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Fontaine: City is at its tipping point

October 29, 2011

By JIM BARON

PROVIDENCE – If General Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s pension reform proposal does not pass, Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine told a joint House and Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday, his already hard-hit city would face a 12 percent tax increase just to fund the city’s pension plans.
“Someone recently asked me what the tipping point for our city is: how much more we can take?” Fontaine said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of what we can take; it’s more what the taxpayers, the people of our city and all our cities and towns can take. In that case, many are already past their tipping point.
“I see it day-in and day-out,” the mayor related, “homes that we are forced to board up due to foreclosures, forced to shut off water on residents, forced to stop collecting their trash just because they can’t afford to pay their bills. This is becoming more and more common.”
Making matters worse, Fontaine said, the city now has to spend more than $40 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant and another $40-50 million for a new drinking water facility. Both projects are needed to meet new standards set by the state Department of Environmental Management and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“The resulting rate increases needed to support these projects will force many more people in our community past their tipping point,” he told the panel.
Fontaine said Woonsocket has been forced to reduce city staffing by 25 percent in the last few years in many departments, “upwards of 50 percent over the last 10 to 15 years. Our employees have already been taking on more duties, increasing health care co-pays and in general doing more with less.
“City services have been decimated,” Fontaine testified. “We have eliminated summer programs for our children, eliminated all-day kindergarten, put off needed infrastructure repairs and even shut off streetlights, just to name a few measures we have taken. We just don’t have the money.
“All that being said,” he added, “this pension reform is the single most important issue with the most significant impact on our local budget as we head into next year and our ability to continue depends on its passage.
“I’m sure that you’ve heard from many other mayors and administrators to indicate Woonsocket is not alone in our situation, but we are one of the only communities with a bond rating downgraded below junk bond status.
“The drastic losses of revenue over the last several years in the form of general revenue sharing, school aid, motor vehicle phase-out and many other sources has resulted in an increased tax levy on our residents of more than 30 percent,” Fontaine said, “along with the implementation of new fees and charges.”
As committee members nodded in agreement, Fontaine said, “We can not afford to put off a solution any longer and we can not afford to do nothing. We can not afford to shirk this responsibility.
“As devastating as the impact of these needed reforms may be, I believe the effect of not solving the problem would be far worse,” he added. “The reality stands that, as the financial burden grows, residents and businesses are leaving our cities and our state, leaving a larger problem with fewer and fewer to help shoulder the burden.
House Finance Chairman Helio Melo, without pointedly saying so, questioned Fontaine about his own pension status.
“Councilmen are part-timers correct?” Melo asked. “Are they eligible to partake in the MERS (Municipal Employees Retirement System) program?” Fontaine answered that, by state law, City Council people from throughout the state are eligible to participate in that system.
“Say someone was a councilor for 12 years, then was elected mayor for eight years, that’s 20 years, they’d be eligible for a pension.” The pension benefit is calculated on the salary of the last three years of work.
“So they would be receiving a 20-year pension for a mayor’s salary, but most of that work was done part-time?” Melo queried. When Fontaine said that was correct, Melo shot back, “is that fait?”
“I would venture to say no,” Fontaine answered. “In light of the grander scheme of things, the way that system is set up, I can’t imagine that was the intent behind the legislation when it was first passed. I believe that’s the way it’s been, certainly for longer than I have been involved.”
Fontaine served on the City Council from 1993 to 2009. He is currently running unopposed for his second two-year term as mayor, which would give him 20 years in the system.
“The resulting rate increases needed to support these projects will force many more people in our community past their tipping point,” he told the panel.
Fontaine said Woonsocket has been forced to reduce city staffing by 25 percent in the last few years in many departments, “upwards of 50 percent over the last 10 to 15 years. Our employees have already been taking on more duties, increasing health care co-pays and in general doing more with less.
“City services have been decimated,” Fontaine testified. “We have eliminated summer programs for our children, eliminated all-day kindergarten, put off needed infrastructure repairs and even shut off streetlights, just to name a few measures we have taken. We just don’t have the money.
“All that being said,” he added, “this pension reform is the single most important issue with the most significant impact on our local budget as we head into next year and our ability to continue depends on its passage.
“I’m sure that you’ve heard from many other mayors and administrators to indicate Woonsocket is not alone in our situation, but we are one of the only communities with a bond rating downgraded below junk bond status.
“The drastic losses of revenue over the last several years in the form of general revenue sharing, school aid, motor vehicle phase-out and many other sources has resulted in an increased tax levy on our residents of more than 30 percent,” Fontaine said, “along with the implementation of new fees and charges.”
As committee members nodded in agreement, Fontaine said, “We can not afford to put off a solution any longer and we can not afford to do nothing. We can not afford to shirk this responsibility.
“As devastating as the impact of these needed reforms may be, I believe the effect of not solving the problem would be far worse,” he added. “The reality stands that, as the financial burden grows, residents and businesses are leaving our cities and our state, leaving a larger problem with fewer and fewer to help shoulder the burden.
House Finance Chairman Helio Melo, without pointedly saying so, questioned Fontaine about his own pension status.
“Councilmen are part-timers correct?” Melo asked. “Are they eligible to partake in the MERS (Municipal Employees Retirement System) program?” Fontaine answered that, by state law, City Council people from throughout the state are eligible to participate in that system.
“Say someone was a councilor for 12 years, then was elected mayor for eight years, that’s 20 years, they’d be eligible for a pension.” The pension benefit is calculated on the salary of the last three years of work.
“So they would be receiving a 20-year pension for a mayor’s salary, but most of that work was done part-time?” Melo queried. When Fontaine said that was correct, Melo shot back, “is that fait?”
“I would venture to say no,” Fontaine answered. “In light of the grander scheme of things, the way that system is set up, I can’t imagine that was the intent behind the legislation when it was first passed. I believe that’s the way it’s been, certainly for longer than I have been involved.”
Fontaine served on the City Council from 1993 to 2009. He is currently running unopposed for his second two-year term as mayor, which would give him 20 years in the system.

Comments

Fontaine is ruining Woonsocket, along with the City Council!!!!

November 3, 2011 by Jeffo46 (not verified), 2 years 45 weeks ago
Comment: 706

Fontaine complains that businesses are leaving ? Well Leo, Wal-Mart left because of you and the City Council, thus putting many city residents out of work. Because of that, North Smithfield is now benefitting the results of the selfishness of both you and the just as stupid, City Council, who are nothing but a joke. What are you going to do with the now vacant building which is sitting on Diamond Hill Rd.? If you had any semblance of intelligence, you would see about getting one of the major Dept. store chains such as K-Mart or whatever, to see if they'd be interested in coming to Woonsocket in that location, which would bring some jobs back to this area. Never mind what the residents of that area have to say about traffic coming and going in that area. Woonsocket needs jobs bought to this area so it can have a thriving economy and you and the City Council, have not done a damm thing about that. Shame on you all.

Do as I say not as I do!!

October 30, 2011 by Do as I say not as I do (not verified), 2 years 46 weeks ago
Comment: 697

So here we are with a Mayor who is trying to cut benefits for all the low paid and other City employees and retirees. These are the same employees who have worked full time for their whole career to get their benefits. This same mayor has allowed City employees to pay one percent extra in the pension system to get their COLA provisions. Now he runs down to the Statehouse and asks that COLAS be removed. While he is at it he takes away life long contractual benefits from older retirees without justification and without due process.

Only after questioning does it appear that our Honorable Mayor is in line to collect a full time State pension (based on the Mayors Salary) for years of part time work. Despite acknowledging that it would not be fair for someone in his position to collect a pension, he has not made any overtures to state that in interest of fairness he will not accept it when he decides to retire. It is this kind of sweetheart deal that pulls the pension system down, causing full time employees to lose benefits and making it too expensive for the taxpayer to afford.

So now we know we have another fearless leader who subscribes to the philosophy of "Do as I say, not as I do". Yes, yes, I know we had another Councilman up there this week testifying against the people in the state pension system. Yes, I know that he too will more than likely be eligible for a pension based on part time work. Maybe he will decline his pension when the time comes. What do you think?

They just want us to "Do as I say, not as I do".

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