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Woonsocket legislators take tax talk to back room of State House

March 11, 2013

Woonsocket State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49)

WOONSOCKET — Members of the Budget Commission will meet privately with city lawmakers at the Statehouse today to discuss the commission’s request for enabling legislation to issue a supplemental tax bill.
Chairman William Sequino said the commission wants lawmakers to know the importance of acting quickly to approve a $2.5 million supplemental tax bill, but he is open to suggestions on how the money should be raised.
“As a body I would say yes to both questions,” Sequino said via e-mail. “We are open to suggestions and we would like speedy passage.”
As it was handed off to state lawmakers two weeks ago, a draft proposal of the bill would draw most of the revenue by slashing the “homestead” exemption for single-family dwellings and condos by a third, which translates into an extra tax bill for 2013 of $437 on the average house. That’s a hike of about 14 percent.
A fifth of the supplemental revenues would be raised with an additional one-time tax on motor vehicles that boils down to about $3 per thousand, or 6.2 percent more than vehicle owners paid in July.
So far lawmakers have reacted to the proposal with a mixture of outright opposition to chilly embrace of a “necessary evil.” State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Dist. 49), a possible mayoral contender who was instrumental in putting the kibosh on supplemental taxes last year, has been the most critical of the plan, saying it heaps too much of the burden on single-family homeowners.
“I still have reservations about the approach that was taken,” Baldelli-Hunt told The Call Monday.
Baldelli-Hunt has asked the city’s finance department for some alternative scenarios that would raise the same amount of revenue with a formula that spreads the onus among various property classes differently.
Yesterday, however, Baldelli-Hunt said she is also anxious to hear how the supplemental tax bill fits in with other elements of the commission’s five-year plan to restore fiscal solvency to the city. Baldelli-Hunt said that before she supports a supplemental tax bill, she wants to be sure that other components of the plan, including proposed reforms to the city’s pension plan for police and firefighters, are a defensible solution to the city’s budget problems.
The commission proposes supplemental taxes as part of a multi-pronged plan to wipe out a deficit on track to reach $23.3 million by the end of the fiscal year, including payments to eliminate the unfunded liability of the pension plan and health care commitments to retirees. The commission wants to suspend pension COLAs permanently for members of the local plan, shift age-eligible retirees from private health plans to Medicare by March 31, and roll back health benefits for existing workers as part of the five-year plan.
Contractual concessions from current worker are also part of the mix designed to restore balance to the budget by 2017, along with an assortment of other belt-tightening moves, including a new pay-as-you-throw trash fee.
The budget commission has explained the mechanics of the supplemental tax well enough, said Baldelli-Hunt, but it hasn’t shared its data with lawmakers in sufficient detail for them to tell whether other components of the austerity plan, especially the pension reforms, are realistic. If lawmakers are to support a plan for raising supplemental taxes, she said, they’ll need to have confidence in other parts of solvency plan as well.
“We need to be certain the five-year plan is going to bring us to a place where we’re going to be comfortable,” she said.
At least one lawmaker, State Sen. Marc A. Cote (D-Dist. 24), has suggested passing the supplemental tax bill but withholding it for signature by the governor until other major components of the five-year plan, including contractual concessions from employees, are cast in stone.
City Council President John Ward, a member of the commission, said his main goal for today’s meeting is impressing upon the lawmakers how important it is for them to reach consensus on some form of a supplemental tax bill and approve it soon.
“I’d hope we can ensure that the delegation passes the legislation quickly so we can get on with our five-year plan,” said Ward.
The meeting was not advertised in advance and is not open to press coverage. Unlike most other public bodies, the commission, created under a special state law known as the Fiscal Stability Act, is not covered by Open Meetings Act.

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