Since launching his, “taxpayers’ revolt,” more than a week ago, Rob Cote says the ranks of dissatisfied citizens have grown, although he doubts they will be given a forum before the City Council.
Cote is calling for a rally at Monday’s council meeting to protest elimination of the $5,500 auto exemption. Removal of the exemption increases city taxes of all vehicles valued at $6,000 or more by $190.30.
As of Sunday, Cote and a team of about five unnamed constituents distributed 2,000 flyers throughout the city that list photos and information of the six council members who approved the tax. He also put up posters promoting the rally and believes “several” people will turn up at City Hall to share their feelings with the council, including local officials.
“I have two senators and three state representatives that are going to be there,” he said. “I don’t want to say the names right now because they will say what they want to say on Monday. Hopefully, the City Council will have a public hearing so they can listen to their neighbors.”
But, even though Cote is hopeful, he also said he realizes the council will most likely tell him and the anticipated crowd they cannot address the issue because it is not on the agenda.
“They are going to say, ‘It’s not on the agenda. We’re not going to discuss it,’” he said. “That’s what we’re expecting. They are afraid to face this disaster, but the spending is out of control. All they are doing is going to the taxpayers and dreaming up another tax.”
Council President Bruce Place said people have the right to attend the meeting and protest with signs if they choose. But, he also said the business that is already scheduled on the agenda will not be interrupted.
“Mr. Cote has called people to a meeting in which they have no place to vent,” said Place. “There’s nothing on the docket about car taxes. We have other issues to discuss to keep the city operating and a disruption of that meeting is not going to accomplish anything. To do what’s he’s suggesting would be a violation of the open’s meeting law, which I don’t intend to violate. If the downstairs [room where the finance meeting is held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.] is filled to capacity, we will have the Fire Department enforce the rules in regards to capacity. We’ll take appropriate measures to continue our business.”
Further, Place said the council doesn’t have the authority to alter the tax. His advice to Cote would be to contact a councilperson in order for it to be considered for the docket at a future meeting.
“Even if it was on unanimous consent, that could be done, but it needs to be docketed at least 48 hours in advance,” said Place. “I agree that the state formula is ludicrous. The formula the state has derived is faulted and poorly thought out. It needs to be readdressed and changed and the only way to do that is to call your representatives and senators and ask them to put a bill in the General Assembly.”
Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson agreed and said that while she thinks the NADA evaluations are unrealistic, Cote needs to take the issue to the General Assembly. Like Place, she said there is nothing the council can do to avert the tax.
“I understand that people want to protest, but the decision to use the NADA evaluation was made at the General Assembly,” she said. “If you’re going to have a car tax revolt it should be in front of the individuals who are responsible for those skewed evaluations. I don’t know what they expect us to do.”
Vella-Wilkinson also cited a Rhode Island public law that states that the value of vehicles is based upon 100 percent of average retail value reported by the NADA Official Used Car Guide. The law is dated for Dec. 31, 2006.
“If you look at 1.01, you’ll see that it is the state’s law that says the vehicle guide of the NADA for New England is what is used to determine the average retail value to assess vehicle taxes,” Vella-Wilkinson said. “If Mr. Cote wants to protest NADA valuations, he’s about five years late. If it is a legit complaint of the NADA evaluations, that should be brought to the State House, not City Hall. We don’t have control over it because it’s a state law.”
Cote said, “They keep going back to this state law. Well, the state law also says that each town and city can reduce the value.”
Place and Vella-Wilkinson said that a few of the points Cote lists are invalid in letters he mailed to constituents. They agreed that the comments in regards to the NADA are true, but others are false.
“I object to some of the information that Cote’s putting out because it’s incorrect,” Place said. “The things he [wrote in the letter] are totally out of the council’s control and cannot be reversed. It’s not possible unless the state law is changed.”
They also said they don’t agree with Cote’s claim that “the additional taxation is due to the council members refusing to cut spending and balance the budget.” Vella-Wilkinson said she feels it is unfortunate Cote is potentially confusing people with his incorrect claims.
“The City Council did balance the budget,” she said. “As far as refusing to cutting spending, that’s also not true. We get the budget from the mayor. It’s prepared by department heads and the mayor goes over it and makes any changes before he presents it to the council. We have a few choices. We could do nothing and accept it as it is or we can make amendments to it. Six of us voted yes to amend the budget that was proposed. That’s where the cuts came from. Those that voted “no” meant that they voted no for the amended budget, which is for the mayor’s higher tax. The council lowered the exemption to $5,500 from $6,000.”
Ward 7 Councilman Charles “CJ” Donovan and Ward 9 Councilman Stephen Merolla voted “no” on the amended budget. Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon was not in attendance for the vote, due to an illness.
Place and Vella-Wilkinson also said Cote is incorrect about his claim that 100 per cent of the revenue generated from the tax is “earmarked for the 2.75 per cent pay raises the council approved for all city workers.”
“It’s misrepresentation,” said Vella-Wilkinson. “People are frustrated. I’m frustrated myself. The economy is tough and on top you have the car tax. As we loose property taxes with business that are leaving, homes that are leaving, and an airport that’s expanding, residents are going to be left holding the [bill.] People who think the expansion is good for Warwick are going to pay for it in property taxes, not RIAC. That’s not the way it works. I’d like to see the people who are rallying for the car tax put the same amount of energy in protesting that the citizens of Warwick will be burdened with the significant loss of property taxes with the expansion of the airport. The airport is going to continue to drag down property taxes and citizens will bare the financial burden.”
