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LEO LOOKS BACK: Departing after 20 years in city government, city’s outgoing mayor says he has no regrets

November 30, 2013

Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine (Photo/Ernest A. Brown)

WOONSOCKET -- Maybe it was before the rollbacks in state aid, before the Great Recession, or before the overstretched bubble of real estate values across the U.S. finally popped.

Maybe there was an era when being the mayor of the seventh largest city in the state of Rhode Island was a fun job to have, but it did not belong to Mayor Leo T. Fontaine.

“I think at some time when there was a lot of money floating around, being mayor might have been a fun job,” says Fontaine. “I can’t say it was ever anything other than a lot of hard work.”

In just a few days, the 44-year-old mayor will cede the keys of City Hall to Mayor-elect Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, a veteran state legislator who trounced him by a margin of 2-1 in Fontaine’s bid for a third term. Her campaign focused an unpopular Budget Commission which has sharply raised taxes and cut employee benefits, while she portrayed herself as someone who would embark on a path toward a brighter day.
But Fontaine says he’s leaving without any regrets and feels proud of the work he’s done for the city as a member of the Budget Commission. Even if it was unpopular, says Fontaine, it was work that needed doing.
There’s little question, says Fontaine, the five-year plan enacted by the Budget Commission to prevent the city from going belly up alienated just about every constituency he was depending on to get re-elected. Property taxes for many home owners went up some 24 percent in 2014. More of the cost of health care benefits was passed on to retirees and active employees, nearly all of them members of organized labor unions. To save even more money, Fontaine championed such unpopular austerity measures as turning off streetlights.

If he had a chance to do it over again, there’s little he would have done differently.
“Every step we took we thought was the right thing to do,” said Fontaine. “I’d like to be able to think that through these difficult decisions and through the development of the five-year plan we’ve paved the way for recovery.”

Fontaine says he had no idea that serving on the Budget Commission was going to be such a poison pill for him, politically speaking, when the state seated the panel in May 2012. A pillar of Fiscal Stability Act, the Budget Commission consists of five members, three of whom are appointed by the state. The others are the mayor and council president of the community where the commission is seated.

At the time, says Fontaine, the city didn’t have much choice about whether it was getting a budget commission. The Woonsocket Education Department had run out of money to pay teachers or bus kids to school, and the commission was the only legal instrument capable of requesting an advance of state aid to keep the schools open.

As time went on, the commission took a comprehensive look at the deep-seeded problems of city finances. Unfunded pension liabilities and long-term shortfalls in benefit obligations to retirees were dragging the city down. It was all compounded by a lack of cash on hand to pay day-to-day bills and an inability to borrow, because the city’s bond rating had tumbled into junk status.

Given the unpopularity of the cure for what was ailing the city’s treasury, the expedient thing for Fontaine to do might have been to take his seat upon the dais with other members at Harris Hall and vigorously oppose everything the panel proposed. Instead, Fontaine became a cheerleader for most – not all, but most – of the key components of the plan.

Even Monday, a week before the new mayor was scheduled to be sworn in, Fontaine was busy prepping with lawyers for his testimony in a lawsuit triggered by the five-year plan. A group of police retirees with whom the commission did not negotiate cuts in employee benefits is asking the Superior Court to reject the changes and preserve the status quo. Fontaine said he spent “hours last week and even over the weekend” going over the facts and rehearsing his testimony in the suit, which is expected to be lengthy.

Fontaine says he could have played the perennial foil to the commission’s voting majority of state appointees, but to do so would have been as disingenuous as it was unhelpful.
“I would never have compromised by beliefs or integrity just to win an election,” he says. “I could have sat there and said ‘no’ to everything they wanted to do but if I had done that I would have lost any ability to shape the process.”

Fontaine says there were a number of ways in which he and Council President John Ward softened the blow for taxpayers by working cooperatively with the commission. Among other things, he says, the rollback in the homestead exemption, a chief cause of the spike in property taxes, might have been much worse had it not been for their efforts.

***

STILL, FONTAINE believes the time has come for the state to rethink the Fiscal Stability Act, which has now been deployed in three cities operating under fiscal duress. The law was invoked to push Central Falls into municipal bankruptcy. East Providence was also under the control of a budget commission and now appears to have gotten the upper-hand on its finances.

For Fontaine, as well as Ward, another veteran of elective office, the price of playing ball with the Budget Commission has been, at best, a dire setback for their political careers. But Fontaine says the biggest problem with the law is that it just doesn’t solve the problems it’s supposed to quickly enough.

What the city needed more than anything to get a handle on its problems was swiftness, according to Fontaine. What it got was a commission that behaved like another City Council, playing to vested political interests and dragging out the decision-making process unnecessarily instead of using its sweeping administrative powers to get things done in a hurry.

“Now that we’ve seen how the process has played out in Woonsocket, East Providence and Central Falls, there needs to be a revisiting of this statute,” says Fontaine. “It’s not just the political fallout that’s an issue. The whole city has been dragged though this process of uncertainty and doubt that has eroded the confidence of the community. A lot of these issues could have been avoided if it had not been for the budget commission process.”

A rangy, sandy-haired man who still looks boyish for his age, Fontaine says he ran for mayor in 2009 for the same reason he ran for council, for the first time, at the age of 23: Because he thought it was a way to help the city where he grew up. He never lusted for higher office, but when the opportunity presented itself, he saw becoming mayor as a natural evolution.

In retrospect, his may not have been an era of fun, but neither was it lacking in reward or accomplishments, beyond those of the budget panel. He says his administration persuaded several high-tech businesses to not only stay put, but expand, and it governed well through hurricanes and blizzards on a shoestring budget.

One of the most memorable chapters was taking on a Wisconsin atheist group that threatened to sue the city for having the World War I monument known as Place Jolicoeur, featuring a Latin crucifix, located on public property.

After a rally at the monument in May 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation appears to have lost interest in the dispute.

As a result of all the attention the dispute brought to the monument, however, a city woman named Anita Wilbur was inspired to travel to France to visit the grave where her uncle, World War I soldier William Jolicoeur, is buried. Jolicoeur is one of three soldiers killed in The Great War for whom the monument was dedicated nearly a century ago, but Wilbur gained a new appreciation for his sacrifice after the dispute with FFRR.

When Wilbur got to France, she realized her uncle’s name was misspelled on the cross that marks his grave. The commission in charge of the cemetery later corrected Jolicoeur’s monument and sent Fontaine a photograph of the marble marker, a picture that still adorned his office last week.

“She once told me I changed her life,” Fontaine says with visible emotion.

As he prepares to exit City Hall, Fontaine says he intends to stay active on the boards of several organizations whose work he considers important, including the Beacon Charter School for the Arts. Politically, the longtime Republican says he no immediate plans for returning to public life. He won’t take any time off, but will promptly resume the job he held before he became full-time mayor, doing genealogical research in support of estate law for a family-owned company.

Although the work involves significant travel, he’ll be able to do a lot of it from the home he shares with his wife, Luz, and children, Juliette, 10, and William, 14.
“I’m very happy to be able to be spending more time with my family,” he says.

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