If you watch town meetings or read Facebook, you’ll see something remarkable. Over and over again, elected officials and other people who have campaigned repeatedly to build casino money into Tiverton’s spending are declaring that it was an obvious mistake, and they’re blaming others… mainly TTA. Apparently, it’s our fault we didn’t stop them.
The history is straightforward. Over the course of several elections, voters confirmed by electing TTA candidates that the casino money should be handled through the financial town referendum (FTR), not some slush fund controlled by whoever happens to be on the Town Council. Many of us wanted tax relief, but the important thing was that the people should have a say.
And so we all did.
For the 2018-2019 budget, Mike DeCotis (now running for School Committee) and David Paull (now running for Town Council) voted as members of the Budget Committee to include casino revenue in the budget. The budget petition I put in that year did, too, but it spent less overall. Theirs won.
For the 2019-2020 budget, a petition from Sanford Mantell added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the town’s operating budget, including to the schools and to the library (whose budgets the law makes difficult to reduce once they’re increased). Mantell also decreased one-time capital expenditures from what the Budget Committee suggested, moving that money (again) to the operating budget.
That makes him the king of building casino money into the budget, and he was backed by Council Members Patricia Hilton and Denise DeMedeiros as well as the School Committee, who actually sent their lawyer to Town Hall to give Mantell free legal backing when errors in his petition threatened to keep it off the ballot. It got on, and it won. TTA didn’t agree with it, but that’s what the voters wanted.
However, with all of that said, we should question the new common wisdom that says casino money should go into a restricted account and never be used toward operating expenses. At the end of the day, new money can only go to one of two things: increased spending or reduced taxing. A restricted fund doesn’t change that basic fact. A restricted fund protects the thing you’re spending money on. It doesn’t protect taxpayers from the consequences if the money goes away.
Consider three scenarios:
- Casino money is restricted to one-time capital expenses, and it comes in short. Either the projects don’t get done or the money is taken out of the operational budget to make up the difference if the projects are needed.
- Casino money is restricted to capital, and other revenue comes in short. Either services are reduced or taxes are increased to make up for the shortfall, because the capital expenses are protected.
- Casino money is not restricted, and revenue comes up short from any source. The town can balance expense reductions and tax increases as needed, deciding what projects and services are most important.
Adding a new source of revenue into the budget only becomes a problem if the town uses it as an excuse to spend more than taxpayers would otherwise tolerate because they don’t have to come up with the cash, themselves. That is what they have done. Hilton, DeMedeiros, DeCotis, Paull, Mantell, and the rest knew voters would never approve all that increased spending if we had to pay for it upfront, so they pushed budgets that spent the casino money.
President Hilton is right that “you have to learn from your mistakes,” but the mistake wasn’t allowing voters to have a say about casino money. It was trusting her and her crew when they built the money into the budget.
Featured image: An image of the casino under construction.