC), but it functions like a political party.

The CCA is more like today’s Republican Party than the actual Charlestown Republican Town Committee. In many ways, the CCA resembles the Tea Party, but with the twist that they are more concerned about the rights of people who are not Charlestown citizens than the rights of those who make their homes here.

In the past two years, the CCA has dropped all pretenses to being the populist uprising it was in 2007 against the abuse of power. After undergoing several traumatic changes, the CCA is now out of the closet as Charlestown’s party of the rich and privileged. Now, they are the Power.

Its two Town Council members, Tom Gentz and Dan Slattery, control the Council whenever Lisa DiBello shows up since they can usually count on her vote. The town Planning Commission is comprised entirely of hand-picked CCA Commissioners and is led by one of CCA’s founders, Ruth Platner, who has served on the Planning Commission for the past 16 years and wants to be re-elected to serve 22 years.

Based on its track record, the CCA believes Charlestown should become a small enclave for wealthy retirees from out of state.

They hate families with children. They don’t believe in the Chariho school system. They don’t want affordable housing, not for seniors who need to downsize or for families, including those new families being started by sons and daughters of longtime residents.

Their top priority is diverting town money to buy open space, even when it’s not really open space.

They think tax breaks for wealthy nonresidents are just fine. So are tax breaks for the recreational businesses that serve those rich part-time residents, such as the Shelter Harbor Golf Club and Quonnie Yacht Club and Beach Association.

But no tax breaks for struggling middle-class families.

No affordable housing. Not for the elderly. Not for families with children.

If you run or want to start a small business in Charlestown, fuggedaboudit!

Ask Craig Marr (Breachway Grill), Rob Lyons (Ocean House Marina) or the women with those small shops in the small plaza near the junction of Routes One and Two what it’s like to try to do business in Charlestown and how much the CCA cares about their ability to eke out a living.

Let’s go back over some of the CCA-controlled government’s “greatest hits.” By the way, the CCA has never answered the questions we’ve posed or issues we’ve raised, other than to condemn us as lacking “civility” for bringing these issues up and “naming names.”

Anti-Family, Anti-Elderly Affordable Housing Policy

There’s the ongoing crusade by Platner and Gentz to destroy the state affordable housing law. Boss Gentz has announced his intentions to begin the push again to gut state law on affordable housing or to exempt Charlestown from obeying the law.

Gentz just can’t get over the idea that there are people in town who need affordable housing. He believes we can solve the problem of affordable housing simply by classifying all those homes whose assessed values have dropped below $220,000 as “affordable.” We won’t do anything for those homeowners except give them a label that I’m sure will change their lives.

At the very least, we should give those newly designated “affordable” homes a plaque they can mount on the front of their houses so they can show their civic pride.

His whole CCA team supports this, but aspiring CCA Town Council candidate George Tremblay has been working extra-hard to find (or concoct) data to support the CCA’s anti-family housing policies.

And Planning Commissar Ruth Platner even went so far as to create and publish a ridiculous mathematical formula aimed at showing that school-age children are parasites.

I’m not making this up. Click here to see it for yourself.

Anti-family tax policy

Then there was the December 12, 2011, Town Council meeting when they embraced wealthy Charlestown landowners, especially those from out of state, and denied the $1000 Homestead Tax Credit for full-time residents proposed by the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee.

They not only turned down the concept, they spit on it with scorn and contempt for even the idea that we should raise taxes on the rich to give some relief to struggling families.

At the same time the CCA Councilors were heaping scorn on a middle-class tax break, CCA Planning Commission chair Ruth Platner and CCA Council Boss Tom Gentz were hustling a deal to spend a million taxpayer dollars to buy the busted-out YMCA camp on Watchaug Pond. This terrible deal for taxpayers is actually a gift to the YMCA, who would have gotten $700,000 for land that cost them NOTHING and is worth far less than $700,000 (much, much less as it turned out).

Fortunately, this deal was stalled in its tracks when Dr. Jack Donoghue sued to block it, citing the Council majority’s violations of the Open Meetings Act and the conduct of the secret committee the Council set up to broker the deal. The deal is now dead, but remember this: at the same time that the CCA Council majority was attacking tax breaks for middle-class homeowners, it was working on this heist of taxpayer dollars.

The same DAY that the Council majority voted to spend $475,000 on the Y-Gate deal, Town Council Boss Tom Gentz made a spectacle of himself browbeating Chariho School Superintendent Barry Ricci, demanding that Ricci cut Charlestown’s share of the cost of the school system by almost the same amount that Gentz wanted to give to the well-endowed Westerly YMCA and Charlestown Land Trust as a gift.

All of these actions reflect a set of values and priorities that favor the rich, especially those from out of state, over everyone else.

One of the hallmarks of the CCA’s tightening grip on Charlestown civic life is their interest in imposing their own arbitrary standards of worthiness on people and projects, a “means test” that deserves to be called the “CCA Mean Test.”

Planning Commissar Ruth Platner started it some time ago when she began to present her own skewed economic analysis of the worthiness of new housing developments, especially affordable housing. Her one criterion was the potential for such proposals to attract families with children because each child represents what she seems to consider a terrible cost on the community.

This anti-child formula, as noted above, is now the CCA's official policy

Her crusade against children included pushing for the Washington County Regional Planning Commission to reduce the number of two-bedroom units that will go into the popular Shannock Village affordable housing development to further reduce the attraction for families with children.

Deputy Dan Slattery and the "Truly Needy"

Town Council Vice-President Dan Slattery has now taken the concept of the CCA Mean Test even further by proclaiming that only the “truly needy” in Charlestown should receive tax assistance – and he will be the judge of who is “truly needy.”

At the January 9 Town Council meeting, in a discussion that was a follow-up to the December “riot of the rich” against the Homestead Tax Credit, Slattery insisted that any further tax relief only occur after the town has thoroughly examined who is currently getting tax exemptions and whether they deserve them. Then the town would review the tax delinquency lists to find out why people couldn’t pay their taxes. As Slattery put it, “some of these people could be earning $80,000 and maxing out on their credit cards.”

He wanted this study to be conducted by a select group of town staff and the Budget Commission in a task force that would investigate whether there really are any “truly needy” people in Charlestown. Of course, Slattery himself would lead this task force. Unfortunately for Slattery, but luckily for the town, only his cohort Boss Gentz supported his proposal for this investigation.

Slattery then teamed up with his pal, former Town Administrator and now Budget Commission chair Richard Sartor, to present an even worse proposal: RHOTAP.

This is a plan that would have families in danger of losing their homes apply for tax relief. That idea might have been OK, but the devil is in the details. The family would have to write an essay explaining why they had this need, why it wasn’t their fault and how tax relief might help them keep their home. If they were in too deep, too bad, no help. If they aren’t deemed "truly needy" by a volunteer panel of their neighbors, presumably selected by Slattery, too bad – move to Westerly.

RHOTAP even provided for applicants to have to appear before this panel to tell their stories of woe. There were no provisions for confidentiality or even for people to retain a shred of dignity under the Slattery/Sartor RHOTAP scheme.

The irony is that only people incredibly desperate would be likely applicants, and under the RHOTAP plan laid out by Slattery and Sartor, they would probably be disqualified because a tax break would be too little, too late to save their homes.

If you think I’m joking and just making this up, click here to read the Slattery-Sartor RHOTAP scheme.

RHOTAP was referred to Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero for further study, meaning that Peter probably buried it in a jar deep in the brush at Great Swamp where, hopefully, it will never be heard of or seen again.

How can Slattery, Gentz and the rest of this CCA bunch sleep at night? Have they no decency?

The funny thing about these actions by Platner, Slattery, Tremblay, Baker and Gentz is that I doubt they think there’s anything wrong with what they’re doing. In fact, I am certain they believe they are engaged in a noble effort, although to others, it seems a lot like economic cleansing. It’s just that their concept of right and wrong makes it OK to think children are a liability, that hardworking homeowners don’t deserve a break unless they beg for it, or that you can fix problems simply by redefining them.

And that’s also what makes civic life in Charlestown so hard. We do not live in the same reality. We do not speak the same language.

Despite the exhortation of the Declaration of Independence that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

In Charlestown, you have to add the caveat to those ringing words “It depends on whether the CCA thinks you are worthy.”