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Charlestown surplus is not free money

By Dr. Kenneth Robbins, M. D.

On Monday, May 6, the Charlestown Town Council will be holding a hearing on the new budget proposal. One significant issue is a roughly $3 million surplus due, in large part, to the reduced enrollment of Charlestown students in the Chariho regional school district. On April 19, 2019, George Tremblay, a past member of the Town Council and a prominent member of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA), called the surplus a “bonus” and strongly supported a push by some citizens to build a “community center” in Ninigret Park. At an earlier Town Council meeting, a speaker referred to this surplus as “free money” in supporting the center.

First, to the Town Council and the CCA, this money is neither a bonus nor free. It is my money, and that of all other Charlestown taxpayers. It is money approved by the voters for school costs and a few other expenses that were not incurred. As such, it is up to the taxpayers of Charlestown to decide what should be done with the money, not the Town Council. The surplus could be used to reduce taxes. Mr. Tremblay points out that Charlestown “carries one of the lowest tax burdens in the state,” as if that means citizens would not want to pay lower taxes. Charlestown also has fewer services for its taxpayers than many other municipalities in the state. How many citizens, for instance, have town water or town sewer services? The funds could, alternatively, be used to pay off bonded debt. Mr. Tremblay suggests that Charlestown “is not financially strained by bonded debt” as if the sole reason for paying off debt is to reduce “strain.”

Second, the suggested center in Ninigret Park is being called a community center by some, a recreational center by some, and a senior center by others. No one has defined what the function of such a center would be or what services and resources it would contain. And there is not even a suggested financial estimate for its costs. Ninigret Park lacks running water and waste-disposal facilities. To build any kind of meaningful center in the park for about $3 million is fanciful. Plus the proposal does not seem to address the upkeep and maintenance such a facility would require in the years ahead.

The Charlestown Residents United (CRU) supported a slate of candidates in the last election, and one of the group’s main tenets was for town government to solicit and respond to the desires and input of the citizens of Charlestown. It was not for the Town Council to act, as it had in the past, independently of that input. Our efforts did succeed in getting one CRU-supported candidate, Deborah Carney, onto the council. But her desire to solicit and respond to taxpayer input is but one voice against four former and current CCA-supported Town Council members who can easily outvote her on issues such as this. The citizens of Charlestown should appear at the budget hearing to express their feelings on the $3 million (and, of course, any other issues) and should pressure the council to be responsive to the taxpayers’ desires. I would suggest, at the very least, that a referendum or questionnaire for taxpayers be performed before any committment of the surplus funds is decided.

This letter also appeared in The Westerly Sun on April 30, 2019

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