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Thursday, May 19, 2022

I’m voting NO to Charlestown’s Budget

It’s an effective way for you to send a message

By Will Collette 

Like other Charlestown registered voters, I received my mail-in ballot for the town’s $15 million 2022-23 operating budget. It’s sitting on the coffee table, but before the end of the week, I plan to mark it NO and mail it. 

The ballots are due at Town Hall no later than the official Election Day, June 6. You can vote in person at Town Hall on June 6 if you choose. 

The town budget funds the town’s operations and its workers. It funds almost no services since the town has chosen to make residents supply their own water, trash service, fire and rescue, etc. a la carte, from private vendors. By doing this, the town can brag about having a low tax rate. Well, duh. 

Our tax bills are the result of multiplying the tax rate (currently $8.18) by however many thousands of dollars your property is assessed at. Thus, if your property is assessed at $400,000, your tax bill is $8.18 x 400 = $3,272. 

The Budget Commission promises to keep the tax rate at $8.18, more or less, although Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz told the Town Council on May 9, the tax rate is $8.22. 

However, the Budget Commission’s budget transmittal letter says there WILL BE an increase in actual amount of tax collected by $859,791, an increase of 3.73%. The only way to make that piece of magic happen is through increased assessments. 

But even at the $8.18 rate, as we've reported to you for the past several months, our taxes are still much higher than they need to be. You'll see even more reasons below.

About half of Charlestown’s total budget is actually spent on the Chariho School district. Chariho’s budget is subject to a vote by voters of Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton. 

The school district tried twice to get their new budget approved but lost the vote both times, leading the district to operate on the same budget as the current year. That reduces Charlestown’s share by $134,686 according to Town Administrator although Town Council President Deb Carney corrected his misstatement with new information showing Charlestown will save $265,000. 

Chariho’s rejection at the polls happened after this budget was released, but nevertheless, neither Stankiewicz’s wrong reduction figure nor Carney’s correct one are reflected in the budget we are being asked to vote on. 

In addition to some dismay at the disagreement on what the real numbers are, there are lots of reasons why I plan to vote NO. 

Institutional Racism.

This budget continues payments to attorney Joe Larisa whose sole job for the town is to surveil and fight the Narragansett Indian Tribe. He has fought anything the Tribe has tried to do to preserve its culture and rights or better the lives of its members. He even fights the Tribe in other towns, most recently in Tiverton.

No other town in southern New England permanently employs an attorney to fight its tribal neighbors. So, in good conscience, I will not cast a ballot that funds Charlestown’s institutional racism. 

The $3 Million oopsie.

This town budget is the culmination of months of battle over the $3 million “oopsie,” a budget cock-up discovered last January. In short, the town has had $3 million less in surplus funds than it thought because of what the Budget Commission calls a misallocation of funds. The Budget Commission spent the $3 million before realizing it was spending money it didn’t have. 

The Budget Commission and the “CCA-3,” the three Council members who give the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) its majority control of the Town Council, pushed through a ridiculous Unassigned Fund Balance policy that commits the town to maintaining an artificially high 23-33% Unassigned Fund Balance but then they fail to actually put the money in the budget to make up for the $3 million oopsie and achieve their own mandate. 

Hey, it’s an election year and that would mean raising taxes. 

No outside review.

The CCA-3 plus Budget Commission Chair Dick Sartor and Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz adamantly refused to bring in anyone from the outside to investigate the $3 million oopsie and see what we learn from that. Instead, they decided that the parties to the mistake should investigate themselves. They took a hard look at themselves and found they were blameless. 

Stankiewicz’s Iron Curtain.

Throughout the year, Town Administrator Stankiewicz has systematically closed down public access to information by combing the state’s open records laws and applying every loophole to the max. 

Thus, when trying to investigate the town’s financial practices, several residents, including me, have gotten records that were totally blacked out OR were given invoices for extortionate amounts to search for records that would then be blacked out. 

This practice has drawn a rebuke from the Attorney General’s office. I’d be curious to know how much money the town has actually collected from these abusive open records charges. In the meantime, it’s another reason I will vote NO. 

Misuse of ARPA funding.

This budget also includes spending almost half a million dollars of the $2.3 million awarded to Charlestown under the American Rescue Plan Act. Never mind that the town has hired expensive consultants, including Congressional District 2 candidate Allan Fung (R-Cranston) to help the town draw up a plan to spend the money. We’ll pay the consultants even though we’re already spending big chunks of the money without getting Word One of their advice. 

Overfunded liabilities.

This budget funds our post-employment liabilities (pension, health care, severance payments, etc.) at 100% even though the only way we would need that much salted away is if every town employee quit on July 2nd. There’s a “Goldilocks point” where a municipality has enough saved for these liabilities to keep them solvent and healthy – 100% funding isn’t it. And then there are the various slush funds the CCA has stashed through the budget to cover things like shady land deals and excess legal costs. 

Lack of imagination and vision

Budgets and the taxes they create are statements of public values. Cathy and I have lived full-time in Charlestown since 2002. In those 20 years, our annual budgets miss opportunities to express positive values. It’s not just the continued funding for institutional racism, but the lack of imagination to use our ample resources to tackle problems. 

There are manageable problems such as the chronic shortage of volunteer firefighters. Providing our firefighters with a generous tax credit would not only express our appreciation for their bravery and service, but would also help deal with the recruitment problem. 

Bigger problems, indeed huge problems like the climate crisis, could be addressed through our budget. As it is, this budget contains $15,000 for our new Commission on climate change and coastal resilience. This is merely a gesture since we can easily predict this commission is going to tell us that better sea level rise and more frequent major storms are going to hurt a lot of Charlestown residents and not just those along the coast. 

I’d prefer to see Charlestown go all-in on green energy by granting major property tax credits for installing and maintaining green energy systems. That includes wind power, which would necessitate the repeal of Charlestown’s ban on small, residential wind energy devices. 

Whatever it is, I’m against it

My final reason for voting NO to this year’s budget is because the Charlestown Citizens Alliance is pushing for its adoption. We’ve learned over the past decade of CCA rule that whatever they want, it’s not going to help the majority of residents. 

When you send in your ballot, be sure to follow the instructions. Take a look at your Driver’s License to see how your name is shown and also look at the way you signed your license. The Board of Canvassers will be looking to see that these match with what you write on the inside envelop that holds your ballot. 

Last point: If a majority of us vote NO, the town will continue to operate at the same funding level as the current year. Since the Budget Commission claims it is cutting the budget (while raising the amount of taxes collected), it won’t harm the town to reject this bad budget.

So when you're getting ready to mark your ballot, remember this: