Woonsocket's state lawmakers are still uncertain about supporting the supplemental tax bill city leaders hope to use to help plug a $10 million budget shortfall.
Under state law, the city can't ask residents to pay the extra tax bill without approval of the plan by the state legislature. When the City Council endorsed the plan on April 2, some members said they expected the state legislature to follow up by passing the supplemental tax bill within a few days.
At a Monday night meeting, however, the City Council learned the measure may meet with some opposition in the Statehouse, and that members of Woonsocket's legislative delegation — all Democrats — are still wondering which is the right way to go. Action by the General Assembly is still two or three weeks away.
"My fear is that some of the constituency in Woonsocket won't have the money to pay the bill," said state Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt. "I can't think of anyone who doesn't have concern about the taxpayer who has already reached the maximum."
"I'm leaning toward voting for it," added state Rep. Robert Phillips. "But I still have some questions."
The discussion came during a City Council workshop session in the community room at Harris Public Library. The event drew almost every elected official in the city, including School Committee members and Mayor Leo Fontaine. Several aides to Governor Lincoln Chafee also attended.
Legislators at the meeting said that while years ago the General Assembly would rubber stamp bills that affected only a single municipality, that's no longer the case. "Today there's more concern about individual communities," Phillips said. "Legislators understand that what happens in one community can affect another."
State Rep. Jon Brien said some legislators will want to know more about the city's plans for long-term recovery from the budget crisis. "It's important to me that I know about the long-term plan, because I know we're going to be asked about it," he said.
The mayor does have plans for fixing the city's fiscal problems that go beyond collecting more taxes. He's talking to unions that represent Woonsocket's teachers as well as police, firefighters, and other city employees, and he's hoping they'll agree to a 10 percent pay cut. He is also looking to eliminate or shrink cost-of-living increases for those retired city employees who receive pensions. In addition, he hopes to see legislators approve a package of bills proposed by the governor to help Rhode Island's financially distressed communities.
After hearing that outline, Cote said it was too uncertain and noted he would rather see a receiver take over Woonsocket's finances. "I don't want to see us go down a path with a plan that's contingent on so many things that may or may not happen," he said. "Where are we going?"
Brien said he'd rather see a receiver take charge of the city's purse, but added residents would probably still face more taxes. He added that Fontaine's plan could upset legislators with deep ties to unions. "When they hear about 10 percent cuts across the board, on people who have already been hit by pension reform, there will be questions," he said.
Several Council members told the legislators they should work to build support for the measure, rather than look toward scrapping it.
"If you come in with a positive attitude and tell them this will help our community, I think other reps will jump on board," said Council member Robert Moreau.
"You have in your hands the ability to stop the bleeding," added Council member Dan Gendron.
But Council member Roger Jalette urged them to bring in a receiver. He cast the sole vote against the supplemental tax bill at last week's meeting. "I tell you, 50 or 60 percent of the people in Woonsocket can't afford to pay the supplemental tax." he said. "Most people I talk to want to go with a receiver. He can make the cuts we can't."
Fontaine told legislators they should understand what a receiver or a budget commission can do before they go in that direction. "They could come in and wipe out the Homestead Exemption," he said, referring to a program that gives homeowners a break on their property taxes.
The City Council also heard from two members of Gov. Chafee's staff, policy director Brian Daniels and Susanne Gresthner, chief of municipal finances. They told how the governor has put a number of bills before the General Assembly that are meant to give a boost to distressed towns, such as Woonsocket.
One proposal would allow cities and towns facing financial hurdles to skip some programs required by state law. Cities would be allowed to get rid of school bus monitors, erase step pay increases for teachers and suspend education bonuses for police officers, among other things.