A Referendum to Thwart Dishonest Politics
So, today Tiverton voters will have the opportunity finally to do away with the financial town meeting (FTM) that has allowed a relatively small group of very motivated people to double taxes in the past ten years and ensure that they would continue to climb even during the worst economy that most of us have ever experienced. Not surprisingly, the ringleaders of that relatively small group are in a panic to stop the referendum from becoming a reality, with an astonishingly dishonest last-minute surprise from Budget Committee Chairman Chris Cotta, who is a veritable picture of the Rhode Island Way.
Cotta, who is so Rhode Island that he achieved #34 on GoLocalProv’s list of the state’s 50 highest-paid staffers, appears to have sent a series of questions regarding the financial town referendum (FTR) to Suzanne Greschner, chief of the state Division of Municipal Finance, signed in his capacity as Budget Committee Chairman. My understanding is that he did not call a meeting of the Budget Committee for these purposes and, moreover, that he did not express his concerns to the local committee charged with creating the referendum despite being asked on multiple occasions.
I haven’t been able to get a copy of Greschner’s reply, but even through Cotta’s spin, it appears that she essentially confirmed that the process for reviewing budgets, in particular with respect to the state property tax cap, will remain as it has been. Here’s Cotta:
Of great concern was the proposed concept of permitting elector budgets on a ballot without being vetted and approved by the Office of Municipal Finance. The ballot question and related charter changes offer ballot access to electors without following the same stringent taxpayer protection reviews or notice requirements that the municipal budget must endure. It is now clear through the response that the Department of Revenue will approve only one budget and one tax levy for the town of Tiverton whether such budget exceeds the statutory tax cap or not. The Department of Revenue will not approve several budgets from the town as addressed in the charter change proposed.
What this means is that any budget supported by a tax levy that has not been preapproved, heard and advertised in accordance with state laws can and will be challenged by any aggrieved taxpayer in the town. This has far reaching consequences both legal and financial for the town.
Plainly put, this is bull. Under the FTM, the only budget and levy that receives public notice and state review is the Budget Committee’s. That means that the School Committee’s proposed amendment, if different, is not thus vetted, that the Town Council’s proposed amendment, if different, is not thus vetted, and that the three amendments permitted out of thin air at the FTM are not thus vetted. The fact that voters will have advance notice of all such budgets prior to voting at an FTR allows for more scrutiny and transparency (not to mention dishonest spin such as Cotta and his allies are sure to offer), not less.
Compounding Christopher Cotta’s deceit is the timing of the whole thing. According to Town Council President Jay Lambert, Cotta’s letter, which (in his words) urged the council to “provide notice to the public that Ballot question No. 2 does not meet the legal standards required for taxpayer protections required under State Law,” did not arrive in the Town Clerk’s office until 11:26 a.m. Thursday morning. Conspicuously, that timing just makes the deadline for election-related letters to the editor in the Newport Daily News, which paper appears to have published a missive from Cotta complaining that “to date, the Town Council has taken no action.”
Curiously, Cotta’s public letter to the editor appeared on the opinion pages of the Fall River Herald‘s Web site at 1:56 p.m. It appears that Cotta submitted his letter to the Town Council calling for action at just about the same time that he sent his letter to local newspapers declaring that no action had been taken in response. Also curiously, the blog for the above-mentioned ringleaders posted Cotta’s letter to the council at 1:40 a.m. the previous day — indicating that his intended audience was not, in fact, the elected officials. (Naturally, that blog did not also provide the substantiating letters from the state.)
Look, I realize that to most people all of these fine details seem a bit much, but such is this state’s underlying problem: People with extreme self interest in the policies and financial dealings of the state and its cities and towns have constructed a web of fine details that funnels policy toward their preferred ends and taxpayer dollars to themselves and their political allies. What they cannot accomplish through policy, they accomplish through dishonest rhetoric and political tricks.
Thus, they abuse the people of Rhode Island, just as Cotta has been abusing his local elected office. The old FTM plays into this process by increasing the degree to which only those most caught up in the system will exercise their right to vote on the town’s budget. The more convenient it is for everybody to vote — and the more notice everybody has with respect to the budgets on the table — the less spellbinding the Rhode Island Way will be.