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.