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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) Many eggs were broken to make CF omelet

October 2, 2011

If Receiver Robert Flanders’ plan for Central Falls’ recovery really allows the beleaguered city to emerge from its financial black hole and stumble into the future on its own he will indeed deserve a tip of everyone’s hat.
Flanders was handed a formidable and thankless job and he went about it with the dignity and seriousness it deserved and indeed submitted a blueprint by which the tiny but plucky city can operate for five years.
Impressive … but.
The man broke A LOT of eggs to make this omelet.
For all intents and purposes, Flanders balanced the budget on the backs of police and fire department retirees and taxpayers. OK, the unions representing active employees also agreed to significant givebacks, with more likely to come.
Most municipal employees are in the state-run Municipal Employees Retirement System (MERS), so there was no way to touch them or their pensions. The city was already operating on a pretty lean budget, so there wasn’t a lot of fat or low-hanging fruit for a receiver to cut. The library and the community center were not fat — eliminating them was chopping deeply into the bone and sinew of city life.
The retirees and the taxpayers were about the only places for Flanders to look to for cuts. They were, in the words of political philosopher Curly Howard, “victims of soicumstance.”
Taxes were already high in Central Falls, although they had not risen too much or too quickly before Mayor Charles Moreau and the City Council lit the fuse of this bomb by seeking a judicial receiver almost a year and a half ago. Yes, there may have been a political motive in avoiding tax hikes, but there was also the motive of the city’s residents being the lowest-income people in the state and already being taxed to the teeth.
Still, they took it on the chin with the massive supplemental tax increase in the last fiscal year, and they are going to be bloodied into the foreseeable future with tax hikes at the maximum the state allows for the next five years. (They aren’t going to be alone in this. My guess is that mayors and municipal councils across the state are going to look at the state’s maximum property tax increase and see a minimum. That was one of my misgivings when the property tax cap was passed several years ago.)
The retirees, however, are being treated too harshly and unfairly.
Chopping someone’s pension in half or more is a pretty crippling cut. And these aren’t those people you hear about with six-figure pension deals. Their pensions are $25,000, $30,000 or, for the high-rollers, $40,000 pensions. Cut any of those amounts in half and you are not giving someone a hell of a lot to live on.
Yes, those pensions were pretty generous in terms of how early they let someone retire and collect a check for the rest of his or her life, and most of the most recent retirees are young enough to get another job to supplement their income. But people who are in their 60s, 70s or older are not going to go back to work and they should not be expected to.
Once the city is on a more even fiscal keel — but let’s not wait too long, these people are in their 60s, 70s or older — this should be revisited and, to the extent possible, these folks should get a restoration of at least some of their benefits.
There are other missteps in Flanders’ plan.
For one, the city needs a police chief and a fire chief.
Having a civilian public safety manager is probably a good idea, but that position should supplement and oversee, not replace, the chiefs.
Police and fire departments each do very difficult, very dangerous and very specialized and specific jobs, jobs that are essential to public safety. You need a fire chief who knows fire science, who knows the best and safest way to deploy personnel and equipment and understands that every fire is different, has its own — for lack of a better term — personality, and presents different challenges and dangers. The same goes for police work, which often involves intruding into people’s lives when they are, by turns, injured, angry, drunk or otherwise intoxicated, fighting, shooting, making threats, suicidal, holding hostages and in all kinds of other unpredictable situations.
Each department needs a man or woman in charge who knows the job inside and out.
You don’t want a lifelong police officer to be calling the shots at a chemical mill fire and you don’t want a fire chief making the calls when an intoxicated man is holding his wife and two kids at gunpoint.
Flanders is also wrong in going after Moreau and the four councilors (Councilman James Diossa did not participate) who went to court to challenge the receiver law for the city’s legal fees.
They actually did the state a big favor.
The law authorizing state receivership and other forms of financial oversight is a pretty radical piece of legislation.
It allows the state to appoint a single individual to walk in and displace all of the duly-elected officials and become, in effect, the dictator of the city or town. The receiver’s word goes. There is nobody to veto his actions. Nobody else has a say on what goes on in the city.
That had to be challenged sometime. Moreau and the councilors did it right out of the gate.
Because they did, the law now has the imprimatur of the Supreme Court of the state. It’s legitimacy is no longer in question.
It was passed by the General Assembly, signed by the governor and upheld by the Supreme Court — all three branches of government have their fingerprints on it. That’s as solid as it gets.
If the state now has to invoke this law in another community — Pawtucket? Woonsocket? Providence? West Warwick? — someday, and the odds are at least 50/50 that it will have to, it now has the official okey-dokey of the R.I. Supreme Court if someone tries to give them a hard time.
It also seems petty and vindictive on Flanders’ part. “You dare challenge the great and powerful OZ! I’ll cripple you with a $300,000 legal bill.”
It reminds me of Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men,” when he was still arrogant and cocky, before he imploded with that “You can’t handle the truth” stuff. He tells Tom Cruise: “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way.”
Well, no. Authority must always be questioned, and absolute authority absolutely must be questioned.
That Supreme Court decision was worth every dollar in legal fees the state ran up to obtain it. Making the defendants pay for it is just getting greedy.
What would also be greedy is the state trying to get Central Falls to pay for it — which in turn prompts the receiver to go after Moreau and the councilors.
The state should absorb that legal bill, it’s the least it can do.
The state should be part of Central Falls’ solution because it was definitely a big part of its problems.
The Draconian cuts in state aid the past several years — with the big whammy of resurrecting car taxes last year — was a gut shot to all cities and towns. Central Falls was just the one that was too poor and too weak to withstand it.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee seems to understand that. He told reporters in Central Falls last week that he is committed to increasing state aid “not only in Central Falls .. but across the state. State aid for all cities and towns, but especially distressed communities.”
When Central Falls went to the General Assembly looking for help last spring, with a request for aid backed up by the governor, legislators refused to do it, saying there was no responsible plan for the city going forward, so it would be throwing good money after bad.
Now there is a plan. The General Assembly should find a few minutes in it special session this month to allocate a few million dollars to Central Falls to help get Flanders’ plan off the ground.

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