While Warwick City Council members say it won’t happen, Rob Cote, who led “The Car Tax Revolt” at City Hall Monday, is still hopeful the council will modify the 2012 budget.
Cote and his followers will get the chance to make their case Sept. 12. Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon, who docketed a hearing for that date, said he will ask the city tax assessor to attend and answer questions. He is looking for a resolution and calling on the General Assembly to revise the means of assessing motor vehicles.
Triggering the protest was the action of the mayor and council to lift $5,500 of the $6,000 exemption on motor vehicles to raise an additional $10 million in tax revenues. With the exemption virtually gone, an additional 30,000 vehicles have been taxed.
In addition, without the $5,500 exemption, many taxpayers discovered their vehicles were being valued at more than they say they are worth.
But, as far as the city is concerned, Cote isn’t worried about the valuations.
“The valuations are a separate issue I will take up with the state,” he said. “The council needs to take what they’ve heard, weigh that information out, and go back to their accountants and tax specialists or whoever and do some soul searching and ask themselves if raising this tax was the only way we could avoid Armageddon.”
Despite the rain Monday night, about 200 people attended the City Council meeting to participate in the rally. Led by Cote, many members of the crowd hoped the council would address their questions concerning the car tax, however, Council President Bruce Place informed them that because the issue was not on the agenda, it would not be addressed.
“I know people want to speak on the car tax issue, but that’s not going to happen,” Place said in council chambers just after 7 p.m. “The council will abide by the rules in regard to the open meetings regulations.”
Place explained that getting the car tax issue or any other issue on the agenda is a “fairly easy procedure” and that any constituent can request a council member to put it on the docket for the next meeting on Sept. 12, which is what ended up happening at the meeting’s closing.
“If people don’t understand what the rules are, they shouldn’t be playing the game,” Place said to the crowd.
At that point, many members of the crowd, who began to gather at City Hall around 4:30 p.m., went wild. Place’s voice became stifled by their angry shouts.
“Screw your game. If we were teachers, would you have time?” said Barry Blackinton, who modified the final word of the national anthem when he sang, “And the home of the taxed,” at the meeting.
Other residents hollered “boo” or “suspend the rules.” One person even said, “you’re a bunch of crooks,” as the council exited chambers for an executive session.
On Tuesday, Place said he regretted his use of the word “game” and he had not intended to make it sound like a scheme.
“Everything we did was in accordance with the rules,” he said. “I will not violate those rules.”
Soon after convening at 7 Monday, the council left to go into executive session. When they returned more than an hour later, the crowd had mostly left. They conducted business as usual and by the end of the meeting at about 10:30 p.m., Solomon put the topic on the docket for future discussion.
In a phone interview yesterday, Solomon said, “I have always been an advocate of letting people speak at meetings. Giving the people 10 to 15 minutes to vent is not a bad thing. It’s good to for them to speak on this so we can inform and educate them. It works both ways. We could learn something from them.”
While he is still adamant about a budget revision, Cote feels the revolt was a triumph for taxpayers. He said he is looking forward to Sept. 12.
“The main goal was going through the proper channels and procedures to get it on the docket for a public hearing, so I think we were totally successful,” Cote said. “We accomplished everything we needed to accomplish. We wanted to awaken people to finally step up and become part of the fiscal governmental process of the community. I have to send out 193 thank you cards, [as that many people signed up to be on the rally team.] I think the number would have been twice as many if it hadn’t rained. Some of my personal friends didn’t make it because of the weather.”
But, some of his friends did attend. Among the protesters alongside Cote included Rhode Island House Representative Doreen Costa (R-Dist. 31), former council members Bob Cushman and Helen Taylor, as well as Warwick residents Roger Durand, Lorraine Miller, Roy Dempsey and John Kennedy.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that they could have voted to suspend council rules to allow people to speak,” Durand said when the council exited council chambers for the executive session. “They opted not to. What happened was a typical scenario at the city council meetings.”
But, the evening itself was far from typical, as Cote estimated about a dozen police officers and a handful of fire personnel on hand. He thinks the display of officers was “yet another gross neglect” of fiscal responsibility.
