To the editor:
I am a relative newcomer to Little Compton: a summer resident since 1980, homeowner since 1986, and full-time resident since 2001 when I decided this was the ideal community to raise my infant son. Why not: Little Compton was a rural, beautiful, welcoming town with an excellent, well-rounded curriculum at the Wilbur & McMahon School.
The last two issues of the Sakonnet Times provide clear evidence of the long-term impact of the Taxpayers Association on our school system and community. In the last decade, this group has negatively impacted the spirit and vitality of this community. To their credit, the leadership of the Taxpayers Association, seemingly composed of individuals who retired to Little Compton, has worked hard to attain and then sustain their influence.
The Taxpayers Association attained power in the 2004 annual town meetings, when they defeated a town council and school board-backed proposal to raise the tax rate, by I believe 25 cents, in order to maintain the school’s language arts programs that contributed to development of our children in their most critical, early years. These meetings were bruising, dividing this town between families with children and many retired residents.
The Taxpayers Association has sustained its influence by being the only organized provider of information to the community regarding the town and school budgets. The data appears accurate, but incomplete. For example, their 2014 newsletter provided a graph and figures for the drop in school enrollment at Wilbur & McMahon over the past 20 years. The decrease has been significant, falling from 378 in 1994 to 275 in 2014, a hundred students. However, they do not point out that the drop was only 25 students between 1994 and 2004 and 75 students, or 75 percent of the decrease, since the divisive tax battle of 2004.
Something real has happened since 2004; some families living in Little Compton have transferred their young children to Portsmouth Abbey and St. Philomena’s, other families like ours are using Providence private schools. More importantly to the long-term vitality and viability of Little Compton as a family-centered community, new residents have been increasingly retirees and summer residents. Why would a young family move to Little Compton when they can move to Barrington, Portsmouth or Dartmouth, which are clearly more family-oriented? Yes, they do have higher taxes, but they have services families desire.
The 2004 victory by the Taxpayer Association has created real apathy among year-round family residents. This has allowed the Taxpayers Association to fill the void in community decision-making. The chairman of the Taxpayers Association, Joseph Quinn, is, in my opinion, the strongest, most vocal member of the school board.
The decision-making power and membership of the Town’s Budget Committee are now dedicated to only cutting expenditures to the bone, regardless of the well-being and social benefits to the community. In fact, the few votes in this year’s financial town meeting occurred because the budget committee zeroed out funds for two local non-profit groups; one helping victims of abuse and the economic recession and the other providing drug and alcohol preventive services, both recommended by the town council. The decisions of the Budget Committee were upheld in the voting. The tax rate would have been increased by less than one cent if these expenditures were level funded. Pretty amazing! The town Budget Committee is clearly aligned with the views of Taxpayers Association.
It is scary, but realistic to project these trends and ask what Little Compton will look like in ten or 20 years. One can hope that Little Compton will be more attractive to families with the renovation of the school. But, a clean, healthy building does not improve the performance of our schools. The population of our town is more likely to continue to age, making Little Community look more like a retirement community without walls. If summer residents find this aging environment less attractive, will their interest in coming here wane? It would be ironic, if these trends occur, bringing down the value of our homes, which would compel us to raise the tax rate.
We control what the future will look like in Little Compton and, therefore, we need a town-wide honest discussion now.