Mainstreet Loses an Anchor and the Council Looks to Tax
So, Bank of America is abandoning the Main Street location in North Tiverton that it has inhabited for decades (most of the time as Fleet bank). According to somebody in a position to know, the branch remains profitable, but corporate executives have analyzed the prospects of Tiverton, Rhode Island, and determined that there will be insufficient small business activity to justify a presence in the town. Municipal officials may dream of a down-town-style business district, but when one of the two institutions that would anchor the community with access to capital and money management expresses its skepticism by packing up and leaving, residents should stop daydreaming and look at what’s happening in reality.
In reality, Town Solicitor Andy Teitz has put it on tonight’s agenda (PDF) for the town council to discuss the state law that places a cap on the amount that towns and cities can increase their taxes. At issue is this statutory language:
Any levy pursuant to subsection (d) of this section in excess of the percentage increase specified in subsection (a) of this section shall be approved by the affirmative vote of at least four-fifths (4/5) of the full membership of the governing body of the city or town or in the case of a city or town having a financial town meeting, the majority of the electors present and voting at the town financial meeting shall also approve the excess levy.
What the solicitor is expected to argue is that the town should entirely disregard the word “also” and accept it as town policy that a simple majority of the electorate in attendance at the financial town meeting should be able to authorize an increase above the tax cap. A lawsuit is already in process, in the town, to test that reading of the law, so one avenue that the solicitor and certain town councilors may be interested in pursuing is to change the above language, through the General Assembly, to remove the “ambiguity” of the law to conform with their reading.
Residents should decline to join in the imaginative exercise of pretending there’s any ambiguity at all beyond the grammatical error of using “or” rather than a semicolon in the statute. The town council ultimately approves the baseline budget that the residents consider at the town meeting, and elected officials should therefore have to submit themselves to accountability. Otherwise, voters should take it to be their duty to reconstruct the budget line-item by line-item, perhaps with constituencies developing complete and competing budgets.
Also at tonight’s town council meeting, by the way, will be a vote on the “pay as you throw” policy by which the town is seeking to more than double the cost of trash pickup for residents. Not coincidentally, I’m sure, its plan to charge households for the garbage bags that they use will not figure into the tax cap. Put it all together, and over the course of a few Monday night hours in January, Tiverton’s council of seven could lay the groundwork for a truly massive increase in taxes and fees in the midst of a deep economic recession in a town and state in long-term economic decline.