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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Charlestown dreaming

What can we hope for from the new CRU Town Council majority?

By Will Collette

Congratulations to the new Charlestown Residents United Town Council majority, L-R Deb Carney, Rippy Serra, Grace Klinger and Steve Stokes. They are being sworn in on December 5.

For the first time since 2008, we will soon see the first Town Council sworn in that does not have a Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) endorsed majority. The new majority were endorsed by Charlestown Residents United (CRU) and consist of one Democrat and three Republicans. Only incumbent CCA councilor Susan Cooper managed to win a seat.

Like the majority of Charlestown voters, I am hopeful that this new coalition government will not only be able to get along but will also bring about significant changes in Charlestown’s policies and practices, starting with lifting the iron curtain the CCA imposed on citizens’ access to information.

For the past two year in particular, Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz seemed to go out of his way to find loopholes to make it harder to get information under the Access to Public Records act. This was especially true of information on Planning Commissar Ruth Platner’s land deals and town finances. Stankiewicz’s kind of public access meant be charged hundreds of dollars to get pages that were mostly blacked out like this example:

I hope it becomes town policy to make it easier, not harder, to get public information.

And for his gleeful participation in CCA's shady dealings and for covering them up, I think the new Council should look to replace Stankiewicz as soon as possible.

I hope this new majority will see the value in better relations with our neighbors, the Narragansett Indian Tribe. It’s time to cut loose the public face of Charlestown’s jihad against the Tribe, attorney Joe Larisa, whose retainer and expenses amount to $25,000 or more to do nothing but watch the Tribe and thwart any effort the Tribe makes to uplift itself.

The Council fired him once already, but he was rescued by CCA Councilor Susan Cooper, the only CCA controlled member of the current Council.

After Larisa goes, it’s long past time to sit with the Tribe and discuss mutual interests with respect and open-mindedness. I don’t know where such discussions might lead, but at least we must try. Our chances of a productive outcome are greatly increased without the incendiary presence of Joe Larisa.

We should take a good look at our financial management especially after last year’s $3 million “oopsie.” We need an honest, unbiased outside review to make sure we have the right safeguards in place to avoid future “oopsies” and to make sure we have the right management staff and oversight. What we don’t need is another rubber stamp of shoddy financial practices.

I think it would be smart for the new Council to commission a thorough review of Charlestown’s property tax policies. Even though our tax rate is low, our taxes rise every year regardless of the rate due to rising assessments. We also pay out of pocket for services that other municipalities provide as part of the package.

Traditionally, taxes reflect community values. Taxes don’t just fund the basic operations of government, like education and emergency services. Taxes are a way we support who and what we like and what we want to discourage.

In Charlestown, property tax breaks are given to veterans, the blind and disabled, low-income elderly, plus property under the Farm, Forest and Open Space program or with some form of conservation easement. NOTE: if you fit any of these categories, you must apply to get the tax break. You don’t get it automatically. You should contact Tax Assessor Ken Swain before March 1st to see if you qualify.

We also give tax breaks on property owned by our two FAKE Fire Districts and to property owners whose land is improperly zoned. These are well-known problem areas that allow those owners to underpay their property taxes by thousands of dollars. We need to fix the mis-zoning problem and find a way to make the beach clubs/homeowner associations masquerading as fire districts pay up.

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

On the other hand, we can use tax policy encourage practices we believe in. For example, the CCA-controlled Planning Commission regularly passes zoning regulations that micromanage local businesses. I’m not just talking about big changes like the recent upheaval in housing development rules, but the smaller and more nit-picky things like regulating everything from lighting systems to shrubbery, often mandating that businesses spend serious money to meet some CCA members’ styling whims.

If the town is going to dictate such things as the color of outdoor switch plates, businesses should be granted some tax relief to at least partially cover such unfunded mandates.

We should come up with a way to encourage more active participation in our volunteer fire companies. Incentives could run the gamut from a recruitment tax credit for joining to increased stipends for responding to call outs. If the Council talks to the fire fighters, I have no doubt they have some ideas as to how to improve recruitment, retention and participation.

