Woonsocket has not escaped the possibility of a property tax hike, and homeowners could see the biggest increase, if the Budget Commission follows through on ideas discussed Thursday afternoon.
One item on the table: a phase-out of the city's homestead exemption, a program that reduces tax bills for homeowners.
"It won't disappear in one fell swoop," City Assessor Christopher Celeste said after the meeting. "Right now it's 42 percent, and that would kill people."
The five-member budget commission, appointed by the state earlier this month to take over city finances, must find ways to raise revenue and reduce spending in an effort to balance the city's books and avoid bankruptcy. They were
appointed to take the reins after state reps. Jon Brien and Lisa Baldelli-Hunt , which would have spread tax hikes to commericial property owners and landlords as well.
At Thursday's City Hall meeting, the commission reviewed how much could be raised by reducing the homestead exemption, a move that has been used in East Providence, another cash-strapped community. The committee considered a reduction of 3 percent a year.
"The homestead exemption takes away a lot from our total assessed value," Celeste said. "It's reduced by 24 percent."
The commission took no vote on the issue Thursday, but expects to take it up again in the weeks ahead.
Mayor Leo Fontaine, also a commission member, said after the meeting some changes to the homestead exemption are a real possibility.
"I don't know if it would ever be phased out completely," he said. "But it is being reviewed, and there may be some adjustment."
Commission members also discussed the likelihood a judge will force the city to raise taxes, even without a bankruptcy filing. City Council President John Ward, who is also a commission member, said a vendor who is owned a large amount by the city could seek a court order demanding payment. If that happens, the city could be ordered to hike taxes.
Fontaine said the school department could go the same route. "The state has put us in this position," the mayor said. "Then they leave the taxpayers to clean up the mess."
Both Ward and Fontaine expressed reluctance to see more cuts to city departments. Fontaine said there have already been deep cuts throughout the city, and going further will save no more than a few hundred thousand dollars.
"I don't see where making those cuts will solve our problem," he said.
"If you simply want to exist, this budget works," Ward said. "If you want a city that young people want to move to, then it doesn't."
The commission also voted unanimously to give first approval to a $122 million proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The budget still faces a second vote. Commission members are considering delaying final approval, instead adopting a provisional budget by the June 29 deadline, when tax bills must be sent out.
"How do you vote on a budget if you don't think it's accurate?" asked commission member Dina Dutremble, a former business manager for the Woonsocket Education Department. "The school budget to me is still full of holes. There are all kinds of things that have to be resolved."
The $122-million budget proposal includes $62 million for schools, and some commission members say they are certain that is not enough, as that figure has been around $67 million for several years. "That $67 million is a bare bones budget," Fontaine said. "They're not running Club Med."
The Budget Commission also indicated it is wary of filling slots in departments that are now short-staffed, even after public safety officials said there may be risks involved. Police Chief Thomas Carey told the commission his department now has 90 officers, five short of the ideal number. He added the number of vacancies could grow higher, as he anticipates seeing a number of officers to reach retirement age in the months ahead.
The chief asked the commission to approve sending five new recruits to the state police academy, which begins training a new class in July. There won't be another class until January, and there may not be enough room for all the Woonsocket recruits then, he said.
"If people want to be police officers," replied commission member Peder Shaefer, "why don't they pay their own tuition?"
Fire Chief Gary Lataille also raised the issue of vacancies. He said the Fire Department must be staffed by 26 firefighters continuously, and that he must pay his staff overtime to meet that requirement.
Shaefer said the city is saving money by paying overtime because hiring more firefighters would mean spending money on benefits. Shaefer suggested the number of firefighters required to man the city's two ladder trucks be reduced from three to two.
"When I became chief we had 133 firefighters, and we're down to 117 now," Lataille told him. "The union has already conceded 10 percent of their positions. All I can say is, good luck to you. I mean that."
"I would ask both chiefs, if we say no more manpower for now, to develop a plan we can present to the unions," Sequino answered. "You can make our job a whole lot easier if you do it first."
Sequino said the discussion would be continued to the commission meeting scheduled for June 24.