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Tuesday, June 4, 2019

CCA scam loses big at the polls

Charlestown taxpayers foil grand larceny attempt
By Will Collette

Related imageAn unusually large number of voters (1004 which is 15% of those registered) turned out for the special Town Financial Referendum on Monday. 

They voted by a resounding margin against the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) budget plan that contained a $3 million line item for a “community center” the town doesn’t need. 

They had no plans, no designs, no budget for the “center” but they did have a likely location for it (see below).

The final vote tally was 739 NO to only 265 yes. The CCA apparently couldn’t even motivate its own base to support this project.

This all began when the town realized it had more than $3 million in surplus funds this year, so the question was what to do with it.

Of the many choices available, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance supermajority on the Town Council decided to encumber the funds by creating the “community center” line item, to use for the center or some future, unexplained use.

A community center is certainly not what we need, since we already have a very nice one that is, in fact, under-used.

Bonnie Van Slyke, the CCA Town Council member representing the Arnolda neighborhood gave the game away on the eve of the election.

She admitted what had only been speculation – that the half-baked “community center” idea was not just to hang on to the $3 million, but to tie up a patch of land in Ninigret Park designated as the site of an entertainment venue in the 2008 Ninigret Park Master Plan which is still the only plan the town has.

Arnolda folks HATE the use of Ninigret Park for any activities louder than a whisper. This scheme served the two-fold purpose of tying up the money and monkey-wrenching the Park’s Master Plan.

This latest scheme is just the latest of a long string of CCA scams. The CCA is a special interest group funded by wealthy non-resident property owners. For those of you who are new in town or have short memories, I've listed below several other schemes where the CCA tried to use town money and resources to benefit their campaign supporters.  

Before we do a history review, the most immediate concern after this referendum is what should go into a revised budget. Personally, I think the most logical way to deal with the $3 million is to give it back to the taxpayers.

I favor two approaches. First, Charlestown should try out the homestead tax credit, an idea CCA and its non-resident supporters trashed in 2011. Simply put, people who make Charlestown their home should get a credit on their property tax bills. 

To keep it simple, let’s peg the credit at $1,000.

Census data puts the number of owner-occupied homes in Charlestown at 2,904 so that fits nicely into the $3 million plus we have available with enough to spare for another good way to use the money.

That would be to create a new property tax credit for volunteer firefighters. Such a tax break would make it easier to recruit new volunteers and also serve as an appreciation to those good people who rush to our aid at their peril.

When the CCA trashed the Homestead Tax Credit proposal, they argued it would unduly burden our vacation home owners (snort) and would be inherently unfair.

The current $3 million, if refunded to full-time residents, would serve as a trial run for the Homestead Credit without raising the taxes of those poor Quonnie cottage owners by one nickel.

The Homestead Tax Credit concept is actually pretty widespread. Among the latest to adopt it is the town of Narragansett where nearly every full-time resident in town signed up. There were no “riots of the rich” or financial meltdowns as a result. 

The CCA claim that a Homestead tax credit is “unfair” is also laughable. Charlestown ALREADY grants tax breaks to veterans, low-income seniors, the disabled and blind, clergy, non-profits and owners of conservation property.

Arguably, if you are not a member of any of those groups, YOU are being treated unfairly - except that tax policy is also social policy. It is the way we identify what we care about such as the people and their properties favored by Charlestown’s tax policies.

Tax policy is also used to steer people where we want them to go. For example, Charlestown’s successful Solarize Charlestown program owes much of its success to the federal tax credit attached to green energy. Fear that Trump and the Republican Congress would abolish this tax green motivated many Charlestown residents – including Cathy and me – to install solar panels. At some point, Charlestown should consider a tax credit for households and businesses with green energy installations.

These are positive approaches for the use of that $3 million surplus as the budget goes back to the drawing board.

For now, we are safe from yet another boondoggle like the following.

Walking down Memory Lane

Faith’s Folly.” The town built a 1.3 mile long new asphalt bike path in Ninigret Park in 2017 to placate CCA matriarch Faith LaBossiere. Faith and her committee presented the proposal to the Town Council assuring the Council the bike path would cost no more than $7,000. The actual cost was $270,000 plus interest. 

It ate up a chunk of a million-dollar Recreation bond that was approved by the voters (though not for a bike path). The bike path was re-branded as “multi-use.” Unfortunately “Faith’s Folly” lacks multi-users.

“Y-Gate.” In 2012, the Westerly YMCA owned a dilapidated old campground filled with decaying structures, rubble and old cesspools on Watchaug Pond. The abandoned property was used as an extension of the backyards of the summer vacation homes in the Sonquipaug neighborhood. 

When a developer proposed buying the property for a small eco-friendly development, the CCA went nuts. They decided the menace of this eco-friendly development had to be stopped by using Charlestown taxpayer money to essentially buy the land for the Charlestown Land Trust. The price: $475,000. After a prolonged public battle, the people prevailed and Y-Gate was killed.

“Whalerock, Part II.” There was widespread opposition to the construction of two very large wind turbines on a large patch of the Charlestown moraine on the north side of Route One. After a long, expensive and complicated process, the town finally settled on its last practical option: spending $2.14 million to buy 75 acres, kill the wind energy proposal and add to our large stock of open space.

In 2015, not satisfied with that elegant solution, the CCA Sachem Passage faction decided that future Town Councils could not be trusted to maintain the land. Thus, they pushed the Town Council to deed the property to the Charlestown Land Trust. For many taxpayers who grudgingly agreed to buy the property, this was a step too far, and this proposal was defeated in a referendum.

“Who Owns Ninigret Park?” In yet another complicated special interest scheme, the CCA tried unsuccessfully to get the federal government to take over town-owned Ninigret Park and absorb it into the Ninigret National Wildlife. Charlestown bought 52 acres for $279,000 and the federal government deeded over another 173 acres.

The CCA created a townwide furor, claiming that several ideas for use of town land would provoke the federal government to take the land, an idea many in the CCA thought was actually a good idea.

The problem was this "crisis" was imaginary, driven by CCA factions from Arnolda and Sachem Passage who opposed anything like a wind turbine or lighted sports field from being built in Ninigret Park. This Trumpian-style fake crisis raged from 2011 into 2012. It took the visit by the Interior Department’s regional land chief to stem the hysteria by establishing that Charlestown owns Ninigret Park and the feds weren't going to take it back, but the fight created very deep wounds.

Most of Charlestown’s controversies are over land, its ownership and its uses. Add taxpayer money and you have an explosive mix.

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance is used to winning. Ever since they turned Jim Mageau out of office in 2008, the CCA has run Charlestown like a political machine, doling out spoils to their friends and supporters and punishment to their opponents. If you don't pay, you don't play.

They use their huge out-of-state donor base to finance slick public relations aimed at convincing the public they represent everyone, when their actions show they only represent the privileged few.

But every now and then, they push it too far. This $3 million attempted grand larceny is just the latest example of how you can only push people so far before they push back.