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Email Leaks Aren’t Just for National Politics

Americans are still receiving daily updates about Russia’s interference in our elections, last year, beginning with the still-unattributed hacking and publication of Democrats’ emails.  Followers of Tiverton politics, however, don’t have to go that far for their intrigue.  As I write on Tiverton Fact Check:

The day before our Charter Review Commission (CRC) election, Deborah Scanlon Janick published on her Facebook page a string of private emails sent among some members of the town’s Budget Committee, not including her.  Her explanation, as secretary of the committee, is that I “erroneously left [them] in [her] pile of attachments.” …

Her next move was to show them to Town Solicitor Anthony DeSisto to ask whether the email chain violated the Open Meetings Act (OMA).  Under state law, a quorum (usually a majority of a board) can’t communicate privately about official business because that would essentially be a secret meeting. …

In this case, there were five of us on the email chain out of 11 Budget Committee members, so Mr. DeSisto concluded we’d done nothing wrong.  Nonetheless, Janick held on to the emails for five months and attempted to throw them like a grenade the day before an election, hoping to affect the outcome.

So, acting in her official capacity, the elected secretary of the Budget Committee took private emails that she knew weren’t meant to be shared and released them on her own Facebook page for political advantage.  There’s nothing to the emails, but the folks in town who aren’t happy that taxes haven’t continued to climb faster than inflation are trying to compensate for the lack of controversy with dark insinuations that elected officials’ communicating is somehow overly secretive.

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Vetoes and Non Vetoes

I’ll admit that I’m surprised that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed the eternal contracts bill:

In a veto message that echoed the strenuous arguments raised by city and town leaders, Raimondo wrote: “Current Rhode Island law protects the taxpayers from being obligated indefinitely for contract provisions that, in the future, may not be affordable.

“The proposed legislation before me extinguishes this existing protection, hurting the public’s position in contract negotiations, and placing taxpayers at risk of being forever locked into contractual provisions they can no longer afford.”

Raimondo has seemed to me to make decisions on political grounds, and she’s in a precarious enough position that she can’t really afford to push away the teachers’ unions, which have been explicit about not intending to target her next time around.  This action could change that.

It’ll be telling to watch the political play.  If, for example, the General Assembly overrides the veto and the teachers’ unions (especially the National Education Association – Rhode Island) do nothing more than issue a strongly worded press release against the governor (which is already done), then it would indicate that there’s a political dance going on, meant to give the governor cover with taxpayer advocates and municipal leaders while not harming the unions.

As part of this picture, note that Raimondo “allowed a disability-pension bill that was also championed by organized labor to become law without her signature,” according to Kathy Gregg.  Here the calculation is slightly different.  She didn’t sign it, thereby providing herself a little cover with taxpayer advocates (being able to say she didn’t “support” it), but she didn’t veto it, saying it was simply a legal codification of existing practice.  I think she’ll be proven wrong on that, inasmuch as the law now explicitly allows for work-related physical and mental illnesses to be grounds for a disability pension, but one could see how her calculation would be different.

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UPDATED: Taxpayer Group Sweeps Tiverton Charter Review Commission

In the balance of elections, Tiverton’s charter review commission is relatively obscure, but its importance this year is evidenced by the facts that 24 candidates ran for the nine available seats and the election brought around 150 more people to the polls than voted in Newport’s simultaneous Democrat primary for the state Senate seat vacated by former Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed.

The conclusion of Tiverton’s campaign, yesterday, saw the candidates endorsed by the Tiverton Taxpayers Association PAC sweep all nine available offices.  The commission will spend a year reviewing the town’s Home Rule Charter (essentially the local constitution) and gathering feedback from residents and town officials, ultimately recommending changes that the Town Council should (and typically will) put on the November 2018 ballot.  The election outcome has huge significance on the policy side and the political side.

On the policy side, the TTA candidates ran with a promise not to substantially modify the financial town referendum (FTR) method of setting a budget, which has produced tax increases under 1% for the last four years.  The candidates also pledged to ensure that millions of dollars in revenue expected from the new Twin River casino currently under construction in town will be put through the regular budgeting process, rather than sectioned off beyond the reach of taxpayers’ annual vote.

