One of the agenda items the Charlestown Town Council discussed at its March 11 meeting was how to spend the surplus money (approximately $1 million) the town will have due to fewer Charlestown children attending Chariho. Unfortunately, there was no consideration for not spending the money. The Town Council was in a rush to put something in the budget before the town budget vote. One council meeting was not adequate time for a full discussion exploring all the options.
Based on two similar motions two town councilors had already prepared prior to the meeting, the debate only centered on what form of recreation the surplus money should be spent on. Other alternative uses for the money were not considered. When the discussion started I was under the impression it would be left to the average citizen to decide how they wanted to spend the money on recreation by answering two questions: 1. What recreation they wanted; and 2. Where they wanted it located if it was a structure. These two premises were soon lost. Here are some of my observations and comments:
One citizen virtually yelled at the Town Council demanding they spend the surplus because it was “free” money. We, the taxpayers, paid that money to the tax collector, it’s not free. The Town Council president claimed the money was already budgeted and the expenditure was already okayed by the voters. These two statements are false. We, the taxpayers, did not approve/okay any such expenditure. The money is not allocated. We just paid our taxes, which created the surplus. There was discussion at the meeting on trying to place the surplus decision in the budget before the June 3 town budget approval vote. So obviously nothing is done as claimed.
Another citizen starting talking about damage to the environment, which made no sense to bring up so early since we haven’t even started a dialogue. It was equivalent to prematurely discussing environmental problems of an undefined structure that may or may not be built in the future.
The first motion (not seconded) proposed an ad hoc committee that was front-loaded with business/commercial interests. All I could think of was a sports team owner asking a city to build him a new stadium at the taxpayer’s expense. The taxpayer gets the bill, the owner gets the profit. The same would happen to Charlestown; the taxpayers foot the bill, the restaurant owners, promoters, etc. get the profit.
The second motion (approved by a 4-1 vote) defeated the two basic premises: 1. To let the citizens decide what they wanted for recreation; and 2. Where the citizens wanted any structure located. The Town Council majority voted to limit options to Ninigret Park and basically to the senior center. Therefore, severe limitations are already being imposed without citizen input. There are many other options that can be discussed that do not include Ninigret. For example, we could start looking into building a nice park on lot 28-113-1, which the town owns along the Pawcatuck River in Shannock village. People are trying to develop a social center in Shannock village. This would be a nice addition to the north of town.
The second motion also included an ad hoc committee, but of a different makeup. There is no improvement generated in the decision-making process by an ad hoc committee. Also, the Town Council is incapable of appointing a balanced, unbiased committee. Therefore, I am opposed to any ad hoc committee. Instead, an independent pollster should be directly hired to answer the two premises by directly surveying the public, then report to the Town Council and citizens. The only criteria the pollster should have to work with should be what additional recreation do the citizens want and where.
As I stated in my first paragraph, there was no discussion of not spending the surplus $1 millon. I have two suggestions for not spending the money: 1. Place the surplus money in an investment fund for a rainy day. The rainy day will come. If the money is there, there will be no need for a tax increase. 2. Give the surplus back to the taxpayers as a refund.
Steve J. Williams