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Saturday, January 21, 2023

Monday showdown with Charlestown Town Administrator

Seems the only question is the terms for his departure.

By Will Collette 

At Monday’s second January meeting, the new Town Council will go into executive session to: 

“Discuss, Take Possible Action, And/Or Vote Pursuant to the Relevant Requirements of R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-46-5 (A) Subsection (1) to Review, Discuss, Consider and Possible Vote to Accept Terms, Conditions, and Separation Compensation to be Determined by the Town Council of a Possible Resignation by the Town Administrator, Provided that Such Person Shall Have Been Notified in Advance in Writing and Advised that Said Person May Require that the Discussion be Held at an Open Meeting. Discussion And/Or Potential Action, Announcement And/Or Vote(S) from Executive Session And/Or Open Session Concerning Terms, Conditions and Separation Compensation to be Determined by the Town Council of a Possible Resignation by the Town Administrator [Mark Stankiewicz].” 
Stankiewicz was hired on February 12, 2013, after his predecessor Bill DiLibero was fired largely for resisting the Charlestown Citizens Alliance’s (CCA) erratic decisions on Ninigret Park. Stankiewicz was expected to usher in a new era of calm. 

Instead, Stankiewicz became a CCA partisan, telling me to my face that “I work for the CCA.” Now while it is true that under our Town Charter, the town administrator serves at the pleasure of the Town Council, I would have expected our top town executive to put the people of Charlestown ahead of his political bosses. 

Stankiewicz's house in Stoughton
But Stankiewicz never fully committed to Charlestown. Two years after he was hired here, he moved from Plymouth, MA, site of his job before coming to Charlestown, to a new house he bought in Stoughton, MA. 

That’s a one-way 72-mile, hour and a half commute. But hey, the CCA Council majority gave him a big travel allowance because truly loyal servants don’t come cheap. 

Even during Charlestown’s most recent “crisis,” Ruth Platner’s revival of the Great Charlestown Choo-Choo Hoax,” Stankiewicz’s commitment to the job was borderline insubordinate. Platner presented a bogus, fact-free claim that somehow Amtrak was going to revive a dead-and-buried plan to run new track through northern Charlestown. 

The CCA Council majority, led by ex-Charlestown resident Bonnita Van Slyke, panicked and came within a whisker of declaring martial law. They voted to give Stankiewicz unlimited and undefined powers to do whatever it takes to stop the nonexistent Amtrak threat.  

Stankiewicz graciously accepted the new power – which he probably still holds since it was never rescinded – but told the Council that if they wanted all that work done, they would either have to do it themselves or hire a bunch of contractors. 

In recent years, Stankiewicz became increasingly hostile, rude, or unresponsive to individuals, groups and even elected town officials who were not aligned with the CCA. He spends more time looking for ways to deny requests for public information than in providing service to the public. 

This is especially the case when it comes to records behind politically embarrassing issues, such as the CCA’s shady land deals and financial mismanagement.  We’ve discussed the $3 million “oopsie” and the town management failure to use the correct number of workdays to calculate payroll, leading to apparent overpayments. 

BFFs Platner and Van Slyke
The CCA has had their two leading intellectuals, Bonnita Van Slyke and Mikey Chambers, serve as Stankiewicz’s leading public defenders. CCA-sponsored Councilor Susan Cooper was an actual public defender during her career in Iowa. She's the only CCA member of the Town Council. 

Even though Van Slyke sold her waterfront estate in Charlestown for $2 million (asking price was close to $3 million), she is still sending in letters to the Westerly Sun as Bonnie Van Slyke, Charlestown. 

Maybe she’s living on Ruth Platner and Cliff Vanover’s compound to maintain her Charlestown residency – she was seen at a recent Council meeting wearing what looks like Ruth Platner’s clothes. Or maybe she's tenting in Burlingame. 

Anyway, they argue that respondents to a town opinion survey answered generic questions saying they love Charlestown and its low tax rate. Therefore, ipso facto and reductio ad absurdum, Stankiewicz must be doing a terrific, flawless job.  

Sure, the tax rate is low but only because (a) property assessments are very high and (b) the town provides very few public services, so residents have to pay for them separately, including a separate tax levy for fire protection. 

As a recent study by the conservative RI Public Expenditure Council shows, many of Charlestown’s municipal costs are ridiculously high – especially administrative costs – and are awful compared to our neighbors. 

This damning report and the earlier examples of fiscal ineptitude belong on the heads of Stankiewicz and the CCA-controlled Town Council and Budget Commission. And by the way, Susan Cooper was Town Council Liaison to the Budget Commission, allegedly providing oversight and guidance. 

Here’s a summary of the RIPEC study I published last month. 

Charlestown has the Highest per capita administrative cost in the state

By Will Collette

December 28, 2022 

Our newly sworn-in, non-CCA Town Council majority has made a close review of Charlestown’s finances and fiscal management its top priority. 

They may be aided in that effort by a new report released by the conservative RI Public Expenditure Council that compares the cost of municipal government in very sharp detail. While I dislike RIPEC’s right-wing slant and animus toward labor unions, I do trust their ability to collect and present the data. 