On the politics side, the election marks a translation of TTA’s budget-election success into a more-traditional campaign for office, with an outcome more decisive than the group’s partial victory securing a large minority of Budget Committee seats in November (including one currently occupied by this writer).

The next challenge for the taxpayer group will be similar achievements during the regular election cycle, rather than special elections and spring referenda.  The prospects are brightened by the fact that five of the nine winning candidates have not held public office in Tiverton before, and at least two of the five have shown an interest in political activity beyond the commission, with Richard Rom and Justin LaCroix having run for state senate and representative seats last year, ultimately unsuccessfully.  In yesterday’s election, LaCroix was the highest vote-getter, with nearly 50% of the vote in the 24-person race.

Addendum (2:42 p.m., 7/19/17):

RI Future’s Steve Ahlquist makes the reasonable point that this post should mention my involvement with the Tiverton Taxpayers Association, with which I hold and have held various “official” positions, although the simpler truth of the matter is that I’m one of a handful of “core” members.  The omission was in no way intended to mislead, but was premised on the expectation that most readers would know of my deep involvement with the group or, at the very least, that I’m sympathetic with it, whatever my involvement.

In that regard, such a “disclosure” would be similar to requiring Providence Journal reporters to mention their union affiliation any time they report on related labor unions.  Of course, I’ve faulted them from time to time for not doing so, so given the specific nature of this post, I should have mentioned the affiliation.

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Insult to Injury When Town Government “Settles”

Tiverton goes through this every few years, but it never gets easier to take.

This latest time around, a local police lieutenant, Timothy Panell, was (let’s limit it to) “accused” of leading his shift in a regular “quiet time,” during which, “allegedly,” his car could often be found at his house.  The many charges brought against him, as described in the latest Newport Daily News article on the matter, were “obtaining money under false pretenses and filing false overtime slips.”

As I pointed out on Tiverton Fact Check back in 2014, before the investigation, overtime regularly made Panell the second-highest-paid employee in town, “earning” well over $100,000.  So, here’s the insult to injury from the Newport Daily News:

Because [the 47-year-old has been permitted simply to retire], he is also eligible for payment for unused vacation time, unused sick time and unused personal days. The unused vacation time totals $5,266, unused sick time totals $15,784 and unused personal days total $752, according to Town Administrator Paul McGreevy.

The town will continue to pay for his Blue Cross Blue Shield Healthmate Coast to Coast health insurance at a monthly cost of $1,908, McGreevy said [until he is 65]. The contract states that should a retiree get a job that has equal or better health coverage, they must inform the town so it can stop the coverage.

I think local elected officials need to take a look at the definition of “settled.”  Maybe the health insurance would have been a step too far for the accused, but could the Town Council really not insist that it would not settle if it meant a cop accused of fraudulently filing for overtime and taking money under false pretenses walked away with a parting check for $21,802 based on “unused” time off?  Seriously, how in the world does our electoral system stick us with “leaders” like this?

In case anybody familiar with the area wants to know, the Town Council members who voted to “settle” — defined, apparently, as “abuse taxpayers in order to make an uncomfortable issue go away” — were:

  • Council President Joan Chabot
  • John Edwards the Fifth (son of Democrat Representative John Edwards the Fourth)
  • Randy Lebeau
  • Christine Ryan
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A Fundamental Vision for Society

When it seems that members of our society are actually living in different dimensions, the world seems chaotic, but if we dig into the differences, we’ll often find them clarified.  I’ve been coming to a more-broadly-applicable point of clarity in the campaign for a charter review commission:

Here’s my “vision”: Local government’s role isn’t to plan what everybody can and must do with their property. The diversity of neighborhoods that I love in Tiverton and Rhode Island didn’t happen because people sat around on committees and decided to put this here and that there.   It happened because people made the best decisions for themselves with their own property.

Where there are stores, they grew because customers wanted what was being sold. Where there are activities, they persist because people want to do them. Of course I’d love to see more or less of certain things in town, but my preferences shouldn’t be the law.

As the “Declaration of Independence” puts it, “Governments are Instituted” to “secure” our rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Town government provides guidelines and maintains boundaries so we can work out our differences like neighbors.

Twelve candidates for the Charter Review Commission, including the nine endorsed by the TTA, share this understanding and will review the Charter accordingly.

