Debate over Charlotte town budget
I write in response to former Selectboard Chair (and continuing board member) Russell’s letter in the August 14 edition of the Charlotte News responding to my July 29, letter in The Citizen. In my letter, I presented data showing that the town budget under Chair Russell’s leadership had almost doubled (increasing by 90 percent). And I pointed to $700,000 in legal fees spent during that time to argue that we need new board members who will spend less and who don’t need attorneys constantly whispering in their ears. In response, Chair Russell made three arguments, which I address below.
First, Chair Russell argued the large budget increases are not his fault because he needed support of other board members. But as Chair he is instrumental in putting the budgets together from the various (and rapidly multiplying) interest groups and presenting those budgets to the rest of the board. He also only needed two votes with his own to pass a budget. In fact, his spending initiatives were often passed over the objections of the two remaining board members who called repeatedly for restraint.
Chair Russell also blamed the town. But this blame is deceptive. The budget is presented on Town Meeting day where it is discussed on the floor. Fewer than 200 of us (out of over 3,000 registered voters) are usually able to take off work to do that. And, at this meeting, it is impractical (if not impossible) to make line-item cuts. We should instead force the budget onto an Australian ballot (where many more of us would have a say) by submitting a petition to the Selectboard calling for a special meeting raising this question.
Second, instead of addressing a nearly doubled budget, Chair Russell made an argument that only a seasoned politician could love. He offered up a spreadsheet with what he calls “dollars to be raised by town” to argue spending is really not that bad because some of it was offset by other revenue. The majority of this revenue, however, comes from increased building and permit fees (taxes by another name) and from lease payments for Thompson’s Point (which would be called property taxes if the town did not own the land).
Perhaps it is a symptom of a spendthrift mindset, but Chair Russell’s numbers game ignores the fact that if the budgets had been kept reasonable, our town portion of the property taxes would be far less and we might have actually seen a significant decrease. Imagine that.
Third, Chair Russell acknowledges having spent $700,000 on legal fees and pointed to the upgrade to the Velco transmission lines matter as an exemplar of necessary legal costs. I looked into public records and found a number of facts that Chair Russell (unsurprisingly) failed to reveal.
Here is what I found. Velco was not a lawsuit. Rather, the town chose to hire attorneys to get involved in a quasi-judicial matter at the direction of just a few board members, including Chair Russell and Selectboard member Ellie Russell. And these few members later blocked the town from putting a halt to (or even having a say in) their extravagant project.
The legal fees for this project exceeded $220,000. The results of this costly legal adventurism were of dubious value and could have been achieved without a pricey legal team and certainly without spending anywhere near what was spent.
Perhaps most disturbing (but again unsurprising) is the fact that Chair Russell and Ellie Russell both had clear conflicts of interest. A large portion of Chair Russell’s brother’s property directly abutted part of this project. In fact, his brother later received $26,000 from Velco for an easement on his property. Ellie Russell’s property sits atop a rise and has a lovely view of town farm bay to the west. The Velco project threatened to sully this view, thereby diminishing her property’s value and impacting her directly.
These are textbook examples of conflicts of interest. But instead of revealing these conflicts and recusing themselves, these elected officials hid their conflicts and forced us taxpayers to pay almost a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees for a project that directly benefited them or their immediate family.
Indeed, both Chair Russell and Ellie Russell not only failed to recuse themselves, but town minutes show they also voted against (and thereby blocked) efforts of two other board members and some citizens to put the ever rising legal fees to a town vote or even a survey. In fact, the vote that blocked town-wide review occurred when the legal fees were only $75,000. In opposing such a vote, Ellie Russell said (without revealing her own interests) that it was “not in the best interest of the town to have the view destroyed by power lines.”
At one meeting where Chair Russell was asked why the legal fees had been allowed to exceed a previously agreed upon cap, he said he just had not “paid close enough attention to the bills.” Both Chair Russell and Ellie Russell are up for reelection in March 2015. For our own sake and the sake of our neighbors who are being priced out of our town, we all need to pay “close enough attention” to our tax bills when choosing our next Selectboard members.
Brady Toensing, Charlotte
Debate over Charlotte town budget