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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) Car tax is a fix for municipal junkies

January 22, 2012

The bad news is, you have been robbed and cheated for years now, paying a car tax on values that are way out of whack, nowhere near what your automobile is really worth.
The good news is, a bunch of rabble-rousers in Warwick have gotten the attention of state Rep. Joseph McNamara, who is moving to change the law so that the value your vehicle is taxed on more closely resembles reality.
The bad news is, mayors and other city and town officials are howling, saying they don’t care if they have been taxing you on artificial, overinflated numbers, they have come to depend on the revenue they get from it and if that money is taken away, they are just going to gouge it out of you some other way, like with higher property taxes.
The good news is … ahhhh, nope, there is no more good news, you are just going to continue to get robbed and cheated.
The cities and towns are like junkies you have caught breaking into your house and stealing your belongings. It doesn’t matter that you nabbed them. They are still junkies so they are going to break into your house again tomorrow because they need the money. We might as well let them keep overtaxing us on our cars. It’s like giving junkies clean needles; at least you minimize the harm.
The answer, to torture a metaphor a little bit further, is methadone. Have the state step in and provide them with some of the money they need so badly. They will still be junkies; they just won’t be robbing your house with excessive property taxes.
Yes, the state has tried this before and failed, more than once, in fact. But they could do it a bit smarter this time.
They can use those better, more accurate values that McNamara is talking about and, to make it a bit more affordable to the still-broke state, use a single, reasonable tax rate, maybe $25 per $1,000 value. One big reason the last “car tax phase out” didn’t work, as Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee told them 1,500 times, is that it wasn’t fair. Piggy, greedy-gut cities like Providence, Pawtucket and Woonsocket charge in the $40, $50, $60 per thousand range while others are in the teens or low $20s. Cumberland, for example, manages to get by with just $19.87 per thousand.
That meant, under the old system, that the state used to reimburse Providence ($60 per thousand) $300 for a car valued at $5,000, but for the same make and model of car valued at $5,000, Cumberland was reimbursed $99.35. That’s what made the car tax phase out unaffordable, and unfair, to boot.
So, use the new values that McNamara is championing, set a flat, $20 per thousand rate, and this time maybe the state could get rid of that foul car tax once and for all. I mean, isn’t the car tax scaring away “job creators” the way we are told other taxes do?
Yes, some cities and towns will get less money, but aren’t they getting used to that by now? Property owners will finally get a break. And by far, property taxes are the most onerous, odious, burdensome taxes we have. Even “job creators,” which is a misleading euphemism for “rich people” get whacked with property taxes because they have big homes and/or commercial or industrial real estate they are paying on.
We should take another try at getting rid of the car tax, but let’s do it right this time.

A look at Cranston
Fans of local history and politics will want to check out a book that’s been on the shelves for a couple of months now by Rhode Island attorney and Republican Party activist Steven Frias called “Cranston and its Mayors.” He could very well have called it “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same.”
Starting from the premise that political history is little more than a “chronicle of quarrels,” Frias follows the development of Cranston from its beginnings as a small town of which the origin of its very name is lost to the political manipulations of the RI General Assembly, to a city of farms, to a city of homes, to a city of manufacturers to, as the author leaves the last section of the book, a city in crisis, financial and political.
All along that continuum there are quarrels about development, about sewer and water services, about deficits and debts and — always — quarrels and squabbles and fights over taxes.
Frias displays a talent for digging out the tidbits, little details and anecdotes which demonstrate that while the names, dates and dollar amounts might change over time, we are forever fighting about the same things over and over again: who is going to get what from government (and, the other side of the coin, who doesn’t), what it is going to cost and who is going to pay for it. These are fought out in battles between Republicans and Democrats, mayors and city councils, each taking credit for advancement and blaming each other for the problems.
In telling the stories of the tenures of the 20 men (all men) who have been mayor from Edward Sullivan in 1910 up to and including today’s chief executive, Alan Fung, Frias also describes the robust growth of the city and its colorful, boisterous politics.
In just the second mayoral election Cranston had, in 1912, Frias recounts tales of voter fraud that had to be settled in the courts. “Eventually,” Frias writes, the RI Supreme Court resolved the legal dispute by finding that, although there had been illegal votes cast in the election, both sides had benefitted from the illegal voting.” Sullivan, therefore, had been re-elected “by at least three votes, but no more than seven.”
Along the way, we meet Arthur Rhodes, who, with his brothers, built Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, still the home of Republican Party get-togethers today. We see the building of one, then two high schools, the City Hall, and water and sewer projects that opened up the western section of the city, enabling it to morph from cow pastures to industrial and residential developments.
Frias shows us a young City Council president named Edward DiPrete, charged with conflict of interest for championing the rezoning for an apartment complex on land his mother owned. He branded the charges “ridiculous” and huffed that people could question his decisions, but not his integrity. Hmmm, one is left to wonder what his future ACI cellmates would think about that.
There are other names even non-Cranstonians (or is it Cranstonites?) would recognize: Sprague, Traficante, Laffey, but it’s better for you to read about them in the book.
If I have one complaint about the book, it is in a way a complement to the writer. I would have been happier if the book were longer, if it fleshed out some of the surely interesting stories that it quickly alludes to. The end notes provide some additional details, but those and perhaps more belong in the body of the book which is a too-brief 137 pages.

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