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Sunday, May 3, 2015

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: New budget means yet another tax hike

May 4 hearing on upcoming special Financial election issues
CCA Party hopes to pull off a big Grab and a big Giveaway
Source: Charlestown Tax Assessor web page. The CCA took
over control in Charlestown in 2008 and raised taxes every
year. The new rate of $10.10 wil be the highest since 2004.
By Will Collette

Charlestown’s annual budget hearing will take place on Monday, May 4. On the agenda are four potential ballot items that Charlestown voters will face at the special financial election on Monday, June 1. The town financial meeting will be the premiere of former Charlestown Citizens Alliance treasurer Leo Mainelli as the Town Moderator and presiding officer.

The four issues that will be discussed for presentation to the voters are:

The town’s proposed budget. Although the Charlestown budget is $26,960,644, voters are actually only being asked to approve the $12,696,492 for town operations. The Chariho budget has already been approved. The budget would call for the 7th consecutive tax increase since the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) took control of the town in 2008.

Warrant Question #1 would authorize Charlestown to issue bonds of up to $2 million for the next time Planning Commissar Ruth Platner sees a piece of property she wants to buy for open space. 

Usually these bonds also mention recreation as well, even though Platner and her husband and Zoning Commissioner Cliff Vanover usually campaign against using open space/recreation bonds for recreation. This time, recreation is being completely excluded.

Here it is:

Warrant Question #2 would give the Town Council very broad – and very vague – power to give away the approximately 75 acres of moraine land which we paid $2.1 million to buy so that wind turbines could not be built on it. They want to prevent some hypothetical, presumably non-CCA majority Town Council from using the property sometime in the future for a use the CCA Party disapproves of in the present day.

Here it is:

Then there’s a Petition from an ad hoc group with former CDTC member Frank Glista as its unofficial spokesperson to seek voter approval for up to $1 million in bonding authority for improvements at Ninigret Park to finally start carrying out the ideas set out in the town-approved Ninigret Park Master Plan. Predictably, Commissar Platner hates this idea and wrote a letter to the Sun designed to fire up the Charlestown Citizens Alliance base in Arnolda.

Here is how the town is presenting the Petition:

When the CCA Party ran its slate of candidates in 2014, I predicted that if the CCA won again, we were virtually guaranteed yet another tax hike. And lo and behold, our taxes will go up – for no particular reason, except that they can. The tax rate – the amount we pay for each $1,000 of property valuation – will go up to a projected $10.10.

In 2008, when the CCA Party took over, our tax rate was $7.16. Raising the rate to $10.10 means a 41% increase since the CCA Party took over. The actual amount of taxes the town will collect under this budget will increase by $534,124 over last year even though the proposed costs under this budget only increase by $474,499.

The Budget Commission transmittal letter to the Town Council does not explain why they want more taxes than what's needed to cover the increase in the budget. But hey, the CCA Party controls the Budget Commission as well as the Council, so they can pretty well do whatever they want.

The Budget Commission continues to beat the drum about Charlestown having one of the lowest tax rates in Rhode Island, which is only true to the extent that we offer practically none of the services other municipalities offer. Even fire protection is handled separately through property taxes levied by the Fire Districts. It also depends on how you make the comparisons.

They can’t blame Chariho for the rise in taxes this year. In fact, Chariho cut Charlestown’s cost for educating its children by 0.61%. The school district did this by dipping into its own contingency funds, not wanting to repeat last year’s experience where their budget was rejected three times, forcing them to operate on the budget from the year before.

But even though the school district managed to appease the anti-public education ignoramuses, they incurred the wrath of Charlestown’s budget Taliban, who condemned Chariho’s use of contingency funds to get a budget that voters would approve, calling it “unsustainable” (yeah, no shit) and recommending that Charlestown salt away $250,000 just in case something happens as a result.

Chariho did what it had to do to get its budget approved by the voters. The trouble with Chariho is typical of the trouble with public education everywhere – we expect excellence in our schools but we don’t want to pay for it. Plus, we have a sizable contingent of voters, largely CCA people, who are elderly and retired and don’t want to pay to educate other people’s kids.

The proposed budget calls for an increase in capital expenditures of 8.4%. I’m all for maintaining and modernizing our infrastructure, but I am really sick and tired of the CCA Party’s insistence that we handle needed capital improvements by paying cash each year, instead of using low-interest financing the way normal communities and normal people pay for major projects.

Each year, the Charlestown Budget Taliban lists capital projects that will be paid for out of town operating funds, saying that will save the taxpayers money in the long-run by cutting interest costs. This is true, to an extent. However, we’ve been hearing the same thing for the past seven years. 

When the Hell are we going to see those savings they promise us every year?

One thing to think about as we face another budget cycle: why is that the CCA Party’s base doesn’t squawk about the non-stop tax hikes, when in 2011 they went nuts over a town Democratic proposal to give residents a Homestead property tax credit?

The reasons: first and perhaps foremost is that the CCA Party base doesn’t live in Charlestown. Charlestown's absentee property owners vote through their checkbooks, providing the CCA Party with 60% of its funding. 

Second, many of those who do live here have already gamed the system to lower their own taxes, whether it’s through tax breaks like the FFOS program or the use of fake fire districts to lower their state income tax. So the CCA's annual tax hike doesn't bother them since they are already getting their deals.

Next, we’ll discuss the Grab and then the Giveaway, the two CCA-promoted Warrant Questions. 

The Grab

The Grab is the proposed $2 million recharge for Ruth Platner’s open space Platinum Card. 