Under the CCA, the town has invested heavily in adding more acreage to the stock of open space property to protect it from development. Town maps show 60% of Charlestown land is untaxed and off-limits to development.

But there’s a whole lot more to environmental protection than just acquiring more open space. 

Among Rhode Island towns, Charlestown is one of the most vulnerable to the ill effects of the climate crisis, especially sea level rise and increased severe storm activity. These threaten life and limb but also threaten to wipe out a substantial part of our tax base.

Climate change is a global problem, but we all need to do our share, especially since we have so much to lose, by switching to green energy. The new Town Council can help through regulation change and tax incentives.

Other than one summer’s burst of activity around the Solarize Charlestown project, CCA-controlled Charlestown did virtually nothing to promote green energy. In fact, while bathing in the PR glow of the 2017 Solarize project – actually, a state program – CCA-controlled Councils have made green energy development more difficult. And Solarize Charlestown barely scratched the surface even with town support. Only three dozen households participated. Cathy and I were one of those households.

Charlestown is littered with abandoned quarries and sand pits. The owners are under no obligation to reclaim the land. These sites could be used to site larger solar arrays.

It is in Charlestown’s self-interest to promote as much home and business level green energy as possible and tax credits certainly can play a role. But the new Council should also look at the barriers the CCA has imposed in the past, such as the virtual ban on small, residential or business wind energy.

While the town was pretty united against the proposed giant Whalerock wind turbines that would have towered over Route One, Charlestown’s ordinance on small turbines is a gross over-reaction, especially given advances in technology. For example, variations on vertical axis turbines – not big blades, but more curlicue-shaped – are becoming quite popular for home use.

There are hundreds of different vertical axis designs.
Generally, all are quiet and efficient.
If you want to see these types of turbines in action locally, visit the gardens surrounding Arrowhead Dental. Dr. Bruce Gouin has had a bunch of them placed as art installations. They’re not hooked up to an electrical generator so they don’t violate the anti-wind Charlestown Zoning Ordinance. If they were, though, they would generate a lot of energy.

The Charlestown Liquor Store has installed a geothermal generator that draws power from the earth. A number of homes – including ours – have installed heat pumps that draw heat from the air.

There are lots of other ideas the new Council should explore, many of them issues that have fallen by the wayside over the long reign of the CCA:

A homestead tax exemption. Charlestown is becoming an outlier on granting permanent residents a credit to offset the taxes we pay for year-round infrastructure to serve our summertime population surge. 

In recent years, Narragansett and North Kingstown joined the list with no apparent ill effects on their budgets. Even a dope like GOP Senate candidate Hershel Walker gets a homestead tax credit by claiming permanent residence in Texas even though he’s running to become Senator from Georgia.

In addition to reinstating a Charter Review Advisory Commission, as Deb Carney proposed, Charlestown should review its Code of Ordinances and begin weaning out those that are outdated, unenforced or unenforceable, or just downright silly, such as making it a crime in Charlestown to throw a snowball at a tree.

We need a bad actor ordinance or policy. At minimum, such a policy would protect the town from doing business with criminals. The town can set standards for who can get a contract, permit or purchase order. We can use whatever standards we want so long as they are reasonable and consistent. The usual criteria include corporate crime, environmental offenses, civil rights violations, failure to meet labor standards and, in construction, failure to consistently perform work on time and on budget.

We could have stopped the infamous Copar Quarry from acquiring the Morrone sand pit based on their owner’s serving federal prison time for organized crime. Or the Dollar Store’s violations of wage and hour laws, and discriminatory employment practices IF we had a bad actor policy that contained those criteria.

And of course, there’s Charlestown’s desperate need for affordable housing. Kids who grew up in Charlestown can’t afford to stay – a notable example is now ex-Town Council member Cody Clarkin.

The new Council not only faces a growing problem but one where the CCA brutally worked to block any progress for over a decade. The CCA did everything it could to keep affordable housing from being built, including Ruth Platner’s slander that families with children are parasites because they increase our school costs. That has to change.

This new Council has two years to work on the mess left behind by more than a decade of CCA rule. It’s a tough job and those of us who supported the CRU’s successful campaign will need to be patient. At the same time, we should not be bashful about urging them on to do what we elected them to do.