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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Short Council meeting

Council approves budget that will unnecessarily raise taxes
By Will Collette

By Charlestown standards, this meeting was done in a flash. It started half an hour late, as Councilors took more time than allotted for their secret Executive Session.

During that session, they conducted their first quarterly review of our new town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz. They also discussed the pending litigation on Sportsman Cove (an on-going saga) and what they referred to as “pending” litigation regarding the Whalerock industrial wind proposal. 

Calling the case “pending” is kind of odd, since Charlestown’s lawsuit was tossed out of court by RI Superior Court Judge Kristin Rodgers because Charlestown lacked the standing to bring suit.

They also discussed potential litigation against the notorious Copar quarry in Westerly on the Charlestown town line.

They did not report on anything they decided to do during that Executive Session when they emerged at 7:30 for the regular meeting which was scheduled to start at 7 PM.

With virtually no controversy, the Council then whipped through its agenda in an hour and 12 minutes, adjourning at 8:42 PM.

The most important matter at this Council meeting was approval of a final version of the town’s budget for Fiscal Year 2014 which starts July 1. That budget now goes to Charlestown voters for their final approval (or disapproval) on June 3rd, including what is, in my opinion, an ill-advised tax hike.

The original version of this budget called for an increase of 24 cents per $1000 of property value for no particular good reason. The town actually has around $4 million in excess surplus funds – i.e. the town collected WAY more money this year than it needed to cover all expenses and to set aside a 20% rainy day surplus.

Raising $4 million in excess cash on a total budget of $26 million means that Charlestown’s Fiscal 2013 taxes were about 15% too high which is in itself worth some explanation.

Rather than use that excess surplus money to offset 2014 taxes or even give taxpayers a rebate on their 2013 taxes, the Budget Commission and the Town Council approved spending that $4 million to pay cash for Klondike Road re-paving and to pay off the loan on the Police Station before it is due.

Good for long term savings of interest costs. Terrible for a town with unemployment at almost 11%, but the CCA Party which controls the majority of the Town Council doesn’t care about the unemployed or otherwise struggling working families.

But Town Council boss Tom Gentz (CCA) tried to put lipstick on the pig by noting that because the Chariho budget was defeated in April by voters in Hopkinton and Richmond, and the new budget comes in level with FY 2013 funding, Charlestown will save enough money on its Chariho school bill to shave eight cents off the unnecessary 24 cent property tax hike. So your taxes will go up by 16 cents unnecessarily, rather than 24 cents. Thank you, Uncle Fluffy.

The vote to approve the budget for presentation to the voters on June 3rd was 4 yes, 0 nos and an abstention without explanation by Councilor Lisa DiBello who has generally been abstaining on budget votes without saying why. I don't understand DiBello's reluctance to cast a vote - the budget is probably the most important matter the Council handles.

Other Council business:

Shellfish good, kelp bad.

One of our local aquaculture businesses, Walrus & Carpenter Oysters, wants to grow an added four more varieties of seafood to their permitted area: hard shell clams, bay oysters, razor clams and edible seaweed. 

The town's Coastal Pond Management Commission was fine with the hard shell clams and bay oysters, but opposed to the seaweed (they say there’s enough there already) and to the razor clams (since the applicant didn’t explain how they would be grown). 

The Council deferred to the Commission voting to partially support and partially oppose the application to the state Coastal Resources Management Council.

Town Council weighs in on a bunch of state legislation.

I know this will come as a shock to some, especially Council boss Tom Gentz, but the opinions of the Charlestown Town Council don’t matter a whole lot in the RI General Assembly. Even though we have first-class representation from Rep. Donna Walsh, Sen. Cathie Rumsey and Sen. Dennis Algiere, we are a very small town and, over recent years, we’ve developed a reputation for being, well, just a little strange. Subject for another day.

But nonetheless, our Council members feel they need to weigh in on the merits of various bills that have been introduced this year. Tonight they passed a number of resolutions that they will want sent to every city and town, member of the General Assembly, the media, and all the ships at sea.

These include:
  • Senate Bill 672 and Senate Bill 672A which would restrict town control over on-site wastewater management systems to be no more strict that the state regulations. The Council opposes this.
  • House Bill 5953 and Senate Bill 815 which would streamline permitting of wind turbines on farms  read here for more detail. Council boss Gentz had to gall to say that if a local farmer needs a small turbine, s/he can simply apply to get one under Charlestown’s wind turbine ordinance which makes it virtually impossible to get a turbine of any size approved. Don’t believe me? – click here. The Council opposes these two bills.
  • House Bill 5498 and Senate Bill 0337 which are bills to restore the Ethics Commission’s authority over the legislative actions of the General Assembly, a power that was stripped by a state Supreme Court decision. Rep. Donna Walsh has sponsored this legislation in the House for many years. The Council likes these bills.
The Council unanimously approved sending letters to everyone in the Western Hemisphere indicating its positions on these various bills. While I agree with the Council's position on each of these bills, I wish they'd be more strategic about what they choose to weigh in on. None of these bills seem likely to make much progress in this General Assembly session, although strange things do happen up there.

