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Baldelli-Hunt to City Officials: 'I Cannot Support the Current Pension Bill'

Senators and representatives meet with administration at City Hall to discuss pension reform.

Despite a clear message from the city administration that failure to pass pension reform would be devastating for Woonsocket, Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D - District 49, Woonsocket) explained Wednesday night that she could not pass the current bill without significant amendments. 

All five members of the General Assembly representing Woonsocket attended the meeting at City Hall, along with members of the City Council, Mayor Leo Fontaine and Finance Director Thomas Bruce.

"I just felt it was prudent for all of us to sit around the table and just formally go through what some of the [pension] issues are, as far as what the proposed increases would do to the local budget," said Fontaine. 

Minus reform, Woonsocket faces a $5.9 million contribution to the state-run Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS) over the next two years, a cost which Bruce explained would translate to "at least a $3 tax increase."

"When you look at the amount Woonsocket would be required to contribute, it's astronomical," said Fontaine. "I don't want to sound so negative about it, but there's really no way that we could make up that difference without tremendous impact to the taxpayers and to the services. I think we would see shutting down City Hall for a couple of days."

Unfunded liabilities of similar proportions face cities and towns across the state, and with the General Assembly poised to vote on a solution proposed by General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Fontaine hoped to bring city representatives on board in supporting what he sees as needed reform. 

"When you go back to the Statehouse and carry the message forward, I think that's clearly where we're at right now," he said. The mayor attended a joint House and Senate finance committee hearing to deliver that message personally last week.

Woonsocket officials are also on board with many city and town leaders seeking to add a provision that gives cities the right to suspend Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAS) on independent, locally run pension systems. The proposed reforms would suspend COLAS — an automatic raise for all retirees tied to the rate of inflation — for up to 19 years on the state level, a plan which union representatives have . Though the legislation includes some provisions for municipal retirement systems — the independent plans that pay for employees and retirees not covered by MERS — that the bill does not go far enough to address this additional liability. There are 36 non-MERS plans in 24 communities across the state and officials have said that most are funded less than 60 percent. Woonsocket's plan is currently 58 percent funded.

"On the local side of things, we're in a little bit different of a situation than a lot of other cities to the degree that our systems are closed, and we have the bond proceeds that give us a artificially high percentage of our fund covered," said Fontaine. "But we do have to pay on that debt service."

Woonsocket's system was capped back in 1985, and no new entries will be added to the 258 retirees currently covered by the plan.

"Any increase in pension between now and 2025 when it peaks at $9 million annually — that growth is directly related to COLA," Bruce said. "The difference between future benefits of COLA — compounded COLA as it stands now — versus no COLA is approximately $100 million dollars, over the next 40 years."

The proposed legislation does not give cities and towns the right to suspend the municipal COLAS, but does require municipalities to address the unfunded liabilities by going back to the bargaining table with unions. Woonsocket and other communities throughout the state would have to achieve 80 percent funding or 50 percent improvement over their current funding level within the next 10 years. Though the city is currently on a five-year payment schedule, there are no penalties for late payments. Under the new system, failure to provide a plan would result in the loss of state aid.

"By this proposal, requiring everybody to do a 10-year plan, and tieing that directly to state aid, that's where this puts us in a real bind," Fontaine said. "Without some tools, it's very difficult to get a handle on this and I think that's why the current request is that whatever tools are given to the state in the form of suspension of COLAS and things of that nature, cities and towns would benefit tremendously by having those same abilities."

With the city's position explained, Baldelli-Hunt took the floor, and much of the remaining 2 hour and 20 minute meeting was dominated by her objections to the bill, followed by plees for ultimate approval from nearly all of the present council members.

"I'm not sure exactly what you're requesting from us," said Baldelli-Hunt.

"Make sure this bill passes at the state, because we can't afford the $6 miilion," replied Council President John Ward.

"A handful of municipalities are asking for the remainder of the room to help satisfy our debt," Baldelli-Hunt said. "That's not an easy request. We can try to do that."

"We're not asking the state to help finance Woonsocket's problem," said Ward. "We're asking the state to apply the same rules that the state is applying to itself in order to provide relief from a burden we can hardly handle, and nobody would be funding it. And in terms of the other communities: Providence, Pawtucket, West Warwick, Johnston, Cranston, Coventry, Central Falls ... it's a majority of the population of the state. None of them want us to pay their bill or for them to pay our bill. They just want the ability to work their way out of it."

"I can tell you on the record: I'm not in favor of this legislation," Baldelli-Hunt replied. The representative's strongest objection to the bill is rooted in its treatment of judges that fall under the state system.

"We're passing legislation that would allow judges — who are the highest earners in the state of Rhode Island — to receive COLA increases, but we're taking away the COLAS to individuals that are receiving very small pensions. I can't do that," she said. "In my world, that is not fair."

These, and other inequities, explained Baldelli-Hunt, could be addressed in amendments, but there is no guarantee they would be passed.

