CUMBERLAND â€” Despite Cumberland Town Council President James T. Higgins' best efforts to drum up unanimous support, the council last week ended up voting 6 to 1 to adopt a resolution in support of Governor Lincoln Chafee's municipal reform and relief legislative package.
The vote came one week after Chafee personally urged the council to support his municipal rescue package, saying support of the proposals will ease the financial burden on cities and towns and help stave off more local bankruptcies.
Councilman Charles D. Wilk, the sole member who opposed the resolution last Wednesday, says he doesn't agree with some of Chafee's proposals.
â€śI don't agree with this legislative package as a whole because, for one, it takes away the bargaining power of the individuals involved in collective bargaining,â€ť Wilk told his colleagues on the council. â€śIt seems like we're always putting the blame on the unions or the people that are affected here. Nobody wants to see communities go into distress, but I think there needs to be a better way to negotiate and bring people together to tighten their belts.â€ť
Chafee presented his municipal rescue package during a 30-minute special meeting with the Town Council two weeks ago. Chafee told the councilors that his proposals give individual communities the tools they need to reach fiscal health and stability.
The governor says it also contains relief for the many costly and burdensome state mandates that have placed a severe strain on the finances of Rhode Island's cities and towns.
â€śWith the decline of the economy, especially the crash in 2008, state revenue declined precipitously, and a decision was made at the Statehouse to cut state aid to cities and towns and pass the burden down,â€ť Chafee told the council. â€śOne of the problems is that it fell disproportionately to those distressed communities that depend on state aid the most.â€ť
â€śSo, now, three or four years later, we at the state level are having to deal with Central Falls and Woonsocket and other communities on the brink,â€ť Chafee added. â€śI have to be honest, there's a disconnect in the Statehouse to these local challenges and the attitude seems to be 'you deal with your own issues.â€ť
Chafee urged the council to pass a resolution in support of the package, which consists of seven bills, including:
*Allowing municipalities with poorly funded pension plans to suspend annual cost of living adjustments until the plans are better funded .
*Instituting new budget accountability measures for school spending.
*Requiring communities with overly generous pension benefits to bring pensions in line with the state system.
*Reducing disability pension benefits for employees that can perform other jobs.
*Advancing municipal aid to avoid cash flow problems.
*Providing certain exemptions for school maintenance of effort requirements.
Voting in favor of adopting the resolution supporting Chafee's proposals were Higgins and Councilors Bruce Lemois, Mia A. Ackerman, Manuel N. DaCosta, E. Craig Dwyer and Peter J. Bradley.
Higgins tried to persuade Wilks to reconsider his vote, but to no avail.
â€śIf Woonsocket, East Providence and other distressed communities join Central Falls in bankruptcy, it's going to have a significant impact on Cumberland,â€ť Higgins said. â€śIt's going to affect our bond rating, so I think, overall, you may not like every little tidbit here, but it at least demonstrates an effort on the part of the governor to recognize and listen to municipal leaders who have asked for the tools they need to help their communities.â€ť