Charlestown spent every nickel of available bonding authority from former open space/recreation bond issues to buy the Whalerock land - for $2.14 million in 2013, with about $50,000 going to the private lawyer the town hired largely to represent anonymous private citizens living next to the proposed site.

Over 50% of Charlestown's total land area is already locked up, either as open space owned by local, state or federal government, non-profits and some businesses, or is private land that either carries a conservation easement or gets a tax break under the FFOS (Farms, Forest and Open Space) program.

Since the time Charlestown Tax Assessor Ken Swain gave that 50% plus estimate, we have added more acreage to the open space stock, such as the almost 80 acres of Whalerock land and 271 acres at the former United Nuclear plant which was designated a “Planned Development District” under the town’s Comprehensive Plan.

Then there’s all the property owned by Charlestown’s two fake Fire Districts (districts that have nothing to do with fighting fires but which are actually civic associations in disguise for the tax breaks) – Central Quonochontaug and Shady Harbor – which either pay no taxes or pay based on ridiculously low assessments.

Some properties appear to be misclassified – either they should be open space but are classified as something else, or are zoned as open space but are really not open space. That problem was identified in July 2012 and was supposed to be addressed by the Planning Commission and Town Council. It was never publicly mentioned again.

As much as I love our town’s open space, can we afford to take more property off the books? Ruth Platner makes the ridiculous argument, as her husband Cliff Vanover has in the past, that more open space equals lower taxes. 

In her Westerly Sun letter, she says that Block Island, Jamestown and Charlestown have low tax rates and also have a lot of open space. Ipso facto abracadabra, open space = tax savings.

For a person who claims scientific expertise, as Platner does, she is attempting a classic academic fraud of trying to pass off correlation as causation.

Besides open space, some other things Charlestown, Jamestown and Block Island have in common are lots of ocean front and high-end vacation property and negligible municipal services. These factors provide a much more plausible basis for comparatively lower tax rates, a claim that is, incidentally, disputed by calculations done by GoLocalProv.

That’s not to say that open space has no value. It does. Green space does add value to a degree. But do those increases to valuation offset the reductions to the tax base when we take properties off the tax rolls by setting them aside as open space? When we paid Larry LeBlanc $2.14 million for the 75 Whalerock acres, we essentially reduced the town’s tax base by $2 million. 

By Platner's reasoning, the values for the homes of Mike Chambers and Ron Areglado and the other anti-wind NIMBYs should have gone up by at least $2 million after the Whalerock land deal. By Platner's reasoning, Charlestown taxes should have gone down every year since she's been running Planning, rather than going up every year.

I haven’t decided yet whether I will vote for the Open Space bond. Despite it all, I really do love our open space. I just don’t know if Charlestown can afford to buy any more of it.

The Giveaway

After all the back-door sleazy deals that led to the town’s purchase of the Whalerock land, Town Council Boss Tom Gentz and his CCA cronies couldn't let it go at that. In addition to paying off Ron Areglado’s anti-wind cult by buying the land, they are also trying to engineer a big giveaway to another favored CCA Party constituency, the Charlestown Land Trust.

As some of you may recall, Gentz and Platner tried  using sleazy politics and backroom deals to engineer the purchase of the old abandoned Westerly YMCA campground on Watchaug Pond. 

Without voter approval.

But public outrage over this rip-off blocked the deal and denied the Charlestown Land Trust what would have been the biggest score in its history.

Now they’re back with this new scheme to give the Land Trust – or maybe DEM – effective control of the Whalerock property. The actual resolution behind the Warrant Question is grossly vague about who might get control and what exactly we would be giving away. 

Simply based on the faulty language of the resolution behind this question, I smell another attempt by the CCA Party to use your tax dollars to benefit their political supporters.

Remember – YOU PAID FOR IT! It was our tax dollars that funded the purchase of the Whalerock land (although we didn’t get to vote on it at the time. This is why the CCA wants the $2 million open space bond, so they can spend our money without having to go through all the aggravation of getting our permission first.).

I cannot see giving any rights to that land to a private group like the Charlestown Land Trust, especially when we learned during the Y-Gate Scandal that public access to most of their properties in Charlestown is severely restricted.

One issue Platner, Gentz and the CCA Party conveniently ignore in promoting their giveaway scheme is that if, by some remote possibility, some future Town Council decides to use the former Whalerock Charlestown Moraine Preserve for some other purpose than open space, they would need voter approval

There really is no point to Warrant Question #2 other than to set up a big score for CCA Party supporters. In my opinion, this is another scam in some respects similar to the Y-Gate Scandal.

How about a little for Recreation?

Finally, there is the add-on item, the Petition to place a $1 million bond question before the voters for recreation, and specifically to carry out the long-stalled Ninigret Park Master Plan. The proponents of this proposal told the Westerly Sun they want to see long-needed repairs and improvements done to Ninigret Park and also major projects, such as the much-delayed launch of the arts and entertainment and sports venues.

I’m sure that at some point, the CCA Party with the urging of the Arnoldians, who live next to Ninigret, will decide to directly take on the Ninigret Master Plan and get it tossed out in favor of giving the land to Charlie Vandemoer and the National Wildlife Refuge.

Let's not forget that they tried this in 2012.

I’m sure that the group promoting this ballot proposal will make their own case for why approving $1 million for recreational improvements at Ninigret is a good idea. To me, it’s a good idea on the face of it, giving that the majority of Charlestown residents are not cranky old retirees but working families with children. But you can see a preview of the attacks that the CCA will make against this item in Ruth Platner’s Sun Letter to the Editor.

The budget meeting is Monday, May 4 at Town Hall starting at 7 PM. Voters will have the final say on Monday, June 1 at the special election on the budget and the other questions.