SOUTH KINGSTOWN – In a 4-0-1 vote, the South Kingstown Town Council approved the $89 million budget for next year, including the $7,000 tax contribution to the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce.
As an executive board member of the Thundermist Health Center which received $24,000 in the budget, Town Councilor Mary Eddy recused herself from the vote.
The good news of the FY 2012-2013 budget – a zero percent tax increase – became overshadowed by the four-month dispute of the chamber tax request.
Since Jan. 23 when the chamber first requested a $7,000 tax exemption on its building at 230 Old Tower Hill Road, town council members and residents have debated whether the 501(c)6 organization should receive the same benefit afforded to 501(c)3 nonprofits. Town Council President Ella Whaley, Vice President Carol Hagan McEntee and Councilman Jim O’Neill supported the move, while Councilwomen Kathleen Fogarty and Mary Eddy rejected it.
On March 15, the chamber asked the council to rescind its vote granting the tax exemption, citing a narrow budget window and legal questions. Instead, the chamber asked for a $7,000 tax contribution – an amount it has received from the town for the last 21 years. The council approved this request 4-1 with Eddy dissenting.
The discussion transformed into a political scuffle as town residents and Democratic Town Committee (DTC) members – Deborah Bergner and Maureen Martin – protested the chamber request each time it came before the council. During the March 15 meeting, DTC President and husband of Councilwoman Fogarty, Brendan Fogarty, questioned Town Manager Stephen Alfred how the chamber’s request made it on time for the agenda. At that meeting, Mr. Fogarty became involved in a verbal argument with resident Jonathan Daly Labelle which resulted in a five-minute recess.
Throughout the debate, Bergner rose to the forefront of opposition against the tax request. In a few short weeks - after the council approved the preliminary budget adding $7,000 for the chamber in April – Bergner secured 77 signatures on a petition to remove the line item.
Though she did not attend Monday’s meeting, Bergner sent a letter to the town council expressing her reason for spearheading the petition.
“I feel that no taxpayer money should be given to a political
organization. By forming a [political action committee] with little or no separation from the chamber itself and becoming actively involved in local politics they forfeited their right to receive money from the taxpayers,” Bergner wrote.
Bergner cites two $100 chamber PAC contributions to Whaley and McEntee in 2010 and McEntee and O’Neill’s chamber membership as prime examples of what she sees as impropriety on the part of the council. Bergner is also planning to file a complaint with the Rhode Island Ethics Commission against the three council members.
Bergner suggests that the three council members have given the chamber preferential treatment after the chamber submitted its request in what she considers the eleventh hour. Whaley has repeatedly explained that the chamber letter was received on time to make it to the March 15 agenda.
Since the town council has granted the chamber a tax contribution since 1991, McEntee, Whaley and O’Neill each question the political motivation of the opponents. Martin and Bergner both state they are speaking as residents regardless of their political and work backgrounds. Martin works as the director of political activities for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals.
“Why has too much been made of this issue?” McEntee asked. “Since when has a town dependent on tourism find it so repugnant to support the local chamber of commerce. I don’t even understand. This issue is totally politically motivated. I can’t come up with another reason,” McEntee said.
Citing the community activism many chamber members – such as the Education Exchange, the South Kingstown Community Action and South Kingstown Cares – partake in, Whaley said she will oppose the petition.
“I came into the council chambers with an open mind,” Whaley said. “I’m not sure why this is an issue. All I can think of is there are different arrangements at the council table. With all the energy expended, I’m hoping we work together.”
O’Neill criticized the petition, stating “the letter is pathetic. [Bergner] should have shown the other side of the equation. The petition is not in balance. For 12 years she’s been pounding away at me. It’s all about who is president and vice president of this council. ”
The council members referred to the 2010 elections, in which Fogarty, the top vote getter, was removed from the president’s seat and succeeded by Whaley with McEntee as her second in command.
While Bergner states the chamber should not receive any tax dollars as a result of its SKPAC, chamber board member Richard Pike, explains that the PAC is an arm of the chamber by law, but not part of the chamber. He said the political group – which raises funds through private donations - will not receive one penny from taxpayers.
Early on, the council meeting broke down in a heated argument between Fogarty and O’Neill after O’Neill repeatedly finger pointed and shot accusations at Fogarty.
Reading from an email he received from John Leidecker, Assistant Executive Director of the state chapter of National Education Association, O’ Neill suggested Fogarty works closely with Leidecker and the union. As a result, he stated that if council members can’t vote on the chamber request due to political contributions they received, then Fogarty can’t vote on the school budget if she gets support from the teacher’s union.
“Deb Bergner wrote the letter. Not Kathy Fogarty,” said Fogarty. “I already talked to you about my stance. We passed the preliminary budget. I only asked that $1,500 be given to the Downtown Merchants Association and the Peace Dale Revitalization Committee. John Leidecker is no friend of mine. How did it go to me? I don’t know what he’s going to say. It has nothing to do with the letter.”
Fogarty appealed to Whaley to diffuse O’Neill’s comments, but Whaley said “I cannot stop him from talking with the First Amendment rights.”
In defense of Fogarty, McEntee referred to a March 19 memorandum from Town Solicitor Michael Ursillo that states receipt of political contributions does not bar one from voting on an item.
“If we listened to the garbage in this letter, no one would be able to vote. That’s why I brought up the level of inconsequence. Now you understand how ridiculous this is,” O’Neill said. “I will dismiss this petition as absent of anything this council should consider.”
One resident who did sign the petition, Kathleen Gorman, of Wakefield, stated, “I am saddened as a petitioner to hear [O’Neill] say that the petition I signed is pathetic. I object to his use of words. We deserve better than that. It’s not encouraging people to use the democratic process, the petition process, set up by this town.”
“[O’Neill] referred to [Bergner] as pathetic. That’s not what I call civil discourse. To refer to a petition that 77 people signed as pathetic is in itself pathetic,” disputed Maureen Martin.
Whaley, however, said she did not believe O’Neill’s words were disrespectful and that he called the letter pathetic, not Bergner.
“He used words that are strong, but I don’t think he crossed a line,” she said.
The town council’s vote is the fourth time it voted down a petition since the process began in 2006. In 2007, the council opposed a petition by the Affordable Housing Committee for $300,000 the next six years to establish a trust fund. Also in 2007, the council disproved a request by Peace Dale Elementary School parents to restore an assistant principal. Lastly, in 2009, one resident requested $1,000 to forefront a committee that would put public records online.
Within the budget, the school fund is $58.2 million with a 1.6 percent tax transfer. The total income for the Peace Dale Office Building is $94,163, while funds for the Neighborhood Guild amount to $833,167. The senior service program is $752,610, while the water enterprise fund is $995,798. The solid waste enterprise fund is $683,758.