The other 12 think the role of government is to plan our future. A handful of people on various boards and committees decide what Tiverton should look like and go about making sure that their vision is the one that wins. To them, the Charter’s primary function is to give the boards and committees power over us and to make sure that we can’t easily disrupt their plans.

Do we want a rule book that protects us individually and helps us to resolve our differences with our neighbors, or do we want a contract that locks in somebody else’s vision?  That seems to be the basic question at which political differences arrive, recently, if we strive to break them down enough.

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Penn Station and the CCRI Observatory: Where the Money Goes

Boy, taxes and the cost of government must have really fallen for this to be the case:

Penn Station is just one symptom of a larger illness. With an aging subway system subject to a recent state-of-emergency order by Cuomo, and a 67-year-old bus terminal called “appalling” and “functionally obsolete” by officials of the agency that runs it, the New York area’s transportation systems embody America’s inability, or unwillingness, to address its aging infrastructure.

Of course, far from shrinking, the cost of government has exploded over the lives of Penn Station and the bus station, so where is the money going?  In brief, our tax dollars are being redirected to pet projects, progressive redistribution, and (I would say) special deals that amount to outright theft.  A core tenet of blue-state spending is that the people will always accept more debt and higher costs if the last things they get to pay for are the things they find most critical.

We don’t have to go to the Big Apple or major infrastructure for the lesson.  Take a look at this somewhat-cryptic Providence Journal article by Alex Kuffner:

The Community College of Rhode Island organized an open house on Saturday at its Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory to celebrate the completion of a $45,000 renovation that included a new control desk, new seating and repairs to the roof-opening mechanism. …

But the event was clouded by a demonstration outside the observatory’s doors by faculty members and students who protested what they allege is mistreatment of the astronomy professor who has overseen operation of the observatory for the past decade. …

Britton was hired in 2007 to teach astronomy to students and to operate the observatory for his classes and on nights when it’s open to the public. Last month, when the administration changed the way he would be compensated for the public nights, resulting in less pay, he balked.

Kuffner never details the change, but the context suggests that the college may now be paying only a non-faculty rate for the public night.  That is, a special deal has gone away.

One needn’t look far at all to find other examples.

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Local Taxes, All About Perspective

On Tiverton Fact Check, I’ve taken a look at comparative taxes across the state.  Because the local Tiverton Taxpayers Association has been successfully controlling tax increases for the past four years by informing people about our regionally high tax rate, proponents of higher taxes have taken to insisting that we really don’t pay that much.  Why, our tax rate is in the middle of the Rhode Island pack, they say.

That may be true, but it has no context.  This chart shows every Rhode Island municipality’s tax levy per capita, and as you can see, Tiverton is 12th highest.

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Above Tiverton, for the most part, are notably wealthy towns and those that are relatively sparse in population.  This is the chart that Tiverton should be in the middle of, and it would require a relatively low tax rate.

Even this, though, concedes too much.  The main difference in perspective is that the taxpayer group takes the point of view of the family and how much it has to pay for an asset.  Progressives and other high-tax constituencies take the approach of asking how much government can get away with taking from those families.  In that regard, all of Rhode Island is way too high.

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Consequence for Employee Theft, Fraud, or Whatever: Cushy Retirement

I’d say this is outrageous, but it’s far too common and doesn’t seem to produce the appropriate outrage in the Ocean State.  Stephen Greenwell reports in the Newport Daily News:

A Tiverton police lieutenant accused of sleeping during overnight shifts will retire June 30, after the Tiverton Town Council voted 4-3 on Wednesday night to accept a plea agreement that was executed Thursday morning in District Court.

Timothy R. Panell, 47, of 50 Shannon Ave., Tiverton, had a not-guilty plea entered for one charge of obtaining money under false pretenses. The charge was filed, meaning it will be removed from court records in one year provided Panell faces no additional charges.

As part of a court-approved plea-bargaining agreement, 48 additional charges of obtaining money under false pretenses and nine counts of falsifying documents were dismissed.

Keep in mind, by the way, that it wasn’t just this officer.  He merely led his entire shift to have “quiet time.”  The others faced no publicly stated consequence.  Also keep in mind that for years, Panell was the second-highest-paid employee in town, after the school superintendent, largely because of huge amounts of overtime.