But, Cote said his irritation is growing, as the council can reverse their action. In fact, he believes they already did.
“They voted for the increase on property taxes and passed the budget a week later and then said, ‘You know what? We’re going to lower that,’ and they dropped it. For them to look at you and say they can’t change it-they are lying. State law allows them to take that $6,000 exemption and move it anyway they want. When does it end? People are getting hammered with taxes.”
In addition to Place and Vella-Wilkinson, Ward 5 Councilman John DelGiudice; Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis; and Ward 8 Councilman Raymond Gallucci said they, too, view the NADA values as unreasonable. They also said altering the tax is out of the council’s hands.
“There’s not much we can do about it now that we are in the budget year,” said DelGiudice. “Secondly, even if we did have the authority, there would be a shortfall in the budget. Then, there’d be a supplemental tax to make up for it. We looked long and hard over the budget to make cuts in order to avoid implementing the car tax that the mayor had proposed. With the numbers that were given to us, there was no way around that.”
Gallucci, who chairs the Finance Committee, said, “I agree with that the NADA book and its values are ridiculous, but we do not have the power to change it. If he wants us to repeal it, where’s the money coming from? Cote’s right on some stuff but then he said we have the right to resolve the tax at anytime, and that’s not true. We did not negotiate the contract of pay raises so he’s wrong on that, too. They are going to be protesting in the wrong place.”
Travis said it’s important to remember that while the members of the council are not responsible for the car evaluations, they are responsible for paying their own taxes. She understands that people are having difficulties making ends meet mainly because she is right there with them.
“My husband bought a truck a while ago for a $100 and he’s going to pay more for the taxes than he did for the truck,” she said. “Does that make sense? No one needs another tax. I work three jobs and for me to have to pay more on car taxes hurts me, too, just like everybody else. I’m not privileged just because I’m a councilperson. I see people who can’t afford to buy medicine or they are struggling to put food on the table. Some people have lost their jobs and others have lost their homes.”
Travis works full-time as a data operator clerk for the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal. She also works part-time at the Don Rodrigues Karate Academy in addition to her employment as a council member.
Moreover, Travis said her husband has been unemployed “for quite some time” because he suffered a blood clot.
“He just started disability and he went a long time without it,” she said. “But, I know that we’re not the only ones. We have to pay bills and we have to get by. I’ve been there. I can walk the walk and I can talk the talk. I know how it feels to struggle because I’m still struggling. I’m trying to make things better for everyone, including the kids that are our future; people who are getting married; our seniors on fixed incomes. Some people don’t know if they are going to buy food or medicine. There are some weeks where I say, ‘I guess I’m going to just get by again.’ It’s hard. I relate to the everyday people and I relate to the fact that the car tax is a nightmare. I was upset because last year we stopped it. This year, we couldn’t do that and it’s not fair.”
Cote says that business owners told him they witnessed a city employee remove flyers and signs he posted on West Shore Road.
“They are taking the posters off private property,” Cote claimed. “The people on the property asked me to put them up. The point is they know this is snowballing and they just want to get rid of my signs. Now, I put an order in for bigger signs to go back on their property. There’s a substantial budget to this mission. I’m a man of principle and this is a matter of principle. I’ve spent $1,400 on it so far and had some other people purchase all the paper and do the printing. In total, between myself and my buddies, we’re probably at $1,800 right now.”
Place and Gallucci said while Cote is within his rights to post material on private property, it is illegal for him to post anything on utility poles.
“I understand that he’s putting signs up on telephone poles in front of council people’s houses,” said Place. “I guess some people have called the police about that because that’s not legal.”
Mayor Scott Avedisian said he feels that, “Mr. Cote’s accusations are erroneous… Further, the signs are illegal and our employees will continue to remove all signs. The employees do not need to be told to follow the law. I do not think that the car tax is on the docket for Monday. I question why people would ask others to attend an event when they are not scheduled to be heard. I think that is unfair. Finally, the fact that [this] newspaper wants to fan these flames speaks volumes to me.”
David Picozzi, acting director of the Department of Public Works, was not surprised to hear the claim that signs had been taken down.
“We take down signs every single day of the week whether they are Rob Cote’s or John Howell’s,” he said yesterday. Referring to the hundreds of signs posted in the course of a year, he added if the signs weren’t removed “do you know what our city would look like?”
Nevertheless, posters have been placed in liquor stores, markets, Laundromats, and boat companies.
“I received a call from someone who picked up a flyer at Dockside and has asked me to deliver to him 500 flyers so that he can go door to door in the Hoxsie area,” Cote said. “This is just an example of the response that we have gotten from local business in the last [few] days.”
Last Thursday, Cote was invited to speak about his protest on the Dan Yorke show on WPRO at one in the afternoon. He was on air for nearly 20 minutes.
Cote said he will again be featured on Yorke’s show, as well as a few other talk radio shows, this week. He also plans to take the issue up with the Rhode Island Vehicle Evaluation Commission.
When asked if he has ideas of running for a political position in the future, Cote said, “It’s food for thought but you have to stay focused on this immediate goal. This is a chess match between Rob Cote and City Hall and I declared checkmate. The best thing for them to do is to say, ‘We want to sit down and listen to everybody and revise the budget.’”
DelGiudice said, “I’m curious to see how many people show up at the meeting.”
Ward 1 Councilman Steven Colantuono gave a brief response to the whole issue when he said, “Everyone is entitled to their opinions.”