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Sunday, June 14, 2020

Long-standing inequities still left in Charlestown’s tax system

Fake fire districts are one of the most outrageous rip-offs of them all
By Will Collette

Building Photo
The Quonnie Central Beach Fire District's 28 acre rec center,
assessed at $98,000. This is the photo the Charlestown Tax Assessor
posted in 2014, not the one being used today. See below, right for the
photo currently being used to depict this property
All of us who own property in Charlestown (homes, cars or land) will soon receive our new tax bills based on a lower tax rate, higher tax assessments and a town budget based on financial assumptions that no longer make sense.

I’m fine with paying taxes. I subscribe to late US Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ view that “taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.”

What I do expect is tax fairness – that people pay their fair share.

In Charlestown, our town is financed through the annual property tax where the bottom line is the assessed value of our property multiplied by the tax rate (called a "mill rate" in some jurisdictions).

The tax rate is the dollar amount we pay on every $1000 in property value assessment. A $10 rate on a $100,000 property will lead to a total tax bill of $1,000.

In the decade Charlestown has been under the control of the Charlestown Citizen Alliance (CCA Party), they have tried to increase tax bills every year, either by raising the tax rate or through higher assessments.

This year, we may see an actual drop in the tax rate BUT most of us saw large increases in our property assessments, unless you are among the chosen few, so we will pay MORE in taxes. Again. 

Those new assessments are based on the hypothetical housing market but NOT on the fact that, as of February, the country entered a new recession that may make the 2007 Great Recession seem mild by comparison.

That aside, when it comes to fairness, Charlestown tax policies allow a number of its prominent property holders to dodge paying their fair share of taxes.

Today, we’ll look at one of the most glaring examples of Charlestown tax-dodging.

Building Photo
At some point after my 2014 expose on fake fire districts, the Tax
Assessor's Office replaced the photo of the tennis court (above, left)
with this one of the shed that is barely visible in the background of the
tennis court photo. Which photo do YOU think is the more honest
representation of this property?
In 2014, Progressive Charlestown exposed one of Charlestown’s biggest tax rip-offs in the form of two so-called “Fire Districts” that have nothing to do with fighting fires: the Shady Harbor Fire District and the Quonochontaug Central Beach Fire District. 


These fake Fire Districts mainly provide services the rest of us have to pay for – and then some. 

They offer trash collection, plowing and street maintenance, beach, docking and recreational facilities for their privileged members.

Their “Fire" district tax – the equivalent of club or association fees other gated neighborhoods charge - is deductible from their state and federal income taxes, even though the value of property tax deductions changed after Trump’s infamous tax cut bill.

But the essential fact is these two “Fire” Districts don’t fight fires – they have no fire stations, fire trucks, fire-fighting equipment or volunteer fire fighters. It’s possible they may have a fire extinguisher on the patio next to the Quonnie Central Beach tennis courts. They’re more like beach clubs or ritzy residents’ associations.

Both “Fire” Districts hold a considerable amount of prime beach property.

Here are their holdings:
Screen shot from the Charlestown Tax Assessor's database
Screen shot from the Charlestown Tax Assessor's database
Building Photo
The Shady Harbor "Fire" District pays NO property tax on this
parking lot, beach and boat launch (Charlestown Tax Assessor photo)
Shady Harbor Fire District pays NO tax on its six properties because it was somehow able to secure non-profit status. 

Central Quonnie Fire District pays almost no tax because Charlestown gives it insanely low tax assessments on 10 pieces of prime property.

In fact, the total tax paid by the Quonochontaug Central Beach Fire District for last year was $4,722.98.

One of their prime holdings is a 27.97 acres plot on Ninigret Avenue zoned R3A. That land hold a tennis court with lights, a patio and a storage shed. There's mention of a ball field and playground on the District's website.

The current assessed value for this recreational complex (account #17-0061-00) is $98,000!

In 2014, when I first wrote about Charlestown’s fake Fire Districts, the Tax Assessor’s office had posted a nice snap of the tennis court (see above, top). But if you click on that account now, you only see the shed. Can’t imagine why they swapped pictures, though I have asked Tax Assessor Ken Swain to explain. 

CLICK here for the Charlestown Tax Payment database. CLICK here for Charlestown’s Tax Assessor database. Don't just take my word - do your own research, too.

Tale of two properties

Collette property: 2.5 acre wooded lot (photo by Will Collette)
Assessment: $156,700.
Here’s a more concrete way of looking at this problem.

Cathy and I own our home on a 2.5 acre lot on north side of Route 1 on the moraine. Our assessment for house and land went up by 12.5%. 

We also own an adjacent 2.5 acre vacant wooded lot zoned R3A. The assessment on that remained unchanged at $156,700.

The Quonochontaug Central Beach Fire District also owns a 2.5 acre vacant undeveloped lot (account #17-0061-00). It sits on Bay View Road just down the street from CCA leader and former Town Council President Tom Gentz. It is zoned R3A just like ours and is assessed for tax purposes at $24,100.

When I first wrote about this property in 2014, it was assessed at $23,200, while our lot was assessed at $142,000. Over the past six years, our vacant lot’s assessment went up by almost 10% while the Quoonie “Fire” District’s vacant lot assessment only rose by 3.7%.

Building Photo
Quonnie "fire" district 2.5 acre undeveloped lot. Assessed at $24,100
(Charlestown Tax Assessor)
Some might say I am comparing apples and oranges and, to an extent, I admit that comparing our 2.5 acre R3A vacant land on the moraine to 2.5 acre R3A vacant land in Quonnie does have a certain fruity essence given the dramatic difference in location.

I think most of us who chant the real estate mantra (“location, location, location”) would expect the Quonnie property to carry a much higher assessment. 

But in fact, our North of One lot is taxed 6.5 times higher than the “Fire” District’s land.

I had – and reported on – a long conversation I had with long-time Charlestown Tax Assessor Ken Swain in 2014 about the disparity in assessments and didn’t get an answer that made sense to me. Maybe I’m stupid – read my article HERE or the verbatim transcript of our dialogue HERE - and judge for yourself.

I’m not complaining about the $156,000 assessment on our 2.5 acre lot – I know buildable lots in Charlestown are valuable even in this new recession. But I do object to the bogus $24,100 assessment granted to the fake Fire District when a fair assessment, given its location, should be at least ten times higher.

I exposed this issue six years ago and the Charlestown Citizens Alliance-controlled town government did nothing to make these fake Fire Districts pay their fair share. Their 16 prime properties are worth millions of dollars more than their current assessed value.

Between them, the two fake fire districts pay less than $5,000 in Charlestown property tax. Because they do not pay their fair share, the burden is passed on to the rest of us.

The Charlestown and Dunn’s Corner Fire Districts also pay no Charlestown property tax, but they earn that tax-free status (and our gratitude) by working hard to protect us. Plus they have not abused their status by accumulating prime real estate unrelated to fire-fighting.

There are other ways that Charlestown residents can reduce their property taxes, some quite respectable and others not so much. We’ll take this on over the coming weeks.