Friends of Ninigret ideas for fund-raising given green light

Deputy Dan - always on the lookout for evil doers
Activities for human beings in Ninigret Park always seem to cause controversy between the neighbors of the Park who would like to see human banished and people who would like to see Ninigret become the center for much of Charlestown’s social life. The Friends of Ninigret Park developed a flyer describing present and planned activities to be used to raise donations for the support of the Park.

This upbeat, volunteer-run initiative would seem to non-controversial, but true to form Councilor Dan Slattery, who has made it his mission to represent the Arnolda neighborhood above all others, never misses a chance to bloviate.

Slattery lectured Cheryl Dowdell who made the presentation on behalf of Friends of Ninigret on the controversy that arose last year. “Lots of people complained,” said Slattery, about the fund-raising efforts by Friends and the handling of the $23 (I’m not making this up) they collected.

By “lots of people,” Slattery meant Jim Mageau who seemed to be the only one, other than Slattery who looked askance those efforts. But Slattery applies his own multiplier, where “lots of people” often mean only one person. Click here for a prime example where that one person was CCA Party President Virginia Wooten.

Slattery reviewed in excruciating detail the stipulations laid out in last year’s Council resolution that closed out Slattery’s secret and unauthorized “investigation” of Friends of Ninigret Park. As if Cheryl needed to be reminded of that debacle that led me to nickname Slattery “Deputy Dan” for his penchant to go off on half-cocked adventures. Click here to read about some of Deputy Dan’s other posse runs.

After Slattery finished his lecture, he noted that the document Cheryl had submitted complied with that Council resolution, whereas an earlier draft did not.

Cheryl asked him “what draft?” and noted that the piece had gone through several drafts before it was finalized for Council approval.

“Er, ah,” said Deputy Dan.

In the end, the Council approved the Friends of Ninigret plan 5-0. Even Councilor DiBello voted yes.

Don’t Smoke at the Beach

Read about Joann Stolle's books of shingle samples HERE
By a unanimous vote, the Council accepted the first reading of Ordinance #357  that will ban smoking at town beaches allowing it to be advertised and put on the June 10th agenda for a public hearing and Council vote.

Even though the first reading is not a public hearing, former CCA-picked Planning Commissioner Joann Stolle, famous for instigating the “Blue Shingles” controversy (worth a read) decided to give testimony anyway. 

She asked a bunch of questions about enforcement, a potential designated smoking area, signage, etc. She actually came to the podium twice to press her points, even though Boss Gentz told her that this wasn’t the public hearing and that perhaps she should hold all these points until June.

I can’t tell you how much I miss Stolle’s presence on the Planning Commission. She made the unbearable almost bearable.
Quick Bites

Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz made the announcement that there is a “Tree Amnesty” in effect until June 14. You can bring tree and shrub debris left over from Nemo and Sandy to the Town Dump for free.

The Town Council voted to support the new Chariho budget which is coming up for a second attempt at gaining voter approval in the three towns, Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton, on Tuesday – probably while you’re reading this. If you are reading this on Tuesday between 8 AM and 8 PM, stop, and go over to Town Hall and vote yes for the budget. Please.

The Council gave final approval to two new town ordinances that provide tax relief for the permanently disabled and to low-income senior citizens. 

Ordinance #355 means that disabled residents who qualify for the town tax credit by showing proof they are permanently and totally disabled won’t have to come back every year to re-apply. 

Ordinance #356 adjusts the eligibility standards so that Social Security cost of living adjustments won’t knock seniors off the program for exceeding the limits by just a few dollars.

The Council unanimously approved a resolution that would allow Charlestown to join in group buying alliances, such as those set up by the state, that offer substantial savings through the strength of large group buying power. 

This sensible idea runs counter to the strong recommendation of last year’s CRACers (Charter Revision Advisory Committee) which wanted any and all alliances such as this to go through an exhaustive public hearing and decision-making process. Click here and read “Question 2” which, thankfully, was dropped as a formal Charter Revision Question, relegated to "recommendation" status.

So much for that recommendation.