Their report is loaded with useful charts and graphs that allow you to compare the 39 Rhode Island cities and towns across a wide range of categories and cost components. 

During the CCA’s long reign over Charlestown, their constant refrain was to talk about how low Charlestown’s tax rate is. It is that, but only because the bloated values of waterfront property owned by non-residents give us a very large tax base. That large tax base has paid for the CCA’s spendthrift habits. 

RIPEC data shows Charlestown’s taxpayers pay $1,818 each for non-education municipal services, well above the state per capita cost average of $1,593. The lowest per capita cost is $623 in Exeter, perhaps due to their unwillingness to pay for police or fire departments. The highest per capita is Newport at $2,762. [Figure 4, pg. 13] 

RIPEC explains why Charlestown, Newport and other communities have such high costs in a footnote on page 14: 

Those municipalities are: New Shoreham, Little Compton, Jamestown, Narragansett, Charlestown, Newport, and Westerly. Several of the state’s municipalities with the greatest property wealth may have greater per capita spending because they attract a number of non-full-time residents and/or visitors who are not counted in the U.S. Census but who nevertheless contribute to demand for local government services. Subsections on police and fire below contain a more detailed discussion of quantifying demand for local services. U.S. Census Bureau, 2020 Census Residence Criteria and Residence Situations.

This fact has long been evident and was the reasoning behind a 2011 push by Charlestown Democrats for a homestead property tax credit to offset the impact of the cost of services to non-residents. The CCA mobilized what I called the “Riot of the Rich” to attack and destroy the Democrats’ proposal. 

But I think it’s time to rethink that decision. Note that Newport will be the latest of our peer communities to institute a tax credit for year-round residents with applications available on January 1. North Kingstown adopted a homestead credit last year and Narragansett a couple of years before that. 

Other data in the RIPEC report made me twitch. I can’t explain the reasons why a number of Charlestown cost items are so high, other than to rely on RIPEC’s belief, above, that our high number of summer people cause them. 

Take, for example, Charlestown’s cost for town administration. Our administration cost is $566 per resident, compared to the state municipal average of $223 and that of Cumberland, the lowest, at $106 per capita. That makes Charlestown the highest municipal spender per capita among Rhode Island cities and towns. 

We rank first in two of the largest categories within administration: compensation at $202 per capita and operations at $255 per capita. Overall, there’s a big spread between Charlestown’s administrative costs and all other cities and towns that exposes issues that should be rigorously reviewed. [Figure 21, pg. 35, below]

Maybe the higher cost is due to the amount of Charlestown staff time devoted to blacking out records requested by citizens under the state’s Access to Public Records Act.

Charlestown's administrative costs are at the bottom of the chart meaning the highest in the state

Charlestown is ranked in second place for the highest per capita spending on parks, recreation, and natural resources at $115 per capita, edged out by Jamestown's $122. The state’s municipal average is $47. The stingiest is Richmond at only $2 per capita. [Figure 28, pg. 45] 

Obviously, the CCA’s frenzied purchases of vacant land for open space accounts for our high relative cost. And that’s without factoring in how each purchase subtracts the property tax the former owners were paying. 

Our per capita spending on public works is fifth highest in the state at $366. Our neighbor South Kingstown is the lowest in the state at $90 per capita. The state average is $193. 

This seems to be another cost item greatly affected by our summer people. The infrastructure that serves them during the summer must be maintained year-round.  

However, that doesn’t explain the extreme disparity between our costs and South Kingstown’s since they also have lots of summer people. 

Charlestown’s public works budget doesn’t include water, sewers and in many cases, road maintenance within many subdivisions where homeowner associations are responsible for those costs. By contrast, South Kingstown does provide these services but at a much lower per capita cost burden. 

Police protection costs Charlestown $429 per capita, the 7th highest in the state. We also pay the 4th highest police salaries in the state. Including benefits, the Charlestown police per capita average is $89,945. Westerly and Newport pay slightly more. The lowest in the state is Foster at $61,587. Block Island pays the highest at $132,933. 

For calls for service handled by each officer, Charlestown ranks 4th at 811.7 per officer. Newport is the highest at 1,129.7 per officer. [Figure 11, pg. 23] 

We don’t figure into RIPEC’s analysis of fire-fighting costs since we don’t have a professional fire department. That’s a major factor in our CCA-heralded low tax rate. 

I have no issues with the town’s rank-and-file staff nor with their unions. I’m OK with our high police costs since RIPEC’s data also shows they work hard for their money. 

I do believe RIPEC’s data flags some issues that deserve the new Council majority’s attention to ensure we are getting value for our tax dollars. Our high costs for administration, public works, plus our spending spree to buy more open space deserve close attention. 

While I appreciate our low tax rate, it seems obvious from the RIPEC data that this rate could and probably should be a lot lowerWe’ve raised this issue before in articles on the CCA’s $3 million “oopsie” and the town’s failure to use the correct number of work days per year to calculate the town’s payroll. 

Finally, I believe RIPEC has unintentionally strengthened the case for Charlestown to enact a Homestead property tax credit given the disproportionate impact of absentee property owners on municipal costs. As the new Council reviews the issue of fair taxation, a Charlestown Homestead credit should be on the table.