Catalanello and Rowe Call for Real Transparency
Wednesday, October 2, 2013 • 6:46pm
Every year at election time politicians talk about transparency and how critical it is to our representative form of government. Instead of paying lip-service to the concept, Catalanello and Rowe want to articulate clear examples of how our local government could have been more transparent, and some ideas of the way we would like to see things changed when elected.
This year’s Open Space Tax discussion is a prime example of what we think is a less than transparent process. During the initial budget meetings in early 2013, we noted that the Open Space tax levy was schedule to increase by over 60% unless council took action, but were initially rebuffed. Eventually council agreed to review the increase, but the subsequent presentations and discussions did not provide what we believe was all the information needed to make an informed decision.
First, the borough excluded the User Fees and Field Rentals generated by those using the turf fields from the Open Space tax calculation. These fees were always targeted to pay for the turf project, either directly or to cover any debt service, not be swept into the borough’s general fund or reserved for some future use. Seniors were also promised, by members of council from both parties, that a public/private partnership would help relieve them from the burden of paying for the fields, and using this money for anything but paying down debt would be a breach of that promise.
Second, after three years of discussions with the board of education about receiving a $1,000,000 payment from the proceeds of the sale of the Green Village Road school to help pay for the turfing, council waited until after it had set the Open Space tax levy to finalize an agreement with the board for the money. Including this payment would have lowered the anticipated borrowing costs, and the resulting debt service for the turf by almost half. We would note that the contribution was included when the borough made its borrowing decision, so the borough borrowed less, but made no corresponding reduction in the Open Space tax levy.
Third, as we found out only weeks ago from a comment made by the director of the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts just before a presentation from the Open Space committee, a request for $2,000,000 was submitted to the committee earlier this year by the museum, but apparently, only revealed to a couple of members of council. The Open Space presentation that evening included earmarks of almost $400,000 over a three year period for the museum, but made no mention of the specific project(s) or repair plan(s), and their accompanying total costs, that would require these funds. It also made no mention of the needs beyond 2015.
All-in-all, taxpayers saw the Open Space tax increase by 50%, and we feel the size of this increase was unwarranted. Lowering the cost of the debt, and the corresponding debt service, with the application of the $1,000,000 from the BOE would have cut the tax increase by half, and even a pessimistic view of the amount that the User Fees and Field Rental fees would generate each year could have cut that amount in half again.
Although we were constantly told that the levy had to go up because of all the borrowing needed to pay for the turf, the reality is that for the next few years almost all of our Open Space taxes will be going to pay for the purchase of the 49 acres, the environmental remediation needed at Bayley Ellard and the 49 acres, and the significant repairs needed for the museum. A more transparent process would have revealed this fact.
To be absolutely clear on this point, the Open Space tax went up significantly, although the rate went down. The rate was reduced from 2 cents per $100 valuation of property to 1.8 cents, but the actual Open Space tax levy increased by 50% because of a county mandated revaluation of the Borough. The important measurement for property taxpayers is the change in the tax levy, and taxpayers are paying an Open Space tax that is 50% higher.
We urge the governing body to make council meetings more transparent. Mr. Rowe noted, “The board of education has a more inclusive format. After every presentation to the board, the board members are given the opportunity to ask questions or make comments and then we take feedback from the audience. We invariably get questions or comments that give us pause for thought, and also leaves the attendees with the feeling that they had a real opportunity to make an impact on the board’s decision making.”
We also encourage the governing body to resume Town Hall meetings, which were promised by the mayor and council but seem to have stopped in the past twelve months. The annual budget sessions would be a great place to start. Meetings would be more productive and better attended if people didn’t have to wait three hours before they could comment on something that was presented hours ago, and the people making the presentation have left for the evening. We believe a full and complete dialogue with our residents would increase transparency and generate better decisions by the council.
“We look forward to meeting and speaking with Madison voters between now and Election Day – November 5. About our ideas and theirs about increasing fiscal transparency.”
“Please feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or comments about our campaign. You can also follow us on Facebook - facebook.com/CatalanelloRowe4Council, or via our campaign website - catalanello-rowe.com.”