In little Tiverton alone, we’ve had multiple instances of similar stories throughout town government over a handful of years, and every time the Town Council takes one of these union-friendly pleas, one can only wonder how they don’t see the incentives they’re creating.  Theft, fraud… whatever.  If an employee gets caught taking advantage of the town and its taxpayers, the consequence is that he or she simply eases into retirement, with an agreement that nobody on the town side will say anything bad about them.

How could this do otherwise than make it more likely that employees will make bad decisions?

Voting for the plea were council members John Edwards the Fifth (son of Democrat Representative John Edwards the Fourth), Randy Lebeau, Christine Ryan, and council President Joan Chabot.

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Legislation Holds Mobility Over the Heads of the Poor for Municipal Bucks

I’ve been very critical of Mike Araujo and his rhetoric on this site, but he is absolutely correct to object to this bill:

Tuesday night, the House Finance Committee passed a bill (H-6213A) that seeks to expand the denial of vehicle registration to individuals who may have outstanding unpaid interest or penalties on fines owed to a city or town, rather than only revoking it for the amount of the fines themselves owed to the municipality.

Legislation like this, making it easier for people to lose their licenses or registration based on financial debts, has been criticized all over the country for its problematic and counterproductive effects on poor Americans. Driving without a registered vehicle leads to substantial penalties or even a revoked license, which simply worsens the person’s financial issues and hardships. This in itself is challenging since the restrictions would deny the person the ability to drive to work, school, or any other related activity making them less able to meet their monetary obligations.

As an indication of how thoroughly aggressive the legislation is, even in the small details, consider this:  Right now, the legislation requires the city or town to pay the DMV $5 in order to request a registration denial, and that fee “may” be added to the total due from the driver.  This bill waives the up-front payment and says that the $5 “shall” be added to the total.

Where is the public interest in all of this, beyond wanting more money for profligate government?  People need to be mobile to have a shot in the modern world and making it more difficult for them to get right with the regulations for mobility undeniably makes it more likely that they will continue struggling and probably remain dependent on government.

The legislation’s primary sponsor is progressive Democrat Christopher Blazejewski of Providence, who apparently submitted it at the request of the city, but who, in doing so, proved that government always comes first for people in government.  Keeping others dependent on government isn’t exactly contrary to that goal.

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The Bubble Begets Tone-Deafness on Eternal Contracts

So, the teachers unions’ annual attempt to give themselves even more leverage in negotiations by making their contracts eternal is back in the mix.  The lobbying by union employees and donations to politicians are ultimately taxpayer funded, so this bill probably won’t go away until it passes someday.

What’s notable, this time around, is that the bill accompanies a labor dispute in Warwick, leading to this telling point from Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh:

Netcoh said the bill “levels the playing field between employers and employees.”

Referring to [Warwick Schools Supt. Philip] Thornton, she added: “Would he go to work every day if he didn’t have a contract? I don’t think so.”

One wonders how it could have escaped Netcoh’s attention that plenty of Rhode Islanders go to work every day without contracts.  See, it’s called “a mutually beneficial transaction.”  The employer has work that has to be done, and the employee has a need to earn income.  If a contract makes sense in a particular circumstance, then the parties draw one up and abide by it; otherwise, the contract is essentially a casual, even verbal, agreement to do work and to pay for work that’s done.

In government, though, it’s not about that mutually beneficial transaction, in part because nobody’s spending their own money.  Contracts for government employees are fundamentally agreements about how much one party will take from taxpayers and transfer to the other party, and so they’ve become a mechanism for labor unions to get politicians to lock taxpayers into expenses.

This eternal contract legislation is about ensuring that taxpayers are locked in to the promises of elected officials (often elected with the help of the employees) to an even greater degree.

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The Labor Union Takes Credit for High-Performing Schools

While we’re on the topic of public education, a different angle caught my attention in the ongoing matter of East Greenwich budgeting.  Readers may have heard something about the fiscal changes and personnel turnover under a largely Republican town council, actually reducing spending and holding the school side of the budget flat.

