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Chafee: Central Falls should merge with a neighbor

August 5, 2011

PROVIDENCE (AP) — Rhode Island's smallest and poorest city cannot stand on its own and should be merged with a neighboring city, Gov. Lincoln Chafee said.
Chafee, an independent, made the comments during an interview Thursday on MSNBC. He said the "best solution" for Central Falls would be to merge with Pawtucket.
"I think Central Falls just cannot survive as a 1-square-mile city," Chafee told MSNBC.
A state-appointed receiver overseeing Central Falls filed for bankruptcy on behalf of the city Monday. The city of 19,000 faces $80 million in unfunded pension obligations and has a projected $5.6 million deficit for the current year.
Chafee's spokeswoman, however, backed off the comments Friday and insisted that annexation is one of several options on the table.
"Right now we're just evaluating all the options," said spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger. "I think it (annexation) is one of the best options out there, but obviously there are several that we've got on the table."
The annexation of Central Falls by Pawtucket has repeatedly been suggested as a possible solution to Central Falls' chronic fiscal problems. But leaders in both cities are critical of the idea.
Central Falls City Council President William Benson Jr. said the consensus Friday morning among a group of residents that meets at Pat's Barber Shop for coffee was that no one wants Central Falls to merge with Pawtucket.
"Nobody wants to give the city up," he said. "This is a funny place, this city. We all grew up here as kids. Our parents all wanted to get us out of here."
But people tend to return.
"We're like lemmings, I think," Benson said. "We all come back."
He also questioned how a merger would work. He said salaries of unionized employees in Central Falls are lower than in Pawtucket, including in the police and fire departments. And a merger would presumably result in layoffs in one jurisdiction or the other in an effort to eliminate redundancies, he said.
He also argued that a merger wouldn't address Central Falls' most crushing problem: its pension liabilities.
"That's still not going to solve the pension problem," he said. "Pawtucket's in debt. Everybody in Rhode Island is in the same boat we are."
"Also, who wants to give up their power? No mayor, no police chief, no fire chief wants to give up their little patrol."
A Dec. 2010 report from a previous state-appointed receiver recommended that Pawtucket annex Central Falls.
Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien said at the time that Pawtucket would only annex Central Falls if it benefited Pawtucket. He also noted that his city faced its own financial challenges, including a deficit that once stood at more than $12 million.
The mayor of nearby Cumberland met this week with officials from Central Falls to discuss ways to streamline Central Falls' services and the possibility of sharing public safety services. Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee said no specifics were discussed, and that at this point his city is only advising Central Falls on possible solutions to its fiscal woes.
He said Central Falls residents should decide whether to combine with another city.
"We are not interested in taking over Central Falls," McKee said. "They're small and they have some fiscal issues, but you have to respect the municipality of Central Falls. What do they want?"

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