“There were more cops there than there are at an AC/DC concert,” he said. “It’s a double edged sword because on one hand I’m glad they recognized that there is a number of people that are angry for them to think there could be a problem. But, on the other hand, they probably could have saved taxpayers more money by not having them there. Someone should ask for the detail payroll for Monday night’s meeting.”
Cote said he believes the council, as well as Mayor Scott Avedisian, “lack the fortitude to make the necessary structural changes so as not to have revenue to raise taxes and balance the budget on behalf of the taxpayer as opposed to having true fiscal reform in terms of realistic co-pays with health care; a reduction of these ridiculous buybacks of sick pay bonuses; and realistic pension reform.”
Further, he doesn’t approve of Avedisian’s pension reform. He described it as “laughable.”
“It saves $49,000 in the course of four years but during that same time, the taxpayer contribution to his changes is $6.9 million for the savings,” said Cote. “The mayor needs to hear words from successful small businessmen that balance their budget every day. They face putting their kids through school; self-payment of health care issues; and they wonder what they are going to do to survive in the future. When are we going to impose some realistic demands from people that are benefiting on the back of the taxpayers? We need to start looking at that and we need reform. The council could have taken up Police Chief [Stephen] McCartney when he said, ‘Yes, I can cut the budget by five percent,’ but they didn’t.”
During the rally, Cushman spoke of pension and health care reforms. He said while he doesn’t want to see teachers, public safety officials and municipal workers lose their jobs, he feels the taxpayers are suffering because they are funding their pensions and health care services.
“We are willing to pay for good services, but we see our taxes go higher and higher every single year,” Cushman said. “Are we getting new services? No. How many of you pay $11 for top of the line health care? That’s what the teachers pay. That hasn’t changed in five years. On the municipal side, it’s $48 a week for top of the line health care. We spend $8 million on health care for retirees. They pay zero for that.”
Cushman reminded everyone that pension reform is not just a hot topic in the city; it’s also a big issue in the state. He also discussed unfunded liabilities.
“We pay $270 million in unfunded liabilities based on numbers that aren’t even realistic,” he said. “In the next few years, taxes are going to go even higher and to pay for what? More pension aids. The unfunded liabilities for health care in this city are worse than the pension plan. Between the city and schools, it’s $320 million. I just gave you two figures that add up to about $600 million. We need to elect people that are willing to make tough decisions.”
Cote agreed. He said he believes the mayor and six of the city council members are out of control with spending.
“They have left this city on the verge of bankruptcy,” said Cote. “Just like Mayor [Angel] Tavares is holding the bag from Mayor [David] Cicilline, the next mayor of Warwick will be holding the bag for Mayor Avedisian.”
When asked if he is interested in running for political office in the future, Cote said he is undecided. He said he doesn’t feel he has the necessary skills to be mayor.
“I’m a good organizer and I can get people educated so they can pay attention to their government, but I think the guy who gets into this needs a master’s degree or a PhD in finance or 10 years on Wall Street as a hedge fund manager,” he said. “The challenge we’re going to have is to find people who are going to run for political office. Who’s going to jump into this mess? It’s not on my list of things to do career-wise, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t consider it. At this moment, I’m more interested in being with my family than thinking about politics.”
In response to the question of whether or not the rally was a way to generate attention in the media, Cote said, “That’s ridiculous. My life is devoted to my wife and my kids and in the last couple weeks, I’ve taken away leisure time with them to do this for the people that are hit the hardest. One of those people is my 88-year-old mother. It has nothing to do with me.”
Cote has been married nearly 14 years. He and his wife have two daughters, aged 11 and 13.
“With all the time I’ve spent doing this rally in the last few weeks, I could have been with my family,” he said. “I have better things to do, but it gets to a point where you see injustices done over and over again and people are suffering. Senior citizens are suffering. It wasn’t in vain because I think there are people out there that needed to be represented. It’s time to take it back. We completed what we wanted to do and that was step one. Now, we’re going to work twice as hard to keep people informed so they stay connected. We want to have that council chamber filled at every single council meeting from now until whenever.”