Critics Corner

Myths, Spin & Outright Lies

Here are some of the myths a handful of critics are trying to spread.  Be sure to check the facts  for yourself to make an informed decision on November 8th.  If you have questions, contact us at:

1.  “The voters in Tiverton have time and time again voted to keep the FTM.”

Tiverton voters have never had the chance to vote on an all-day budget referendum where the voters still decide the budgets and property taxes.  But Tiverton voters have twice rejected proposals which would have placed the entire budget in the hands of the Town Council.

In 2006, the voters approved a resolution requesting a Charter Review Commission to propose a replacement for the Financial Town Meeting (“FTM”).  The Town Council in 2008 blocked that referendum based proposal from going to the people to vote on, and instead put on its own proposal, which was rejected by voters.   In fact, the 2008 Town Council was found by the Rhode Island Attorney General to have violated Open Meetings Law by putting their own proposal on the ballot without proper notice.  The situation now, and the Town Council now, is entirely different.

2.  “This is a Power Grab By the Town Council.”

Ironically, most of the perpetrators of this myth are the same folks who in 2008 fully supported the illegal ‘Town Council Budget Adoption’ proposal that voters rejected.

This myth references  the 4/5th vote requirement required by the Paiva Weed State Tax Cap Law from 2006,  which prior Town Councils did not follow.  The FTR removes any doubt that taxpayers will receive the full protection of the Tax Cap Law, but in no way can a 4/5th Town Council vote “veto” a budget.

The Paiva-Weed tax cap law applies the same at an FTM or an FTR.  To the extent there is ambiguity in the tax cap as to FTMs, the FTR would resolve it.  It is important to distinguish between the levy and the budget.

The Tax Cap does not limit budgets, but rather the Tax Levy. So once a budget proposal is approved by the FTR, the respective school and municipal budgets are in force.  Further, Paiva Weed tax cap law does not allow exceptions for a Referendum.   What the Town Council could do is “veto”/limit the tax levy amount via the 4/5ths vote, but not the budgets.  The budgets would remain in force but would be funded by other revenue items, or the General Fund surplus.

Anticipating this issue, the FTMCAC last December asked Solicitor Teitz if it was  legal that the FTR ballot question wording refer to a maximum tax levy ‘not to be exceeded’.  The Solicitor opined that this was permissible, hence the wording of sections 301 (b) 1.) that the people vote for a tax levy “not to exceed” a dollar amount.

Below is an example of how the tax cap could play out:

(a) A petition which exceeds the tax cap is filed.

(b) The Town Council applies to the state for permission to exceed the tax cap (required by charter)

(c) The state replies with either a YES (with a maximum excess levy amount) or a NO.

(d) The Financial Town Hearing occurs, at which time the eligibility to exceed cap will be known in advance and part of the debate.  No more last-second tricks on the high school gym floor.

(e) Assume the FTR voters approve the budgets and excess levy.

(f) The FTR approved budgets are in force without question.

(g) If step (c) was a YES then the Town Council has to decide whether or not to implement the excess levy, versus say drawing on the General Fund surplus.

(h) If step (c) was a NO then the Town Council cannot implement the excess levy and has to draw on the General Fund Surplus or find another revenue source if it wants to spend the entire budget.  Or, the Town Council can choose to spend less than the budget it was allowed.

Above, step (h) is the same situation that exists currently with the FTM, but the FTR offers significant improvement however in other areas such as requiring advance state approval, proper notice of excess levy to voters, etc.

3“No more people will participate in the FTR than they do in an FTM.”

The facts do not bear this statement out. There are 11,755 registered voters in Tiverton. The FTM has a minimum quorum (301) of 2.56% of these voters, and a maximum quorum, due to space, of 17% of these voters (2,000 people). In 2010, the Tiverton FTM attendance was 1,151 people, or 9.8%. In 2011, the Tiverton FTM attendance was 329, or 2.8%. Compare these numbers with those of North Kingstown, a town that has an all-day referendum. The North Kingstown Patch, in commenting on the 2011 all-day referendum made the observation that turnouts for past referendums have been “low”, averaging from 10% to 30% of the population. In 2005, on a referendum that asked to add $500,000 to the school budget, the turnout was 18% (NE Independent). And, in 2011, the all-day referendum turnout was about 11% of eligible voters (Projo).

4.  “You can’t vote ‘no’ on a budget at the FTR.”

With the FTR, voters will be presented with budget requests from the Budget Committee and any request from the Town Council, School Committee, and any Tiverton voter that gets 50 signatures on a petition.  At the FTR, voters will not vote “yes” or “no” on each request, but will instead vote for one, and only one, or none at all.  This is the same way we vote in elections all the time.

Importantly, people will know well in advance (not at the last second on the high school gym floor) what budgets have been proposed.  If a voter does not like any of the budgets proposed, he or she can put his or her own budget request on the ballot with just 50 signatures.  That voter will also have the chance, if he or she wants, to explain his or her proposal at a public Financial Town Hearing 2 weeks in advance of the vote.

