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Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Charlestown, we have a budget

It’s an election year budget

By Will Collette

On June 6, Charlestown voters will have their say about the proposed 2022-23 budget.

This is an election year and the CCA wants to hold on to its Town Council majority as it has for over a decade. 

Between Planning Commissar Ruth Platner’s shady land deals and the $3 million oopsie, this budget has become a political statement that the CCA hopes will get voters to forget their financial escapades over recent years, including their record of raising taxes. This year, the tax increase is disguised.

After months of defensiveness, the Budget Commission has come forward with a $28,939,953 total budget that they say is around $1.3 million less than last year.

You may recall that last January, the Budget Commission was told by town auditors that a string of errors stretching over more than a year led to the $3 million oopsie. In plain terms, the Budget Commission discovered it had $3 million less in its unassigned fund balance than it thought and spent mainly to try to prevent a hike in the tax rate.

The town, and particularly the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) prefer to call the oopsie a mis-assignment, misallocation, or some other “mis” word (misdirection comes to mind), any term other than a MISTAKE.

Throughout the long reign of the CCA, we’ve come to learn the CCA never makes a mistake, or at least will never admit to one. Not only does the CCA seem incapable of admitting error, but they will go on the attack against anyone who points out their mistakes.

The $1.3 million reduction in the proposed budget should actually be a million dollars higher because three one-time expenses in the current year’s budget are not in the proposed budget: the Old Mill Road project at $1.8 million, OPEB healthcare at $285,000 and an extra pension contribution of $230,000.

Allan Fung, who is happy to take our money
Those items total $2,315,000, not $1.3 million, begging the question “where did that $1 million go?” Bad arithmetic? Another oopsie? Did it get dropped into one of Charlestown’s mysterious budget black holes? Or is it simply another one of those mistakes the CCA will never admit it made.

The Budget Commission also threw in $410,617 of one-time new funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), even though we just hired two consultants, one being Republican Second Congressional District candidate Allan Fung, to help us figure out how to properly spend the money.

But why should that concern deter the Budget Commission from spending the money anyway? Hey, they only listen to consultants who tell them what they want to hear as they did when they came up with a new Unassigned Fund Balance policy.

Plus, they are apparently violating their own new fund balance policy by using one-time funds – the ARPA money – to pay for annual operating expenses.

One budget surprise is the lack of any apparent effort in the proposed budget to re-build the unassigned fund balance that was $3 million less than the Budget Commission thought it was. Their new fund balance policy anticipates building up the surplus to $10 million which would have required a whopping tax hike.

But nope, it’s not there and I’ll bet Budget Commission chair Dick Sartor is eating his shorts over the political choice to not try to rebuild the Unassigned Fund Balance.

The proposed budget presumes a $369,662 payment increase for the Chariho School system. About half of Charlestown’s total budget is spent on Chariho.

However, Chariho’s budget was rejected by a majority of voters in Charlestown, Hopkinton and Richmond earlier this month.

Chariho is putting a new reduced budget before the voters on May 4. We don’t know yet what effect that will have on the $370 thousand increase assumed in our proposed budget.

Even though the proposed budget anticipates an increase in departmental expenditures of around $200,000, it expects to make up for it by cutting $1.4 million in capital expenditures (hopefully by ending Ruth Platner’s open space buying spree, but I’m not holding my breath).

They also expect to collect an additional $859,791 in taxes even though they call for holding the tax rate (a.k.a. the mil rate) at $8.18 per thousand. The only way to increase tax collections by a projected 3.73% is through higher tax assessments. No matter how you parse it, this is a major tax increase.

Charlestown’s tax base

Right now, the Budget Commission estimates that all the taxable property in Charlestown is worth almost $3 billion. The exact total of our “Grand List” is $2,887,328,019. About 60% of that is south of Route 1, at least as long as that land stays above water.

This is the real underpinning for the town’s finances. The pandemic brought an influx of rich people from out of state who bought property in town and drove up property values. That’s not going to last especially as the impact of the climate crisis sets in.

I asked town GIS Specialist and map-maker Steve McCandless if this map
included the property owned by the fake fire districts. He replied that he couldn't
answer that question before running it up the chain of command.
I'm not holding my breath.
More than half of the property in Charlestown simply doesn’t get taxed. Every time Ruth Platner buys another major parcel of land to set aside as open space, she takes taxable property off the tax base.

There is another shady deal in the works for the town to buy another over-priced parcel for at least $800,000 (CLICK HERE for details). Not only will that land cost a lot of money, it will remove $312,800, its current assessed value, from the tax base.

Platner has done several deals like this in the past few years that cost money to buy and reduce our tax base. And she and her husband Cliff Vanover claim – without evidence – that this actually boosts the tax base.

We also lose tax base dollars for the property owned by Charlestown’s two fake fire districts – Shady Harbor and Central Quonnie. Shady Harbor’s real estate holdings are tax exempt and Central Quonnie’s are assessed at ridiculously low amounts. CLICK HERE for more details.

We lose tax base dollars on properties that are improperly zoned. Our former town Planner Ashley Hahn raised this issue years ago and Commissar Platner promised to fix it, but never did. CLICK HERE for details.

We don’t tax properties owned by the town, the state, the federal government, most non-profits, and churches. We give tax discounts to veterans, the disabled, low-income elderly, and the blind. Lots of land is tax-favored when the owners grant conservation easements or take part in the Farm, Forest and Open Space program.

These latter tax policies are reflections of town values to honor veterans, help people who need it and encourage land conservation. But they reflect the zero-sum nature of budgeting: to reduce taxes for some means increasing taxes for others.

What’s not in the budget, but should be

A tax credit could put a big dent in CFD's volunteer shortage
This budget, like past CCA budgets, fails to do some things I think would be good for Charlestown. 

For example, it would help our active fire companies to fill their ranks with much needed volunteers if the town offered a substantial tax credit to those who serve.

We could use our tax policy to encourage the switch to green energy by offering property tax credits to homes and businesses that install and maintain energy sources that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Finally, we should re-think whether to offer year-round residents a Homestead Tax Credit as many coastal communities do – e.g. Narragansett where full-time residents get a 10% discount on their assessments. CLICK HERE for details.

The CCA killed the idea of the Homestead Tax Credit at the behest of their financial supporters among the absentee property owners. Since some of them are now permanent residents, maybe it’s time to look at the idea again.

Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society, as the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it. I don’t mind paying taxes as long as they are fairly levied and properly spent. But in Charlestown, we are far from that ideal.