The City Council asked Woonsocket’s General Assembly Delegation for help with several challenges Monday night, spending about three hours mapping out unfair taxpayer burdens they said communities statewide would benefit from fixing.
Representatives Lisa Baldelli Hunt (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket), Stephen Casey (D-Dist. 50), Bob Phillips (D-Dist. 51) and Senators Marc A. Cote, (D-Dist. 24) and Roger A. Picard (D-Dist. 20) attended.
William Coyle, Real Estate consultant and principal of William E. Coyle Jr. and Associates of Pawtucket, spoke to legislators and the council about subsidized housing taxes at the invitation of Councilor Albert Brien.
Council President John Ward said the city's subsidized housing units only pay eight percent of their rental income in lieu of taxes, under RIGL 44-5-13.11Combined, Ward said, the properties represent $377,147 in lost revenue for the city. The burden causes an increase in the real estate tax rate of about 30 cents per thousand, according to a table distributed to members of the work session.
Coyle said the eight percent number was an error in the law which has never been fixed. He said the number is far below what some in the state are paying - a parking lot company owner in Providence, for instance, is paying 33 percent of his income in taxes.
“The eight percent is totally inadequate and doesn’t meet our basic expenses,” said Councilor Albert Brien. So, he said, the council would like the city's legislators to work to increase the limit to 15 percent.
“This is not just a Woonsocket issue. This is the entire state," said Councilor Roger Jalette, who urged the city's representatives to seek the support of other communities.
Brien noted that compensation for affordable housing used to be built into the state reimbursement formula, and it's time it was put back in.
Failing that, said Ward, "I beg you if you could to find some way to get money into the budget that will compensate this city.”
Ward also asked the delegation to work to allow the state education reimbursement formula to account for the 60 percent of the teacher pension contribution the city makes to the state's contribution of 40 percent.
The ratio was reversed during the Diprete administration in the 80s, Ward said, when the reimbursement formula was more generous than it is now. I would simply implore," Ward said, “that every effort be made to supplement that.”
Ward again pointed out the issue was one that applied to other communities in the state, where delegation members would find support. "This is an issue for Woonsocket, it’s an issue for Providence. “You would find that you have representation from more than 50 percent of legislators in the state on this,” Ward said.
Councilman Robert Moreau raised the question of the Budget Commission's authority to micro-manage city affairs, when they should be focused on finances. “People are being allowed to appeal our decisions,” Moreau said, referencing the Council's denial of a license for Spindle City Pawnbroker at 118 Main St. which was appealed to the Budget Commission.
"The Budget Commission could have simply said, I’m sorry but we don’t want to hear that issue,” Moreau said, “Just because the law allows them to do it doesn’t mean they have to get involved.”
Brien noted that it is possible for the General Assembly to alter the law empowering Budget Commissions.
Phillips said he agreed with Moreau on the Budget Commission. He asked Ward, a member of the Commission, if the board could reschedule its meetings to after 5 p.m. to allow more people, including members of the Woonsocket Delegation, to attend.
Ward said Budget Commission meeting times have been scheduled so all the members, who have work during the day, to be present, but, “I certainly won’t disagree with you that there are more convenient times,” Ward said.
Jalette pointed out to the Delegation that even though the Budget Commission's 5-year plan to bring the city back to solvency and plug a $10 million deficit (combining union concessions, cost cutting and a supplemental tax) is common sense, "There is a fear by those of us in Woonsocket who intend to stay that they won’t be able to make it.”
Ward suggested a possible way to lessen the burden on taxpayers a residential property tax rate charging a lesser rate on car property taxes, and a higher rate on car property tax for renters. “It’s an effort to reward people who will invest in the community for home ownership,” Ward said.
After the meeting, the city's representatives were optimistic that they could work to aid the city as the council asked.
"It's a lot of work to do on all fronts," said Casey, "It's obvious we have to bring something back to the city to help the situation." He said advancing state aid to the city is one thing they can press right away - something he and his fellow representatives are already working on. The council's other requests will take some time to think about, he said.
Picard said he had a few ideas about how to aid the city that he needs more time to work on. He agreed advancing state aid is an immediate task. "Hopefully, the Governor's budget will have some of this already," Picard said.
Baldelli-Hunt said she's been meeting with Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee on ideas to improve the fair funding formula, and she, Phillips and Casey have been meeting during the last week to work on how best to help the city during the General Assembly session.