Editorial: Barrington residents deserve answers from a town in hiding

Posted 10/10/19

The Town of Barrington’s treatment of two residents trying to understand a massive change in tax policy should be upsetting to anyone who lives here or owns property here. Charlie Payne and …

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Editorial: Barrington residents deserve answers from a town in hiding

Posted

The Town of Barrington’s treatment of two residents trying to understand a massive change in tax policy should be upsetting to anyone who lives here or owns property here. Charlie Payne and Emily Calandrelli want answers, and the town is refusing to talk to them.

They requested a pile of records and were denied on most accounts. Many of the denials fall under the category of: ‘we can’t release records we don’t have.’

In this case, that is a very telling answer.

The town does not have many records, because this change was hardly discussed, documented or vetted through any channels of government, other than the tax assessor’s office. Apparently acting mostly on his own, the tax assessor chose to take advantage of a recent Rhode Island Supreme Court case and to start changing property assessments based on home sale prices annually.

Not surprisingly, in a town like Barrington, in a market like this, 80 percent of the homes sell for more than their assessed value. Therefore, hundreds of new homeowners learned that their actual property taxes will be far greater than what they anticipated — and greater than what they and their lender expected at closing.

Setting aside the fact that this is an aggressive tactic for a town that literally runs upon the backs of residential property taxpayers, the lack of public review, scrutiny or even notification is astounding.

In any other community, a significant shift in tax policy would be brought before the town council for review, approval, at least a public hearing. Even if the council simply rubber-stamps the policy, it would give residents — and the critically important real estate community that was blindsided by this — a chance to review it, challenge it, learn about it.

Not here.

Instead, some 450 property owners received a letter in the mail, and the tax assessor answered a few questions from the local news reporter, after the fact.

As expected, some residents, led by the outspoken Mr. Payne and Ms. Calandrelli, are upset by the policy and threaten to challenge it, and the town has chosen to hide behind closed doors. Invoking a clause in the Rhode Island Open Meetings Act that allows municipalities to discuss issues in private if there is litigation or the “threat” of litigation, the Town of Barrington has refused all requests for public dialogue, and Town Council President Michael Carroll has refused to put the issue on an agenda.

The council’s response is an overly aggressive interpretation of state law that undermines the true spirit of the statute — to discuss public issues in public. Aside from exerting police force on an individual, there is no governmental power more invasive — and therefore more deserving of public scrutiny — than the power to impose taxes and seize money from its citizens.

But in this case, the Town of Barrington is refusing to even talk about it.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.