Cienki Stands By 51% Figure in Brochure

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

At the end of the Town Council meeting Monday night, President Sue Cienki spoke in defense of statistics offered by the town to illustrate the difficult financial situation she has argued it faces. This came in response to the statement released over the weekend from two residents who had met with Cienki, Vice President Sean Todd and resident Stuart Peterson to discuss the validity of those numbers and statistics.

“I, along with Mr. Todd, met with three members of the public, Anne Musella, Eugene Quinn and Stuart Peterson, to go over some of the financial questions and issues [Musella and Quinn] have. We provided extensive documentation with the anticipation that we would be meeting again … so that we could all come to consensus with those numbers.

It was much to our surprise that they put out a press release saying that our numbers were wrong,” Cienki said.

One number she was referring to was the 51 percent median tax rate increase figure used in a brochure issued by the town last spring. Quinn took every tax bill from the year-span in question (2011 to 2016) and calculated a 14.6 percent increase, not a 51 percent increase.

On Monday, Cienki explained her analysis of the tax rate increase.

“I had said if our numbers were wrong, we would correct it and put corrections on our website. I went back and looked at some property taxes…. I looked at my tax increase – 31 percent, along with most of my neighbors. And I said I looked at various properties throughout the town … I looked at 23 properties and there was only one property that had a decrease, a 2 percent decrease. We saw a decrease of 2 percent and an increase of 79 percent.”

An audio excerpt from the Dec. 20 meeting provided by Musella (and recorded with permission of all in attendance) provides a picture into the discussion:

Sue Cienki: . . . our town manager, our finance director: give me accurate information.

Anne Musella: And then your verification was, it was sort of anecdotal . . .

SC: Does this make sense to the people in your neighborhood? . . . So you do a sanity check. Make sure these numbers are right. And that’s what you say to your finance director. Make sure any information that goes out to the public is right. Connect the dots.

Sean Todd: You just take what your employees give you.

Gene Quinn: But when you finished the flyer and you look at that first page and it says the median tax bill went up 51 percent and the line below that says the tax levy went up 15 percent . . . anybody with any numbers sense should have been able to look at that and said, wait a minute, something’s off there.

Stuart Peterson: I would have if I’d been a part of it. A red flag would have gone off with me.

GQ: Another red flag was, it says median in the beginning and it says mean further back. That never happens. So there’s a couple of indications there that, I think in hindsight should have been caught.

SP: I want to go back to my concern that there seem to be sides. There is a side that seems to be in attack mode of “You are wrong. You are misrepresenting things. How dare you?” And then you have them themselves saying, “Why would we ever want to harm the town?” This was information that was given. But then you’re circling back and saying, “Well you should have known better.” That’s not their job to look at tax levies and rolls like that. I have a problem with that.

AM: It is the role of the Town Council, though, because the Town Council has disseminated information in the name of the town. So there is some responsibility.

SP: So, why would they not believe some information when they were given it by the town manager and the town finance director? Why would they not believe that?

AM: That’s fair. back to your original point at the start of the meeting: How can we correct this information … how can we do this? Because I think that everybody agrees there’s a credibility problem and that’s what’s contributing to the polarization in the town. So when somebody says, “See, there’s a wrong number,” they are going to jump on it. I think it would go a long way to say, these are the numbers.

ST: What did you come up with?

SP: It’s 14.6 … which makes sense because the tax levy …

ST: So the number changed. If the number changed, the number changed. We didn’t have the due diligence of how many months, Gene, the spreadsheets you’ve been sending I can’t open them, they’re so big. You’ve obviously dived into this a lot deeper than Kristen and Wendy Schmidle our IT director. I still go back to our … I still think our town has a spending problem. You don’t. You think we can grow our way out of any fiscal mess.

AM: That’s a philosophical discussion. What I’m trying to do now … we want to hash out the facts.

 

 

5 Replies to “Cienki Stands By 51% Figure in Brochure”

  1. As Quinn points out, and even Peterson (who functions as an informal advisor to the Town Council) agrees, if the median tax bill goes up by 51%, the total tax collected is going to go up by a lot more than 15.4%. The 51% number is obviously wrong, even at a glance.

    President Cienki’s unwillingness to concede this, after nearly a year, after months of having the problem pointed out, indicates that for her, numbers are just a means to an end.

    Her loyalty to the ends she is pursuing clearly outweighs her loyalty to communicating accurate information to us, her constituents.

    It’s clear that if we want accurate information, we’ll either have to rely on news sites like this one, or find it ourselves, or create it ourselves the way that Mr. Quinn did.

  2. I was a witness Monday evening of how our TC seems to work, when the TC president, a lawyer, told me that a resident, and math professor (!), did not understand “cumulative interest” ( it really is compounded interest, but … hey who cares about semantics !?)…..
    Pretty much says it all.

  3. East Greenwich has long enjoyed a reputation for good government and good schools. All residents have an interest in preserving this, and open discussion of issues and policies is part of that process. I appreciate that the council president offered to meet with us and was generous with her time.

    That said, many aspects of the town’s financial status cannot be determined without assumptions about things we have not yet observed, such as the number of firefighters who will be injured in the line of duty or the number of employees who will opt for a certain kind of health insurance. These require some kind of statistica inference, which just means estimating things you did not observe given things that you did observe. The number in question does not involve any inference: it can be determined entirely from information that is known with certainty.

    There are 3,818 single-family homes (state code 01) that appear on both the FY2011 and FY2016 tax rolls. These show the actual tax bill for each home.

    You can compute the percentage increase for each individual home, and you can determine the median of these 3,818 percentages. When you do this, the result is 13.2%.

    It’s possible to find indivudual homes that had an increase of 51% or more. In fact, there are 157 of them. Most can be explained by either permit activity or a change in the exemption status of the owner. For the median increase to be 51%, you have to have 1,909 homes with an increase of 51% or more.

    Policy decisions that impact the quality of life in our town require careful, evidence-based analysis.

  4. Anne Musella Here is the full text of the email I sent to EG News on Tuesday 1/23, attaching the audio clip:

    Unfortunately I was unable to attend last night’s Town Council meeting, and therefore unable to address Sue Cienki’s public comments in response to the joint statement from Gene Quinn and me.

    The attached excerpt from the audio recording of our meeting (recorded with the knowledge and consent of all attendees) should help clarify at least a portion of what was said at our December 20 meeting.

    Meanwhile: (1) we still await the published corrections to the mailer; (2) I reiterate the request for documents that support the Council’s $100 million levy projection; and (3) I invite the TC to identify from the documents Stuart Peterson prepared and brought to the meeting, and the Angell Pension reports (not provided by Cienki, yet cited by Cienki as a source in EG News and in an email to me) the $87 million unfunded pension liability number. All of these documents were available in the link attached to the joint statement, for reference.

    Thank you,
    Anne Musella

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