The Woonsocket Budget Commission met with the City Council Thursday night to take questions, briefly discussing an Aug. 16 public hearing about the School Committee's June request for a RI Department of Education (RIDE) takover.
Though RIDE has not responded to the request, Carolyn Dias, RIDE's chief of fiscal integrity and efficiencies, has stepped in to aid the department in straightening out its proposed budget.
Commission member Council President John Ward observed Dias has led the budget presentations to the Budget Commission since she began helping the department. After the meeting, he said RIDE seems focused on helping the district straighten out its budget proposal first. "I think they haven't formulated a response yet," Ward said.
Commission member Leo Fontaine said the request for a state takeover of the school system should be answered. "If anything, we deserve a response," Fontaine said.
Ward noted a state takeover would probably not bring state dollars to aid Woonsocket Schools, given the state's unsuccessful attempt to enforce a tax hike to pay for schools during their takeover of Central Falls Schools. That attempt was foiled, he said, by an amendment removing school services from Central Falls' charter, a change Woonsocket has not made.
In other news, Council Vice President Dan Gendron was concerned the Budget Commission hadn't taken action on a new water treatment plant (not to be confused with the waste water treatment plant) the City Council approved before the Commission took over the city's finances. He said the current plant is providing the city with an enviable supply of fresh water, but is aging. "It's getting to the point where it's teetering on failure," Gendron said.
Commission Chairman Bill Sequino assured Gendron the Commission was working hard to clear the immediate financial challenges the city faces so they can begin to take on tasks like reviewing and approving the new water treatment plant.
David Eaton, advisor to the Budget Commission, said the Budget Commission is scheduled to consider the water treatment plant in mid-August. Gendron, who said he voted to ask the state to have the Budget Commission take over, offered his aid to the panel. "I didn't do that (vote to ask for the Commission) to shirk my duties. I want to be as helpful as I can," he said.
Councilman Roger Jalette also offered his assistance, but as someone who opposed asking the Budget Commission to step in. He said his biggest fear was, "Whether or not the community's ability to pay is taken into consideration," when the Commission considers raising taxes. Earlier this week, Sequino said he believed the Commission would have to take another shot at a supplemental tax bill once their negotiations with the city's unions are over.
"The decisions you make now could make or break the city of Woonsocket," Jalette said.
Ward noted the city pays its employees less than what municipal workers get for similar positions in neighboring communities. Woonsocket pays custodians an average of $36,000 per year, for instance, he said, while Lincoln pays custodians $45,000. "Yet, we sit here and get criticized for paying our people too much," he said.
Ward said the Budget Commission's upcoming talks with unions would help solve part of the city's deficit problem, but it won't be enough without raising taxes. He said the state's decision to cut aid to the city has left them no other option.
Fontaine said it's only a matter of time before the state's other cities face the same problem. He said city residents, and residents of other communities, need to cooperate for the good of the state to demand a fairer state aid system. "We've got to start making our legislators accountable," Fontaine said.
Lorraine Corey, editor of MyWoonsocket.com, urged members of the Commission to preserve the police force. "We need the police officers," Corey said.
Sequino said that every department has to be considered for cuts. "They may not all be on the table equally, but they're all on the table," Sequino said.
"As a citizen that's lived in the city all my life, I don't feel safe," Corey insisted.