"You're going to take an individual at 61 and tell them until you're 80 years old, you're not going to receive a COLA increase. In turn we're going to need to give them heating assiatance, food stamps, housing ... because by the time they're 80 years old, they can no longer remain in their house. This is unbalanced. We have to consider the low earners,"she said.

"The totality of it is a net benefit for the city," said City Councilman Daniel Gendron. "I'd love to see a perfect plan passed, but it has to be viewed in it's totality."

Council members Roger Jalette, Stella Brien and Christopher Beauchamp each, in turn, provided reasoning why the bill should ultimately be passed, with or without amendments addressing the inequities.

"My goal is to make sure we don't get a bill for $6 million dollars next year because nothing was done," said Ward.

Chris12 November 03, 2011 at 08:20 PM
Baldelli-Hunt said.... but we're taking away the COLAS to individuals that are receiving very small pensions. I can't do that," she said. "In my world, that is not fair." With all due respect Representative Hunt, you and all your fellow reps in the GA receive FREE medical health insurance paid for by the suffering tax payers of RI. "In my world, that is not fair!" Representative Hunt what happened to the bill that was submitted for all GA members to do a 20% co-pay for health insurance? That bill never saw the light of day... "In my world, that is not fair!"
James Thomas November 03, 2011 at 08:24 PM
"My goal is to make sure we don't get a bill for $6 million dollars next year because nothing was done," said Ward. Is he kidding me? He's been sitting idly by for years as nothing has been done in Woonsocket.
Jeff Parenteau November 03, 2011 at 08:59 PM
Once again Baldelli-Hunt just plain misses the boat. COME ON! Don't support a bill that would actually HELP your constituents because it's not fair? Hello? Your constituents CAN'T AFFORD YOUR POLITICS!!!!!!!!!!!! Support the damned bill and get it passed! Then set your sights on the judges and whatever you feel is "unfair." You can't get the first down in 1 play but you have to start somewhere so - take two or three downs to get it done but DON'T throw the baby out with the bathwater! How about using the brain and the common sense that God gave you? You might get elected again!!!!!! Oh wait - I guess it's more important to you to get a couple of signs to the Stadium hung on the highway rather than save the taxpayers money they don't have or helping YOUR city to stay afloat. You are such a poor excuse for an elected offical...
Eastie November 03, 2011 at 09:01 PM
Woonsocket's pension plan is not closed, there are still active employees that will be added. Woonsocket's own fund is down because of not properly funding per the Charter and unreasonable rates of return set forth. But of course these mistakes are expected to be righted by the employee / retiree who followed the rules and contracts every year.
Thomas Graves November 03, 2011 at 09:32 PM
Pardon my French, Mr. Ward, but poor planning on Woonsocket's part (especially Sue Menard) does not constitute an emergency on my part! The City of Woonsocket,(you included) failed for decades to address the 800 pound retirement gorilla in the room. Now you want to do to those who have LEGAL CONTRACTS with the city the same thing the state wants to do to state workers and teachers: bend over and take the punishment! But not all retirees with suffer: Of course, State Police who retire after 25 years with full benefits, will continue to receive a retirement based on all income, including side jobs and uniform costs, while retirement contributions are only made on base salary. Oh and did I mention that Troopers are usually promoted prior to retirement so they can collect a higher monthly check. As Baldeli-Hunt points out, judges will continue to be treated as kings: full pension, spouse entitlement and who knows what back-room deals they negotiated. Again, did I mention that many receiving benefits never paid a penny for their 100% retirement! I am sure that your future retirement will be based on your hard work and your public service; you will probably collect a taxpayer funded medical plan until age 65, and of course your service to multi-govermental agencies will provide you and your family with a secure future. You earned every penny!! As for my future, I await the decision of the 'Fair and Balanced' General Assembly.
hmmm12 November 04, 2011 at 03:07 AM
There is such a disconnect between our elected officials and the real populous of Woonsocket. Some people just don't get it driving around in Audis or Saabs, they just can't get it while everyone else takes the bus. I'm not trying to say they don't deserve these items if they work hard I'm just trying to say they can't really experience the ramifications of the realities of their legislation of lack thereof. She just dosent get it.
Chris12 November 04, 2011 at 10:30 AM
Union members expected their leaders to keep a watchful eye over their pensions/investments. They too dropped the ball. Along with a change in city government I hope union members demand accountability and new leadership in their labor organizations.
Yvette M Ayotte November 04, 2011 at 10:32 AM
I agree with Lisa that judges shouldn't be excluded but Lisa, your constituents are going down, please help them.
John Ward November 04, 2011 at 12:38 PM