With the FTR, the process cannot go endlessly, or leave the town without a budget even being adopted before tax bills have to go out.  Also, ”re-voting” of essentially the same question will not be permitted, so we won’t have a repeat of the bait-and-switch ”do-over” FTM in 2008, which led to a 10% tax increase after the voters had already overwhelmingly voted it down.

 5.  “We need to keep the FTM because people will never vote yes for a tax increase.”

The people of Tiverton have said repeatedly that they want direct control of town budgets and taxes.  The FTR gives this control to thousands more people than could even fit into the high school gym for an FTM if they wanted to.  The current FTM discourages many people from participating in the budget process, and then often serves to confuse and intimidate those who do give up their Saturday(s) to participate in an FTM.  The FTR, on the other hand, allows the entire town to engage in the process in an informed, deliberate, respectful manner.  It is insulting to try to suppress voters from participating because some think they know better than the voters who have to make trade-offs in their budgets every day.  Why are these critics afraid of real democracy?

6.  “I heard the FTR ballot may have illegal budgets on it.”

Preliminary drafts of the FTR proposal had a clause that would have made the Town Clerk the “gatekeeper” to make sure that all elector petitions were “legal”.  However, pursuant to a request from Ms. Laura Epke, the FTMCAC removed this “gatekeeper” role of the Town Clerk.  The implication of this, of course, is that an elector could petition to “exceed the state tax cap”.

At about the same time, in April 2011, the FTMCAC went before the Tiverton School Committee and School Committee member Mrs. Carol Hermann also expressed concern about how  a “gatekeeper” function of the Town Clerk could affect the ability for an elector to petition to exceed the tax cap.  This is documented as #27 here in the FTMCAC matrix.

As shown in item #27, the FTMCAC gave Mrs. Hermann (and Ms. Epke) what they requested, and added the requirement that the Town Council must seek an excess levy waiver. Ironically, however, in her recent Letter to The Editor, Mrs. Hermann now uses what she explicitly requested and was granted to oppose the FTR.  This is disingenuous, shows very little confidence in Tiverton voters, and misrepresents the FTR process.

In fact, the FTR provides the following benefits over the FTM:

1)      The government cannot thwart an Electors Petition proposed budget.

2)      Town Council must seek permission from the state (a waiver) for exceeding the cap should such a petition be filed (this is not done under current FTM practices).

3)      All budget proposals must be noticed and publicized for at least two weeks prior to the FTR vote.

4)      All budget proposals will be vetted at the Financial Town Hearing (FTH) two weeks prior to the FTR.

In summary, Tiverton’s pro spend forces are attempting to use this threat of litigation to oppose and defeat the FTR in favor of keeping the FTM,  when it is in fact the FTM itself that leaves the town significantly exposed.

7.  “I heard no other town uses a process like the FTR.”

Unlike other budget Referenda in the state, the FTR is somewhat unique in that it tries to replicate and maintain the positive aspects of the FTM while eliminating the negative aspects of the FTM.  For example, the FTM allows for voter budget amendments from the floor of the meeting.  Similarly, the FTR allows for voter initiated budget petitions.  To the contrary most budget referenda do not permit such direct participation by voters.  The FTR is well crafted, preserves existing voter rights, and in doing so is somewhat unique.

In fact, Tiverton voters have said repeatedly that they want to replace the FTM with a new process, but they want to retain control of the budget.  The FTR proposal does just that, and is appropriately tailored for the sign of our town.

Of course, there is nothing new about voting in referendums.  Tiverton uses referendum/special election votes frequently, and the November 8th vote is just one example!

8. “Is it true a petition originator does not have to speak at the Financial Town Hearing?”

Yes, and this point was debated at length by the FTMCAC.  One of the many drawbacks of the FTM is voter intimidation and the requirement to publicly speak at open microphones, on the gym floor with no podium.  There are many voters who simply are not comfortable doing so, and the FTR does not require these voters to publicly speak at a microphone to be heard.  In addition, the FTR proposal gives the petition originator the option to have a written statement recorded by the Town Clerk.  One of the key goals of the FTR is to allow for the broadest amount of participation by removing barriers.

Of course, a petitioner who chooses to gather 50 signatures and submit a proposal will likely want to take the opportunity to explain it.  Explaining a budget proposal at a hearing should be much more comfortable then at an FTM because there is much less time pressure.  With advance preparation. speakers could even bring audio-visual support such as a slide show or have handouts.

On the other hand, government bodies (Budget Committee, Town Council, and School Committee) are required to attend the Financial Town Hearing, so they can explain their requests and field questions.

 9.  “Under the FTR will there be enough time to prepare budgets?”

Currently the FTM is the second Saturday in May.  The proposed FTR is the third Tuesday in May.  This year the FTM was on May 14 and the FTR would have been on May 17 – three days apart.  Under the FTM the docket content is finalized 30 days prior to the FTM.  Under the FTR the ballot content is finalized 28 days prior to the FTR.  All budgets are to some degree estimates based on the best information available at the time, and this is true with both the FTR and the FTM.

These facts are straightforward.  Critic Susan Krumholz’s letter misleads voters by inferring that the FTR process deadlines are a month earlier than the FTM deadlines.