What jumped out at me as worthy of commentary (beyond “rah, rah, go Team Reform”) is this reaction from National Education Association of Rhode Island union poobah Bob Walsh:

“They level funded the schools, with Corrigan saying her firm would do administrative functions,” said Walsh. “The Chair stopped taking testimony and approved the budget — and now the school committee has to figure out how to implement some of the cuts. This is after it took us a year to get the contract.”

“I’m really surprised by the whole thing — our best performing communities are Barrington and East Greenwich,” said Walsh. “And East Greenwich has not been as generous in funding, whereas the Barrington parents usually step up.”

That’s a strange statement to make, considering that East Greenwich spends almost $1,000 more per student than Barrington.

More to the point, though, what is this “our best performing communities” stuff?  When it comes to arguments about higher per-student costs and lower performance in other cities or towns, the Bob Walshes will run to the microphone to argue that the biggest contributor to success is demographic, the teachers or districts, thus denying the link between spending and results.  They make the same argument with charter schools.

And yet, when one of those towns with supposedly high-performing demographics reins in its budget growth, suddenly the union organizers want us to believe they deserve the credit for results?

It has never made sense for one part of town government to have the authority to allow the teachers union to “get the contract” while only the other part of town government is authorized to raise the money to pay for it.  Maybe it’s time to start removing some of the layers that confuse the question of who can say “our communities.”

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Expanded Disability Pensions Will Be Boon for Investigative Journalists

The bright side, if the bills that Ted Nesi summarizes for WPRI were to pass into law, would be a boom in gotcha-journalism stories about questionable disability pensions:

The first bill, sponsored by Providence Rep. Joe Almeida, would allow an “injury or illness” sustained on duty – rather than just an “injury,” the current wording – to be cause for the granting of a tax-free accidental disability pension to a police officer or firefighter. It would also increase how long officers have to file a disability claim from 18 months after the incident to 36 months. …

The second bill, sponsored by North Kingstown Democrat Robert Craven, would mandate that any firefighter who suffers from hypertension, stroke or heart disease will be “presumed to have suffered an in-the-line-of-duty disability” and therefore be eligible for a disability pension, unless there was evidence of the condition in his or her entrance exam.

When first published, Nesi’s story noted that the bills had been posted for votes, implying passage, but after his story went live, they were removed:

“They were posted prematurely,” House spokesman Larry Berman said in an email. “Both bills were on a preliminary list for possible posting and then were posted in error. Those two bills are still being reviewed.”

Even if it ends there, this episode is a good reminder that special interests (ultimately funded with taxpayer dollars) are constantly working the system to expand benefits for government union members at the public expense.  They work to elect friendly officials to local office for generous contracts, and they work to elect friendly legislators to write generous benefits into the law.

Something dramatic and structural has to happen to change this, because our system has no countervailing forces short of bankruptcy that will withstand the year after year after year push.  The embarrassment of hidden camera stories about retirees abusing their benefits will only go so far in restraining ever-more-unsustainable benefits from being bestowed.

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A Lesson in the Limits of Employee Costs

Always on the lookout for the practical lessons of economics, I have to highlight an article by Marcia Pobzeznik from Friday’s Newport Daily News even though it’s not online.

The Tiverton Town Council is deciding what to do about trash pickup because the costs are rising, and there are two basic options:

  1. Continue with a system using workers to pick up the trash.
  2. Switch to an automated system that uses machines.

If I’m reading the article correctly, at first, option 2 will be more expensive because the town would buy every household the totes in which the machine requires garbage to be placed, but apart from that initial charge, the price is essentially the same.  The lure of the machines, though, is the expectation for the future of workers:

“I’d like to see us go automated,” said [Director of Public Works Bill] Anderson. That would happen in October if Waste Management wins the bid.

Companies are transitioning to automated pickup because of safety issues for workers and the high cost of Worker’s Compensation insurance, Anderson said.

Like many other rackets in Rhode Island, workers compensation is a private operation but is largely a creature of state law, which is heavily weighted to drive up costs.  On top of every other regulation that lawmakers have decided Rhode Islanders can’t live without, it makes employing people increasingly expensive, which in turn makes automation look increasingly attractive, even with an initial cost for the transition.

That puts people out of work, shifting leverage from all workers in the state to all employers, which suppresses salaries and benefits.  This change in the balance creates incentive for politicians to meddle, which produces new ways in which hiring people becomes more expensive.  And repeat.

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