Mr. Graves and others: Had you been at the meeting, or if you listen to the taped discussion at www.mywoonsocket.com you will hear me agree with Rep. Baldelli-Hunt about fighting for amendments that will have the state police and judges under the same limits as everyone else. What I could not agree with her about was her belief that if she doesn't get the amendments she wants, she will reject the bill. Her no vote tells Woonsocket taxpayers that she is willing to force a 12% tax increase because she didn't get her way. I said at the meeting, "Push hard for all the amendments that you believe will make the bill more fair, but if you can't get those things, vote yes on the bill and bring back those changes as bills in the next session." She seems to not be in agreement with this concept.
Pam November 04, 2011 at 01:18 PM
Ms B-H, try like crazy to get the amendments you want, but if you can't, you need to vote for the package. To do anything else would be so naively short-sighted that you would need to be targeted for removal from office during the next election. The taxpayers are watching more closely than they ever have been before.
John R Dionne November 04, 2011 at 02:00 PM
In my opinion Lisa should make her amendment, but if it fails, she has no choice but to approve reform. Wihtout reform this city is devastated. Her amendment is reasonable and at least we will hear from other Rep's as to why they feel cola is ok for judges and no-one else. John R. Dionne
EssaySea November 04, 2011 at 02:34 PM
I'm always glad to hear someone say "...We have to consider the low earners...". I hope this is being done with all legislation. I heard some pretty nasty stuff (about treatment of low earners) being thrown around at the city council candidate forum the other night. Shame, shame, shame.
Meesh November 04, 2011 at 07:55 PM
Memere (and everyone else out there,) remember you can write in a candidate for mayor.
ok pal November 04, 2011 at 08:58 PM
of course she'll oppose any form of this bill no matter what, how many of her family members collect pensions common sense people
David Bouchard November 05, 2011 at 02:02 AM
Ahhh, Mrs B-H; always out there fighting for her low-wage-earning constituents (the straight ones, anyway). Always on guard to ensure fairness and justice to the little people. Thank you Mrs B-H, we'd be nothing without you.
give me a break November 05, 2011 at 08:24 AM
well baldelli -hunt I'm 68 on ssi and I haven't got a cola in 3 years , so i guess thats ok with you so long as you get yours, oh by the way I pay for my medical, this should be put to the voters/taxpayers of RI and I vote yes
give me a break November 05, 2011 at 08:28 AM
why bald-hunt now another good move would be to resigned from the council
English first November 05, 2011 at 01:07 PM
I did not read in this article how other representatives feel, and how they will vote. (All five members of the General Assembly representing Woonsocket attended the meeting at City Hall). Perhaps I missed this. Are the others voting for or against this legislation ?
Sandy Phaneuf November 05, 2011 at 09:53 PM
English, The other reps seemed, for the most part, on the same page with city officials, but were not nearly as straightforward as Baldelli-Hunt. Rep. Phillips seemed to somewhat agree with her. MyWoonsocket.com also has audio clips from the meeting for a little more information.
Thomas Graves November 06, 2011 at 09:51 PM
Mr. Ward, with all due respect, I am not stupid. If you believe that Rep. Hunt has to vote for a bad bill and then make it better in January, I have a bridge to sell you!! Judges and State police need to 'suffer' and pay for the sins of others the same way that teachers and state employees will be required. As for the bill itself, it sure looks like snake oil is in vogue again. Tom Graves
Thomas Graves November 06, 2011 at 09:59 PM
Memere, you are precious! But don't let Sue off so easily. She balanced her budgets on the backs of children for almost a decade. But she did plant lots of flowers! Leo, the savior, is really trying to stay under the radar; his life after politics depends on collecting a good pension for all the hard work he has done. Imagine collecting a year of credit to a retirement system for maybe 60 days of work! Not a bad deal. Tom
Thomas Graves November 06, 2011 at 10:02 PM
Again, approve a bill based on false data, and amend it later; spoken like a true politician. Tom
Thomas Graves November 06, 2011 at 10:06 PM
common sense people I don't recall any judges or state police with the name Baldelli! Maybe we need to exclude judges from the retirement system and remove the mandatory retirement of state police at 25 years. tom
Thomas Graves November 06, 2011 at 10:15 PM
Maybe the majority of reps in the GA who receive FREE medical are lawyers who can't afford it on their own. These are the same reps who will move on to be judges in the future, and will not only get free health care, but COLA's for life and a 75% annuity for their spouses when they die. But teachers and state employees, who paid their share of retirement costs, are being told they will be the ones who will support the judges demands! Tom
Jerry November 07, 2011 at 01:57 AM
We do need pension reform, but let's be fair to everyone. If you paid into a pension all these years and still do, why should they get screwed? They didn't do anything wrong. They had no choice. It's the ignorant people who don't know math at the state level who really, never saw this coming??? Were they all golfing while collecting their fat pay check? Why should judges get cola, they don't even pay into a pension. Rhode Island is so corrupt it makes the Soprano's look like the "little rascals". Get rid of all the dead weight at the state, and then trickle down, also the dead weight of state reps that do nothing. Why do we need them? They aren't for the people, they are for themselves!!

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