While most people were watching the kick-off of Monday night football Sept. 12th, more than 130 protesters attended City Hall for the latest play of the car tax revolt. To their delight, the City Council unanimously recommended a public hearing to be held this coming Monday so citizens can voice their opinions about motor vehicle taxes.
“I’m very pleased that we’ve had this turnout and I only hope that everybody who came will come again next Monday and bring a friend,” said Rob Cote, who spearheaded the rally. “I hope some good comes out of it. If we don’t do something about it now what is going to be left for the kids of the future?”
However, he also feels that the council will attempt to verbally stifle constituents at the hearing. He doesn’t believe citizens will get the opportunity to discuss the reasons that caused elimination of a $5,500 in value exemption, raising auto taxes by a maximum of $190.30.
Removal of the exemption is projected to raise more than $8 million in new tax revenues to balance the current city budget. Elimination of the exemption has also sparked debate over motor vehicle valuations that are set statewide by the Vehicle Valuation Commission. Commission members are being invited to attend Monday’s meeting although there is no requirement that they show up.
Warwick Tax Assessor and Collector Kenneth Mallette said Tuesday that the commission recently contracted with the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) to provide values for the state. By and large, the NADA values are higher than Blue Book values.
“So much for the Blue Book,” said Mallette. Contrary to Cote’s claims there have been thousands of appeals of valuations, as Mallette said his office dealt with 128 and an additional 100 were forwarded to the commission. The appeals handled here, for the most part, were for trailers, he said.
“I still think the council is going to try to keep our voices sheltered,” Cote said. “They are probably not going to do anything about it. But, I still have a trick up my sleeve and we’re going to say what we need to say. We’re not going to go back and forth and say, ‘The car tax is unjust,’ hold hands and sing Kumbaya. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the where we could have found the money. [Former Councilman Bob] Cushman has put charts together and the charts come directly from the figures that were given to us at the budget hearing.”
Cote said he was “disgusted” by the council when they said they were unable to make budget cuts that would have saved the exemption. He thinks they were lax in their efforts, as “the city has been talking about pension reform and health care co-pays for the last 10 years and haven’t done anything” about either issue.
He provided three suggestions that he believes could have saved money and prevented the tax.
“The police chief and the fire chief said they could shave five percent out of their budgets and the council didn’t take them up on their offer,” Cote said. “They talked about the 25 percent co-pay on the $8 million worth of free lifetime health care so there’s $2 million right there. Then, there’s the 25 percent co-pay across the board on all city employees and that’s $3 million. For them to say it’s impossible to make cuts is either because they didn’t want to or they lacked the fortitude to make the necessary hard decisions. That’s why they want to sequester our questions.”
While the council has made it clear they cannot restore the exemption, Cote is hopeful they will. He wants them, as well as the mayor, to come up with alternatives and find money elsewhere.
“Part of the $8 million they were hoping to raise was supposed to come from rental car agencies but we debunked that because none of the cars are registered in Warwick,” said Cote. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to touch on that and have that discussion on Monday. They are going to have to allow some latitude because that’s how you solve problems.”
Another issue Cote has is that subcommittee meetings begin at 5 p.m. He said they should be scheduled later in the evening because most people don’t get out of work until that time, making it impossible for them to attend the meeting at the appropriate hour.
“I have gone over the City Charter extensively from cover-to-cover and rule number two says that all city council meetings are to be held beginning at 7 p.m. so why are the subcommittee meetings held at 5?” Cote said. “There’s no verbiage about it in the charter so they need to reconcile the fact that these meetings need to begin at 7.”
He said subcommittee meetings should be held on a separate day if time constraints apply so constituents are able to be prompt. Further, he feels more residents would have been present on Monday had the subcommittee meeting been scheduled for 7 p.m.
“I answered 40 e-mails from people who wanted to be there but couldn’t get there on time,” said Cote. “It’s a flaw as to why we are in the situation we are in because people can’t come in and question their elected officials. The whole purpose of government is they have to be able to let the people have a voice and they proliferated this sensation that people aren’t allowed there.”
However, when the finance subcommittee meeting began at 5 p.m. on Monday, the room was at capacity and Cote was able to speak. Per his request, the council moved the meeting upstairs to council chambers so constituents could participate and share their opinions.
Cote said he was grateful the council accommodated them. Still, he thinks the process of establishing a public hearing could have been executed in weeks past and holds Council President Bruce Place at fault for slowing down the procedure.
“Bruce Place could have moved it along as fast as he wanted to and could have suspended the rules on August 15th but he didn’t,” Cote said. “But, that’s in the past. The next hurdle is to fill council chambers with people. If you have an issue with your taxes you either go September 19th and make your voice heard or write your check. It’s that simple.”
In the meantime, Cote will carry on rallying citizens. He said it’s important that people are involved.
“Otherwise, the council will continue to make their deals behind closed doors so nobody will be able to hold them in check and no changes will be made,” he said. “Seven people distributed 1,300 flyers on Saturday. Some of them are people I met at the August 15th meeting. They are realizing that something has to change.”
Of those people was Mike DiSalvia, who attended the meeting. In council chambers he shouted at council members, “You’re a bunch of cowards.”
When interviewed he said, “I hate this to be honest but it’s wrong what they are doing to people. The council needs to find other places to make cuts. I will be at each and every meeting until something is done about it.”
Pat Zotos didn’t help hand out flyers, but she was also at the meeting. She said she heard about the car tax rally through a flyer that was given to her and thinks the NADA valuations are unfair.
“There is a discriminative way that they have calculated the tax,” Zotos said. “They are assuming that every vehicle in this city is in pristine showroom condition, even with the mileage amount.”
To address this issue, the council as a whole wrote a resolution relative to motor vehicle valuations that will be discussed during the Oct. 12 meeting.
For the public hearing, Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon and Ward 9 Councilman Steven Merolla, who drafted the resolution, requested that Mayor Scott Avedisian, Mallette, and an employee of the state committee that sets the vehicle valuations, be present.
Yet, Solomon, as well as Chief of Staff Mark Carruolo, reminded the assembly that just because a member of the state committee is invited doesn’t guarantee a representative will attend the meeting.
Cote said he doubts Avedisian will be present.
“I guarantee the mayor will not show up,” said Cote. “I challenge him to finally step up to the plate and meet his constituents and answer their questions. But, I don’t think he will do it because he does not have the courage.”
Additionally, an ordinance to record city council committee meetings and post the pod casts on the city website reached second passage. All nine council members voted for it.
“We’re looking at streaming video very shortly,” said Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson. “We want to give those individuals who can’t attend the city council meetings a front row seat.”
With reports from John Howell